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Every-10-year religious study of USA shows some surprising numbers


Joe Raedle | Getty Images via AFP

John Burger - published on 12/04/22

Hispanic immigrants boosted the US Catholic Church by 2 million members over the past decade. Catholic Church largest US group.

Hispanic immigrants in the United States gave the Catholic Church a boost of 2 million members over the past decade, a new report says. 

At 61 million adherents in more than 19,000 churches, Catholics are close to 19% of the U.S. population – the largest religious body in the country – according to the U.S. Religion Census (USRC), an every-10-years study carried out by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

Across the religious spectrum, there are 356,739 religious congregations in the United States. That’s one for about every 934 persons living in the US. But with 161 million adherents of some faith in the country, the overall average congregational size is about 451. 

Since 1952, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies has issued such a report every 10 years. Its latest came out November 11, covering the years 2010-2020. It gathers information from religious bodies and maps out the number of congregations and adherents on a county level.

The U.S. Religion Census was originally conducted by the U.S. government in five special reports from 1890 through 1936. In 1952, the National Council of Churches organized its own religion census, which was repeated in 1971 and 1980 with strong support from Glenmary Research Center, which supports and assists the Catholic Glenmary Home Missioners by providing applied research to Glenmary leadership, individual missioners, Church leaders and the wider society.

Since 1990, the census has been conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Coverage now includes many non-Christian groups as well as special counts for religious traditions that do not have central data collection points, such as non-denominational churches or Muslim and Jewish communities.

The latest study also found that:

  • The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in 1,231 counties (the US has 3,143 counties).
  • Non-Christian bodies continue to increase their presence. The number of Muslims, for example, increased from 2.6 million to 4.5 million. The USRC includes congregation counts of five other non-Christian bodies, and congregation and adherent counts for Baháʼí, three Buddhist groups, three Hindu groups, and four Jewish groups.
  • Oriental Orthodox Christians have surged but Eastern Orthodox have decreased.
  • Southern Baptists have the most churches of any religious group: 51,379.
  • There are some 44,319 nondenominational churches, a jump of nearly 9,000 over 10 years ago, and about 9 million adherents. 
  • Southern Baptists and United Methodists each lost 2 million members from 2010 to 2020.

“Denominational brands have weakened, and divisions have increased over issues such as female clergy or sexual orientation,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “This likely led some adherents to seek or even start new nondenominational churches.”

Rich Houseal, secretary-treasurer of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, said the data is also useful to businesses. Walmart, for example, contacted him to help determine what books to stock in their stores based on the dominant religious group in a county.

Researchers said that among the 212 religious bodies participating in the 2010 and 2020 USRC, the number of congregations increased 2.2% and the number of adherents increased 6.5%, while the total U.S. population increased 7.4% during this time.

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