The coming collapse of the PCUSA

pcusaBy Jeff Gissing

The Presbyterian Church (USA) recently released the findings of its “Religious and Demographic Profile of Presbyterians 2011” (the report). More than 6,000 clergy and members of the PC (USA) were asked to participate in the study for a three-year period. The goal was to sketch a broad landscape of the denomination in demographic and theological terms. The report is available here in its entirety. In many respects the report is grim reading. In fact, it points to the coming collapse of the PC (USA)—demographic and theological realities will force the denomination to accept a new, diminished future.

The report reveals, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the PC (USA) is old and white. 94% of the randomly selected members reported their race as “white or Caucasian,” as did the randomly selected Ruling Elders. Of clergy, 91% of pastors and 89% of specialized ministers (chaplains, professors, etc) reported their race as white. For all categories of respondent, more than 90% were born U.S. citizens. The study notes, most alarmingly, that the racial-ethnic makeup of the denomination has remained virtually unchanged in the last forty years. This discontinuity makes the future of the denomination untenable since it has not reached either immigrant communities or people of color in any meaningful way. While there are flickers of light in the 1001 New Worshipping Communities initiative, it seems to be rather too late for this to significantly offset coming losses.

The denomination also continues to age. The median age of members rose from 60 to 63 between 2008 and 2011. That means that if you were to list the ages of each of the member respondents, half of them would be older than 63 and half younger. The number is similar—62—for ruling elders. The report also indicates that almost 50% of church members are not employed, while only 7% of members report being “full-time homemakers.” Could it be that almost half of our church members are retired? Perhaps the PC (USA) should be called the AARP at prayer?



Comments 28

  • I would like to have our current PC (USA) leadership explain how the great reformers Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, et al, could be comfortable in a church where the primary focuses are the left-wing political social agenda, pretending that abortions don’t take a life, justifying homosexual behavior and/or any sexual relationships outside of marriage and justifying policies based on political correctness or if they align with civil laws. The PC (USA) used to be led by Jesus Christ based on the Word of God. Now, like chaff, it goes wherever the political and social winds blow. And, if pressed, it will distort a rendering of a scriptural passage to justify its activities. All the early church reformers would probably be now standing in line waiting to nail their ‘theses’ to the PC (USA)’s door. If the PC (USA) wanted to slow their suicidal march, they would focus their activities on the tried & true basics: Bible study (actual study of the Bible including translations other than the garish NRSV – instead of regurgitated liberal theologians’ opinion pieces about the Bible); Prayer (not nearly emphasized enough); Evangelical outreach (every non-church goer in range of the church ought to contacted at least yearly and invited to come. Are we ashamed to ask the unchurched to our worship services? Do we expect the Holy Spirit to supply each church with replacements or new members w/o our doing anything?) But, our church will again focus on political issues, the socialist agenda, useless feel-good pronouncements and other activities that will keep the church in the mainstream of the current culture.

  • The promises God made to His Church Universal are not directly applicable to any specific congregation, group, association nor denomination. The PCUSA is not “The Church”. It is a part of The Church. Some have suggested that God is pruning dead wood out of the PCUSA prior to revival. Others say He may be letting the denomination wander in the desert until it dies.

    In practical terms, the average age of a PCUSA member in 2008 we are told was 60 and in 2011 was 63. Assuming that trend continued then the average age in 2013 would be 65. The CDC projects the average life expectancy for a 65 year old white person in the US as 19.2 years. Demographically or actuarialy speaking, half the current membership will have been promoted to the Church Triumphant by 2033. The rate of membership loss has been accelerating for several years now.

    Currently, the median size PCUSA congregation has 89 members. In 2003 it was 111 members. Many of the congregations, though filled with faithful members, barely have the resources to operate & maintain their physical facilities, much less make needed upgrades or replacement to aging systems and structures. Merging of congregations is fraught with issues. The closing of congregations is becoming more and more common.

    The same constriction exist for a small congregation to be able to employ a full time minister. The employment opportunities for seminary graduates is understandably dismal. Many of these graduates are leaving seminary with significant educational debt.

    If I had to venture a guess, the membership and congregation losses will continue albeit at an increasing speed. At some point, the likelihood is for some type merger of the then PCUSA remnant into some type of mainline “Union Denomination” with other remnants.

  • One can hope that the gathering of ove 5,200 Presbyterian youth last week will work against the trend in these statistics.

