The Presbyterian Church (USA) has just released its annual statistics for 2015, along with a statement offering its rosy assessment, or rather its silvery assessment. The numbers paint a bleak picture (once again) of the denomination’s health, but especially in the area of membership loss. This is no surprise given the unbiblical trend of the national organization (ordination of practicing homosexuals and redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions being two of the more egregious decisions of the General Assembly in the last four years), but in 2015 the flood gates of departure opened even wider. After many years of net losses averaging around 2% of total membership, in 2007 those percentages began rising even as the denominational base was shrinking (percentage loss in 2007 was 2.5; each year after that has lost, respectively, 3.1, 2.9, 2.9, 3.2, 5.3, 4.8, and in 2014 5.3%). 2015, however, has broken all past records with a net membership loss of 5.7%. In real numbers that’s a net loss of 95,107 active members. Another way of saying this is that at the end of 2015, the PCUSA was 6.0% smaller than at the end of 2014.
Drilling down a bit more deeply, we discover that new members added in 2015 fell 14% among the 17 and under group compared to 2014; among 18 and over, the percentage drop was 10%. Likewise, transfers of membership from other churches (certificate) was down 10%. This has nothing to do with churches departing the denomination, or present members leaving. Rather, it simply records how well the PCUSA is doing at “evangelizing” both within and without the denomination’s boundaries (i.e., it includes those joining through confirmation classes as well as those reached outside the membership borders of the local congregation). Even more alarming, the percentage of child baptisms is down 12% from 2014, and adult baptisms (never very strong in recent decades) was down 10%.
What these numbers show is that the PCUSA and its forerunners (whose declining membership streak has been unbroken since 1965) is becoming even more ineffective (or unconcerned) about reaching the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ. A quick comparison with official figures from 2005 show the following: total number of new members in 2005: 124,958; in 2015: 59,092 (less than half as many new members coming in that 11 years ago). Total number of losses in 2005: 173,432; total losses in 2015: 154,199. Total membership in 2005: 2,313,662; total membership in 2015: 1,572,660 (the 2015 PCUSA has lost one-third of its membership in 11 years!). Total # of churches in 2005: 10,959; total in 2015: 9,642. Average congregational membership in 2005: 211; average size in 2015: 163. Number of churches dissolved in 2005: 66; number dissolved in 2015: 91. Number of churches dismissed to other denominations in 2005: 4; numbers dismissed in 2015: 104. Number of churches received from other denominations in 2005: 0. Number received in 2015: 0 (the PCUSA has been pitching a shutout in this category for 5 years running).
According to Vera White, Coordinator of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities program, there is cause for optimism. She relates that there are now 339 new communities, and they are steadily increasing. But the definition of what constitutes a “new worshiping community” is very fluid, and many of these show little resemblance to an enduring congregation. Even granting the unlikely possibility that all of these survive and flourish, the “Final Report” on these communities, issued by PCUSA Research Services, cites on pg. 1 that the median community size is 33 regular participants. That would translate into a little more than 11000 additional folks brought into the PCUSA orbit through this program. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also insufficient to replace the hordes that are jumping ship.
Nevertheless, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons remains positive. According to the May 16 press release, he said, “The PC(USA) clearly isn’t going away, even though some congregations have discerned another denominational path for themselves…..Mission and ministry remain alive and vibrant in the body.”
What leads him to this conclusion, in light of all the gathering clouds? The answer is: every cloud has a silver lining. In this case, the silver is literal. Parsons is impressed that in spite of the loss of members and churches, overall contributions to the denomination are up $9.6 million. Capital and building funds of local churches increased. Most to be highlighted, however, is the fact that local mission giving by congregations increased $7.7 million over 2014. So while the PCUSA is hemorrhaging members and congregations at record rates, nevertheless giving in certain areas is up. Indeed, every cloud does apparently have a silver lining! Where in all this is the concern for souls, for the eternal welfare of the lost, for the glory of God displayed in the salvation of sinners??? Instead we have talk of denominational life and vitality in the form of overflowing coffers.
Even so, Parsons fails to note that though local mission expenditure is up by $7.7 million, “validated and other” mission giving is down by just over $13 million. It seems likely that congregations decided to keep more of their discretionary money at home to disburse for missions locally in 2015 than to hand it over for distribution by the denomination. This may indeed be a good thing for the Kingdom of God, having Christians more directly involved in caring for their local communities; it leads one to wonder, however, if this comes at the cost of local churches losing trust in their denominational bureaucracy. To date, Gradye hasn’t felt led to comment on this possibility.
Given the bleak numbers in the 2015 report showing accelerated losses of members from the pews of a once vibrant denomination and decelerating efforts at reaching and bringing in the lost, I search in vain for some salvific signs about which I can exclaim, “Thanks be to God!” Perhaps, I’ll have to settle, as Gradye apparently has, for a lining of silver, and say with him concerning the PCUSA, “Thanks be to Mammon.”