CRCNA Membership Trends 1963-2022

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On May 6, 2022, Dr. Neil Carlson of DataWise Consulting, LLC, led a presentation to the Council of Delegates of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. His presentation focused on the decline of membership in Christian Reformed congregations. He noted demographic changes in birth rates as a key factor and encouraged churches to welcome refugees, immigrants, widows, and orphans into their midst.

Following several requests to see a copy of his presentation, Dr. Carlson agreed to record a version of it and share it here. A copy of his slides are also attached. 

Questions? Dr. Carlson has agreed to respond in the comment thread below. 

Christian Reformed Church - Membership Trends - 1965-2022

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Dr. Carlson,

Thank you for this tour of denominational demographics over the past sixty years.  There is much (all of it, really) that I appreciated, including your concluding "Biblical Response."  I also appreciate the effort you put into creating the comprehensive breakouts of by nation and region, members and baptized. That was a huge effort with interesting results. Thank you. 

I think you were suggesting, but didn't quite say directly, that CRCNA demographics are in a serious decline. You asked, "Are we dying out?"  Thank you for putting the question squarely in front of the presentation. I applaud you for asking the question.

You spend some time cautioning again "blame."  I'll go along with that. Blame is not productive.  Especially now.

You specifically asked for discussion around your chart at the fourteen-minute mark. I believe it was entitled, "Membership Trend Chart." It is exactly the right chart to get at the dynamics of the turbulent 1990s.  

You noted this "Trend" chart is a recent chart for you. I want to support the idea that this chart offers accurate insights into the volatile decade 1993 to 2004 -- the big gap in the chart. The chart shows the net change per year as quite small. Even so, during those years we know the actual losses were far greater than small. We lost many members during that decade.

The chart also shows we were net positive before the 1990s and then again after~ 2000 (I can't see the chart while I am in this comment section.) How could we net gain after a decade if this was a demographic change of sea state?  

I offer an idea for conversation.  I have suggest the Yearbook data is inaccurate for that decade and your chart is a clear demonstration of how inaccurate the data reporting was.  (This is NOT to blame the denominational office. It is a reflection of the fact that the clerks in the local churches were struggling to record and report accurately during the turbulent changes.  For example, when a congregation left CRCNA for URC we do not imagine the departing clerk of Council gave an accurate ending report to the CRCNA Yearbook offices. No, they just stopped replying to requests for information.) I have done check-sums for the columns of data during that time and I can't get anywhere near to reconciliation of the numbers -- that is, the NET losses do not come close to matching the individual columns of gains and loss.  Again, we have a pretty good guess about how that could happen as people bailed out.

 

If you would be willing to host a conversation, I think we could learn a great deal about this time by reconciling the Gains and Losses against the Net. I've been producing similar charts for some years now and I would love to have the accurate answer to what really happened.

I produced a net gain and loss chart based on subtracted the Total of one year from the previous year for all the years.  It's a different chart -- because the data is flawed, I believe.

I am in agreement with you that this is not a matter of blame. It's a matter of accuracy and understanding what really happened. As is true of all good science, accurate information may give us better tools for managing the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for the constructive engagement, Rev. Snapper. I have enjoyed our past conversations.

While I don't have the time to respond in full detail at the moment, I want to acknowledge your question in a timely manner and promise to endeavor to address it in detail before the coming weekend is out.

However, I can quickly note here that I don't see how your "bad data quality" hypothesis translates into material effects on the trends and their interpretation. While short-term reporting problems might mask the specific trend in a given year, there's really no way I can think of for retail data collection problems (such as your example of the local clerk coping with controversy) to mask the overall trend. In order for us to have missed the real story, your hypothetical clerk would have had to be underreporting membership during the run up to controversy to a similar degree he or she was underreporting afterward. Suppose a church had a typical 300-member head count. If that head count was on the books in, say, 1989, and said clerk then stopped reporting and the church left the CRC for the URC, we'd still show a net loss of 300 members on the books eventually, even if it doesn't appear in the correct year.

