Presbyterian sheep shifting; as the lost remain lost

lost sheep-2The Presbyterian landscape is changing, but much of it is just sheep shifting. The 200-year trend of loss of U.S. market share continues for all Presbyterian denominations combined.

The Presbyterian family of denominations

In 1967, there were already several branches in the Presbyterian family tree, but the two largest branches were the United Presbyterian Church (UPCUSA) and the Presbyterian Church US (PCUS).  Referred to as the northern and southern branches, the UPCUSA and the PCUS had a combined national membership of 4,254,297. These two denominations entered into discussions that eventually led to “Reunion”  in 1983 or the Presbyterian Church (USA), but not before two new branches, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) sprouted.  And just last year (2012), the PCUSA birthed an additional denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO).


Here’s how the sheep shift breaks down:

UPCUSA and PCUS                 1967: 4,254,597

formation of the PCA                 1972:   41,428;            2012: 364,000

formation of the EPC                 1981:   12 churches;   today: 160,000

formation of the PCUSA            1983:   >4,000,000;     2012: 1,849,490

formation of the ECO                2012:   20 churches;   today: 75 churches


If you add up the Presbyterians in these four denominations the total number is just under 2.4 million. That is a serious decline in terms of market penetration as the U.S. population has grown from 200 to over 300 million. In 1967, the Presbyterian market share was 2 percent. Today it is less than 0.8 percent.


Focusing our attention on one specific sheepfold: the PCUSA

Recent yearly declines:

2012:              102,791 members or 5.26 percent (incl. >100 congregations)

2011:              63,804 members or 3.2 percent  (incl. 96 congregations)

2010:              61,047

2009:              63,027

2008:              69,381


Visit for direct access to PCUSA research services documents and reports.

Looking at Table 1 of the 2012 Comparative Statistical report the PCUSA was steadily declining by about 60,000 members per year through 2011. At that loss rate, the PCUSA would cease to exist in 32.5 years.  But in 2012 that loss rate accelerated, and if the 2012 losses of >100,000 were not an anomaly, the viability timeline shortens.

Now, we all know Presbyterians who will most certainly still be “in” the PCUSA in 32 years, so it’s not quite that simple.

In 2011, the PCUSA’s membership fell for the first time below 2 million (1,972,287).  In 2012 it fell to 1,849,496 and will likely be 1.5 million by the 2016 General Assembly. That estimate is reached by taking into account three factors: church closures, church dismissals and disaffiliations, and the failure of most Presbyterian churches to reflect and keep pace with the changing demographics of American society.

Table 1 of the Comparative Statistics exposes the reality of shrinking congregations. Years 2013 through 2016 have been added as a projection of the ten year trend of the average size of a PCUSA congregation contracting by 3-4 members/year.

 Year:Members 2001 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Median 117 115 111 109 107 105 103 100 97 95 93 89 86 82 79 75
Mean 226 221 217 214 212 208 204 199 195 191 187 180 175 170 165 160


In addition to the struggle of congregations, presbyteries are struggling as well. Middle Governing Body staff discussed these issues at the fall polity conference. You can read their reports here:

Some presbyteries are graciously dismissing churches to both the EPC and ECO. Other presbyteries are choosing instead to tenaciously defend the denomination’s implied trust over all local church assets. Since 2007, the Presbyterian Lay Committee has documented information about the realignment of nearly 400 churches.  This does not include those Presbyterians who have “walked away” to form or join other congregations.

An updated chart is available at:

Combining the trends of church closures (anticipates an average of 2/presbytery/year), denominational departures (anticipates 300/year in 2013-2016) and congregational decline, a projection of less than 1.5 million members at the end of 2016 is warranted.

Are these number realistic?


Churches with less than 15 members

If each of the 173 presbyteries closes an average of two churches/year the national impact is 346 churches.

The official Office of the General Assembly list of churches includes 9,970 congregations. The official number of congregations is 10,262. The missing 292 churches are considered in the OGA stats to have zero members. Additionally, there are 19 churches listed as having zero members. There are two churches listed as having one member; seven churches with two members; six churches with three members and 20 churches with four members. So, in 2013, presbyteries only need to have closed those churches with four members or less to have achieved the 346 anticipated by this projection.

In 2014, if presbyteries closed churches that currently have 13 members or less, the national total would be 346.  At the 10 -ear trend rate of decline, by 2015, the next tier of churches, those that currently have 19 members, will likely have declined to 15 or less; and by 2016 the churches which currently have 24 members will likely have 12-15 members.

