The Presbyterian Church (USA) this week published its annual membership data, showing that net membership losses in 2016 amounted to 89,893, making it the fifth year in a row in which membership losses exceeded 89,000, and the highest annual percentage loss (5.72%) yet. At the beginning of 2012, the PC(USA) had a total membership of 1,952,287, which had fallen to 1,482,767 by the end of last year—a five-year decline of 24.05%.
In fact, the PC(USA) and its immediate predecessors, the (Northern) United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States, have been losing members ever since 1965, when the UPCUSA had a peak membership of 3,308,622, and the PCUS had a membership of 945,975,1 for a total membership of 4,254,597. At the time of the reunion of these two denominations in 1983, the PC(USA) had a total membership of 3,131,228—a drop of 26.40% over eighteen years. Over the entire fifty-one year period of the decline, the PC(USA) and its predecessors have lost a net 2,771,830 members, or 65.15% of the combined 1965 membership of the UPCUSA and the PCUS.
Two years ago, Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition addressed a comment made by Theological Liberal Rachel Held Evans, who had said, “Just about every denomination in the American church—including many evangelical denominations—is seeing a decline in numbers, so if it’s a competition, then we’re all losing, just at different rates.” In response, Carter wrote, “The fact is that the percentage of people identifying as Protestant has declined since the 1970s while the total number of Protestants has increased (62 percent of Americans identified as Protestant in 1972 and only 51 percent did so in 2010). Yet because of the population increase in the U.S., there were 28 million more Protestants in 2010 than in 1972.” Carter noted that there was “a clear and unequivocal trendline: liberal denominations have declined sharply while conservative denominations have increased or remained the same.” But more than that, the numerical losses experienced in the Theologically Liberal mainline Protestant denominations have been more than offset by the explosive growth of non-denominational churches. “As of 2010, four percent of Americans (12,200,000) worshipped in a non-denominational church.”
So then, the losses the PC(USA) has been experiencing for the past half century are par for the course for the mainline Protestant denominations (such as the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), but are an aberration when looking at American Protestant Christianity as a whole. In 2016, the PC(USA) had total gains of 55,266 and total losses of 145,159. Of these losses, 43,902 were certificate transfers to other churches, 26,193 were deaths, and 75,064 were identified as “other”, by which is meant that these people had at one time joined a PC(USA) congregation but were no longer coming and were thus cleaned off the membership rolls. To be sure, some (if not most) of the former members in the “other” category have left Christianity altogether (more on that reason later). But many will have gone to churches (especially non-denominational churches) that accept members by profession or reaffirmation of faith only and do not acknowledge membership transfers. So, even as the PC(USA) and the other mainline denominations are imploding, more theologically orthodox congregations are growing, partly at the expense of the PC(USA).
To be sure, numerical growth does not always indicate a healthy church. For example, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, has a weekly attendance of 52,000 (more than the PC(USA)’s largest presbytery), but Osteen preaches the Prosperity Gospel and implies that the chief end of God is to glorify man and to enjoy him forever. However, a half century of unmitigated decline definitely is not an indicator of a healthy church, either.
Clearly there is something fundamentally wrong with the way that the PC(USA) is doing church, but there is no evidence that the General Assembly Council truly understands this. To be sure, Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II, like his predecessors before him, is doing damage control by trying to put a positive spin on the numbers. However, some of his comments, to put it mildly, stretch credulity.
We are well-respected for our priestly and prophetic voice within Christendom.
Apparently the severance of relations with the PC(USA) by some of its overseas partners in the aftermath of the decisions to ordain practicing homosexuals and to allow its teaching elders to perform same-sex weddings has not convinced the GAC otherwise. Nor, for that matter, has the fact that growing Evangelical denominations and non-denominational congregations shun the PC(USA), and that prominent Evangelical pastors preach against it, convinced them that their “priestly and prophetic voice” really is not very well respected at all. And if it was as respected as Nelson said it was, why has nearly a quarter of the PC(USA)’s membership walked away from it in the last five years?
Our challenge is to see the powerful opportunities that are before us while declaring with Holy Spirit boldness that God is doing amazing work within us right now.
He has pruned two-thirds of the PC(USA)’s membership in the past half century so that it can grow more fruit (Jn. 15.2)? In fact, most PC(USA) churches are not passing on the faith to others. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk. 19.10) But considering what a low priority evangelism is for the PC(USA), the PC(USA) clearly does not share this mission with Him. I just don’t see the PC(USA) producing any good fruit (Mt. 7.15-20).
These efforts (to create ‘fellowships’ comprised primarily of non-white immigrants) alone could demonstrate our intentionality toward fulfilling our failed commitment (set by the 1996 General Assembly) to increase racial ethnic participation by 20 percent by 2010.
Yes, especially if the PC(USA) can hold onto enough of them, while continuing to alienate its predominantly ethnic white congregations by undermining the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, if these new “racial ethnic immigrant congregations” are truly being built up by sound Biblical preaching, it is only a matter of time before they, too, run afoul of the Theological Liberalism entrenched in power in the PC(USA).
We are not dying. We are Reforming.
The PC(USA) is not being reformed according to the Word of God. Most of its teaching elders “interpret” Scripture to be “the witness without parallel” to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (C-67 §9.27), but not itself the revelation of God, “the infallible rule of faith and life.” The Word of God is “interpreted” to mean primarily (if not exclusively) God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.
As a consequence, many PC(USA) teaching elders deny such basic tenets of the Christian faith as the infallibility of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the Substitutionary Atonement of Christ on the Cross, the Bodily Resurrection of Christ from the dead, the ultimate return of Jesus Christ at the end of time, and the sole saving efficacy of faith in Jesus Christ. Some even deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and at least one denies that God is a personal being.
As justification for their gross mishandling of the Word of God, they cite Chapter XX, Section 2a, of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith and worship.” Because they “interpret” the Word to mean Jesus Christ and not the Scriptures, they believe themselves exempt from believing and teaching these doctrines, all of which are indispensable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet all these remain ministers in good standing in the PC(USA). None of them could give a compelling reason why non-Christians should be Christians; after all, one cannot give what one patently does not possess. Can it, therefore, be any wonder why former members of PC(USA) congregations have left Christianity altogether?
The PC(USA) is profoundly conformed to the “thought forms” (C-67 §9.29) of this world and is patently not being “transformed by the renewal of (its collective) mind,” and thus quite unable to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.2) Is there still any doubt as to why the PC(USA), contrary to Nelson’s baseless assertion, is dying?