Picture the PCUSA (and its predecessor denominations) as a once-grand hot air balloon reaching unparalleled heights in the 1950s and 60s as it rose with the burners of Christendom and civil religion. But in 1965 things started to go wrong, and the balloon began to lose altitude. It has been in a steady decline since then for the last 52 years, and as it falls closer to earth, its rate of descent has become precipitous. Until this last year’s statistics were released today. Good news! Great news, we’re told! Things have stabilized and the PCUSA’s rate of decline has slowed back to what it was in earlier days.
Well, not quite. Until 2001 the annual net loss of membership in the PCUSA remained below 1.5%, not good but not alarming. After that, the percentage loss began to climb and by 2005 crested 2%, and remained between 2-3% every year through 2011. Beginning in 2012, as the denomination approved ordination for practicing homosexuals, membership numbers began to plummet noticeably, averaging over 5% annual decline for the next five years, from 2012-2016, as many individuals and congregations “voted” with their feet to be dismissed from the PCUSA, or just left with no notice.
But in 2017, we are told, the rash of departures ended. After dismissing close to 100 churches annually since 2011, in 2017 the PCUSA dismissed only 45. That’s significant progress at stanching the flow of congregational departures. This success has come at a terrible price, however, for it is at least partly due to an increasingly scorched earth, slash and burn policy adopted by the majority of presbyteries to exact crushing assessments on churches thinking about leaving. In some cases, presbyteries have openly declared that any window for departures has now closed and no further dismissals will be considered. As a result, it’s not surprising that the number of dismissals reported has dropped by over 50%.
This has led in turn to a welcome decrease in net membership loss — down from 89,893 in 2016 to 67,714 in 2017. Before the Louisville sluggers break out the champagne, though, it is worth pointing out that this number represents a 4.6% membership loss for 2017, less than the 5.7% of 2016 and less than the similar percentage losses annually going back to 2012, but still much higher than any year prior to that, where the highest rate of loss had been 3.2%. Not much to celebrate.
And things become even more glum when we consider that one of the big reasons for the unexpectedly large net loss is the fact that all the categories for “membership gains” (professions of faith, certificate of transfer, and “other”) continue their decline, while losses remain daunting. Perhaps most depressing is the fact that after reporting in 2016 a net increase in adult baptisms of about 15% over the number in 2014, that bump was reversed in 2017 with a net decrease of 39% in adult baptism figures. Equally sad is the fact that the number of infant/child baptisms continues its unbroken slide, indicating that the PCUSA is losing touch with families, and thus with a vibrant future.
Some optimists have pointed to the 1001 New Worshiping Communities (NWC) initiative as a strong sign of hope for renewal in the denomination. Launched in 2012, the vision is the creation of 1001 viable new congregations (many in non-traditional forms) over a 10 year period. So far, six years into the initiative, 448 communities are listed. Kudos must be given to those who envisioned and launched this effort — it is one of the few in PCUSA history to actually attempt to bring new people into the fold. But to be honest, some of these “communities” pre-dated the launch and were incorporated at the start (to boost numbers, I would guess), some have fizzled out (which is a natural part of experimenting with new ventures) and some are a long stretch from anything resembling a Christian community. Nevertheless, assuming all 448 still to be in existence and vibrant, and assuming the average participation rate of 33 per community (according to the NWC website), that would pencil out to about 15,000 “potential Presbyterians” reached through this creative avenue. However, to place hope in this as a means to float a sinking denomination is unwise.
In the same period as NWC was creating a maximum of 448 communities (from 2012-2017), the denomination as a whole lost (through dissolution or dismissal) 1162 congregations. It’s hard to know exactly how many people this represents, but if we use the denomination’s average congregational size for each year multiplied by the actual churches lost in that year, we come up with a figure of 194,262. The 15,000 possibly gained through NWCs at best replenishes less than 8% of those lost through the dissolution or dismissal of churches from the PCUSA during the life of the NWC initiative. Again, while I don’t mean to diminish in any way the welcoming of 15,000 new folks to the PCUSA (whether with full-fledged or tenuous commitments), the NWC movement is not going to provide a significant updraft to reverse the downward plunge of the denomination.
Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, Jr. understands that. In his remarks, he states the obvious: “It is clear that Presbyterians are doing poorly at evangelism.” The reason for this is not hard to discern — most Presbyterians have no clue what evangelism entails, for they do not know what the good news of the gospel is all about. This failure at the pew level is due in large measure to a failure in the pulpits, seminaries and denominational bureaucracy, where the gospel has been reduced to social activism. Christ came not to save sinners, but to marshal a multitude of community organizers, apparently. While the apostle Paul could thunder, “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…,” Stated Clerk Nelson seems to think that the heart of the gospel is “to share the faith, to demonstrate the power and justice of Jesus Christ and his church to change a world where inequality, injustice, violence and war seem to gain strength daily….” While the biblical gospel wield’s God’s power to transform human nature into a glorious reflection of Christ’s consummate nature for fellowship with God eternally, the earthly gospel of the PCUSA is a series of social, political, economic and ecological causes which good people are meant to rally around. These are by and large the passions of the politically liberal parties of the West, shellacked with a thin veneer of Christian utopianism, fueled by the implication that Jesus would really like to see these causes succeed, so we’d better get out and make them happen.
But is that really the heart of the gospel? Is that why Jesus came and died? Could he not just have sent a strategic plan for how to successfully conquer hunger, achieve world peace, end global warming, heal all manner of diseases, banish envy, anger, sloth, lust, and so on? Or did his death have some meaning on a larger, cosmic scale, overcoming spiritual powers that human beings find themselves helplessly enslaved by? Why is it that mainline churches hardly ever talk about “salvation” any longer, or if they do, they define it primarily in this-worldly terms?
Mr. Nelson realizes that people in the streets “find us lacking” a vision that is compelling. What we need, he thinks is a vision of God’s kin-dom (for, you see, we can’t say Kingdom any more — kings and kingdoms are too authoritarian, which is not at all politically correct; instead we are all members of one happy family, linked as kith and kin). What is lacking from this vision is not its compelling content, apparently; it’s how we have packaged it in the past. “We must find new ways to proclaim it and, more importantly, live it out in our congregations,” he wisely opines.
But if the message of the gospel is that we are called to rid the world of inequality, injustice, violence and war, how are we unique from other movements that desire the same things? Why not become a Communist, or a Democratic socialist, or even a Republican, or join the Rotary Club, or Elks, or any other of a number of philanthropic or service groups? If this is all the church has to offer as its message, it is any wonder that folks aren’t breaking down the doors to get in? If the person and work of Jesus Christ are no longer the center of the gospel, if the cross of Calvary is emptied of its significance, then we deserve to go out of existence. In that case, the best thing we could do is give our buildings away to others, resolve to be “good people,” and go quietly into the night.
Hot air balloons stay aloft for two reasons: they have an intact envelope (the balloon itself) with full integrity — i.e., no holes or gashes; and they have a burner able to heat air sufficiently to keep the balloon filled. Balloon PCUSA has been plummeting toward a fatal crash for two reasons: its envelope suffers from many holes, and its burner is defective. The holes represent all the ways that the denomination fails to nurture and disciple its members into a life with Christ that is fulfilling and challenging, and instead pursues agendas that leave its members cold. It doesn’t take them long to find the holes enabling them to exit. The burner represents the proclamation of the true gospel, presenting the message of Christ which draws sinners to the Savior and to new life in him. The defective message coming from PCUSA pulpits and denominational leaders cannot produce the energy needed to fill and lift the balloon, and so as we have seen over the last 52 years, it has been sinking. Over the last 6 years, that drop has been dizzying.
It’s of little use saying the remaining air is now escaping at a slower rate; that’s the way inflated things work when they get to the end of their life — less pressure inside means that the remaining air leaves more slowly. But the balloon still descends, and often picks up speed as it nears the crash site.
Of course, the PCUSA is not an inanimate balloon. By God’s grace, the denomination can still repair the breaches in its envelope, and can refurbish its burner with the authentic gospel message. In such a scenario, the present descent toward destruction could be prevented, equilibrium regained and upward movement enabled after 52 years of decline.
But such a reversal starts with recognizing what’s gone wrong, and repairing and replacing the old with original factory parts. That’s not likely with J. Herbert Nelson, Jr. at the helm. As the balloon continues to plummet, he continues to chant, “The church is not dying, it is reforming.” If he stays in charge until the basket hits ground, it will indeed re-form, but in a way which will satisfy no member of the body of Christ, whether inside the PCUSA or out.