A Long Oblivion in the Same Direction*

*With apologies to Eugene Peterson

Like one who has reluctantly left the environs of a dysfunctional family, but looks in hopefully for signs of health, I continue to scan the PCUSA for news of renewal and reform. Unfortunately, dysfunction still reigns, especially at national leadership levels.

Yesterday Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons released the denomination’s 2012 annual statistics. Normally, amidst each year’s dreary numbers, Gradye is able to find a silver lining among the massive, gray clouds. This year, even the silver lining was gray. The 47 year streak of net membership losses for the PCUSA remains unbroken.

2012 turns out to have been a record-breaking year for the denomination in terms of numbers. Back in 2009, it was reported that 2008 broke all negative records in terms of net member loss (numeric: 69,381 and percentage: 3.1) since the Reunion of 1983 (the formational year of the PCUSA). 2008 contained the disastrous GA in San Jose. 2011 saw another record-breaking year, in terms of net member loss by percentage though not by raw numbers (numeric: 63,804; percentage: 3.2). Now, 2012 has completely blown away those negative records. After another disastrous GA in June-July, the denomination has seen churches and individuals departing at staggering rates (numeric: 102,791; percentage: 5.3).

2012 saw the net loss of 2% of the PCUSA’s churches across the country from 10,466 to 10,262. Of this 204 differential, 86 were dissolved (closed as unsustainable), 110 were dismissed to other denominations (a 400% increase over 2011) and the rest apparently lost numerically in mergers with other churches so as to create new, hopefully self-sustaining congregations. 13 new congregations were formed in 2012, the bulk of them coming apparently from mergers. The largest net loss of churches for the PCUSA prior to this was 97 in 2010. Last year’s loss is more than double this. Not good.

The total number of active ministers has decreased by 215, no doubt in large measure to the 126 who were dismissed to other denominations (a 400% increase over last year). Together with decreases in numbers of ordinations and candidates for ordination, signs point to growing disinterest in serving at the helm of a sinking ship.

Since 2000 (the last annual statistics I had in front of me) the gross total of new members added each year to the PCUSA has declined from 149,277 in 2000 to 86,645 in 2011. In 2012, this figure reached a new low of 78,150 (a drop of 9.8%). What this says is that the PCUSA is attracting into membership roughly half the number it was adding just 13 years ago. That’s scary.

On the other hand, the denomination is leaking like a sieve when it comes to membership retention. The number who transferred out to other denominations by certificate was up 126% from 2011 (52,064 compared to 23,082). The number lost through “other” means (cleaning the rolls, usually) was up about 4% (from 95,613 to 99,067). The only category showing a slight decrease in losses from that of 2011 was in number of deaths. This is small consolation. Considering the aging nature of the PCUSA population, within a decade this category will no doubt show a steady incline in numbers.

In terms of spiritual health statistically, the number of infant/child baptisms decreased by 1560 (-7%), maintaining the trajectory of recent years. And the reported Christian Ed attendance decreased by 64,069, again in line with the past trajectory. Overall general contributions among all PCUSA churches fell roughly 5% (-$92,769,555). However, one category improved: The number of adult baptisms increased by 389 to 6,129 across the denomination for 2012. This shows the 2011 number of 5740 to be an anomaly. The 2012 figure is less than but close to the number of adult baptisms performed in 2010: 6148. it will be interesting to see what 2013 reports, especially as a larger number of evangelical congregations are departing the PCUSA.

No one can rationally dispute the dismal nature of these statistics. But they simply report what has happened in the past. One might look with hope to the national leadership for a new direction to pull the PCUSA out of its slide into oblivion. However, from the words of Gradye Parsons, it seems the leadership is oblivious to the damage it has caused by its neglect of church and gospel essentials, and by the need to drastically change course from that of vying with other mainline denominations seeking to serve as the religious flagship for political, economic and social causes of the progressive armada.

