“I still don’t believe we can reverse the decline of the PCA. There are many reasons this will happen,” Dr. Marshall C. St. John wrote in 2010. St. John referenced a decline not necessarily in vitality, but simply in size. After nearly four decades of steady growth, official Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) membership declined by 4,886 in 2008. The PCA takes conservative, counter-cultural theological and moral positions, emphasizes intellect over experience, and practices infant baptism. Moreover, the PCA is predominantly made up of white, middle class families, a demographic no longer reproducing at replacement rate. Given these and other facts, Rev. St. John ends his piece, “And who knows . . . God can do miracles. Maybe the PCA will continue to grow after all.”
By that standard God seems to be doing a miracle! Membership in the PCA is on the rise once again. A recent article from Christianity Today specifies that “over the last five years the denomination has added 68 churches, 374 ministers, and almost 19,000 members. The PCA now has 370,000 members.” Sunday school attendance also increased by 1,096 last year, the first such increase in “a number of years,” according to Dr. Roy Taylor, Stated Clerk of the PCA.
Leaders in the PCA are thankful for the growth, but not necessarily content with it. “With virtually all mainline and some evangelical denominations plateaued or declining, PCA growth, though not as spectacular as in our early years, is noteworthy,” wrote Taylor in his recent summary of the 44th PCA General Assembly. Dr. Harry Reeder, senior pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian in Birmingham, AL, told me that recent growth “is encouraging in comparison to the decreases of sister evangelical denominations. But . . . [it] is certainly not satisfactory.”
In the first several decades after the PCA broke away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS – a predecessor body to the Presbyterian Church USA), a steady stream of churches departing the PCUSA fueled PCA growth. Nowadays, however, these departing churches tend to enter the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) or the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). According to Reeder this is in large part because many have, contra the PCA, accepted the ordination of women. Churches departing the Reformed Church in America (RCA) do migrate toward the PCA, but in small numbers that account for little of its continued growth.
Why has PCA membership increased after the 2008 slump, despite projections of decline? A confluence of factors are likely at work. In a 1990 essay on Presbyterian membership trends, Donald A. Luidens wrote, “When the broader sweep of two centuries is considered, it is apparent that mono-dimensional explanations of denominational membership trends will be of little use.” With this in mind, I want to sketch out two of the components likely underlying recent PCA growth.
First, the PCA has been active in urban ministry. Randy Nabors, leader of the Urban and Mercy Ministry program of Mission to North America (MNA), an outreach arm of the PCA, notes that “if we are spreading the gospel to poor people, they will be in our church.” Nabors also heads up the New City Network program, founded in 2010, which includes PCA and non-PCA churches and seeks to build new churches in poor and urban communities.
The most spectacular example of successful PCA urban ministry is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, pastored by Tim Keller. In the late 1980s MNA prompted Keller to establish a church in NYC with the primary goal of ministering to young professionals. In 2015 Redeemer had 1,882 members and three campuses. Attendance at Sunday morning children’s ministries increased by nearly 20% in both 2014 and 2015 at the Downtown campus. In its own urban ministry Redeemer seeks to create flourishing, mixed income neighborhoods. In 2015 it also began the Rise campaign, which looks to increase the number of New Yorkers attending gospel-centered churches from 5% to 15% by 2026.
Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Washington, D.C., a Redeemer church plant, is another encouraging example. Grace D.C.’s pastor, Glenn Hoburg, told me that his church borrows a lot from Redeemer’s experience preaching the Gospel in a cosmopolitan city. In particular, the emphasis on what Hoburg called “theology of place” makes his church unique. Grace D.C. only plants churches in the District of Columbia and all its small group networks meet within the District’s boundaries. There are many great churches in Northern Virginia and Maryland, noted Hoburg, but Grace D.C. concentrates its focus, because “you cannot love someone without loving their place.” Since its formation in 2003, Grace Presbyterian has expanded considerably. Like Redeemer, it now consists of three churches in three different neighborhoods.
