Updated statistics made available today by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of the General Assembly (OGA) show a denomination continuing a steep, uninterrupted decline in 2016. The U.S.-based denomination shed 89,893 members in 2016, a decline of 5.7% percent, dropping below 1.5 million members for the first time. A net 191 congregations closed or were dismissed to other denominations, bringing the denominational total to 9,451 congregations.
“We are not dying. We are Reforming,” PCUSA Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II declared in a statement made available on Wednesday. “We are moving towards a new future as a denomination.”
Of those who will not be moving towards that new future, 43,902 departed via certificate, while 75,064 are listed as “other”. Deaths accounted for a decline of 26,193 members in 2016.
In 2015, the PCUSA declined by 95,107 active members. Since 2005 the denomination has reported losing more than a third of its active membership, declining from 2,313,662 active members in 2005 to 1,482,767 in 2016 (-36%).
“Despite cries proclaiming the death of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we remain a viable interfaith and ecumenical partner in many local communities while proclaiming a prophetic witness throughout the world,” Nelson stated.
Other global Presbyterian denominations have continued to distance themselves from the PCUSA in response to the actions of its General Assembly to permit the ordination of practicing homosexuals in 2011.
“We are well-respected for our priestly and prophetic voice within Christendom,” Nelson asserted. “Our challenge is to see the powerful opportunities that are before us while declaring with Holy Spirit boldness that God is doing amazing work within us right now.”
In early 2016, a meeting of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) predicted membership losses of approximately 100,000 for both 2015 and 2016 and 75,000 each year thereafter through 2020.
The decline contrasts with several years of steady growth among some other reformed denominations in the United States. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) – which spit from one of the PCUSA’s predecessor bodies – has reported growth for each of the past five years, rebounding from a short period of decline that began in 2008. Separately, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) have reported significant growth each year, partly due to receiving congregations which sought dismissal from the PCUSA.
The PCUSA reached peak membership in 1965 at 4.25 million. During the past several years, more than 500 congregations have opted to leave the denomination. Finances have also declined. While the church’s investment income has increased, the PCUSA saw declines in contributions, capital and building funds and bequests in 2016. Expenditures also dropped.
The rate of decline has accelerated since the denomination’s General Assembly voted to change the definition of marriage from “one man and one woman” to “two people, traditionally a man and a woman” in 2014. The change allows clergy to perform same-sex marriages.
PCUSA controversies are not limited to human sexual expression. At the church’s most recent General Assembly in Portland, Oregon in 2016, an Islamic leader offered a prayer during the service in which he referred to Mohammed as a prophet alongside Jesus and decried “bigots” and “Islamophobes.” The prayer stirred up controversy and eventually precipitated an apology from PCUSA officials.
Political issues have also polarized the denomination in recent years. After a decade of heated debate, backtracking, and suspenseful votes, the PCUSA voted for divestment from three companies that do business with Israel. At 2016 General Assembly, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement successfully prompted Presbyterian commissioners to passed a resolution stating that the PCUSA should: “Prayerfully study the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel…”
Over the last forty years, the makeup of the United States has changed considerably, yet the PCUSA remains overwhelmingly homogeneous: according to 2016 statistics about the racial composition of congregations, the denomination is 90.93% white.
“As we are challenged to become a more racially diverse denomination in order to grow into the future, it is imperative that we invite new immigrants into our congregations as members,” Nelson advised.
UPDATE [6/22/2017]: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) has announced the addition of 16 new congregations in the 2016-2017 reporting period. Of these 16, 14 are former PCUSA congregations.