The 2010 U.S. Congregational Membership Report shows membership in faith groups dropped by more than 25,000 in northeast Indiana between 2000 and 2010:
Source: Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies
FORT WAYNE — Two of every five northeast Indiana residents are members of a religious group, temple, parish or congregation, but that number was down 9 percent in a decade, continuing a trend of declining membership, a study says.
The 2010 U.S. Congregational Membership Report shows membership in faith groups – from mainline Protestant denominations to Islamic temples to Jewish temples – dropped by more than 25,000 in the region between 2000 and 2010.
The report, released in May, was produced by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and includes statistics for 236 religious groups, by county, across the United States.
The drop in membership in northeast Indiana reflected drops statewide and nationwide but was more pronounced. While membership was down 9 percent over the decade of the report here, it was down 5 percent for all of Indiana and 2 percent nationally.
Those numbers were part of a longer-term trend: From 1990 to 2010, membership was down 7 percent in northeast Indiana.
Donald W. Mitchell, a Purdue University philosophy professor and an expert on interfaith relations and religious traditions, said the numbers reflect a move away from traditional, membership-based faith activities and toward a more spiritual life.
“Many, especially the younger generation, feel like church is people. It’s not a label, it’s not a denomination,” Mitchell said.
“If they find people they want to worship with and want to be part of that community, that’s what’s important to them.”
That not only affects membership numbers but has also influenced a shift away from mainline Christian denominations and toward nondenominational churches that focus on molding their theology to their members rather than molding members to their particular dogma.
“There’s more and more people proudly saying, ‘We’re a nondenominational church,’ ” Mitchell said. “They’re looking for communities of individuals they can give their lives to and be supported by. They don’t feel a particular tie to the denomination their parents did.”
But many people feel that faith on the whole is increasing, even if the traditional ways of practicing it may be changing or disappearing.
“Weekend church attendance and that sort of thing is dropping off, and we see that across denominations,” said University of Saint Francis professor Earl Kumfer. “I think on the other hand, though, the mental intensity is increasing.
“We see this especially in our college students – they have a real interest in making a difference in a face-to-face, person-to-person kind of way.”
He cites Saint Francis students who volunteered on their time off from classes to take water to victims of Hurricane Katrina and countless other examples. They may not be in the pews, he said, but they’re living their faith in ways hard to measure with surveys.
“It’s a kind of personal outreach that they see as part of their spirituality,” Kumfer said. “There are other dimensions of faith we need to look at. … It’s a very personal kind of theology rather than a membership kind of thing.”
Seven of the nine counties in northeast Indiana saw membership decline from 2000 to 2010. DeKalb and Steuben counties were the exceptions.
But DeKalb’s increase in that decade masked the long-term trend: From 1990 to 2010, even with the increase in the latter 10 years, membership was down 12 percent.
Steuben County, meanwhile, saw membership in faith groups rise 26 percent in those two decades. Membership increases there were pushed by gains in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the evangelical Missionary Church, and huge gains by the Catholic Church.
Saint Francis’ Kumfer points out that as people move away from denominations, it gets harder to count them.
The report looked at 236 different faith groups, which limits it to the largest ones, and its authors admit it is far from perfect: “The 2010 reports contain incomplete counts of congregations and adherents belonging to the eight largest historically African-American denominations,” it warns.
“These denominations are not included in the 2000 reports and are largely missing from the 1990 and 1980 reports.”
Kumfer said the numbers reflect cycles our society moves through, from the late ’60s and early ’70s, when people moved toward groups, and into the late ’70s and ’80s, when individualism was more important, and back and forth.
“It’s all part of that cycle,” he said. “People do want to belong – I think that is on the increase, but the token membership, that’s dropping off.”