Gradye’s explanation of the decline we are seeing in the PCUSA boils down to two things: 1) All the mainline churches are in decline; the PCUSA is a mainline church; therefore it is in decline. 2) Our culture is increasingly resistant to affiliating with religious institutions — how can we help it if people today don’t want to sign on the dotted line…? Both these reasons, whether true or not, show a desire to excuse the leadership from responsibility rather than a passion to turn things around. There are certain churches that are growing in this environment. Why not study them and invest the denomination’s significant resources in retooling itself to become a more effective proponent of the gospel? Why not return with passion to the heart of the biblical gospel rather than giving itself over to causes that are ancillary to the church’s true mission?

Gradye points to the recent Pew Forum report on the state of religion in the USA to undergird his explanation of the state of the PCUSA. In glancing at it, I noted a few of its assessments which have bearing on the mainline PCUSA.
In the last five years, the number of Americans who self-identify as Protestants has declined from 53% to 48%.
Within that category, the largest losses from the mainline church have been WASPs, who have now become WASUs (white Anglo-Saxon unaffiliateds). Black and other minority percentages have remained stable among Protestants.

In the political realm, those who self-identify as liberal (principally Democratic among party lines) are two and a half times less likely to want to affiliate with a religious institution as those self-identifying as conservative ideologically.

Lastly, the religiously unaffiliated strongly believe that religious institutions are far too concerned with money and power, and are too involved with politics. These two assessments deter them from seeking any allegiances with organized religion.

In light of these factors, I have a few suggestions for Gradye and other PCUSA leaders seeking to reach more Americans with the gospel and reverse the decline of the denomination:

1) In the name of racial diversity, invest more effort in reaching out to white Anglo-Saxon Americans. This is still the largest segment of American society, but the group that is fleeing evangelical and mainline churches in largest numbers. On the other hand, failure to do this will at least lead the PCUSA to perhaps reach an expired GA goal of 20% minority membership by 2010. As more WASPs leave the church, and minority numbers hold steady, overall minority percentages will increase dramatically. Not what was originally envisioned, I’m sure, but hey, at least it’s a goal to check off.

2) Since Jesus said to go where the fields were white unto harvest, and since the Pew report indicates that those most likely to affiliate with religious institutions are the politically conservative, begin a top to bottom house-cleaning of social, political and economic endorsements that lean leftward, and replace them with ones that lean right. This will attract those most likely to affiliate and give you a chance to welcome larger numbers into membership. Right now, you’re pitching your message to those least likely to respond. Isn’t that a waste of time and energy?

3) Since the unaffiliated (that fastest growing segment of the younger American population) is turned off by power-grabbing, money-grubbing religious institutions, and since you obviously want to reach this segment of society, rein in all the presbyteries and synods and GA entities that are lording it over individual congregations seeking to leave the PCUSA. Instead of ignoring or secretly encouraging them as they abuse their institutional power to cause as much pain as possible and extract as much money as they can in exchange for permission to legally become part of the body of Christ in another denominational structure, why not remove the property trust clause from the Book of Order, or declare that all churches are free to leave, no strings attached, no fees assessed? Any wishing to stay will do so voluntarily, and all unaffiliateds will see that the PCUSA is in fact not a money-grubbing, power-obsessed institution. Perhaps in observing such Christian grace, they will begin flooding into the new PCUSA.

These suggestions are, of course, made with tongue in cheek, though they each contain a kernel of truth worth considering as the denomination reels with its losses. It would be nice to see some solid, theologically cogent, thoughtful strategies as to how to reverse the decline of the PCUSA in ways truly bringing glory to God. Right now, all I’m seeing is leadership saying, “It’s not our fault that we happen to be a mainline church. The problem is with American society.” That may explain why the PCUSA is only successfully bringing in half as many members as it did in 2000 (though I personally reject this as an adequate assessment). It offers no reason why 150,000+ members (excluding those who left by death) decided the PCUSA was not the place for them. Worst of all, it offers no compelling reason why the PCUSA should continue to exist. Instead of rehearsing again and again all the hurdles mainline institutions face, why not try a new approach that begins with newfound passion for the gospel of Christ as found in the Bible and Reformed confessional documents of the faith? Who knows what might happen then? It certainly couldn’t be worse than what we are all beholding now.

