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.