PCUSA General Assembly

Have We Seen the Last Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly?

Jeffrey Walton on August 31, 2020

Legislative gatherings in which thousands of Presbyterians fill a convention hall in a host city may cease to occur, according to a top official with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Kudos to Michael Gryboski of the Christian Post who found comments from The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, stated clerk of the PCUSA General Assembly. Nelson doesn’t predict the end of the PC(USA)’s highest legislative body itself, rather he says the denomination “cannot continue” to hold “the big tent General Assembly” – the ones in which “we have people from all over coming in and spending six, seven, eight days at a general assembly and utilizing that in a big arena.”

This is a concrete example of how mainline decline in the pews has worked its way up to the national church with a significant consequence for denominational governance. I predict that it will be only the first of the oldline gatherings to be curtailed: the Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church, which hold triennial and quadrilateral gatherings, respectively, will likely see significant reductions and limitations in their own “big tent” convocations, as will the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA).

The denomination’s 2020 gathering, scheduled to take place earlier this summer in Baltimore, met online due to COVID restrictions and had a severely pared-back legislative schedule. Rather than being an exception, the more limited gathering may signal things to come, even long after COVID restrictions are lifted.

Oldline Protestant churches each have a major assembly drawing voting delegates (known as commissioners in PCUSA parlance) as well as exhibitors and a significant number of other stakeholders. The Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly occurs every two years.

The PC(USA) has rapidly shed membership for decades, severely limiting the amount of revenue that reaches the Presbyterian Center headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. That headquarters has already seen large staff reductions going back to the 2011 decision to delete the denomination’s “fidelity and chastity” standard which stated that Presbyterian clergy should be faithful in marriage or celibate in the single life. The denomination later in 2014 permitted local presbyteries to allow their clergy to preside at same-sex marriage ceremonies. Both of those decisions contributed to an ongoing denominational exodus of churches and individuals that has been documented each year in the reported statistics. The denomination has also adopted positions uniquely critical of Israel and has dramatically shifted to an embrace of leftist political causes.

Revisionist caucus groups which backed such changes, including More Light Presbyterians, argued that removing expectations for clergy sexual conduct were essential to remaining relevant amidst changing American culture and for the inclusion of potential new members. That predicted influx of progressives has not arrived, while more conservative Presbyterian bodies including the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians have grown as they attracted former PC(USA) congregations.

The biannual General Assembly is funded through an assessment paid from congregations based upon the size of their reported membership. Even as the PC(USA) has increased that per-capita rate, the sinking numbers have drawn down total revenue.

Denominational officials have shrugged off this consistent decline for years. In one of his more eye-catching pronouncements, Nelson declared in 2017 “We are not dying. We are Reforming. We are moving towards a new future as a denomination.”

Potentially ceasing in-person General Assemblies is surely a signpost that new future has arrived, albeit not the one Nelson and other denominational officials had hoped for. In June, I reported how the denomination shed another 50,000 members in 2019, while Nelson cheered “For the first time in more than thirty years, the PC(USA) is not reporting membership losses” in comments accompanying the annual release of PC(USA) denominational statistics that showed the losses were very much still occurring.

At least one other body which counts mainline Protestants among its membership has already cut back on gatherings: the National Council of Churches held its last major assembly in 2010, citing budget limitations and reduced support from member communions.

Partly in an effort to reduce costs, the United Methodist Church’s powerful Commission on General Conference earlier this decade reduced the size of General Conference to 864 delegates, down from nearly 1,000.

Nelson’s comments can be viewed here:

  1. Comment by jeff taylor on August 31, 2020 at 4:08 pm

    As a former pastor in a mainline denomination, I would like to point out that decreasing the size, frequency, and scope, of delegate meetings has the likely consequence of increasing the authority of the standing committees and denominational staff. So perhaps some in these denominations will see the reductions as a plus.