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7 Responses to A Long Oblivion in the Same Direction*

  1. Ted Lunacek says:

    Pew tells us that nearly 80% of Americans believe an a Christian view in some form, half are Protestants. We Americans like Jesus teachings, but seem to dislike the harsh interpretations on both sides that cannot, will not, do not even consider the views of others. Did we find the problem in the actions of the PCUSA, probably not. The failure to love one another is a more likely cause. It may be time to release the idea that our human minds can perfectly understand the will of God, and the teachings of Jesus, and widen our acceptance of the views of others.


    • mateenelass says:

      Ted, I have no idea what you are trying to say. It seems to me that if God wants the human race to understand His mind and will on a subject, He is well able to speak to us in ways we can grasp. I would say our failure to grasp His truth is more a matter of recalcitrant will than finite mind. If one understands Jesus’ teachings, and believes them to be ultimate truth, then consideration of the views of others has little bearing except as to how to interact with them to help them come to a better understanding of the truth. If, on the other hand, one is not sure that Jesus’ teachings are ultimate truth, then it is possible that those with contrary views might indeed have a better handle on reality than Jesus, in which case if we are truth-seekers we would be wise to consider their views. Orthodox Christians have always believed that the Scriptures are indeed the divine revelation of God, not open to adjustment by fallen human wisdom.


  2. Lee says:

    Mateen, I’m wondering why u chose the PCUSA Stated Clerk & annual statistical report as representative of the PCUSA?
    Like many, I’ve long believed that Wash, DC & Louisville were/are equally dysfunctional. Do they represent us? I guess so in a symbolic way. But I & I believe most Presbyterians, don’t look to Parsons or an annual statistical report for leadership. The numerical falloff u list has been long predicted. Parsons & others were/are stuck in the past. For years, we evangelicals have looked to Scripture & other evangelical Presbyterians for inspiration & direction.


    • mateenelass says:

      Lee, I would not regard Gradye Parsons as representative of the PCUSA grassroots, and I certainly agree with you that the denominational leadership is largely dysfunctional. But the statistical report is representative of the state of the denomination, and the paid leadership of the denomination is meant to do just that: lead. What might happen in the PCUSA were there effective leadership committed to a biblical theology, ecclesiology, Christology, pneumatology, mission, etc.? It’s tough for grassroots Presbyterians to organize themselves and make significant changes in the denominational culture. PFR and the Presbyterian Coalition tried for decades, and have recently given up that vision. But if the charge were led from the post of the office of the Ga and from the Mission Council, the grassroots would rally en masse, I believe. Unfortunately, they have not shown the inclination to do this, I believe, because their hearts are compelled by a different vision than that of Jesus Christ — the Jesus of the NT, that is.


  3. Pingback: 2012 statistics show dramatic decrease in PCUSA membership, congregations - The Layman Online

  4. Chris says:

    It is good to have you blogging again Mateen. I missed reading you, and continue to hope all goodness for you and your family.


  5. Chas Jay says:

    I join with Chris in joy to see you blogging again. I, too, missed you and the Godly, Biblical wisdom you share.
    A reminder to Mr. Parsons, the Southern Baptists had approximately six million members in the 1960’s and were smaller than the UMCand currently have around 16 million members. They grew in the decades that the “mainline” denominations had started their decline. The congregations in the mainline denominations that have shown growth over the years have been the orthodox ones led by men such as yourself, Mateen.
    Conviction of the faith that returns to the reformed tradition of Sola Scriptura is the Church that stands as the lighthouse of God’s Truth in a lost, sinful, broken world.is what brings broken people to Him.


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