Facing Hard Facts


The PCUSA is dying.  Any objective observer taking the time to analyze the last 45 years of our comparative statistics would rightly conclude this.  I don’t need to parade them before the world again.  Now less than half the size of our halcyon days, aging and shrinking in a culture increasingly resistant to denominations and religious institutions, we find ourselves straining to breathe like a COPD patient in an oxygen-deprived room.  We are dying….But we are not dead yet.  God may indeed do a miracle.  If so, it will have to transform us from stem to stern.  Perhaps an in-depth look at our recently-released 2010 annual statistics will show us what is needed.

In the last three years, we have lost roughly 9% of our active membership.  One might hope that after a bad year, the downward trajectory might rise, but declines in this last decade have accelerated.  Comparing 2010 figures to those of 2009 proves sobering.

In 2010 across the 10,000+ churches of our denomination we welcomed 89,900 new members, but we lost a total of 151, 037 that same year.  For every 9 we gained, we lost 15, a ratio of 1:1.67.  But this itself doesn’t tell us much about the kind of people we are taking in and losing.

In terms of reaching the lost, we are becoming even more ineffective.  To measure this, we look at the numbers of professions of faith, reaffirmations and baptisms recorded compared to last year (a year we also lost a net of 63,000 members).  Among those 17 and younger, professions of faith are down 8% from the year before; among 18 and older, they are down 5% (this includes reaffirmations of faith as well).  But even this category doesn’t tell us too much about the individuals in those categories.  If they are anything like new believers in my church, they are probably folks raised in some church who never before made a public profession of faith, but were perhaps baptized as infants, or who joined a church at one point but subsequently became inactive for many years.

So the statistics of child and adult baptisms point us a bit more clearly toward answering how well we are doing reaching the unchurched.  Compared to 2009, child baptisms are down almost 9% (perhaps reflecting the fact that the PCUSA is an aging denomination, perhaps that we are attracting fewer young couples).  Adult baptisms are down almost 10% — this is the most telling statistic.  Believer baptisms reflect the possibility that the individuals in question were previously unchurched, though probably a large part of this number comprises youth who were baptized upon joining the church after confirmation.

In any case, if you take the adult baptism figures as the one category that might indicate how well our denomination is reaching the unchurched American culture with the gospel, the results are not very encouraging.  Of all our gains for 2010, just under 7% were newly baptized believers.  Said another way, 93% were already in the orbit of some church somewhere in the past.  As a denomination we are failing pretty miserably to obey Jesus’ Great Commission.  Unless we once again discover a passion for the gospel and for the lost, we will continue to die.  And we will deserve to.

Equally telling, as a denomination we do not seem to carry significant attraction even for our own members and for mainline Christians presently unattached and looking for a church home. The latter category is our most likely source of new members through transfer (certificate).  But in 2010 we gained 13.4% fewer members by certificate than in 2009.  Fewer potential transfers were interested in joining us.  On top of that we lost 7% more Presbyterians transfering out by certificate to other denominations than in 2009.

These numbers should cause us to ask why it is that we appear less attractive to seeking Christians, and increasingly repulsive to our own membership.  Unfortunately, I don’t see our national leadership doing too much soul-searching on these questions.

Lastly, a few words on the numbers related to congregations.  In 2010 we lost a net total of 97 congregations from our midst.  77 were dissolved (I’m guessing some of these were merged together and reconstituted as new congregations) and 26 were dismissed to other denominations (principally the EPC).  On the other side of the balance, 20 new churches were formally organized, and 2 were received from other denominations.  In reality, even more churches actually left the PCUSA in 2010, but since they had not yet been formally dismissed by their presbyteries, they are not included in that number of 26.  Obviously, the trend is not positive.  I personally believe this is the tip of the iceberg — in the next decade, if the PCUSA is still a viable institution, the number of churches dissolved will skyrocket due to our aging population, changing geographical demographics, and our continuing denominational dysfunction.  Shrinking congregations simply will not have the people or resources to keep open their doors.  As well, if we do not return to our biblical and Reformed theological and behavioral roots, we will continue to dissuade seekers and repulse members, and the numerical trends will continue until we finally wither on the vine.

