PCUSA Stated Clerk Rev. Dr. J Herbert Nelson II

May 24, 2017

As Losses Mount, Presbyterian Official Declares: “We are not dying. We are Reforming”

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.


44 Responses to As Losses Mount, Presbyterian Official Declares: “We are not dying. We are Reforming”

  1. Bob Wynn says:

    They can’t see the forest for the trees. Like the captain of a ship saying we’re not sinking as the water gathers around his feet

    • Lewis Thompson says:

      The PC (USA) has been hijacked by a radical collection of “Social Justice Warrior” Clergy who are more interested in advancing their own extreme Leftwing, social agendas than in adhering to the founding and historical traditions and values of the Presbyterian Faith.
      Many remaining attendees are decidedly aged and are likely unaware of many of the General Assembly’s dysfunctional edicts and behaviors, such as having a Radical Jihadist Muslim Imam issuing an insulting Anti-Christian Diatribe at the 2016 General Convention and the 2014 introduction of homosexual marriage as a church sacrament.
      The only reason why more congregations have not departed is economic. In most states, the Presbytery owns the church property.
      Nelson’s own delusional comments reflect how disconnected the national leadership is from so many of the congregants.
      The PC (USA) is in “Denial” about the Death Spiral in which it exists.

  2. Clark Neal says:

    Sad when church leaders put themselves before Christ.

  3. David Mullin says:

    General Assembly and Church Bureaucracy made decisions that told many of the churches that denominational leaders didn’t give a hoot what the churches thought, what these decisions did to the Church’s world mission, what these decisions meant to giving to stateside mission, what the Bible said, or what the Church had taught for 2000 years. All the leaders cared about was that they were in step with the latest moral absolutes discovered pronounced by their ideological heros, none of whom care what the PCUSA leaders think anyway. I would estimate that more than half the members who remain are trapped in churches that can’t leave without forfeiture of their property under state law. Many other churches had to pay huge exit fees.

  4. MikeS says:

    I have respect for the church leader who says “our version of religion is decreasingly appealing, but we will stay with it anyway because we think it’s the right thing to do”. I have no respect for the leader of a shrinking church who says “We are not dying, we are reforming”. Good grief it’s like Baghdad Bob. Is it part of the job description of church leadership that the person cannot be honest and transparent?

  5. Anneke9 says:

    Not dying, reforming.. themselves into irrelevance and obscurity.

  6. Loren Golden says:

    The poor man; he just doesn’t get it.  When a church or denomination is unable or unwilling to articulate a compelling reason as to why non-Christians should be Christians, it withers and dies.  And the PC(USA) is not reforming; it is radically conformed to the “thought forms” of this world and not being transformed by the renewal of the mind, and therefore quite unable to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.2)

  7. Ryan says:

    The Baghdad Bob of the PC(USA).

  8. Ryan says:

    Honestly officer, I’m not drunk, I’m reforming!

  9. Patrick98 says:

    In 1998 at a clergy retreat for the Presbytery of Yellowstone, Houston Hodges prophesied that the PCUSA would be down to 1 million members by 2020. It appears he may be right. He also said that the PCA would have more members by that time than the PCUSA. That remains to be seen.

    • Donald says:

      Hooray! We beat the Episcopalians to get down past 1.5M members!
      Hey! How come nobody’s cheering?

      • Jeffrey Walton says:

        Most people who are familiar with the Protestant Mainline would probably peg Episcopal losses as the highest, but they’d be wrong. While the Episcopal Church did shed quite a few people last decade (and continues to shrink each year) they usually keep losses below 3%. Partly, this is because they have a couple sources of new members: liberal ex-Catholics who long for the forms of their tradition without the pesky moral architecture, and the occasional post-Evangelical like Rachel Held Evans who discovers the value of liturgical rhythms and a corporate sense of worship, but again, doesn’t want that pesky holiness teaching. The PCUSA doesn’t benefit from a similar influx from these sources. 2016 figures show that only 30 clergy transferred into the PCUSA from other churches. Meanwhile, the denomination loses about 300 clergy a year. The PCUSA needs to articulate something unique about its tradition that the country needs — it hasn’t yet done so in a way that has been convincing to any people group which I can identify.

