Photo by Sarah
Photo by Sarah

Here’s another sobering riff on the theme of “18 years“.

Last week the Office of the General Assembly released the 2012 statistics for the Presbyterian Church (USA). The numbers aren’t good, more signs of our rapid decline (and the similar decline of all mainline Protestant—and even evangelical—denominations).

  • Our membership has dropped to 1,849,496.
  • This represents a decline of 102,791 members. About half of these are due to transfers.
  • 86 churches were dissolved.
  • 110 congregations were dismissed to other denominations.
  • While losing these 196 churches, we only organized 13 new congregations—quite a bit short of the 1001 goal we’ve set for ourselves.

I’ve said it before: this is simply not sustainable.

Our losses were slightly greater last year than in recent years, but if we continue at this rate, the PC(USA) has about 18 years left. (I realize, of course, that the math isn’t that simple.)

So when we celebrate my newborn son’s 18th birthday in 2030, we’ll also be marking the death of the PC(USA)—if we haven’t already.

Can anything be done to change this trajectory? Should anything be done? Or are all forms of American Protestantism dying an inevitable death as something new is born?

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. It might be worth reading Phillip Jenkins Lost Christianity, about the first thousand years of the Christian church. Some places were Christian that are no longer. Japan was once 30 percent Christian, is now 2 percent. We think the Christian church is on some “ever upward” trajectory, but it ain’t necessarily so.

  2. Dear John,
    You and I are on the same page in so many ways, but on this, I find I can’t share what seems like a pretty bleak view. Numbers do not tell much of a story. So for what it’s worth, here’s some more food for thought:

    1) Churches may be seeking dismissal, but logically, we should expect this will level off and then taper off fairly soon. It really is a finite numbers of disgruntled congregations. The end of this is already in sight if we just look closely. We don’t need to spend much more time or energy on this. Let it take its course and move our best thinkers on to other things.

    2) Church attendance may be declining, but Presbyterians are doing some amazing things with their time, talent and treasure – many of these things are rising out of small or struggling congregations. This is hopeful stuff. We have to get creative about sustaining some of our smaller churches or churches overwhelmed by facilities and this means we have to move our best entrepreneurial thinkers toward these issues and away from #1.

    3) Finally, I think we need to lean into our resurrection hope. We may well be in the midst of some of the darker days of Presbyterian history, but I believe we need to let future historians ponder that. The resurrection beckons us to look way beyond the grave to the next thing God is doing. It’s that blasted mystery that hangs us up every time. Calvin said it would and it does. We can’t see it yet – we can’t perceive it, but God is clearly not done yet.

    Maybe better questions to ask are these: How can we make the best use of the resources God has give us today? If we can no longer sustain the ministries of the past that must mean God is calling us toward something else. What is that “something else?” How can large churches begin now to think about partnerships that sustain them and bring grace to their smaller church neighbors? What can small congregations bring to the table of community development and neighborhood revitalization? What new ways of connecting to their communities can we help existing churches imagine? How can we find out about and then connect to the yearning for community that is so vibrantly present?

    I’m really excited about the next 18 years! I see so much potential.

    Sincerely, your friend, the eternally optimistic, Pollyanna-in-Christ, Deb

    • Thanks for this, Deb. We’re pretty much in agreement. I don’t think i have a bleak outlook. These are facts and trends that can’t be disputed. I’m much more interested in living into what is coming next.

  3. The Presbyterian Church is as dead as any local congregation wants it to be. It’s also as alive as any local congregation of passionate Followers of the Way of Jesus choose to live their faith out loud. Our mission is still the same, to be enthusiastic agents of reconciliation. My wife and I have never served in a Presbyterian church that wasn’t moving forward. It’s always an option, and it’s always our calling as faithful disciples.

    Being a church that’s alive isn’t rocket science, it’s about being passionate followers of Jesus! As Jesus asked the man at the pool – “Do you really want to be healed?”

    “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away . . .! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (- 2 Corinthians 5)

  4. My Dad, a then Presbyterian Pastor, in the year I was born (1960), calculated that he would be the only remaining presbyterian in the US in 1980… or maybe it was some other year. The point is, we’re here because God still has a plan for us, and we’ll stay here until God changes his/her mind, or until we fulfill the mission we were created for. Either way, if we stay faithful we can let God worry about how long the church will last.
    Another suggestion would be to stop counting. Live by faith not numbers.

