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Church growth — and shrinkage

28 July 2010

Urban Ministry Live And Unplugged: Church Growth:

Generally speaking, in the West, the Church is ‘holding’ or in decline. In South Africa, while statistics are patchy, those that one can come by show that the Church scene is volatile, and that there is, in many areas, rampant growth.

This comparison of the 1996 and 2001 censuses is quite interesting:

South African church membership - growth and decline

I’m not qure quite how comparable the two censuses are, because of different methods of collection, and different methods of counting and tabulating the figures. But nevertheless some things deserve some comment.

The biggest growth is in “African Traditional Beliefs” and “Other faiths”. I suspect that the growth in African traditional religion is not so much growth in the number of people practising African traditional religion, but rather growth in the number of people willing to say that they are practising it.The “other faiths” could include followers of various forms of Western Neopaganism, Buddhists, Jedi Knights, and those who are “spiritual but not religious”.

In the table above, one Pentecostal denomination is shown on its own (Apostolic Faith Mission) whereas the others are lumped together under “Pentecostal/Charismatic” and possibly “other Apostolic” and “other African Independent Churches”. The bundled groups are shown as growing, whereas the Apostolic Faith Mission is shrinking.

This could mean one of two things: (1) that the Neopentecostal denominations are growing, while the “classical” Pentecostal denominations (which include the AFM) are shrinking, or (2) the Afrikaans-speaking denominations (the AFM is largely Afrikaans-speaking) are shrinking. That would correlate with the shrinkage in the Dutch Reformed Churches. But again, when the Dutch Reformed Churches are bundled together, it is difficult to tell. In 1996 the number of whites in the NGK was about the same as the number of blacks (presumably in the Uniting Reformed Church). Which shrank the most between 1996 and 2001? The bundled figures don’t show.

In the 1970s and 1980s the most rapidly growing groups were the Roman Catholic Church, the Dutch Reformed Churches and the Zionists. In the late 1990s, it appears, all these were shrinking, with the exception of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), which is the biggest of the Zionist denominations.

What the figures could bear out (though a more detailed breakdown is needed) is the impression that I’ve gained that traditional Zionist and Pentecostal churches are losing ground to Neopentecostals such as Rhema, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and some West African and Congolese Neopentecostal denominations.

Among the African independent churches, most of the people who did research into such things in the 1980s took it for granted that the Zionists were growing, and the Ethiopian-type churches were has beens. But these figures show that the Ethiopians are growing, the Zionists are shrinking, and the “other” African independent churches (which may include some Neopentecostal denominations as well) are growing even more.

The Orthodox figures are a bit confusing as well. I have separate figures for 1996, where “Greek Orthodox” are shown as 19845, and “other Orthodox Churches” as 13826. The “others” would presumably include Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Coptic, Ethiopian and African Orthodox Churches. I suspect that much of the growth there could be accounted for by recent Ethiopian immigration. It will be interesting to see what the 2011 figures show.

The denominations showing growth of between 5-10% can be taken as holding their own rather than growing, since their growth is roughly in line with population growth. Those with 5% or less growth are actually shrinking relative to the population.

And those of “no religion” grew to nearly 7 million.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Thomae Cava;eros permalink
    28 July 2010 12:47 pm

    This was a brave effort. I am surprised at the growth in the Orthodox Church but it could be higher?
    Keep up your good work.


  2. capodimonte figurine permalink
    31 July 2010 4:31 am

    In my personal experience more and more people are deciding to break away from religion altogether and do “their own thing”. I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

  3. 2 August 2010 4:05 pm

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for posting these figures and your insightful analysis. This is very helpful indeed.

    Professor Jurgens Hendriks gave some great analysis of the growth and decline of the SA Church in his work in the 2005/6 ‘Christian handbook‘. But see also Hendriks, J & Erasmus, J.
    Religion in South Africa: 2001 population census data‘. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, Vol 121. (2005:88-111) which gives a scholarly theological critique of the census data.

    I also discussed some of the aspects of these statistics on faith and society in a paper I wrote entitled ‘Prophetic witness and social action as holiness in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa’s Mission‘ which was published in Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae Volume XXXIV No.1, July 2008. I also wrote about it in Forster, D & Bentley, W, “God’s mission in our context – critical questions, healing and transforming responses“, in our book ‘Methodism in Southern Africa. A celebration of Wesleyan Mission’. Kempton Park. AcadSA Publishers (2008:70-99).

    Lastly, if you’re interested in seeing a visual representation of the statistics (or at least some of them) listed above see the following slides in the slide presentation I uploaded on my blog post Between the Pavement and the Pew see slides 15, 18, 20, 21 and 22.

    In short, I feel that the statistics are merely that, statistics. They don’t necessarily reflect an honest insight into faith in faith communities. My Presbyterian friends would always joke and say there are more Methodists because people don’t know how to spell Presbyterian! I think that kind of thing does influence statistical data.

    That being said, there is little doubt from my own anecdotal research that African Initiated / Indigenous Churches and ‘North American styled’ Pentecostal Churches (which seem to come more from Kenya and Nigeria these days) are growing at a rapid rate!

    My contention is that their growth is due to a strong ‘entrepreneurial’ drive – they really do try to respond to the ‘felt needs’ of people. Although I would contend that their response is not Christian (a prosperity doctrine in the midst of poverty and false claims of healing in the midst of HIV/AIDS is neither responsible, nor sustainable). So I wonder how long this growth will be evident?

    Philip Jenkins’ book ‘The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity‘ (2002, Oxford University Press), is one of the most insightful and helpful works with regards to growth and decline (and the factors that cause these shifts) in Christianity.

    Rich blessing from Cape Town!


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