        • Tony says:

          Apparently the PCUSA has no tradition. They just bend to the will of Satan like a blade of grass bends in the wind. Just another sign that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ is coming soon. By the law of the land in America, there shouldn’t be a single mosque standing on American soil. The law that was written into the Immagration Act in 1952 states that any person or group of people who do not agree with our laws and way of life and would like to have their own laws (Sharian ) put into effect and who would like to overthrow our government shall not be allowed to set foot on American soil. That says to me that there shouldn’t be a single mosque standing on American soil ! Any good Islamist should want to see all Christians tortured and murdered. They would consider Americans to be less than animals and should lie,cheat and attack us at every opportunity. If they don’t believe this then they are bad Islamist ! So when someone calls them radical islamist they are really talking about regular islamist ! As far as being a homophobe , I consider myself to be a Hellaphobe. It states clearly in the Bible that it’s an abomination before God for a man to couple with a man and marriage is a bond between a man and a woman.

  10. Dexter Van Zile says:

    “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.

    This is profoundly delusional. The PCUSA official talks about how the denomination is regarded as an ecumenical force and as source of prophetic witness. But the numbers indicate that people simply do not trust the denomination to provide them with a Christian framework for their lives, they do not trust the denomination’s local churches to serve as places to be properly shepherded.

    It’s terrible. The church official places more stock in the opinions and relationships with people in other denominations (hence the phrase “viable interfaith and ecumenical partner”). But the children who attended PCUSA Sunday schools either join other denominations or leave the faith altogether. This is appalling.

  11. the episcopalian says:

    Stick a fork in it, it’s done. Here is a new business model. Sell the churches, close the seminaries and sell the property to fund the pensions; and, if money is left over, use it to set up a left wing foundation to fund progressive causes. The exception: Princeton will survive as a non denominational liberal seminary.

  12. Jim says:

    You are on life support and just as a do not resuscitate order unplugs the respirator, the Lord Jesus Christ has removed the lamp-stand.

  13. Darrin Rodgers says:

    See charts showing the precipitous decline in adherents of the PCUSA and other liberal mainline denominations here: https://ifphc.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/church-stats-1975-2015-charts-show-decline-of-mainline-protestants-and-growth-of-pentecostals/

  14. Chris Worrill says:

    Unfortunately, I went through this back in 2003-2004 when I was an Episcopalian. I loved the Episcopal Church and it literally broke my heart when they went down this path. I mourned for at least six months and actually lost sleep. Eventually, I concluded that I could not remain in an apostate Church. I became Catholic and could not be happier. The Catholic Church adheres to scripture and 2000 years of Christian tradition, and will never change. Most of what Protestants think they know about the Catholic Church is wrong. It was difficult to switch from Prostestantism to Catholicism at age 36, but was absolutely worth it.

    • Leigh says:

      My family and I left PCUSA for so many reasons, some of which are clear in this article. We too landed (much to our surprise!) in the Catholic Church. I thank God for my journey to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. It’s a wild ride, but worth it.

      • Tony says:

        You should consider going to an Independent Baptist Church. All we need to have is our King James Bible and our congregation. We don’t pray to the mother Mary, confess our sins to a priest who probably drinks, uses drugs and likes little boys . We don’t bow down to statues. We don’t even have a cross in our sanctuary. We study the gospel and bow to the true God. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We believe that our Lord is a loving God, not a vengeful one. We don’t have to pray to him through the Virgin Mary. I’m not judging you either. Just want you to worship Jesus the right way. Pray to him. He loves you. Judge not lest ye be judged. For as much as you judge, you shall be judged in the same measure.