  2. Comment by Tom on August 31, 2020 at 5:16 pm

    This is not surprising. The PCUSA long ago abandoned the word of God for all sorts of fashionable left-wing politics. They have been trying to gain the favor of people who have no interest at all in them. And in doing so have alienated people who do love and support the church.

  3. Comment by c on August 31, 2020 at 8:14 pm

    “We embrace diversity and inclusiveness!” but the photo says it all as to whether they’re actually getting numerical results from that.

  4. Comment by David on September 1, 2020 at 7:34 am

    Let us not forget about the Southern Baptists who lost 2% of their members just in 2019, the largest drop in 100 years.

    “Certain state conventions did report increases in baptisms and church growth, including in places outside the SBC’s Bible Belt strongholds. But overall, the denomination’s Annual Church Profile—released today by LifeWay Christian Resources and capturing 2019 statistics—shows a trajectory of serious decline and a sharp challenge for leaders concerned about evangelism and retention.”

    It would seem there is something else going on besides conservative or liberal theology.

  5. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on September 1, 2020 at 9:45 am

    Theological disputes are an important part of the decline, but we agree, David, that there is much more to it than just that. One significant issue with the PC(USA) is it’s racial and age demographics: they no longer reflect the broader United States population. The PC(USA) is older, whiter, and much less likely to include first-generation immigrants. The Pew Forum’s religious landscape study has helpful data that may provide a fuller picture than just the self-reported denominational metrics: https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-denomination/presbyterian-church-usa/

    Those U.S.-based denominations with more racial/ethnic and age diversity reflected in their membership include the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Assemblies of God, and within the reformed tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA). If a denomination is to grow, it must to some degree reflect in its membership the populations it seeks to minister among. Unfortunately for the PC(USA), it has settled into a niche status as a boutique church for a subset of the mostly older, white, and highly-educated. There’s nothing wrong with those groups, but a niche vision will result in a niche church.

  6. Comment by Rev. Dr. Lee D Cary (ret. UM clergy) on September 1, 2020 at 11:36 am

    The fate of the PC(USA) illustrates, in part, how church life in America is evolving toward a general bifurcation.

    A. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) will go thru a renovation in the next 15-20 years and will remain influential;

    B. The non-denominational churches, collectively, will continue to expand until they represent the majority of Protestantism because they are independent (hence free of bureaucracy – the antithesis of the RCC), non-liturgical, largely void of stale ritual, and, most importantly, Biblically-oriented. The most successful ones will continue to be creatively innovative.

    The Seven Sisters of the “progressive” liberal Protestant denominations have hit the iceberg. All down from here.

    Question is: What is to become of the Southern Baptist Church? They seem to be just treading water now, at best. For some, their denominational affiliation posted out- front of the building is found in small print under some non-descript label like “Horizon Church”.

    “Partly in an effort to reduce costs, the United Methodist Church’s powerful Commission on General Conference earlier this decade reduced the size of General Conference to 864 delegates, down from nearly 1,000.” I.e., rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as the ship’s orchestra plays on.

  7. Comment by c on September 1, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    A few thoughts:

    1) SBC is the lightning rod of Protestant denominations, given its size and influence.

    2) Theological disputes definitely have a role in attendance decline in the SBC.

    3) To point to Evangelical Protestantism in general, don’t forget that there are plenty of people in the past decade who went to church all through their childhoods and youth and quit going for various reasons in their 20s and 30s or even 40s.

    4) One big issue, I think, is that in a era where the belief in absolute truth is going even more by the wayside, the three-points, illustration, proof text, fill-in-the-blank-on-the-sheet sermon isn’t cutting it anymore. Give people some theological substance instead of mother’s milk every Sunday.

    5) Finally, Covid will contribute to the attendance decline across all denominations. Many small churches will close. And I hate to say it, there will be people who drift away because they found other things to do instead of opening up a livestream on Sunday morning.