I'll be happy to be corrected if there's a scenario my imagination hasn't arrived at--what am I missing? I do have the congregation-level data beginning in 1985, so we should be able to test data-quality hypotheses pretty straightforwardly.

Thank you for the quick reply. I realize you are busy (while I am retired) so I will be as brief as possible. (Not very brief, but I assure you, I did my best.) I hand-plotted my first chart in 1997. Starting with Yearbook 1901 I began building charts.  Since then I have been wondering ….

Here is my area of disconnect.

The Math:  I believe that the SUM of the three sources of membership gain MINUS the SUM of the three sources of membership loss should EQUAL the NET GAIN or LOSS in Total Members (Sorry about the caps, but I’m trying to be clear.)

 

Your Chart:  Your chart accurately shows exactly that for a given year* – say, Yearbook 1995. Your chart shows about 1000 members lost in CY 1994 as reported in Yearbook 1995.  (The Yearbook numbers show +9165 MINUS 10,267.  Alexa tells me that is a LOSS of <1102>.  Your chart reports exactly what we would expect if we use the Total Growth column and the Total Decline column. 

 

Actual Loss:  However, the ACTUAL CHANGE in Total Membership between (December) 1992 and (January) 1997 was reported as follows:

1992  316,415

1993  311,202  <5213>

1994  300,320  <10,882>

1995  294,179  <6141>

1996  291,796  <2383>

1997  285,864  <5932>

I made a chart for the entire online dataset, 1963 to present, manually calculated the losses and gains each year. The attached, if it can be pasted, show the results I calculated.

(It looks like I am not able to attach the chart. Too bad.)

Every year during this short sample to ACTUAL loss to TOTAL MEMBERS is between 2383 and 10,882. And, during that same period, the other columns, called “TOTAL GROWTH and TOTAL DECLINE do not show anything like that.  (As illustrated above for the year CY 1994 in Yearbook 1995.

In fact, using the Growth and Decline columns the calculated membership change is approximately zero for my shorter sample period 1992-1997.  But, in fact, we lost 32,000 members, or less. 

IS there a 32,000 member error?  That amount, 32,000 is nearly 10% of the original starting membership (316,415) and needs some sort of accounting.

We declined approximately 15,000 adults (professing.)

We declined approximately 17,000 children (baptized.)

I am suggesting that the ACCURATE number is the Total Members column, that we did lose 32,000 members, and that the other two columns, Total Growth and Total Decline, are not accurate.

I am suggesting the cause of the error is analogous to what you said in your verbal explanation about the years 2020 – 2022 – there was some error due to COVID. It was an offhand remark so I didn’t get the exact wording. I am very confident you are correct about COVID accounting – the real numbers will be much lower. Anyway, by analogy, while we were losing 32,000 members we lost track of the data.

 

Again, for reference, we declined 7000 Total Members. But the Total Gains and Losses reports only a 2000 difference.  (3331 – 5306 == 1975.) That’s a 5000 difference. Too large to be ignored. You rightly attribute this to COVID counting. 

 

I have many more areas of interest, but this one is most relevant to the viability of CRCNA and I hope we will learn something helpful.

Thank you for your patiencc.

 

 

(* If anyone following along is not familiar, the 1992 Yearbook reports the EOY data for 1991. It can be a little confusing. I know it can be for me.)

 

 

 

One last thing --to anyone who stumbles across this discussion, be sure to remember that the sidebar conversation about numbers is not nearly as important as Dr. Carlson's summary statements in the last several minutes of his presentation.  

Participant

The discussion is focussed on the overall decline in membership over time. For Canada I researched (10 years ago) the data for the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada. At about the same time I reviewed the data for the CRCNA.  The human conclusions for all three denominations was that the UCC will become non-sustainable sometime in 2025, the ACC about two years later and the CRCNA in 2037.

Dr. Carlson's analysis, which is well done, if projected forward, would probably show to show about the same outcome as mine which used data between 1997 and 2012 and forecast it forward based on trends from those years.

The good news is that annual percentage declines will never get you to zero!

Hi Harry,

2037 is fifteen years.  What do you see the membership at that time?