  • Does the racial makeup, employment status and age of a denomination’s membership make a difference? Part of the reason there is little reflection of immigrants or minorities is because the postmodern world view held by the “leadership” in the PCUSA fails to translate; particularly to the young. As a man born in 1970 who traces quite a bit of his lineage to the African continent, I found the “inclusivism” slant to be not only condescending, but abhorrent. Liberal attempts to demonize European heritage proved gravely offensive to my Anglo-Saxon/ Scottish and Saxon German sensibilities, as well. The numerous attempts I’ve seen by members of the limousine left to include minorities was devoid of the Biblical stricture that was the great historical force in the black community prior to the Civil Rights struggle and the sad standardization of liberation theology! It’s the absence of that very jugular codicil (the Bible) that has alienated minorities, immigrants and younger people who trace every drop of their blood to northern Europe. How can the PCUSA have credulity in the vein of empowering those of other cultural traditions when it has so capriciously mocked the very one that nurtured it?
    Louisville brought this mess on itself !!! I’ll bet the New Wilmington Missionary Conference in Pennsylvania is sparsely attended; reflecting the alienation felt by most born after 1965!!

  • PC(USA) took it’s eye off the ball (Jesus Christ) and went whoring with “Social Justice” forsaking the
    Great Commission.

    • Amen, Roy!

      • I completely agree. Until 5 years ago, I was a Presbyterian for as long as I can remember. I have been entrenched in the Presbyterian doctrine, order of worship, & have felt it my home. My husband and I were elementary school sweethearts and were extremely active and committed to our church through the years. We are now young parents to small children and have changed our membership to another denomination because the Presbyterian churches here have become so focused on watering down the Bible to appease everyone. Right and wrong are now overlooked. The last straw was when we heard the Presbyterian minister stand up in the pulpit and claim that the miracles weren’t really real and “you don’t really buy into all that do you?” My home Presbyterian church was always nurturing its members while warmly inviting others to come. In many churches, the balance is so off, most older people I see are forgotten. “Appeal to the masses” is what the underlining goal seems to be, and one at all cost. Sometimes change isn’t always good. What supersedes the past isn’t always progress.

  • In November of 1998, one month after I was ordained as a Teaching Elder, the Executive Presbyter of my presbytery held a retreat for all of the clergy. Of those who attended, half of us were in our first calls, most in our first to third years. We would identify as “evangelical”. Running the retreat was Houston Hodges, who at one point remarked “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be down to one million members by the year 2020. But we will be very proud.” As an evangelical I did not accept that this projection HAD to occur. However, it appears that Hodges was indeed a prophet of truth on this occasion.

  • I did not leave the PCUSA. It left me. Trite be true.

    • Even among the Israelites with their bent toward pagan worship, there was a faithful remnant! Seems each time Israel strayed, God would raise up prophets from among them to call Israel back. They went toward the straying ones and not away. If we abandoned a church or denomination for another more righteous elect with the more correct doctrine, who will be left? Seems that has been the M.O. which has broken the Body of Christ apart and weakened our effectiveness. Who will be God’s instrument of reconciliation if we run from Nineveh?

      Statistical paint on a macro canvas misses the detail of a more personal micro rendering. The church I serve is growing! People are coming to the Lord while others are experiencing their faith being grown with deep roots. I preach the Good News of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom’s activity where God places me. I have fellow soldiers in the faith who are standing fast and not running to some other place that is more cognitively pleasing. These pastors have churches that are growing too. Maybe it’s not about the denomination but those who are willing to labor. It’s not a work analogy for nothing! If it were easy it would not be called discipleship! I may not like what the National Church is doing, but it will not stop my response to Jesus commanding invitation. Where better to serve?

      • Respect this point of view, but for me, when the national denomination is now apostate and a servant of Satan, I can’t be affiliated with that hell-bound church in any way.

        I understand those who want to stay and fight, but you have to realize you are losing and have been losing for decades.

      • God’s “instruments of reconciliation” have not been very effective in the last forty-odd years in turning the PCUSA around from its march to oblivion. Moreover, comparing the PCUSA with Nineveh is inapt, inasmuch as Nineveh was a self-consciously pagan city that made no pretenses of worshiping the Lord. A better analogy would be to the Scribes and Pharisees, who honored the Lord with their lips while their hearts were far from Him (Mt. 15.8).