So, if in each of the next four years the denomination’s 173 presbyteries close churches that fall below 15 members, 1,384 will be closed before 2017.  If even an additional 200 churches are dismissed or disaffiliate in each year, the total number of churches in the denomination will be 8,078 at the start of 2017.

For more information about PCUSA demographics check out:


Large membership churches

Table 6 of the report is worth a look. Of the 15 largest congregations, four are in active realignment.

#2 Christ in Edina, Minn., is seeking dismissal to ECO.

#4 Highland Park Dallas, Texas, has disaffiliated and joined ECO.

#11 First Houston, Texas, is in a season of discernment.

#13 Menlo Park, Calif., is seeking dismissal to ECO.

Drilling down further into the 2012 list: #16 St Andrews in Newport Beach, Calif., #100 Mandarin in Jacksonville, Fla., and #101 First in Winston-Salem, N.C., are seeking dismissal. #65 First in Edmond, Okla., and #120 Saxe Gotha, Lexington, S.C., have been dismissed and #23 Grace in Houston has entered the formal discernment process.

Looking back to the 2011 stats,

#14 First in Colorado Springs, Colo., was dismissed to ECO

#15 First in Orlando, Fla., was dismissed to the EPC

#16 First in Greenville, S.C., has been dismissed to ECO

#39 Eastminster in Wichita, Kan., has been dismissed to the EPC

#60 Danville Community, Calif., has been dismissed to the EPC

#74 First in Edmond, Okla., has been dismissed to ECO

#82 Chapel Hill in Gig Harbor, Wash., has been dismissed to the EPC.

All told, since 2006, 40 churches of 1,000 or more have either been dismissed or are now actively seeking dismissal from the PCUSA. Several others are engaged in formal congregational discernment processes.  The list of churches from the OGA includes 218 churches in the PCUSA with greater than 1,000 members.

When large membership churches leave the denomination it has a disproportionate impact on the statistics as a whole. One 1,800-member church realigning is equivalent to 10 churches of the denomination’s “mean” size or 20 churches of its “median” size. If the churches over 1,000 members that are currently in the dismissal or formal discernment processes all leave, the impact to overall denominational membership will be over 40,000.

To combat the psychological downer of these annual reports, some suggest that the denomination find a different metric than membership.  But as one pastor once said, “Numbers matter to me because people matter to God.”  Let us not forget that the early church viewed numeric growth as a sign of the Lord’s hand of favor. Acts 11:21 says, “The Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” In Acts 2:42-47 we catch a glimpse into the life of the early church, concluding with the affirmation that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

If you’re interested in “why” from a research perspective, check out the observations made by LifeWay Research:



Comments 24

  • I have suggested for years to churches in my presbytery the concept of “loss of market share” as a way to help lay people, if not clergy, grasp the consequences of the denomination’s abysmal leadership and theology over the past forty years. At some point even the mightiest corporation’s wealth will not sustain it if people no longer find its product and message to be valuable in their lives. As one of my son’s said recently, “I stay away from church on Sunday so as to preserve the faith I have.”

    • Thank you for the comment<"I stay away from church(PCUSA) to preserve the faith I have." I agree totally, and it is very helpful for me to hear others have retained their faith the same way. The PCUSA shattered my faith. I stayed away and read the bible for a year every day instead. This helped. The PCUSA is a social committee, not much of church. I had ministers who I doubt even believed in God, let alone Jesus as Savior. They hated Jews, they were pro abortion, they believed the Bible was myth, they believed the traditional family is rot. YIkes.

  • Everybody,
    I’m not a church member but have been studying the history along with my curiosity about my family background, which consisted of United Presb. (old UPCNA) going back to pre-1858 etc…
    In light of history, I think one possibility for the future liberal PCUSA would be to “settle down” after the recent changes and then drift back to “rediscover” some of the more traditional forms and “de-emphasize” some of the changes. just a possibility. re-unions do occur (old & new lights etc)
    so hard to predict future – future generations take new perspectives…
    One thing from history is that the idea of presbyterian church government remains a strong and enduring balance between pure independence and the more overt structures seen.