  5. I’m not saying the numbers aren’t alarming.

    But this reminds me of a friend who told her husband, “It says here you can lose 2 pounds a week just by cutting out soft drinks.” Her husband quipped, “What, forever?”

    I waffle between despair and hope a la Deb Avery, and ultimately settle on hope. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is not an institution for all eternity. There will always be a Church. To the extent that our denomination can iterate, we ‘deserve’ to make it. If we can’t, we don’t.

  6. I have been a baptist all my life, but recently felt lead to seek another church. I did a lot of research and finally deci’ded on Presbyterian. I love it at the Presbyterian church. I think though the real problem facing the PCUSA is it’s changing of it’s rules or amendments to accommodate the views of society. I myself am skeptical of these changes that were made and I know the church I go to does in no way endorse these changes , but ignore them most likely thinking it will never affect them. That being said, I am for the church to replenish and thrive. I just hope the church wakes up and sees it is not here to support the views of government or society as a whole. Morals do not change. It’s people’s concept of what morals should be is that which changes and the acceptance of theses changes by them.

  7. John, you may be right. No one can look into the future. But the reality is that denominational counting has never given an accurate story of the life or vitality or lack there of in our churches/denomination. I think Jesus reminded us well when he said that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, or leaven, or a number of small and seemingly insignificant catalysts. Rather than looking at the numbers i.e. “chartered or organized churches” or congregations coming or going or traditional membership roles – how about looking at those subversive and uncounted acts of God that take place in our people all the time? That’s where God seems most active in the world – at the margins. Yes, institutional vitality is challenged to say the least. But since when was the goal institutional survival? We’re counting the wrong stuff. Therefore we’re raising up the wrong things.

  8. More things to ponder…

    The link below will take you to the Association of Relgion Data Archives. You can choose a denomonation and look at any number of statistics. They are interesting to ponder in different lights.

    1) What was society like at that time?
    2) What was technology like?
    3) What was the poilitical climate?
    4) What was the economy like?
    5) What was the trust in government factor?

    All of these things taken in context give a pciture of our history. It is time to reflect a little and look at it objectively to see what we’ve become. Then, we need to get the congregations back out of the building and into the communities they are to serve. It is time to follow Isaiah 6:8.

    – Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here I am Lord; Send me!”

  9. I think you’re working from a statistical anomaly. This year there are higher than usual losses from congregations leaving the PCUSA to other places (mostly ECO). That’s temporary, just as it was when OPC, PCA, and EPC were started.

    • The PC(USA) has been on a constant and steady decline since reunion, and the predecessor denominations since the 1960s. Perhaps the larger number this year was an anomaly, but losing 50,000 members per yer versus 100,000 per year doesn’t make me feel much better.

  10. Those who lose there life for “my” sake…..gain it. Hmmm. Not all is lost. Just different than it once was. And still, I have faith and witness faith in others.

  11. there are times when we gain and there are times when we lose. It’s not a good data that I am reading here, but I hope it can boost our motivation to do more and more… and help us analyze why this is happening. So we can find out how to regain our loss.


  1. […] So I’m working away, minding my own business and when I take a break, read a few Facebook Posts, my friends Adam Walker Cleaveland and Jim Bonewald share a blog written by another friend, John Vest.  Still another friend’s comments (Nicholas Yoda) made me give it a deeper read.  Well, as I suspect he intended, John’s words stimulated me to think about the future of the church.  He challenged me to think about whether the PCUSA might be dead in 18 years.  He pushed me to wonder what other ways we could think about where we are now and where we might be headed as a denomination.  You should really go read what he had to say, then come back here.  Here’s a link:  18 Years to Go?   […]

  2. […] I get frustrated that we so easily allow churches to close.  Mainline churches sure know how to end a ministry with honor.  We are so good at it because we do it so damn much.  Presbyterian pastor John Vest shared a report on the lastest statistics on the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2012 and the results were horrendous.  Here is the overview: […]

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