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Looking at Membership Decline

June 1, 2022

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 focused on the decline of membership in Christian Reformed congregations over the past five and a half decades.

Receiving several requests to see a copy of his presentation, Carlson agreed to record a version of it, and the presentation is now available on The Network.

“I hope this is helpful to everyone,” said Carlson, noting that tracking these statistics is a bit of a labor of love for him. “The intent is to lighten the tone of conversation a little bit.”

Tracking the overall membership numbers of the CRCNA can be a heavy topic and has been the subject of a few overtures to synod in recent years (for example, see Overture 11 to Synod 2017 and Overture 18 to Synod 2018). The topic is also expected to be on the Synod 2023 agenda.

“I think that if we approach things objectively, we will come to see that we don’t have as many fingers to point at each other as we thought,” he said. “We all need to get together and work on the same basic issues.”

He noted demographic changes in birth rates as a key factor in CRCNA membership growth and decline. Since CRCNA families have been having fewer children in recent decades, our overall membership numbers have been going down.

He said other social and cultural factors leading to declining numbers among Protestant denominations broadly are an increase in polarization and disillusionment in the church, the failure of some congregations to provide opportunities for leadership to those who desire it, and an epidemic of loneliness.

At the same time, Carlson said, there are signs of life in the CRCNA. We see growth, for example, especially in emerging churches, church plants, and immigrant communities. He encouraged Christian Reformed people to welcome refugees, immigrants, widows, and orphans into their midst; to tear down walls of separation; and to be more like Jesus.

“Be like Jesus, and we’ll be attractive,” he said. “Self-righteousness and conflict are repulsive. Repentance and reconciliation, showing mercy and kindness, [these things] are attractive. Let’s do that.”

A video of Carlson’s presentation, along with a copy of his slides, is posted on The Network. Viewers are invited to ask questions in the comments section, and Carlson said he will do his best to answer them.