  • I just returned from the “Future of the Church” Summit in Loveland, CO. This was an interdenominational conference about the state of the church in America. 80% of churches are in decline. 4,000 close every year. 20% or less of the U.S. population are engaged in any church activity. 20% of the population report no religious affiliation – up 5% in the last five years. 32% of millennials report no religious affiliation. One common thread seemed to be the old quote, “Perfect people keep real people away” as the view many people have of the church. For more information, read Thom and Joani Schultz new book, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore.” It is not just Presbyterians who are losing members, no denomination is growing these days. The largest growth seems to be in house churches and home Bible studies. Yes, some mega-churches are growing, but not at the rate of 10-20 years ago.
    What is more, a church’s belief that their denominational affiliation is the problem and changing denominations will make their church stronger and better usually proves to be an illusion. Often one set of issues is just exchanged for another.
    There is a huge shift taking place on the religious landscape and it requires a new view of mission, outreach, what a church is, and how to touch lives with the gospel.

  • More than 12 years ago I wrote a letter to the Executive Director of Layman before the advent of churches leaving or being dismissed from PC USA had started, and suggested at that time the PC USA was a church in a state of apostasy and would not be blessed by Jesus.
    Also I suggested to him that it would be better for the so-called evangelical minded churches to form a new Presbyterian body which clung to Jesus’ fundamental teaching, ministry and evangelical mission for like minded congregations to move to this new Presbyterian Body..
    Well, fast forward 10 years and this is exactly what has happened during the recent five or so years and I believe will borne out by the studies and projections we now see.

  • Carmen,
    I also recently downloaded and studied the “Comparative Statistics 2012.” It is the net membership figure that tends to get the most attention. That’s understandable. But I found it especially interesting to look at the gross membership gains and losses. Between 2001 and 2012 the gross losses by year have held generally steady, fluctuating up and down, year to year, but showing a generally flat trend, e.g., 2002 gross losses were 180,256 and 2012 gross losses were 180,941. The gross gains, however, show a telling and troubling trend. Gross membership gains have shown a steady and significant decline year to year. In 2001, the gross membership gain was 146,814, while in 2012 the gross gain was 78,150. Every year between 2001 and 2012 the gross gain declined without exception. The PCUSA has sustained catastrophic losses through the past decade, according to this report. But at the same time, a significant portion of the increasing net loss is being driven by the failure to add members. Presbyterian “evangelism”, never particularly robust in the modern era, has now humiliatingly begun to close up shop. It is worth pondering this trend. Personally, I’m not especially surprise by these numbers. What does liberal “Christianity” have to offer that can’t be had in better quality with far less overhead from some other source in the marketplace of ideas?

    • I think I recall someone doing an analysis of this issue at some point in the past few years. Seemed their bottom line was that very few membership gains came from adult conversions and just a modest amount came from transfers from other denominations. Most membership gains were coming from confirmands. My recollection may not be exact but this pattern would be what would be expected with a denominational membership with an average age in their mid 60’s.

  • There is something self-contradictory in the narrative put forth by the Layman and others with similar views. IF those who write for the Layman are to be believed, then at some time in the not too distant past Presbyterians who followed a more conservative path (the Layman would insist on calling this a more “Biblical” path) were a large majority among over four million Presbyterians, and those pesky liberals were a relatively small minority. Now, a few decades later, the PC(USA) has less than two million members, a majority of them apparently following this more “liberal” path to perdition, while those conservatives the Layman wishes to describe as “Biblical” are a small remnant in the PCUSA and otherwise scattered around several other small groups with the name Presbyterian.

    Not that I believe that this narrative is correct, but it really seems that you should make up your mind what story you want to tell. I could get it if you believe that your are somehow the small faithful remnant while most Presbyterians have gone astray. But if so, you should stop playing the numbers game – according to your own read on things those you call “liberal Presbyterians” are holding steady or even growing in number, while you have diminished from a large majority among over four million to a few hundred thousand. You cannot have it both ways, so choose a story and stick with it.

    One thing does seem to be the case: most of those whom you call “liberal” were content to pursue their calling and mission in a denomination in which they were a minority, but it appears that minority status is something that many of the so-called conservatives cannot abide.

    • d

      One possible explanation to your viewpoint is that the lay people of PCUSA have always been more conservative than those in General Assembly. As General Assembly has passed more things leaning to the liberal side (due to GA’s more liberal make-up), more conservatives have left the denomination, both individually and as congregations. We will continue to see this occur and the denomination will become more and more liberal, both in the pews and in the policies they pass.

