Presbyterians decline while other churches grow

declineBy Mark Tooley

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose General Assembly starts this week in Detroit, is a case study in oldline Protestant decline. Its latest membership stats show a loss of 89,296 in 2013, preceded by a loss of 102,791 in 2012. Its membership is now down to 1,760,200, and at the current rate it will have no members in less than 20 years.

Such implosion might inspire self-reflection. But oldline Protestant elites too typically don’t reflect much on their 50 year spiral from Mainline to sideline. “Yes, the numbers reflect a decrease in active members in the denomination,” admitted PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons. “We are meeting the challenges we have had and it’s showing,” he said. “And, our decline in total congregations is holding fairly steady.” Yeah! The church might last 21 more years instead of 19 or 20, thanks to “meeting the challenges.”

The real challenge is that the PCUSA no longer and has not in a long time adhered vigorously to orthodox Christianity, which is by itself no guarantor of church health but is always an essential ingredient for vitality. There are of course orthodox Christians remaining in the PCUSA, but they are not affirmed by denominational policies. The big issues facing this General Assembly are same sex rites and anti-Israel divestment, hardly motivating evangelistic tools.



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  • Your headline should read “PCUSA DECLINES WHILE OTHER CHURCHES GROW. In the Layman, there is always this emphasis on protraying Presbyterians as members of the PCUSA. They are not. Yes they may be in the majority, but what about the EPC, the PCA, the Cumberland Presbyterians, and many others who count themselves as “PRESBYTERIANS”. In you future reporting it would be more accurate to identify the denomination instead of the all inclusive “presbyterians”.

  • Visited pcusa church in upscale suburb cincinnati. Radical liberal minister. Abt 25 people,in attendance in a congregation that formerly had 700 members. Down the street at the non denominational church where friends attend abt 500 per service, with 3 services, Activities every day and evening. Lots of ex presbyterians hearing bible based sermons in conservative church.

  • PCUSA membership is down again, a bad thing, no doubt, but it wont go to zero in 20 years. Take everything Tooley says with a large grain of salt.

    The title “Presbyterians decline while other churches grow” is not quite accurate, for it leaves a lot out

    Churches will decline, many will close, others, like the one I attend is getting lots of new young families. We continue to love ever more elderly members. the congregation is smaller, but, its younger, and will be there in 20 years.

    Demographics, not theology is the key issue. If it was not, the Southern Baptists would not now be in decline. Their theology has not changed. The size of their families did. Presbyterians and other mainline Christians just had this happen a full generation earlier.

    As per the other conservatives denominations, lets look at the PCA. conservatives love to mention it.
    But, Read the Aquila Report, The Future of the PCA, from Jan 2, 2010. Written by a Rev. Marshall St. John, it points out the numeric decline first noted in 2008, the first year the denomination LOST membership, and why growth in the future will be slow, or negative, going forward. its growth is slow, and the demographics are not in its favor (the article points this out well). Its hard to get more theologically conservative than the Salvation Army. Its another denomination that has been losing members for years like the SBC and the PCA.

    those Churches that are growing, with the exception of the Catholics (who grow almost solely by immigration) are actually few and far between, the cults (Mormons, Jehovas notwithstanding). It’s not he presence of absence of liberal/progressive theology that is making the difference.
    Its demographics folks, and its hitting (or about to hit) the “other” Presbyterians as hard as it hit us, just like it has the Baptists. Attempting to be an inclusive denomination, which has run off many, and attracted others, is not the main reason for the decline; its because we are a denomination of elderly people who had small families, and, many of us are passing away. But, in 20 years, there will be Presbyterians in those pews.

    sorry to interrupt the schadenfreude.

    • Those are some good points. More theologically conservative Presbyterian denominations and non-Presbyterian ones may well experience decline in the future as well due to their inability to attract or retain the next generation. From my perspective though, the most significant factor in the decline of the PCUSA is theological, not demographic. In the community in which I reside there are three PCUSA churches, all three of which have declined over the years. Meanwhile a local PCA church has been built, and this church has expanded into a new building.

  • It is a basic concept of both math and physics that all numbers eventually go to zero. Will the PCUSA fade away into nothingness? Of course not. By the end of this decade they will be in union with the UCC or Unitarians in some shape and form. The entity will simply be absorbed into something else. As far as money, an organization dies when it runs of 3 things, money, people, or mission. PCUSA is well on the way to the trifecta. The money of course will be the last man standing, but the body is already dead.

  • On balance, I agree with Mr. Tooley’s analysis but he makes an error which is common in appraisals of the future of oldline denominations. Projecting current membership rates of decline into the future, observers predict dates of the final demise of denominations like the Episcopal Church in America and the PC(USA). In this case, Mr. Tooley predicts that at the current rate the PC(USA) “will have no members in 20 years.”

    These forecasts fail to account for the fact that denominations like the PC(USA) and the Episcopalians will never disappear completely because of their great wealth. The Presbyterian Foundation, only one PC(USA) entity, reports that it distributed $63 million to mission in 2012, the latest year it has reported. If the foundation distributed an amount equal to 5% of assets that year, a target many foundations seek to achieve, that suggests total assets in the range of $1.2 billion.

    The reality is that the oldline denominations will never disappear completely but will shrink to a hollow shell of their former selves eventually 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 doors open and lights on. Groups like the PC(USA) will soldier on in a shrunken state until Jesus returns living 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) will be the inheritors of an inheritance far more valuable than dead people’s money – the faith once received from the saints.

  • Another decline in PCUSA membership, and the beat goes on; what message does the PCUSA in Louisville, KY have for anyone to joint.? Get the Gays to replace those who left??? Why not???? It is a start, a new evangelism needs to emerge, a new god from re-imaging is emerging. The PCUSA has a mental disorder
    on steroids, and the beat goes on, decline, decline and decline, and in 20 years, no PCUSA, a for sale sign will hang from Babylon, that is, Louisville, KY.

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