Watching a Remake of The Titanic — Presbyterian Church (USA) 2017

There’s a new captain at the helm, and a new course plotted for the voyage, but the good ship PCUSA continues to sink. Today, the Office of the General Assembly released its annual comparative statistical report for the denomination, highlighting numbers for 2016. Once again, it was not a pretty sight.Titanic-Hitting-The-Icebery

Jerry Van Marter, from the GA Communications Office wrote up a summary, and tried to spin it with as much sweetener as possible, but the news continues to be awful. The headline is factually correct in one way, but misleading: “…membership decline continues but slows.” In 2016, the denomination lost a net 89,893 members. According to Van Marter, this is the lowest numerical loss since 2011, when net losses were 63,804. This is not exactly accurate: net losses in 2013 were 89,296, some 600 less than 2016’s number, but why quibble? The fact of the matter is that the net loss numbers since 2012 have been dramatically high, and 2016 is not substantially different:

  • 2012  —  102,791
  • 2013  —  89,296
  • 2014  —  92,433
  • 2015  —  95,107
  • 2016  —  89,893

When you compare these with figures from 2001-2005, the difference is depressing (even back then the losses were depressing, but in 2001 the denomination had a million more members than it does today):

  • 2001  —  31,549
  • 2002  —  41,812
  • 2003  —  46,658
  • 2004  —  43,175
  • 2005  —  48, 474

As you can see, net losses just ten years ago averaged around half of what they are now, and the denomination was much larger then. One would expect that as the denomination shrinks the net losses would shrink as well, but that hasn’t happened yet. Another way to say that is this: back then the PCUSA was averaging a net loss of about 1-2% of its total membership. In the last two years, the average net loss per year has been 5.7%. It’s hard to sugarcoat that.

Van Marter also notes that the total number of church dismissals to other denominations has decreased to 99 — “…the fewest dismissals since 2011.” This is indeed accurate, but he fails to mention that the dismissal number in 2011 was 21, and the number dismissed in 2015 was 104, so the decrease in 2016 was not very significant. Even less so when you look at numbers of churches dismissed back in 2001-2005:

  • 2001  —  2
  • 2002  —  3
  • 2003  —  3
  • 2004  —  3
  • 2005  —  4

It’s crucial to look not just at churches dismissed (we all know that in 2016 presbyteries began sealing any further leaks, with some even going so far as to announce that they were no longer going to entertain dismissal petitions from member congregations). The other critical category is churches dissolved (usually because they are no longer viable). In 2015, the number of dissolutions was 91. Last year it was 97. In the years from 2001-2005, the average per year was in the upper 50s. One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in prophecy to project that numbers in this dissolution category will begin to skyrocket in the next decade as the PCUSA ages out and its members “graduate” in larger numbers. The majority of PCUSA congregations are small and elderly, and in a desperate holding pattern. down-decline-graphThe average size of a PCUSA congregation today is 157. I don’t have access to data for determination of the median size (the midpoint size where half of all PCUSA congregations are larger and the other half smaller), but I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the high 70s. This would indicate that thousands of churches are a small step from closure.

Nevertheless, Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson is awash in exuberance. “We are not dying,” he says. “We are Reforming [sic].” The secondary title of his official response is “Significant Aspects of the 2016 Statistical Report,” but in fact only one short sentence actually deals with the report at all, and that sentence is highly misleading: “Membership loss, which was experienced since the 1970s, is slowing down.” Actually, membership loss has been an unbroken trend since 1965. And as I have shown above, the claim that it is now “slowing down” is at this point wishful thinking. To lose 11% of the total membership of the denomination in two years’ time is hardly cause for celebration.

This is oddly reminiscent of the former Stated Clerk’s assessment of the 2013 statistical numbers. Gradye Parsons declared on May 29, 2014:

“Yes, the numbers reflect a decrease in active members in the denomination. But the numbers also illustrate fewer losses than the previous year. The membership declined by 89,296 in 2013, compared to 102,791 in 2012. We are meeting the challenges we have had and it’s showing,” he said. “And, our decline in total congregations is holding fairly steady.”

It’s the Titanic all over again. Steady as she goes.

J. Herbert Nelson says all the expected things to calm anxious hearts: “We are moving towards a new future as a denomination….Congregations are refocusing on their mission….We are well-respected for our priestly and prophetic voice within Christendom….We have much more than we recognize….I pray that a move of the Spirit will come over us in this new period of reform.”

grand ballroomBut as he speaks these uplifting words in the Grand Ballroom of the luxury liner, the passengers are huddled on the listing deck, crowding to get into the lifeboats, or just jumping overboard into the sea. It might be better for J. Herbert to cut short his paean of praise concerning the SS PCUSA and order his crew below decks to seek to repair the gashes in the hull — if they still know how to do that kind of work.

Otherwise, having contributed to the shipwreck of a once great ecclesiastical ship, it will be off to Davy Jones’ locker, Davy-Jonesand we observers from other vessels will watch with sadness as she slips to a cold and silent death.


