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?