The New York Times published a piece this week headlined “United Church of Christ Approves Divestment to Aid Palestinians.” It begins:
The United Church of Christ, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States, overwhelmingly approved a resolution Tuesday calling for divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation or control of Palestinian territories, and a boycott of products from Israeli settlements.
Leaving aside the divestment issue, this is an incorrect statement. The United Church of Christ is not one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States. Its membership peaked in 1960 at 2.2 million adherents. It slipped under a million members a couple years ago and is now down to only 979,239 members.
That means there are many, many, many Protestant denominations that are larger than the United Church of Christ. Back when it had 80,000 members more than it does now, there were at least 20 Protestant denominations that were larger.
The church has been hemorrhaging members for decades. It’s a personal story for me. My mom left the church in the late 1960s to become confessional Lutheran. The last family member who remained in the UCC escaped (also to become confessional Lutheran) a few years ago. The church takes hardline progressive positions on every issue, paired with lax doctrinal approaches on sacraments and Scripture. The result has been a steady driving away of members. Men, in particular, have fled. Only 38 percent of its members are male.
Why is it, though, that the media treat shrinking and declining progressive church bodies so well while disparaging those larger church bodies that retain their doctrines in the face of pressure? Consider the fluffy coverage generated for the Episcopal Church. This is another church with steep membership declines. In 1966, 3.6 million Americans claimed Episcopalian affiliation. By 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, membership had dropped to 1.87 million. The Episcopal Church easily has the highest per capita count of media stories of any church body. I have no doubt that as stories celebrate the Episcopal Church following the U.S. government on its marriage doctrine, few stories will convey what this means for continued declines in the church body.
It is fine to cover every little thing the United Church of Christ does or the Episcopal Church does. These are church bodies that weigh in on the doctrines that journalists care the most about: secular politics and libertine sexual ethics.
But when so much ink is spilled on everything from divestment to the wholesale rejection of traditional Christian sexual ethics, it leaves less time and space to cover those many church bodies that have refrained from following the culture down whatever trajectory it’s headed.
Take this graphic developed by Pew, the progressive non-profit that funds its own research projects:
It purports to show a fairly even distribution of churches on the issue of whether to redefine marriage. But note that the denominations in support of redefining marriage include the Quakers, with fewer than a hundred thousand members, and the Unitarian Universalists who (if you include Canadian members) number only 162,000. We previously discussed the UCC. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which doesn’t take a position on the issue, is the largest at 3.86 million.
On the other side, the smallest denomination listed is American Baptist, with 1.3 million members. Southern Baptists have 15.74 million members. The Roman Catholic Church has nearly 70 million American members. The listed religious groups opposed to same-sex marriage are something like 15 times larger in membership counts than those that support it. Does it seem like that represents the actual media coverage on this issue? Or is every progressive step away from Biblical teachings on sex celebrated on front pages and tops of news reports while those that resist pressure to follow the U.S. government or cultural elites are given short shrift?
So no, New York Times, the United Church of Christ wasn’t even that big during its heyday. Now that it’s less than half of what it was then, it’s even less worthy of being called one of the United States’ largest church bodies. If its current rate of decline continues, it won’t even exist in the next few decades.
Given how poorly the New York Times covers religion news, as opposed to the political news progressive churches excel in, I’m not sure I want to see more coverage of the larger church bodies. But it’s worth pointing out how limited the New York Times’ understanding of Christianity is. I hope they’ve figured out why Christians celebrate Easter, at least.