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.
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?