    • David says:

      I came fm a catholic family. For you to write what you wrote is worse than what is being discussed. We are saved by faith in Christ Alone. Praying to Saints and teaching Mary remained a virgin, is just not taught in the Bible. You were never a Protestant.

    • Janness Abraham says:

      I was baptized Presbyterian and grew up in the First Congregational Church which later became the UCC. In 2005 when they became anti Israel, pro gay marriage, taught sex Ed anything goes to the youth, I knew they lost their way. I started a two year search for another church and researched all of them. They were all headed down the path of evil and demise. After searching for the truth I ended up converting to Catholicism and could not be happier! My daughter converted along with me in 2010, and has just gotten her phd in art history-Italian Renaissance. Will be teaching it in a Catholic Studies curriculum at a Catholic college which covers all subjects, art, science, medicine and the Catholic Church’s influence on all of them & aspects of life.

      How sad that they cannot SEE their demise and worse not realize why. They’ve gotten so far away from the teachings of Jesus Christ & church fathers, no one believes them anymore. Also sad is that many are quitting & not searching for the true church. It’s not easy believe me. But worth it.

  15. Woodman says:

    It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. Ps 118:8 PCUSA has it backwards. God will not be mocked.

    • Lewis Thompson says:

      Nelson and the other Delusional Radicals who have hijacked the PCUSA are mocking BOTH God and the rank and file members.

  16. Joe says:

    This is all so sad – the church of my fathers and forefathers is just not the same! My grandfather and great-grandfather were ‘life-Elders’ in the Presbyterian church. They would be appalled by what it’s become. I was also an Elder and in my Presbytery hierarchy for many years. And after 48 years of my life I’ve moved on to the Eastern Orthodox Church (ROCOR). It’s been a very difficult transition as the customs are very different, but much of what I was taught about the Orthodox church was incomplete. Now I’m getting settled in and learning what I’ve missed all these years. It’s refreshing to be part of a small but absolutely devoted group who can trace their beginnings and customs to the Apostles themselves. The Church of Jesus Christ lives through the ages and into today and tomorrow.

  17. Charlotte Edwards says:

    What a shame to see PCUSA going the way of the culture!! Holy Scripture is clear on Church Doctrine. PCUSA is no longer Christ Church preaching God’s Truth!!
    We left several years ago and sadly have no Presbyterian Church to attend…. How I pray that will change!!

    • Richard Belzer says:

      Charlotte, go to the church locator at EPC.org. We’re not everywhere, but we’re in a lot of new places.

      • Lewis Thompson says:

        I tried an EPC Church. It was very rigid and judgmental. I felt as though I were in a Southern Baptist Church. I never went back. If there were an ECO Congregation near me I would try that.

        • Tony says:

          Judgmental ? More like telling it like it is through the gospel of Jesus Christ. We try not to judge lest we be judged in the same measure. We are baptised by submersion just as Jesus was by John. We are a Bible based church of the living gospel of Jesus and yes we do study from the Old Testiment from time to time.

  18. Mark Landsbaum says:

    It’s why we left 17 years ago.

  19. will spotts says:

    The progress of this is sad to watch, but I honestly cannot say any of it has been surprising.

    This is entirely a product of the organization’s institutional leadership – who, as a group, have been more committed to progressive political fads than to historic Christianity. Obviously this does not describe every individual, but it does accurately depict the general mindset of leadership. In the services of that progressive commitment, officials have, in many instances, lied and misled the members time and time again.

    Members and friends of the church have watched this unfold; and most felt powerless to stop it. Yet, it could have been stopped ten or a dozen years ago. It’s just that most faithful Presbyterians didn’t have the stomach for it – because it required accurately seeing and naming the problem. No one was willing to do this.

    So now … officially … they are “reforming”. To me, this sounds a little too much like saying, “This isn’t a bankruptcy … it’s a reorganization.”

  20. Donald says:

    I guess the sound of crickets in those empty pews and church buildings is the sound of Reformation?! Pardon me but this rates at least an 8 on the 10-Point Guffaw Scale!