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25 Responses to Watching a Remake of The Titanic — Presbyterian Church (USA) 2017

  1. Jay Norton says:

    You need a Nomex suit, Mateen, you are on fire lately!

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Calvin says:

      When the Holy Bible is no more authoritative, and anything goes, look at the results. The
      ship is slowly sinking.


  2. Pingback: PCUSA Loses Another 89,893 Members in 2016 - The Layman

  3. Stevey Shaw says:

    Thank you for this analysis. I’ve experienced it as true.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Watching a Remake of The Titanic — PCUSA 2017 - The Layman

  5. Don says:

    At seminary I remember a liberal boasting “We are going to convert the church or destroy the church and we don’t care which!” I guess the latter is their final choice.


  6. There is nothing to rejoice about here, only Schadenfreude. Many of us predicted this. Many of us left to join a different denomination. And many of our congregations were harmed by the process. On individual congregation size, I recall seeing a spreadsheet once which showed how many congregations had <50 members, <100 members, etc…but haven't been able to find anything like that lately. I seem to recall that there were thousands of congregations in those size ranges.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mateenelass says:

      Jester, the 2014 comprehensive statistical report listed the congregational median size at 84, with the average annual decrease steady at 2-4 per year. So it would be a reasonable assumption that the median size of congregations in the PCUSA by the end of 2016 to be around 78. As you know, the median number means that an equal number of the 9451 congregations above that number and below. Hence, though we don’t know the breakdown in terms of <50, <100, <200, etc., we can say that some 4,700+ churches are under 78. It would probably be fair to say that 5000+ are under 100.


    • mateenelass says:

      Jester, I just came across a spreadsheet put out by Research Services for 2014 which lists the congregational details you were wanting. Of course with a membership loss of 11% from 2014 to 2016, the numbers today are probably even more bleak.

      Total congregations 9790.
      Number with members 1-50: 3213 = 33% of total churches
      Number with members 51-100: 2289
      Number with members 101-150: 1294

      The combined number of churches with membership of 150 or less is 6796, which comprises 69% of all churches in the denomination.


  7. Martin Batts says:

    The Presbyterian Church U. S. A. needs to realize that a return to the basic fundamentals of Christianity (such as a high view of the Scriptures and preaching of the Word of God) would right the sinking ship and infuse new enthusiasm among the members remaining in the denomination. May God grant that this may happen soon!!


    • Donnie Bob says:

      It’s not going to happen, Martin.
      A number of years ago in a church where I once served, a young woman in the congregation, in the midst of a deep depression, took an overdose of medicine. She consumed hundreds of tylenols, followed by a fifth of bourbon, and then she passed out. When she came to her senses a couple of days later, she realized what she had done and immediately checked herself into a hospital. It was too late. Even though she no longer wanted to die, the tylenols had done such massive damage to her internal organs that there was no hope for her. A week later she died.
      In much the same way, the apostate poison that the PCUSA has been ingesting for many years now has already done its lethal work. The outward form of the organization still exists, but its self-inflicted and mortal wound cannot be healed. However much some people within that doomed denomination might wish it to be otherwise, it is no longer a question of whether the PCUSA will die, it is only a matter of how long it will take before the poison it has consumed will finally complete its deadly work.
      All that one may now reasonably wish for the PCUSA is that its suffering will be shortened and that its end will come as painlessly as possible for all concerned.


      • Nancy says:

        I am starting to believe you are probably right. I find it so depressing because I truly love PCUSA as well as our little church. We have only 49 members right now. Sixty if you count baptized babies. I am head of CE and we are lucky if two children are in Sunday School. Culturally I am liberal, fiscally conservative. PCUSA suits me, but does not seem to be attracting anyone else. Specifically what is the “apostate poison” you refer to? When I joined this church we had no women elders or deacons. Now our ruling elder is a divorced woman. It seemed like progress to me. Oddly we had gay members during that time. They just kept a low profile. Now they can openly serve. Not progress?


      • mateenelass says:

        Nancy, thank you for commenting! I can’t locste where in this post that I referenced “apostate poison”, but I don’t doubt I’ve used those words elsewhere. The apostasy is that the PCUSA no longer believes in the core message of the gospel as revealed in the Bible but has replaced it with a message of social activism. While the goals of social activism are often good, they are not the message to which Christ commissioned his church. Let me invite you to perform an experiment. Get out your Book of Confessions and read the Scots Confession, or the 2nd Helvetic Confession, or the Westminster Confession and the compare the depth and focus of those teachings with what you are hearing from the pulpit or seeing on the PCUSA webpage. Unless your minister is unusually steeped in Reformed theology and believes it, you probably aren’t hearing much that used to be considered essential for Christian life and faith. Evangelism is essentially dead in the PCUSA because our leaders no longer believe or take it as a priority to urge people to put their trust in Christ to assure a felicitous future. That’s just one example. I hope you’ll try my experiment and let me know your results!


