A Denomination in Decline

This post comes directly from the PC(USA) Mid Councils Commission report (18-19). I wrote this section with input from commission member Karen Dimon. I am posting discrete sections of our report as a means of generating conversation, so please make comments. At the end of this post, I have suggested some questions to stimulate your thinking. For a list of all the posts in this series, please follow this link.

A Denomination in Decline

It is well known that practically every mainline Protestant denomination—and increasingly, many of the evangelical denominations—has experienced a significant decline in membership and overall strength since the middle of the 20th century. The experience of the PC(USA) is consistent with this overall trend. The membership of the PC(USA) is now half of what its predecessor denominations were in 1965, a loss of over 2,000,000 members.

In 2008, as the PC(USA) celebrated the 25th anniversary of Reunion, the denomination had experienced a net loss of almost 1,000,000 members since the 1983 merger, from 3,131,228 to 2,140,165. By 2010, our membership had further dropped to 2,016,091—a decrease of almost 36% over the course of 27 years. Though the rate of decline is less severe, the number of PC(USA) congregations has also dropped from 11,662 in 1983 to 10,560 in 2010, a loss of nearly 9.5%. In every year since Reunion, we have lost more congregations than we have gained.

For the congregations that remain, the situation is often dire. We are an increasingly aging denomination, with a median age of 61. The average size of PC(USA) congregations has been significantly reduced over the past quarter century. It is now the case that half of all congregations have a membership of 100 or less. During this same time, average worship attendance has also dropped significantly. The percentage of these shrinking congregations that can afford to employ an installed pastor has decreased dramatically. In 2010, 44% of PC(USA) congregations had no installed pastor.

The reasons for this overall decline in church membership are often debated. Though a widespread assumption persists that denominational controversies cause people to leave their local congregations, research has long demonstrated that this is not the case. Membership losses among all mainline Protestant denominations have been steady and consistent for half a century, regardless of particular leaders or particular controversies.

Presbyterian statistician Jack Marcum has suggested a variety of explanations for the decline of the PC(USA), all of which ultimately come down to the fact that every year we lose more members than we gain. Low birth rates are a significant cause. It is also the case that we lose more members to transfers than we attract.

Most significantly, however, is the reality that we are not reaching out to newcomers or investing in new church development. As a denomination, across all geographic areas, we are not planting enough new faith communities. Between 2000 and 2010, only 226 new churches were chartered. This is simply not sustainable. The Presbyterian Church of the 21st century must be a denomination that encourages and nurtures new church development.

Diminishing Resources

What the membership decline of our denomination means for mid councils is clear. Though individual financial giving to congregations has steadily increased since Reunion, the sharp decline in membership has created significant funding problems for presbyteries and synods. For years, we have depended on human and financial resources from local congregations to fund and provide leadership for these middle judicatories. As both types of resources are increasingly strained at the local level, it is obvious that there is less and less available to sustain the older bureaucratic models of church governance.

Questions for Discussion

  • What is your reaction to these statistics about the decline of the PC(USA)? Do these numbers really matter?
  • What do you think is the primary cause(s) for our membership losses over the past several decades?
  • What are the implications of the fact that the median age of all Presbyterians is 61?
  • Is it problematic that half of our churches have 100 members or less? Or is this an acceptable reality?
  • What, if anything, should we be doing about the 44% of our churches that are too small to afford a pastor? She we just let them dwindle to nothing, or is there hope for congregational revitalization?
  • Why do you think the PC(USA) has not been planting new churches at a sustainable rate?
  • Do you agree that new church development is critical for the future of the PC(USA)?
  • Are funding problems a sufficient reason to make structural changes to our mid council system?

Comments

  1. Rich Murray says:

    John – I realize this is an excerpt, but really? One suggestion: new church development? Oh look, squirrel. What about a renewed effort to identify ourselves TO ourselves and OTHERS? Relearn who we are and share who we are inside. There is a long, deep history irrevocably entwined with some amazing events…John, I’d love a chance to talk your ear off….you might be one of the few still listening.