I’m always curious why congregations would want to join the PCUSA in our present state, and so have done a bit of digging to find out the backgrounds of the two churches that came into our denomination in 2010.  One is a Korean congregation (over the last number of years, I believe that Korean congregations have been the major player in this category — we have foreign missions of yesteryear to thank for that!).  The other, if I’m not mistaken, was a small PCA congregation which felt hounded out of that denomination and thought the PCUSA would be a safer harbor.  I tried to call them to ask them about their transition, but their number was disconnected.  I fear that 2010’s addition will appear as one of 2011’s dissolved churches.

I’ve always wondered in light of our property trust clause whether our leaders out of a sense of justice counsel with churches wanting to come into the PCUSA that they are welcome, but must leave their property with their former denomination, as our understanding theologically is that such property rightly is held in trust by the congregation for the benefit of that denomination.  Or do they say, we welcome you with your property, which now by the way, gets signed over to our denomination should you ever decide you want to leave us.  Sort of reminds me of the Hotel California — you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Oh well, enough sadness for one day.  Lord, reverse the mess we have made of your church, and show us all (even critics like myself) our complicity in this sad declension.  Amen.

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15 Responses to Facing Hard Facts

  1. Richard Underwood says:

    Nothing but a mass revival that re-instills the blessing of the Holy Spirit in all of us can save this denomination. I sadly fear that the denomination, as such, is by now so filled with worldy knowledge and scornfull of the word of God that the Lord may well determine that destruction is the only course which will reflect glory on our Lord.

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  2. Jim Berkley says:

    “Hotel California”–a brilliant analogy! I’m still guffawing!

    Thanks for the clear, precise, incisive analysis. Why is our denominational “leadership” not providing such careful analysis and real leadership, rather than spin and bluster?

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  3. Mark Hunt says:

    there is no accountability. If we were any other kind of business (other than the gov’t of course) the board or stakeholders or consumers would have demanded change long ago. Numbers aren’t “the end all and be all” of the church but they do matter and we certainly have a hugely significant trend of decline. If the congregation I serve reflected these statistics they’d be right to question my leadership and maybe even seek a change to turn the tide.

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  4. Mateen, when Bonhoeffer sneaked out of Germany to confer with Karl Barth re whether or not he should choose to participate in the assasination attempt on Adolf Hitler, at the end of their conferring, unable to come to a decision as to whether or not a Christian should participate in killing another human being, Barth is said to have said to Bonhoeffer, “Dietrich, when a madman is driving a truck down a road running over people, it is not only a Christian’s duty to get out the way, it is his Christian duty to stop the madman!” Bonhoffer went back and did participate in the assassination ill-fated attempt on Hitler’s life.

    I fear that those in influential positions to stop the national leaders from killing the PCUSA are more interested in getting out of the way and protecting their turf.” Where’s the courage Bonhoeffer displayed?

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    • mateenelass says:

      Larry, that’s an excellent question. We are far too insular, small-minded and myopic as evangelicals in the PCUSA. I’m willing to help lead the charge, but the only platform right now seems to be the leadership of the Fellowship PCUSA, and their vision is not for reclaiming the denomination from post-Christian liberalism. Do you have any ideas???

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  5. Mateen, as you well know, on Easter Sunday, april 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer and 11 others were marched out into a courtyard, stripped naked and hanged.

    Many our national leaders are fearful of being ‘marched out’ of office if they offend the left.

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  6. Ken Blank says:

    Thanks for the membership update, Mateen. I looked at this a couple of years ago and deduced this statistic: We have lost 800 members a week for 45 years in a row! That’s like taking an 800 member church and pulling it out of the denomination each and every week for 45 years. Besides demographics, I’ve found very little critical reflection on the reasons for this decline from denominational leaders.

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    • mateenelass says:

      Ken, thanks for the fresh way of looking at these statistics. I ran the numbers in light of our total membership at the end of 2010 compared with 1965 and come up with an even higher number (our losses over the last three years have been higher than the yearly average by quite a bit) and come up with a weekly figure closer to 950 — so now it’s about one 950 member church lost per week for the last 45 years! Yet the bureaucracy remains in confident maintenance mode.