  8. beowulfme says:

    It has been over a decade now that the Spirit’s counsel to me whenever I have prayed for the renewal of the PCUSA is this: “My Glory has left them.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • mateenelass says:

      Thanks for that very helpful, informative graph, Douglas!


    • beowulfme says:

      Very helpful indeed. Can anyone name a single CEO or Board of Directors in the private sector that stockholders would allow to perform in this manner?
      Two questions: Since this trend was identifiable prior to 1990, why did the “stockholders” in the PCUSA keep electing these numbskulls? Does anyone see the irony of these “leaders” continuing to suggest to the private sector how they should run their businesses?


      • Carl Hahn says:

        In the Presbyterian Church the CEO is the General Assembly itself, remember? “Rule by council”. It gets “fired” after every gathering of the GA. A commission could be created to address the problem. Assuming the next General Assembly thinks its a problem…


  9. Pingback: PCUSA Membership Numbers For 2016 - The Layman

  10. Carl says:

    You would think that every Presbytery meeting of every Presbytery would be obsessed with finding the answer to the this problem. But in the PCUSA they aren’t even asking. They are just watching the Titanic sink out of the corner of their eyes, with a certain morbid fascination. Either denial “this isn’t happening”, or a helpless “there is nothing we can do about it. My chair is sinking, but the whole ship is sinking so there you have it”. Both are false of course, but it does remind me of two biblical passages: Is 6:8-13 and Rev 2:4-5.

    I like the definition of “repentance” that it is a ‘change in direction’. And I agree, our lamp-stand has been removed.

    I don’t blame it on Liberalism per say. Liberalism is about free thinking, and I believe “for freedom Christ has set you free”. I believe in freedom of thought. But I think post-modernism has gotten confused about the lessons of modern physics that brought post-modernism about. Insights about the nature of Truth and Reality. While modern physics did realize that Reality is hard to discern, that we always filter what we perceive and modify it when we try to examine it, it never said there was no Truth and Reality there to behold, or that it was somehow irrelevant, and all that mattered is what we project on to it. To the contrary, the lesson is supposed to fill you with awe and humility. But post modern theology and philosophy has created a generation of preachers who think there is no Truth or Reality other than what they project. So they either do not really believe what they preach, or they have lost track of what it means and have adopted the attitude that it means whatever they want it to mean. And the reaction against that attitude has created a generation of preachers who practice magical thinking and call it Faith. In both cases, they are neither humble nor do project any sense of awe.They both talk as if Truth is whatever they say it is, and that they own and control it, rather than IT owning and controlling them. Neither seems to understand what modern cosmology understands now more than ever: That to understand the stars, you must first stand under them.

    To understand the Gospel, we must first stand under it. With that comes a sense of awe and wonder and love. And those are the nutrients that feed the Church. We must remember our first love.

    That is kinda simplistic, I know, to try to wrap a simple bow around the malady of the ages, but Bill Clinton had a mantra that won him his election: “Its the economy, stupid”. We could all be well served by a similar mantra:

    “Its the preaching, stupid”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Paul says:

    As a member of a Mainline denomination that’s not exactly doing so hot either (ELCA), I’ve always been fascinated with the PC(USA)’s decline. What makes their decline so unique in comparison to other liberal/moderate Protestant churches?

    We’ve lost quite a few members since our 2009 sexuality decision. However, PC(USA) seems to lose close to 100K members annually! If their decline keeps up at this rate, the denomination will cease to exist in about 15 years.

    Can anyone who’s an expert in PC(USA) politics give me a heads-up?


  12. beowulfme says:

    “We are moving towards a new future as a denomination” (Yes, it is called ‘extinction’ – check out ‘dinosaurs’) “Congregations are refocusing on their mission” (Yes, its called ‘circling the wagons’ check out ‘wagon trains’) ‘We are well-respected for our priestly and prophetic voice within Christendom’ (Really? Have you seen the enrollment figures for our seminaries?) ‘We have much more than we recognize’ (True enough – it is called ‘denial’ and ‘hubris’ – check out ‘deadly sins’ and ‘addictive defenses’)

    Memo to Mr. Herbert: I doubt you will ever be able to pick up the Clue Phone. It’s that one on the desk of the Stated Clerk that has been ringing incessantly since 1990. It actually started ringing when some bright theologians and hymnal publishers foisted The Worshipbook (January 1, 1972) upon the PC(USA) and congregations that bought them began giving them away at yard sales (no takers).


  13. Joseph Malham says:

    On June 4, 2018 the PC (USA) published their membership numbers for last year. It appears that they lost about 5%. The article states that they have failed to embrace evangelism as a main culprit of their losses. I left the denomination in 2015 because of their low view of scripture; but my wife would not leave.

    With the churches focus on love feasts, dinner fund raisers and cookie sales, instead of the Word of God; they appear to be pointing more people to weight watchers then to heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mateenelass says:

      Joseph, you may be interested in my most recent blog yesterday on the 2017 PCUSA statistics –it’s called “PCUSA’s Latest Deflating Statistics.” I hope you will read it!


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