The PCUSA’s Continuous Decline

Before beginning this blog’s main line it is necessary to make a detour into the consequences of our denomination’s domination by what has become postmodern Christianity.  The PCUSA’s leadership has attempted to paper over the denomination’s continuous membership decline through information cherry picking, misdirection and happy talk for decades.  By this post’s conclusion I hope that the true nature of our situation will have been conveyed.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is commonly referred to by the acronym PCUSA (the official denominational acronym is PC(USA)), was founded in 1983. The founding event was the reunification of the two largest Presbyterian denominations in the United States – the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), which were the southern and northern branches that split as a consequence of the Civil War.

The PCUSA had over 3.1 million members at its founding. The population of the United States in 1983 was approximately 234 million. Thus, over 1.3% of the nation’s population belonged to this new denomination. By 2013, PCUSA membership had declined to just over 1.7 million while the U.S. population had increased to almost 317 million. Thus, in 2013, only 0.56% of the U.S. population belonged to the PCUSA, which is more than a halving of its founding value.

The following figures show the PCUSA’s membership decline. The following links lead to resources used to generate PCUSA membership plots.

PCUSA Total Membership

Figure 1: PCUSA Total Membership

The human eye has difficulty resolving what appear to be only small changes in a curve’s slope. Therefore the following figure has been included in order to highlight the nature of membership decline.

PCUSA Annual Membership Net Change

Figure 2: PCUSA Annual Membership Net Change

The above figure displays total net annual membership change. Between 1984 and 2006 the net membership loss varied within the 20,000 to 50,000 range. However, starting in 2007 annual membership losses have been uniformly greater than 50,000. In 2012 we lost almost 103,000 net members. In 2013 we lost an additional 89,000 members, the second worst loss in PCUSA history. This data tells the unmistakable story of consistent, significant membership loss over the entire time of the PCUSA’s existence, and, of an unprecedented, catastrophic loss over the recent three years.

There is one more level of detail necessary to understand what’s happening to membership. The PCUSA publishes membership details, including the number of gains and losses on an annual basis. The difference between these numbers is the net change shown in the previous figure. However, seeing the gain/loss numbers, as shown below, adds new insight to membership dynamics.

Figure 3.Annual PCUSA Membership Gain & Loss

Figure 3: Annual PCUSA Membership Gain & Loss

Three undisputable statements of fact based on this figure are:

  1. Membership gains (green line) have declined every year between 1998 and 2012
  2. In 2012 membership gain was less than one-half of the 1998 level
  3. In 2012 almost one-in-ten existing members (red line) decided to exit

We hear the constant refrain from our denominational leadership that the radical changes made to our theology and policies are intended to make the church “more relevant.” However, looking at Figure 3, note that the PCUSA has delivered increasing irrelevance to both those inside and outside of the denomination. One is left wondering to just whom our leadership is so aggressively working to become more relevant.

Finally, the PCUSA’s experience is by no means unique. The following figure shows plots of annual membership change percentage for four denominations, the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA), the PCUSA and the Assemblies of God (AG).

The three mainline denominations (i.e., UCC, ECLA and PCUSA) have experienced consistent (and sometimes catastrophic) membership decline for decades. The Assemblies of God, has experienced consistent membership growth over the same period, which falsifies the oft repeated claim by our denominational leaders that decline is inevitable in these times.

Figure 4:Annual Percent Membership Change for Four Denominations

Figure 4: Annual Percent Membership Change for Four Denominations

The ECLA approved a resolution to allow gays and lesbians in same-sex relationships to be ordained in August of 2009. The following two years, 2010 and 2011, saw ECLA membership decline by 6.3% and 5.2%, respectively. The UCC approved a resolution allowing same-gender marriage in 2005. Even in this historically liberal church, the following years had membership declines in excess of the norm prior to 2005.

The above information tells the unmistakable story of continuous, and recently, catastrophic membership decline in the PCUSA.  One would think that this issue would be front and center for our denominational leadership.  But this is not the case.  Rather, this situation is ignored.  Following is a screen shot (PCBiz) of the key areas addressed by our denomination at the 221st General Assembly (2014) .

Presbyterian Church (USA)  Explorer screen shot

Presbyterian Church (USA) Explorer screen shot

The only area that might address our membership decline is “[14] Congregational Vitality.”  However, the following screen shot of the specific items addressed shows no indication that catastrophic membership loss was considered.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 5.45.46 AM

[14] Congregational Vitality Items at the 221st General Assembly

 There is no real accountability for our denominational leadership as they, over decades, set priorities and pursue purposes that drive existing members out and continually bring fewer new members in.  The first necessary step for accountability to occur is knowledge about what is actually happening to membership.

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