The audience takes part in an opening prayer at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church at Cobo Hall, in Detroit, Thursday, June 19, 2014. The top legislative body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted by large margins to recognize same-sex marriage as Christian in the church constitution, adding language that marriage can be the union of "two people," not just "a man and a woman."  (AP Photo/The Detroit News, David Guralnick)

September 25, 2015

Is Theology or Demography Killing the PCUSA?

According to the Religion New Service, global Presbyterian denominations continue to distance themselves from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in response to actions of its General Assembly to permit the ordination of practicing homosexuals (2011) and to redefine Christian marriage to allow, but not mandate, same-sex weddings (2014). The Presbyterian Churches of Brazil and Peru join the Presbyterian Church of Mexico who, in 2011, ceased its mission partnership with the PC(USA).

Representatives of the PC(USA)–including the denomination’s highest elected official Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons–contend that the disagreement is simply about the extent to which the Christian church should endorse LGBT people in their sexual identity: “Some think they should be loved and changed, and some think they should be loved and accepted.”

The churches of the Global South don’t quite see it that way. In their letter announcing the break, the Presbyterian Church of Brazil stated that the PC(USA)’s position goes, “against the principle of the authority of Scripture over the life and faith of the Church.”

As a result, partnerships in Brazil—such as ones that provides continuing education for Brazilian pastors and missionaries and plants new churches—will cease in 2016. However, the PC(USA) continues to maintain links to the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil, a younger and smaller denomination that separated from the Presbyterian Church of Brazil in the 1970s. Work will also continue in Peru, though through other Presbyterian denominations in that country.

These rifts are tragic given that American Presbyterianism has a long history of significant global mission work—including starting virtually all of the denominations that have now distanced themselves from the PC(USA). The founding fathers of these indigenous Presbyterian Churches now find themselves being chided by their spiritual offspring for abandoning the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

It seems that while the PC(USA) is the legal successor to prior Presbyterian denominations, dating to the founding of the United States, it is not heir to the same theological vision or has squandered what inheritance it did receive leading to a significantly diminished witness at home and abroad.

At home, the denomination itself reports that fifty American congregations have departed since the redefinition of marriage in June 2014, and 209 congregations total in 2013-2014 alone. The last time the denomination had a net-increase in membership—one unrelated to a denominational merger—was 1965.

Once again explanations vary as to the reason. Parsons claims that approximately one-third of the recent decline can be attributed to congregations departing to more conservative or evangelical denominations like the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO).

The remaining two-thirds are due to “…aging, the lower birthrate, people moving to where churches aren’t.” There is no doubt that both of these causes—theological conflict and demographic shifts—have precipitated the numerical decline of the PC(USA). These same trends threaten the denomination’s very existence.

Theologically, the PC(USA) made the calamitous choice of choosing to abandon consistent doctrinal standards—of even the most elemental type—in favor of an ad hoc, case-by-case approach, in which no belief is out-of-bounds as long as you can get a majority to vote for it. In a denomination that has come to value niceness as the zenith of the Christian virtues, simply appealing to one’s private, subjective interpretations or experience is generally sufficient to pass muster.

The PC(USA) is a denomination full of well-educated people, but at times it evinces a peculiarly petulant stupidity. Take, for example, a recent conversation in which it was claimed that should Presbyterian pastors be required to believe and follow our confession’s he would immediately be fired since he does not observe the Lord’s Day in the fashion envisioned by the Westminster Confession of Faith.

His assumption is, of course, that he shouldn’t be deposed from ministry because of this. This is based on the presupposition, almost universally shared today, that whatever I/we/culture do is right simply because I/we/culture do it.

Now, I have no desire to depose a person from the pastorate simply for working on a Sunday—I do desire, however, that Christians (especially pastors) observe a sabbath in accordance with God’s creational ordinance and for their own enjoyment.

This argument—that we cannot require confessional affirmation—assumes that all things to which the confessions speak are of equal importance. Such a claim is not a necessary one. The choice does not have to be between total subscription to the confessions and total freedom to believe as one wishes.

A third way exists—a way, incidentally, pursued by the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) —that allows for a diversity of beliefs in some areas and for consistency of beliefs in others. Where the PC(USA) has made “mere Christianity” optional, ECO has made it central. ECO has chosen rightly where the PC(USA) chose wrongly: to preserve a core theological identity that affirms mere Christianity while avoiding doctrinal relativism or doctrinal obscurantism. An organization will decline when the beliefs and narratives that once supported it become to diverse to hold it together: this is where the PC(USA) is today.

The PC(USA) is also, quite literally, going extinct. Over the last forty years, the make up of our nation has changed considerably, yet the PC(USA) remains remarkably homogenous—even the gays and lesbians qualify for AARP. That larger demographic shifts are all but absent in the profile of the PC (USA) suggests that it has been unable to effectively carry out the very essence of its stated mission—bearing witness to the kingdom of God here and now—which includes both ethnic and age diversity under the gospel. A denominational report indicates that almost 50 percent of church members are not employed. Only 7 percent of members report, on the other hand, being “full-time homemakers.” Could it be that almost half of our church members are retired?

So who’s right—the Global South or the West? Is this a theological crisis or a demographic one? The answer is, both. A theological vision that is based on the absence of conflict rather than upon the presence of truth isn’t compelling to a culture that, for the most part, no longer values civil religion of the sort that typifies PC(USA).


