June 12, 2014

Presbyterians Decline while Other Churches Grow

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose General Assembly starts this week in Detroit, is a case study in oldline Protestant decline. Its latest membership stats show a loss of 89,296 in 2013, preceded by a loss of 102,791 in 2012. Its membership is now down to 1,760,200, and at the current rate it will have no members in less than 20 years.

Such implosion might inspire self-reflection. But oldline Protestant elites too typically don’t reflect much on their 50 year spiral from Mainline to sideline. “Yes, the numbers reflect a decrease in active members in the denomination,” admitted PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons. “We are meeting the challenges we have had and it’s showing,” he said. “And, our decline in total congregations is holding fairly steady.” Yeah! The church might last 21 more years instead of 19 or 20, thanks to “meeting the challenges.”

The real challenge is that the PCUSA no longer and has not in a long time adhered vigorously to orthodox Christianity, which is by itself no guarantor of church health but is always an essential ingredient for vitality. There are of course orthodox Christians remaining in the PCUSA, but they are not affirmed by denominational policies. The big issues facing this General Assembly are same sex rites and anti-Israel divestment, hardly motivating evangelistic tools.

Since the PCUSA abandoned its formal expectation of Christian sexual ethics for its clergy in 2010 (the now deleted “fidelity and chastity” language), hundreds of congregations have quit the PCUSA for other more orthodox communions.

Clergy and officials in oldline denominations like to claim they are part of an ongoing across the board decline of church participation in America. “Southern Baptists are declining too!” they love to exclaim, not mentioning that the SBC has lost members for 7 years after decades of strong growth, compared to a half century of loses for the much more liberal oldline churches. Some of these liberal oldliners insist the secret to church growth is to abandon MORE Christian doctrine, because, after all, echoing the secular culture works so well for churches.

It’s true there’s a major ongoing erosion of denominational loyalties in America. Few are still loyal to their grandparents’ denomination. Church goers now church shop without regard to affiliation. There are still growing denominations, all of them conservative, like the Assemblies of God. But much of the vitality in American Christianity is now in non-denominational churches. And many vibrant denominational congregations, reacting to this trend, virtually hide their denominational status.

But overall, church attendance has remained about the same in America for much of 80 years. According to Gallup, about 40 percent of Americans say they regularly attend church (defined as the last seven days), about the same percentage as the 1930s. Some claim this statistic is exaggerated, because some respondents overstate their church attendance. If so, this phenomenon was likely more so in past decades, when church attendance was more societally acclaimed. I also suspect this statistic doesn’t fully capture participation in more informal spiritual groups, more popular today than 70 years ago, that don’t qualify as church attendance per se.

America was never as religiously devout in the past as often imagined by both secularists and religionists. And America today is not nearly as secular as now popularly lamented or claimed. The truth is more complicated. Many churches are growing, especially new church plants in our cities, particularly for young professionals and immigrant communities.

Here’s a quote from a successful young Washington, D.C. area ministry leader interviewed by IRD’s Chelsen Vicari:

What I found is the evangelical church, particularly church plants and younger leaning churches, are doing a better job than they’ve ever done at reaching young adult populations. For example, a statistic I read said that there are more church plants by 20- 30 year olds then there have ever been in the history of America. It’s because we are more intentional about reaching that population then we have ever been before.

The fields are always white to harvest. But who is willing to conduct the harvest?


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15 Responses to Presbyterians Decline while Other Churches Grow

  1. Nick Porter says:

    Take note faithful UMC members! Is this what you want?? Look at TEC as well. Is that what you want??

    • LarryBassett says:

      For those who do “want,” the membership numbers do not matter as they follow their own personal desires and impulses. And for those who do NOT want, the membership numbers should matter only so long as those numbers reflect adherence to traditional, biblically based faithful compliance with Holy Scripture in preaching, teaching, and doctrine.
      It is past time for faithful bishops to abandon the get along adherence to allowing their non-complying brothers and sisters among the episcopacy to continue to act or fail to act in compliance with the requirements of The Discipline bringing bishops and clergy alike to church trial and resulting loss of credentials when and if in violation.
      And laity who lament the tendency towards liberalism must become involved, learning and employing the rights granted to them, sending like minded delegates to their Annual Conferences where lay and clergy have EQUAL vote.

  2. Melissa Windom says:

    Mark, I hear the line “Southern Baptists are losing too!” all the time but, as you pointed out, they have only been losing for a few years while all the mainlines have been in steep decline since 1960.

    And many of the conservative churches are still growing, notably the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), not to many the many conservative breakaway groups like the PCA and the Anglican Church of North America.

  3. brookspj says:

    But the fact of the matter is that the Southern Baptists and most other conservative Christians are also experiencing decline. The fact of the matter is that more and more young Americans are expressing views or opinions contrary to most conservative denominations. You can’t just gloss over the fact that all churches in the US are in decline and just blame it on the liberals. The only group that continuing to see sustained growth in the US are the Mormons. I don’t think even your group is ready to declare their teachings to be “orthodox Christianity”.

    • Noel Weymouth says:

      Not true! “Most” conservative denominations are not declining.

      On a different blog, a guy who identified himself as a gay Episcopalian claimed he was GLAD that “the hate crowd” had departed his church and that now it was MORE Christian than before. Funny way to “spin” membership loss!

    • fredx2 says:

      How very odd that you believe all churches are declining. You might want to believe that, but facts are stubborn things, For example, The Catholic church is growing, both in the US and around the world. Go to the CARA site. Liberal website often try very hard to spin things, so that it sounds like everything is going to hell.

  4. Ron Henzel says:

    The total membership of the conservative Presbyterian denominations that are members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), plus the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination, comes to nearly 573,000, and continues to grow. That is almost a third of the total PCUSA membership, which continues to shrink. If current trends continue and the PCUSA ceases to exist in 20 years, then we could soon see the day when the largest Presbyterian NAPARC denomination, the PCA (currently at 346,019), overtakes it in membership size.

  5. Graham Van Keuren says:

    The numbers arguments (“My good average Sunday attendance shows me that my church is favored/better/correct/blessed/whatever”) can’t possibly hold up. For example: the Unitarian Universalist Church has been growing consistently for two decades, faster than the PCA or AOG. Church growth has much more to do with how the church is positioned with respect to the dominant culture than it does with doctrine. Always has been that way; always will.

  6. wally says:

    What about the “real” Presbyterians (PCA, OPC, RPCNA etc) how are they doing?

  7. xnlover says:

    The will of God has never been and will never be determined by majority vote. Growing churches are simply growing churches. Their growth does not necessarily indicate greater faithfulness within those churches to the will of God. Otherwise, how does one explain the burgeoning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints around the world? Having an ideological bent toward condemning theological liberalism tends to make one attribute all evils to that which one condemns, but it doesn’t establish the truth of one’s attribution. Dance on the grave of the “liberal church” all you want; but the will of God will triumph in the world regardless of the disappearance of any particular institutional representation of a response to the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ, whatever the reason for that disappearance might be – and there are probably many reasons in any particular case. (Why, for example, are there so many abandoned monasteries and convents in the Roman Catholic Church today? Did their leadership become “too liberal”, and their supporting communities diminished and disappeared?)

  8. Paul Zesewitz says:

    Well, now that the PCUSA has just re-defined marrage as being between ‘two people’ and not specifically between ‘a man and a woman’, and has legalized performing same-sex ceremonies, we’ll just see how many more conservative-minded churches choose to leave the denomination, thus furthering the decline in membership. It’s fun just sitting here on the proverbial 50-yard line to see how this all plays out.

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