    Peace, brother.
    Rich

  2. Jim Arenz says:

    Hi John,

    I’ve been following your blog for awhile but this is my first reply. My wife and I were involved in two dying congregations – one in Utah and another here in Illinois. I think the problem is both generational and systemic.

    We are a denomination in deep denial. I’ve got to be honest, it’s more than sad – it’s a corruption of the gospel. I don’t want the PCUSA to die. But if the denomination will not fulfill it’s commission, what’s the point? Dr. King said (I’m paraphrasing), the greatest impediment to integration was not those who were openly racist – everyone knew where they stood. The real threat came from the great mass of white folks who were apathetic – who only talked the talk. But ultimately apathy is a decision to support the status quo.

    Having said all that (big breath :), I have some thoughts regarding your questions. Our congregation in Utah went through an extensive period of reflection, and we discussed many of the questions posed in your post, both in relation to our congregation and the PCUSA in general. But ultimately a majority of the session refused to make any significant changes.

    I’ll post more tomorrow regarding my thoughts on the discussion questions.

    Peace,
    Jim

  3. Jerry Deck says:

    Hey John,

    Thanks for your work on the commission. HUGE need.

    When I began at Heritage we had about 45 folks in worship, a number that meant our financial viability was in great question. One of the things that was most helpful to us was that our folks were not naive to this reality. They knew that things had to change and, in a sense, they were desperate enough to take this seriously. One of the things I think C.O.M.’s, presbyteries, etc. have to be able to do well is figure out which of these smaller congregations are truly open to changing (almost everyone SAYS they are) and really pour energy into those. Those congregations that are not need to be blessed and allowed to graciously close. There’s no way we can realistically pour energy into all these congregations.

    Obviously we also need to do a better job of encouraging our seminarians to truly consider going into these smaller churches that need revitalization. I realize I am not the first person to say this, and I’m also confident that some of this will simply happen as larger churches downsize and associate pastor positions are harder to find. I think though that being right out of seminary, having a lot of energy, and being foolish enough to believe things can change were all incredibly helpful for my work at Heritage. I would say the two biggest things that young pastors coming into these churches need are skills at good communication (this covers over a multitude of sins) and a cohort of peers because it can be incredibly lonely work.

    But to be a part of the revitalizing work of the Spirit and to see hope restored in a congregation is an immense joy.

    • Thanks, Jerry. I hope that the initiatives in place to get new pastors into small churches are fruitful. From what you’ve said, it sounds like we need a wider conversation about this throughout the church.

  4. Jose' Olagues says:

    Thanks Jim. I agree that there are a great number of PCUSA congregattions whose leadership is so set in continuing status quo, that even considering changing the manner which they think is the appropriate way to share the gospel is simply NOT an option.

  5. As I read this my heart breaks for the church. I’m one of those who pastor a small church of under 100 members and my church by the grace of God wasn’t part of the 44 percent who couldn’t afford a pastor in 2010 but isn’t far off either. So, as I write this from the trenches I must say it’s hard to read but at the same time I’m hopeful that God is doing something in the larger church that will spark the creative juices to help the smaller churches discern where it is they fit and what it is they should be doing in the midst of decline when it comes to being people of good news. Thanks for all of your work. I know you, Tod, and others have worked really hard and I’m anxious to see where the Lord is leading this conversation.

    • I appreciate you sharing this, KC. I’m hoping to hear more from pastors of small churches. because that is a part of our collective experience that I am not very familiar with. Thanks for your faithfulness.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The thing is, while new church campaigns come and go, mainline churches are declining at a fast pace.  Earlier this year, Presbyterian pastor John Vest wrote a post related to his work on the Mid-Council Commission, which was an attempt by the PC(USA) to restructure the church for the current age.  In that post, Vest shares the sad news: […]

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