Authoritative figures on local church membership are hard to come by.
The U.S. Census Bureau has not asked questions about religion since the 1950s, so the task falls to other organizations. Fortunately, every 10 years, a group called the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies collects data on the number of congregations and adherents within each state and county.
The latest numbers, just released, offer an interesting look at who's up and who's down in Dane County. Some highlights:
• Catholicism remains the most popular religion by far in Dane County, accounting for one of every five residents. Still, the number of Catholics in the county dropped 11 percent in a decade, from 119,246 in 2000 to 106,036 in 2010. The county's overall population increased 14 percent during the same period. Statewide, the number of Catholics dropped 16 percent, nationally 5 percent.
John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, told me he thought the attendance numbers sounded low. He noted that many parishes have been growing due to thriving Latino ministries. Some of these parishioners may not be showing up in counts because they are undocumented workers, he said.
• Mirroring a national trend, mainline Protestants and Catholics in Dane County are ceding ground to Mormons, Muslims and people attending nondenominational churches. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose followers are called Mormons, grew 151 percent in the county in the last decade to 2,832 adherents. The number of Muslims rose 115 percent to 2,616.
• American Baptist Churches in the USA shot up 237 percent in Dane County, largely due to the continued growth of Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Madison's South Side. The historically black church has more than 2,600 members and celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
• The Evangelical Free Church of America also rose sharply, up 203 percent in the county to 6,075 adherents. The denomination counts among its members Blackhawk Church, a megachurch on Madison's Far West Side, and Door Creek Church, a large church on the city's Far East Side. (Neither uses the denomination in its title.) The study may not have captured the true influence of the denomination in the area because the churches emphasize reaching out to "the unchurched" more than signing up official members. Blackhawk alone usually attracts 5,000 or so attendees every Sunday.
• Denominations that saw their county numbers drop included the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (down 2 percent to 48,620 adherents), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (down 12 percent to 3,921), the Episcopal Church (down 24 percent to 1,402), the Presbyterian Church USA (down 13 percent to 3,664), and the United Church of Christ (down 11 percent to 5,035).
• Bucking the downward trend was the United Methodist Church, which saw its county numbers rise 14 percent to 9,753 adherents. The local increase occurred even as the denomination lost 11 percent of its adherents in Wisconsin and 4 percent nationally. Sam Royappa, the Methodist district superintendent for the Madison area, attributed the rise to popular churches in Monona and Sun Prairie, in particular, and the success of the relatively new Sugar River United Methodist Church in Verona. "They are growing like mushrooms," he said. The church began in 2005 as an offshoot of Asbury United Methodist Church in Madison and has 225 members.
• The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, a liberal denomination, saw its county numbers rise 35 percent, not surprising given Madison's political bent. Although Madison has three Unitarian Universalist congregations, most of the growth occurred at First Unitarian Society, which has more than 1,600 members and is usually among the top three largest UU churches in the country.
• The study found 2,833 followers of Judaism in Dane County in 2010. It did not have comparison figures for 2000. Because the study focused only on church attendance and membership, it did not address the ranks of agnostics and atheists.
Religion-related story ideas? Contact Doug Erickson at email@example.com.