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I’ve spent considerable time over the past year and a half reflecting on the challenges faced by Mainline Protestant denominations, especially the Presbyterian Church (USA). There are numerous conflicting assessments of the situation “on the ground”. Some have said that we are “deathly ill”. Others are quick to point out the numerous signs of life and vitality still evident in our denomination. This anecdotal evidence, drawn from positive experiences in succeeding churches and with faithful people, is offered as a counter-narrative to the “deathly ill” diagnosis. We long to believe that God is doing good things in our midst. We hold on to the energy and promise that still exists in our church. I get this. I do the same thing.

But this is a kairotic moment we cannot afford to miss. Walter Brueggemann, who has suggested that exile is a fitting metaphor for the situation in which the US church now finds itself, describes the embrace of pathos as a critical moment in the exercise of prophetic imagination. “How,” asks Brueggemann, “can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation?” His answer lies in the embrace of pathos and the willingness to engage the very real possibility of our own death.

Brueggemann notes that we have a remarkable propensity for numbness about death. Apathy—the absence of pathos—characterizes our attitude toward the institutions that we turn to for order, security, and meaning. We refuse to recognize failure. We cling to familiar patterns and structures. We want to pacify our grief and reassure ourselves that everything is going to be okay.

Prophetic imagination cuts through these tendencies and brings us face to face with the realities of our situation. In order to move us into a place where we can envision new realities, we must first confront the sobering realization that our current trajectory is leading us to death.

We cannot let legitimate signs of God’s Spirit moving throughout our church obscure the equally evident reality of our slow but steady demise. We must hold these realities together in creative tension. For all of our genuine vitality, there are also critical indications of death. Our declining numbers, aging congregations, diminished resources, and debilitating conflicts cannot be ignored any longer.

Consider these facts:

  • The PC(USA) has lost over 1,000,000 members since Reunion in 1983—a decrease of almost 36% over the course of 27 years.
  • During this same time, we have gone from 11,662 congregations to 10,560—a loss of nearly 9.5%. In every year since Reunion, we have lost more congregations than we have gained.
  • Half of all PC(USA) congregations have a membership of 100 or less.
  • 44% of PC(USA) congregations cannot afford to pay an installed pastor.
  • The median age of our church is 61.
  • Between 2000 and 2010, only 226 new PC(USA) churches were chartered.

This is simply not sustainable.

We cannot move too quickly to obscure the grief of our situation with comfort or hope, as important as these are. We must embrace the pathos associated with admitting that what we are doing is not working.

More bluntly, we must admit that we are dying in order to experience rebirth.

For more on the embrace of pathos, see Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 39–57.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

Reader Interactions


  1. Maybe each congregation in the PCUSA could take this coming Lenten Season to ask, “What are we dying to?” “How will we face it, grieve it, let it go?” The answer wouldn’t be the same for each of us but it’s certainly an relevant question.

  2. John, thank you, thank you, thank you! Yesterday I read with some frustration our current PCUSA moderator’s response to the denomination’s challenges. Her response reminded me of the platitudes of what really good people said when I was on the General Assembly Council a decade ago. Your post keeps the conversation hopeful yet rooted in reality.

  3. Excellent post. I sympathize with Bolbach trying to keep morale high and we can’t deny that certainly God is doing great things in the PCUSA even in its precipitous decline. Too much of the sky-isn’t-falling rhetoric though strikes me as the Captain of the Titanic claiming that things are going well on board because half the ship is still above water (and the orchestra is still playing some might fine music).

  4. I should note, for the record, that this was not intended as a response to Cynthia Bolbach’s recent column (, which I wasn’t aware of until after posting. At the same time, I stand by what I’ve said and think that words of life like Cindy shared need to be tempered with a sober engagement with the facts of our decline.

  5. Last month, I celebrated the 30th anniversary of my ordination. Logically, I should feel the pathos that Professor Brueggemann suggests as a way forward. But I don’t. I’m not in denial, nor apathetic. I’m quite realistic about what is happening in the denomination. I’m not a starry-eyed sentimentalist who sees only good things.

    Every where I turn though, I see people entrepreneurially starting new mission endeavors. Some are programs of their church. Some are not. From these dispersed expressions of the Spirit are coming the new worshiping communities.

    The institution of the 20th century Presbyterian Church is dying because it failed to change. While the rest of the organizational world became more entrepreneurial, we were increasing our corporate footprint. We live with those choices that have led to this point in time.