  21. Randy Madsen says:

    For many worshipping communities within PCUSA who are or will soon be considering their options as to “will we stay or will we go?”, that decision may answer itself within the precious few years that likely remain for the denomination.

  22. GordonQ says:

    The churches that have been leaving the PC(USA) were ones that proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As per the Stated Clerk, the PC(USA) is now about “proclaiming a prophetic witness throughout the world.” That is church-speak for a Social Justice Gospel. You can see this if you look beyond the total membership numbers. In just three years the total “Gains” of people joining the church is down 24%. For the last five years, the decline in people joining is over 36%. Our church doctrine today is the wrong gospel, no wonder it is ineffective! The Reformation was about getting back to biblical basics and away from church doctrine. That is the “reforming” we need now, not the type which the denominational leaders preach.

  23. Cody says:

    Yes it is very sad. Years ago I heard the sign of faithfulness was losing members by being prophetic. It was said as a badge of honor. That can be. For martyrs it is true. But when divorced from Scripture it is hard to discern prophetic from syncretistic.

  24. Paul Zesewitz says:

    The PCUSA isn’t the only denomination currently on the decline. The First Baptist Church of Herkimer NY (just up the road from me, and an American Baptist Churches congregation) closed last year and is currently attempting to sell the building. St Matthew’s Chapel (ELCA) in Leesville NY just put its building up for sale as well. When you get ministers in there that aren’t preaching the Gospel, stuff happens………….

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Churches are in a significant period of struggle now in upstate NY. Unlike the city — which has seen Christianity thrive in the past 20+ years — Christians seem to be vanishing from upstate. Part of this is tied to overall population loss and economic depression, but a lack of faithfulness also weighs heavily. I’m told that the Albany metropolitan area is now understood to be the “least churched” region in the entire nation.

  25. Bob Johnson says:

    Hi Jeff,
    As always another great and yet predictable article of statistical sadness. I am starting to believe these denominational leaders are so racked with their own guilt that they are happily collapsing their own churches from within. The UCC has released their own statistics with a loss 3.77%(34,488). Membership now stands at 880,383 as of year end 2016. The apathy within my own church to move beyond the the UCC is just maddening.

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Thanks, Bob. These new UCC figures for 2016 are consistent with the projections released in 2014 by the UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD). That projection showed the UCC will be down to about 200,000 members by 2045. I’m not convinced that the denomination as we know it will last that long. At some point there will likely be a merger with either the Disciples of Christ (who already have a couple joint agencies with the UCC) or possibly the Unitarian Universalist Association. The UCC HQ in Cleveland has been devastated by staff cuts since 2000, and the best regions have only a handful of churches that are not in decline.

  26. J Bernard Taylor says:

    As a black Presbyterian minister, now retired, I strongly disagreed when we accepted same sex marriage. However I agree with the church on most progressive ideas. I agree we must be concerned with “the least of these” as Jesus taught. I am afraid that most of these more conservative churches are lacking in social and racial justice issues. I am not active in any church now at 93 years old, but I think that many of our black Presbyterian churches have blended christian orthodoxy with sense of justice and equality for all.

  27. For me, a former PCUSA ordained minister who left the denomination long ago, it’s a simple matter. Paul proclaimed that we should “preach Christ and Him crucified.” The PCUSA does not, and has not for a long time, committed itself to such proclamation. It is now “dead, twice dead, and plucked up by the roots.” It can only be a fool’s dream to presume it will continue for very much longer.

  28. Bob Holzlohner says:

    So as a 66 year old lapsed former Presbyterian with a liberal bent, where am I to go? Seems like all the mainline Protestant churches are going down under. Episcopal? They are having their own membership problems. Baptist? Too conservative and/or evangelical for me. Catholic; as is my wife? Aside from gaining latino members, the RCC’s membership is decreasing also. Too conservative there also. Help!

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