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  7. As an evangelical currently estranged from a PC (USA) where the installation of a liberal pastor has profoundly changed the nature and character of a formerly evangelical-leaning church, I found your statistics and your analysis quite informative.

    I agree with Richard Underwood (whom I do not know personally) who cited revival as the only hope. This represents food for much prayer. We serve a God of redemption. If He wills, He can raise up like-minded people, fully devoted to God, who want to rise above their current meager spiritual fare and experience revival. I pray this will be so for the PC (USA) and for my own church.

    And, as an Eagles fan for nearly 40 years, I really appreciated the “Hotel California” reference.

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    • mateenelass says:

      Dean, your story is tragically all too common in the PCUSA. We must indeed pray for the renewing fire of the Spirit to fall upon our denomination, but we must also stand for the truth against the inroads of heresy and apostasy, and by God’s grace take back this denominaiton in partnership with the sovereign work of God. At least, that’s my take. Thank you for wriitng!

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  8. Randy Schreurs says:

    Mateen, I heard u speak at a Wee Kirk conference a couple yrs ago. & I appreciate your blogs. I’m wondering, would u consider writing a blog on what u anticipate happening at the Fellowship- PCUSA gathering in a month? Would would u like to see & hear there? If u’re speaking, what will your topic/theme be?
    I’m part of a small conservative church in E. OK Presbytery.

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    • mateenelass says:

      Randy, thank you for your interest in my thoughts. By this weekend I will post something that I think will address your desires as to my thoughts concerning the August gathering. As far as I know, I will not be speaking in any plenary way, but contributing in the same way as all the other delegates. My main contribution, though, will be in the area of ecclesiology — what does it mean to belong to the “true church”, does the PCUSA still qualify, and if not, what should we do. I’d be interested in your own thoughts on MN. Are you planning on being there?

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      • Randy Schreurs says:

        As to whether the PCUSA qualifies as the true church, it seems like the PCUSA is such a big tent, that some parts are the true church, & some parts are not. The old Reformed marks of the true church are the faithful preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, & pastoral church discipline. Church discipline got lost generations ago.
        I will not be able to attend the Fellowship gathering, but look forward to hearing reports on it. I’m torn between leaving & staying. I hope those who decide to leave, leave as a group, which would be a stronger witness to their leaving.

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  9. Direct Descendant of 3 Cumberland Presbyterian Ministers says:

    Thank you, Edmond First Presbyterian Church, for reminding us as Christians that believing in the sovereignty of God, we have commitments to our Faith, and yes, beliefs…. whether we are Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, or any religion we’ve chosen to devote our life and faith into growing with as Christians in our walk with God.

    After retiring, I’ve learned that my family’s religious roots and faith run deep and direct with Scottish Ancestors & the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. I have studied with awe and respect in the role the Presbyterians, and yes, many of my GGG+Great Grandfathers that were Ministers of God in the Presbyterian religion that was historic and significant in shaping the religious and political life of our newly established nation, America!

    I have no doubt that our forefathers had no idea “importance upon education & lifelong learning” could ever bring about the recents changes in doctrine by Bible & Scripture to make these liberal changes in doctrine! My family left the Cumberland Presbyterians before the Civil War, and some even earlier after changes from the Presbyterian Hawfields in North Carolina were made. (My large family is now mostly Southern Baptists.) I’ve just read with interest and had you in my prayers with your vote later today. I applaud your strength of conviction to hard work, discipline, salvation of souls, and working faithfully towards building a better World! I also believe the surnames in my history with the likes of Knox, Witherspoon, Blackwood, Ewing, Wilson, Barnes & Davies would be voting with you… for the word and truth of God, and I pray your congregation will be granted a dismissal from the denomination without monetary obligations by Presby leaders!
    “God’s Speed!” from a Great Great Granddaughter that cares and wishes she could vote today for God’s Word! Please continue the great work for faith, God and Scripture!

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