Part of St. John’s pessimism in 2010 stemmed from the belief that new generations would begin migrating from rural areas toward urban centers in search of jobs. Such migration patterns may certainly be affecting rural PCA churches, but the denomination is making its mark in urban areas.
Second, the PCA has been active in reaching out to immigrant and minority populations. Local PCA churches have operated English as a Second Language (ESL) programs for many years. Many immigrants hear the gospel for the first time in these programs as they learn a vital skill. Additionally, MNA operates Hispanic, Haitian, Korean, Native and African American church planting and outreach programs. To help advance these ministries, the recently concluded 44th General Assembly “voted to establish a “PCA Unity Fund” via designated contributions to and administered by the Mission to North America Committee (MNA) to raise up future generations of African-American and other minority Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders.” Hoburg, whose Potomac Presbytery advanced the overture containing the Unity Fund, said it is a “practical step” toward making the PCA more reflective of the diversity in Gods kingdom. Reeder added that while the key will be funding the education of new ministers, the denomination should also look into apprenticeships and other non-traditional accreditation paths in order to increase the pool of potential applicants.
Other ministers and churches have similar priorities. A striking example of cross-cultural PCA ministry is Granada Presbyterian Church in a Miami community called Coral Gables. In 1999 Granada’s congregation was almost entirely white, while the majority of neighborhood residents were non-white. In the past few years the church has responded to changing conditions around it. Three well-attended services are now held on Sunday mornings: Traditional, Contemporary, and all-Spanish. Granada’s experience appears to demonstrate that a traditional Presbyterian church can stay true to its reformed tradition and theology while absorbing and influencing its neighborhood.
Grace Presbyterian has a similar history. Early on the church attracted mostly young whites. A “concerted effort” transformed it into its current multicultural and multiracial form. Today, Grace D.C.’s downtown campus has five pastors and only one, Hoburg, is white. The people in the pews reflect similar diversity. “Our commitment to cross-cultural community is beginning to draw minority members that are not white,” reported Hoburg. The church’s three campuses are united under one session and elder board, and they share core values, but each expresses itself differently in worship and local ministry.
Reeder charged that every PCA church should seek to mirror the demographics of its surrounding community. Have the PCA’s efforts made a difference in the denomination’s overall racial makeup? It would seem so. Comparing statistics from the 2007 and 2014 Religious Landscape Surveys reveals that in 2007 90% of PCA members were white, but by 2014 the number had decreased to 80%. Obviously, the denomination is still “very, very white,” as IRD’s Jeff Walton wrote in 2015. Yet, a 10% shift over seven years is significant, especially considering trends in other denominations. In the same time span the percentage of white members in the PCUSA fell from 92% to 88%. The Episcopal Church changed only two percentage points – from 92% to 90% – and the United Methodist Church remained fixed at around 94%.
The Presbyterian Church in America also demonstrates that doctrinal overhaul is not required to reach new demographics. When I asked pastors Reeder and Hoburg about whether the PCA’s governing literature and Calvinist theology might intimidate some prospective members, both were adamant that the key is translating the necessary theology and doctrine into accessible language. After all, noted Hoburg, Calvin suggested God speaks so to us in the scriptures, communicating truths about His divinity in language that the human mind can grasp. Similarly, both pastors stressed that before a non-believer enters a worship service or grapples with Calvinism, they should have interacted with a caring member of the church in their community. The key to evangelism and church growth, Reeder observed, is “not the church gathered, but the church scattered.” Lastly, where strict scrutiny is given to the confessional integrity of the leadership in PCA churches, only a credible profession of faith is required for membership.
Certainly, disputes exist within the denomination (on ordaining women and worship style most prominently), and membership trends could influence these debates over the long term. Nevertheless, the PCA is maintaining its reformed identity, diversifying, and growing. Its recent history is an encouraging one.