  8. Comment by Steve on September 1, 2020 at 5:08 pm

    In the Episcopal Church, privileged people gathering to wine, dine and do more harm than good with virtue signaling speeches and votes. That church would probably have more of a future if these had ended a half century ago. Too late, damage is done. Hopefully future churches will learn from the bad example.

  9. Comment by Jim on September 1, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    I’m certain that comments I posted to reply to George are deleted. This includes George’s comments. Am I mistaken?

  10. Comment by David on September 1, 2020 at 6:42 pm

    Another group to consider is the rising number of “nones”, those that declare no affiliation with any religious group. This is the fastest growing “denomination” and if they built churches, one would see as many of them as Catholic churches. Where exactly nones stand is hard to determine. In most cases, they live their lives as do atheists with no prayers, service attendance, or other practices. Given the great stigma against atheists in the US, it is quite possible a goodly number are in the closet.

  11. Comment by Lee Cary on September 1, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    “Given the great stigma against atheists in the US…” What stigma is that, David? I haven’t noted any stigma directed at Hollywood, the legacy “News” media, public education, MS-13,, and the Marxist-Leninists of BLM/Antifa.

  12. Comment by Loren J Golden on September 1, 2020 at 10:25 pm

    The General Assembly is the highest legislative body of the Presbyterian Church (irrespective of the specific denomination).  It is responsible for reviewing and either approving or disapproving changes to the denomination’s constitution, for speaking to broader issues in the nation and the world on behalf of the whole denomination, and for funding the denomination’s institutions and bureaucratic agencies.  Such work cannot be delegated to the Office of the General Assembly or the denomination’s Mission Board.  As such, the General Assembly cannot not meet.
     
    With respect to the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Stated Clerk has no authority to declare that the denomination will no longer hold biennial assemblies, nor that the number of commissioners each presbytery is authorized to send to the GA will be reduced.  That call can only be made by the GA itself, for these are dictated by the denomination’s Book of Order (Part II of the PC(USA) Constitution).  One (or more) of the presbyteries must first overture the GA to make changes to the BoO to reduce the frequency of GA meetings and/or the number of commissioners each presbytery is authorized to send; then the GA must either approve or disapprove the overture(s); and if approved by the GA, the change(s) must be ratified by a simple majority of PC(USA) presbyteries, before such reductions in meeting frequency or attendees can be put into effect.
     
    What must be ended is the dog-and-pony show that the OGA and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board put on every assembly, emptying out the denomination’s offices in Louisville to advocate at the GA, as “resource persons”, for OGA/PMAB-favored overtures and a great many other superfluous events at the GA paid for by per capita contributions.
     
    Another thing the denomination might consider is reducing the number of presbyteries, which has not changed significantly since I joined a PC(USA)-affiliated congregation in 1991, although the total membership is now less than half of what it was then.  Merging shrinking, undersized presbyteries will have the automatic effect of reducing the number of commissioners, as each presbytery is authorized per the BoO (G-3.0501) to send one teaching elder (ordained minister) and one ruling elder (ordained lay elder) to the GA per 8000 members, capped at seven TEs and seven REs each, and the average presbytery size is less than 8000 members.
     
    But the most important thing the PC(USA) could do to improve its bottom line is to get out of its collective head the notion that “the world sets the church’s agenda,” to stop assuming that by following the world’s ways of thinking about social justice the Church is thereby fulfilling the Second Great Commandment, and to repent of failing to unequivocally and unapologetically preach the Gospel of Salvation from sin and death by the grace of God alone through faith alone in the Person and Work of the Lord Christ Jesus alone, as He is revealed through Scripture alone, all to the glory of God alone.  J. Herbert Nelson’s oft-repeated mantra that the PC(USA) is reforming and not dying is patently false, as fifty-four years of unmitigated decline amply demonstrates.  And as long as the PC(USA) continues impenitently neglecting the primary business of the Church in proclaiming the Gospel, the decline, the lack of genuine reformation, and the dying will also continue.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.