      I don’t necessarily see a contradiction in the narrative the Layman puts out.

      • David, your theory is supported by stats in the PCUSA’s Presbyterian Panel Survey of Fall 2011. Factors one would associate with the “liberal side”, as you put it – things like identification with the Democrat party, support for same-sex marriage, etc. – pertain to about 1/4 of PCUSA members, but 1/3 to 1/2 of pastors, and up to 2/3 of “specialized ministers”.

    • d,

      it’s simple math. As the conservative churches depart for other Presbyterian denominations, the liberals become a proportionally (but not numerically) larger voting bloc. Thus, there are fewer votes opposed to the changes they have sought since about 1979.

      They might celebrate this as a great “distillation” of like-minded people. They don’t seem to mourn the departure of the conservative churches any more. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory — they will be left in a death spiral of ebbing membership, dwindling budgets and empty churches.

      I believe the decline really began with the “Modernist/Fundamentalist” controversy of the 1920s. Even the post-war boom most mainline denominations went through didn’t mask the basic rift that old controversy exposed.

  • Mr. Sandalow: Maybe you can explain something to me. I would never want to be part of a church such as the PCA which doesn’t include women in preaching and elder roles. When I attended the christening of my grandson in an Episcopal church recently, the woman who officiated was conspicuously more gifted than the men who participated in the service. And yet when I attend services at Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan (a PCA church which doesn’t ordain women), I observe a congregation which is younger, more racially and ethnically diverse than most PC(USA) congregations. Why would well-educated, successful professional women in a liberal redoubt like New York City have any interest in a church which doesn’t engage all the gifts of women? That totally baffles me.

    • Jim, why not ask some of the women next time you’re at Redeemer? I’d be interested in their answers as well.

  • To be fair, the formation of the PCA also had a lot to do with the ordination of women. PCA does not ordain women elders, teaching or ruling.

  • Thanks, Carmen. The Layman’s site is the only PC(USA) related site where I can get a clear picture of what’s going on. The other sites have a rose colored glasses feel to them.

    Despite all the downward trend lines and dismal numbers, the PC(USA) will never disappear completely because of its great wealth. I have neither the time nor the inclination to research the assets of the PC(USA)’s various entities but the Presbyterian Foundation alone reports that it distributed $63 million to mission in 2012. Eventually the PC(USA) will shrink to a hollow shell of its former self resembling a once prominent PC(USA) church in downtown Philadelphia. A well paid minister bravely preached to an empty sanctuary in that church for years because the income from the endowment kept the lights on and the doors open. Similarly the PC(USA) will soldier on in a shrunken state until Jesus returns with a theology as unrecognizable to its forebears as its views on sex and marriage. It will live off the accumulated wealth of those who mistakenly believed that bequeathing their money to the PC(USA) would advance the cause of Jesus in American life and culture. Meanwhile non-PC(USA) Presbyterians (EPC, PCA, ECO, FOP) will be the inheritors of an inheritance far more valuable than dead people’s money – the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Non-PC(USA) Presbyterians have already moved ahead of the PC(USA) on important measures vitality such as per capita giving, new church development and foreign missions activity.

    • Jim, some people say that’s what the PCUSA wants. Then they could be a liberal social activism organization and not worry about us pesky members.

  • Dear PCUSA:

    Here is your problem. You abandoned the Gospel more than a generation ago. Now you find that you can’t compete with the world for the world’s attention. You have no Christ to offer to Christians, and non-Christians find you simply boring; they can get better versions of what you are offering out there in the secular world. If they want empty, vapid liberalism, all they have to do is turn on the TV. If they want company they can go to a bar, a party, or a company picnic.

    You have neither the Christ that they need nor the diversion that they want.

    Welcome to irrelevancy.

  • Can you shed light on the formation of the PCA–why it formed, was it formed in opposition/distinction to the UPCUSA or the PCUS, etc?

    • The PCA was formed mainly from PCUS churches that saw their denomination following the same trajectory toward theological liberalism that the UPCUSA had been following for quite some time, especially evident in the push toward reunion with the UPCUSA. This was especially disconcerting to those churches that departed, given the UPCUSA’s adoption just a few years before of a Book of Confessions in lieu of the Westminster Standards that had been the confessional standards of nearly all Presbyterian denominations in America since their founding in Colonial times, together with watered-down ordination vows regarding the authority of the Scriptures and the Confessions.

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