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.
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. The 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.”
But 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, and we observers from other vessels will watch with sadness as she slips to a cold and silent death.