    The way forward is going to be hard. Can you imagine the number of churches that will have to be closed in the next ten years. If this is what we focus upon, then pathos is our option. But if we choose also to see the entrepreneurial spirit of young people alive in campus ministries and young adult groups, then we’ll see that the church has a bright future. It is just not a future that looks like our recent past. And I’m okay with that.

  6. I think a question might be who exactly is in exile? The church, so long as it is a mouthpiece for political repressive mechanisms, and a pawn in a “culture war”–and it is these things–the church is in the center of culture and cannot simply say it is in exile because of its loss of dominant influence. It may be that Christianity has gone into exile; the veil in the temple remains torn as ever.

  7. John,

    Thanks for the post! I greatly appreciated and definitely resonate with all that you have said. As one of the participants in the “Hope for the PCUSA” video there is no doubt that amongst the hope that was expressed for the church i have seen, recognized and experienced (and still do) the pathos of the PCUSA denomination in particular and the U.S. Church in general. No matter how much hope we want to believe in and express outwardly we can’t avoid the stats and in a way we are dying – and there is no escaping that. I personally believe that we can’t just avoid the death – we have to stay there for a while. Some things have to die and I do believe that we must be ready to accept the reality that what we know now may not be what God has for us in the future. But I do have the hope that the resurrection of the church will happen in its own time in its own form. And I pray that we will accept God’s plan whatever that may be. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Byron. I was actually just about to comment that my post was also not meant as response to the “Hope for the PCUSA” video, which I didn’t know was coming out today and had not see. But, perhaps it was a providential coincidence. I do believe in the hope expressed in your video. As what this church once was dies, I believe something new is being born in the PC(USA), and I am excited to be a part of it. Thanks for what y’all are doing.

  8. I was in the middle of writing on Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination, and the church, when a friend shared yours on Facebook. I think it’s worse than you say, and requires even more radical action (=prayer). Unfortunately, the church isn’t about Jesus or his teachings, but about the comforting one the church has made of him, long owned by the majority in the pews. Thanks.

  9. Good word on the necessity of directly confronting pain and loss. That really comes across to me when I think of the story of Moses’ serpent staff from Numbers. As a denomination we really need to face the snake that bit us if we are to be offered new life.

    At the same time, I’m conflicted about the exile narrative I’ve heard from many. While exile is the dominant narrative around which we trade thoughts of death and life, there are others. In African American communities there is increasing talk about the “Joshua” generation. It constitutes a different narrative, one heavy with expectation and promise. That phenomenon can be glimpsed in other cultural communities that have seen improvement in empowerment and opportunity over the past few decades. Though we are not large in number in PC(USA), how can alternative narratives like these better inform or provide leaven to that overriding narrative of exile? Praying for those answers!

  10. I turned to facebook this morning and found hope and pathos about the PCUSA as the first two, consecutive posts. This after having spent Tuesday night with a session that has decided to recommend to its congregation that they close and after spending many days in the past months talking about and with our congregations that are leaving. Here is where I am on this continuum: there is, of course, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen for the gospel itself. People’s lives will be changed because they have met Jesus. What the PCUSA has to decide is whether we want to be a part of that meeting. Will we find ways that connect people’s deepest longings with the deepest response of God in Jesus Christ? The Christian enterprise, the gathering together of followers of Jesus, survived the plague. It will survive whatever is happening now. What we have to decide is whether or not we are brave enough to admit that institutional survival and our call to make disciples are not equivalent. We have people who know how to get things done; we have lots of money that some of us are saving for a rainy day; we have lives that have been changed because we have met Jesus. It is time to admit that we need to pass out the umbrellas and spash around in the puddles and see where God is leading us next.

  11. John, et al. Thank you for elevating the embrace of a different identity. In the 1960’s there was a “God is Dead” movement, the point of which was not the absence of God, especially in the face of the resurrection, but that our Western understanding of God and practice of faith were dead. Several identities have died. Re-Union was a foolish mistake. After multiple failed attempts to work out differences, we chose to merge and then work out the differences. Are we really surprised at there being fall-out? The WWII Generation perfectly matched the 1950s paradigm of the Presbyterian Church, but the youngest of that generation are in their late 80s and many of us have chosen to close our doors to the world, describing “evangelism” (if we even can say the word) as strangers coming to join us. This is a Kairos moment and Christos moment. Last night’s Harry’s Law made passing reference to a fictional outdated decrepit “Cincinnati Presbyterian Goodfellows Zoo where people pay money to be entertained by outmoded dying exhibits in cages.” I think they got us. Echoing Nathaniel in John’s reading for this Sunday “Can anything good come out of the Church?” Jesus came from Nazareth, so perhaps, but nobody expects it.


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