18 Responses to Is Theology or Demography Killing the PCUSA?

  1. Darah Gaz says:

    It’s a cliche, but a picture really is worth a thousand words. The photo kind of captures the “gays’n’grays” that comprise so many of the dwindling mainline congregations. The older members hang on because they’ve either bought into the feminist/LGBT/AGW agendas, or at least become comfortable with them. However, the grays are not having kids, nor are the gays, and frankly these churches just don’t attract families with kids in the household.

    The mainlines lose the most committed Christians to the evangelical churches. The mainlines know this but couldn’t care less.

    • Tom Richards says:

      Is that because the end game involves reforming the dead denominations into religious foundations with no members to contend with, only a hand picked board of directors, leaving the national staff to pursue whatever dippy left wing ideas happen to be floating by at the time?

  2. Swarrior says:

    Liberals are mentally ill, news at 11

  3. Kevin Ford says:

    The 2 presbyteries I have been part of each have multiple shrunken congregations that are located in neighborhoods that have become destinations for both singles and young families. And while few if any of those families are attracted by those churches, it is not because these younger residents are all “nones”. More conservative denominations (PCA, SBC, ECC) as well as independent churches are being successfully planted in those neighborhoods. And the Evangelical Covenant plants in particular are multiethnic.

  4. Eric McLaughlin says:

    “…An organization will decline when the beliefs and narratives that once
    supported it become too diverse to hold it together: this is where the
    PC(USA) is today.”

    The quote above says it all. How can a session have elders coming from all theological positions? Can an evangelical Presbyterian really accomplish anything with a Therapeutic Moralistic Deist? No… both agendas are frustrated. Regardless of the convictions surrounding LGBT concerns, there has to be some sort of unifying theology other than the a la carte model we have visibly embraced.

    In addition to having no real theological tethering, we as congregations are equally committed to 1. Not having to embrace any sort of uncomfortable change in style, structure, etc… and 2. Not offending anyone – except when they get transgress no. 1 above, or they get too theologically defined, or both.

  5. Reformed Catholic says:

    FWIW… even adherence to the Westminster Confession does not mean that you can’t scruple parts of it. The EPC, which requires subscription to the WC, allows for scrupling such things as the “men only” ministers of the word & sacrament, along with the Sunday sabbath requirements.

    The EPC’s motto of “in essentials .. unity, in non-essentials .. liberty” does grant the kind of leeway which allows for complementarian and egalitarian congregations to co-exist.

  6. Xerxesfire says:

    It does seem like some churches can’t exit fast enough from PCUSA. This denomination is losing members at a rapid rate and has become irrelevant today.

  7. Bill Kell says:

    Why is this a non issue among those whom practice contemplative prayer?

  8. Paul Zesewitz says:

    What we know as the Presbyterian Church (USA) started killing itself long ago, way back before the Civil War! In 1836 the denomination split into two camps–The Old School and the New School, the latter resulting in the founding of Union Theological Seminary, a seminary which was, by its own admission, theologically progressive right from the start. Then along came guys like Charles A. Briggs, Arthur C. McGiffert and Harry Emerson Fosdick (a Baptist preaching in a Presbyterian church?). The rest is history. The whole thing about LGBT springs forth from a denomination that no longer gives the Bible the authority it claims as the written Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). End of discussion.

  9. swede says:

    “What’s more important in the church, unity or truth?” It is of course a false dichotomy – Unity without truth is hypocrisy. In 1924 PC(USA) adopted the “Auburn Affirmation” stripped the Bible of its authenticity and authority, denied the deity of Christ and denied His substitutionary atonement on the cross and His resurrection and questioned the authenticity of Christ’s Miracles — ironically all in the name of Christian “unity” and “liberty” These five principles have been pillars of faith from the very beginning. The church is not irrelevant because people are abandoning it in droves – They are leaving because it has become irrelevant.

    If Jesus is not the Christ and salvation is not accomplished, then there’s no “Good News” in the Gospel and Christianity is false.
    “That the Bible is God’s Word and book I prove thus: Infinite potentates have raged against this book, and sought to destroy and uproot it—king Alexander the Great, the princes of Egypt and of Babylon, the monarchs of Persia, of Greece, and of Rome, the emperors Julius and Augustus—but they nothing prevailed; they are all gone and vanished, while the book remains, and will remain for ever and ever, perfect and entire, as it was declared at first.” — Martin Luther

  10. PC(USA) is guilty of the sin of pride, a sin that infests the Baby Boomer generation in spades. The “explanations” of the leadership continues to be essentially the same as when this started in the late 1960’s, pick one: 1) people aren’t smart enough to understand our PCUSA nuances; 2) members are dying but HEY LOOK AT THE INFANT BAPTISMS!; 3) Other voluntary organizations are suffering the same drop in membership.

  11. Geoff Martineau says:

    This article makes me sad — I was raised PCUSA and will always be grateful to the people who taught me as a child. However, my story is probably typical of the decline: after coming to faith in Christ as a teenager (or was it my latent faith became more active? as I get older I less and less sure) I have rarely found a PCUSA church that seemed to have any idea what personal faith was all about. Liberal political activism is no substitute for substance.

  12. Costa Adam says:

    Well , thre is a little mistake in the article . There are 3 main presbyterian churches in Brazil :
    -The presbyterian church of brazil that ceased the partneships with PCUSA in the 70’s.
    -The independent presbyterian church of brazil that will cease its relationships with PCUSA in 2016.
    – And finally the united presbyterian church that is still in communion with PCUSA .

  13. Skipper says:

    I would say the theology problem is the main thing. The demographics might not be so bad without the confusion over sexuality and ignoring God’s plan of created order for families. Such problems really alienate people. In my area those who want something different usually join the PCA, or Presbyterian Church in America.

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