        When the congregation I serve as a deacon departed the PCUSA in 2010, there was no indication from the ARC with which we interacted during the discernment process that they believed that the PCUSA was adrift and needed to return to her Biblical moorings, needing to be reconciled to God; rather, they made numerous attempts to show us that Biblical fidelity was an illusory impossibility for the Church in the 21st Century, and thus we should give up our thoughts about separating from the PCUSA and be reconciled to them on their terms.

        The Church’s primary mission in the world is to witness to the world the saving power of Jesus Christ, and attempts to resurrect a moribund denomination like the PCUSA siphons off resources that could otherwise be used to fulfill that primary mission. Now one might say that how great a witness it would be if the Lord through our witness chose to bring the PCUSA back from its self-imploding destruction, but I do not see that happening. I do not see the Evangelical Christian witness in the PCUSA making one whit of difference in bringing about a spirit of repentance and holiness in the PCUSA as a whole.

        Now, this is not to say that the Lord is not calling some individuals and congregations to remain in the PCUSA to be a witness in a dark place, like Jeremiah in the days of the last kings of Judah, but the session and members of Colonial Presbyterian three years ago discerned that this was not His calling for us.

        • Loren, how beautifully written and how right on target you are. I wish the PCUSA would’ve listened to someone like you.

    • Well said , Robert. I agree.

  • maybe they should ask those of us that left with our feet ,why?

  • I am uncomfortable with the negativity toward those who built Presbyterianism and whose churches we worship in and whose faith is the foundation. This presents the old folks as bigots with walls around the churches. I disagree whole heartedly. Look at church mission giving and involvement with local projects with those of multi ethnicity. Jesus always said — this is what I offer — follow me. Jesus did not twist anything to culture nor offer treats to those who followed — only forgiveness and eternal life, We are not gaining members because PCUSA does not know what it believes anymore. Education of the faith in all aspects, including seminaries, has failed — because we are no longer certain of what we believe. Lastly, we are not a joining culture. There are many ethnicities who worship and participate in church life who have not been included in this study. Part of our demise was the reunion of the North and the South with differing practical theologies (although Reformed) and different ways of doing business. My credentials for saying these things are Teaching Elder, Ruling Elder, service in churches and non profits, and born in the North and lived in the South since 1982. Yes, Louisville is the South. And, I completed 10 credits recently at a seminary and chose to withdraw because we do not understand ecumenical either. Our new leaders seem to be more interested in vocation than getting their hands dirty to be witnesses of God at work. That is why we are failing.

  • First of all, Clerks of Session submit multiple reports each year that ask pages of demographic-defining questions. Yet. it took a 3 year study to tell us who we are? Ugh – you sure the gov’t isn’t running this place? You sure we’re not top heavy/bureaucratically paralyzed in Louisville?

    Second, if we’re so old and white – and presumably conservative – how are we approving the liberal agenda favoring same-sex marriage, gay clergy, etc.?

    Lastly, what’s wrong, if anything, with the logic in my questions? Can you spin the info differently — some way that would make sense?

    • David – thanks for commenting. Old and white doesn’t necessarily mean conservative. Additionally, GA commissioner selection isn’t terribly representative.

    • Polls tend to mirror the agenda of the author/publication – – most polls in the US are done with 1000 or less participants. The US has approximately 350 million people ~ ~ Can you say “biased” ?

  • It is just a matter of time before the collapse. People are voting with their feet. The reason the church
    drags on is because of the people tending to be the “frozen chosen” and petrified in the pew.
    The average presbyterian is biblically illiterate and confessionally unread. The underlying structure and reasons for “liberal theology” are incomprehensible to them. Christian education has been a dismal failure and it is a function of the entire life of the church.
    A remant will remain if for no other reason the two billion under management in the foundation.

  • God, not man, will have the last say! His will, not Jeff Gissing’s or poll taker’s will be done!

    • Christine – thanks for commenting. I agree with you that neither you nor I know the secret counsels of God and, indeed, His will shall prevail. However, i am pointing to some data that suggest that the future isn’t particularly bright for the PC (USA).

  • I am confused … Does this mean that the oldtimer’s who comprise the bulk of PCUSA who by all reports are opposing General Assemblies rulings are staying with PCUSA and are going down with the ship? I think not .. As old and retired as they be .. They are the individuals who are conservative and refuse to be drawn into the suction of radical thinking!

  • the PC(USA) will probably seek a merger with denominations that have similar programs. In that they could survive.

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