The Disappearing PCUSA: 2018 Data (3)

Selected Updated Charts

Although I have in previous years published a large number of charts, this year I will be more selective.  The goal is to prevent data overload while supporting my primary message from the previous two posts. Recall that the PCUSA has been in existence since 1983, so this is the farthest back in time that data can go.

While total membership change is useful, percentage change is a more accurate metric.  This is true because as a group shrinks in membership the same absolute loss becomes a higher percentage loss.  For example, a loss of 10 from a group of 100 is 10%.  But that same loss of 10 from a group of 50 is 20%.  Since the PCUSA is a quickly shrinking denomination we need to account for this effect by calculating annual membership loss as a percentage of the previous year’s total membership.  This metric is shown in the following figure.


Note that in 2011 this metric fell below the 3% annual loss level and hasn’t yet recovered.  In fact, for the past seven consecutive years percentage membership loss has been well below 4%.  So, the fact that in 2018 there was a small improvement doesn’t support the conclusion that things are getting better.  Quite the opposite, as we remain in a state of historically unprecedented membership loss.

I have come to call the following figure a “fingerprint” because it combines both key metrics (i.e., membership loss and dismissed churches) of the debacle.  Note that this is a dual axis plot.  Membership change is plotted by a solid red line with associated axis on the left.  Dismissed churches is plotted by a dashed blue line with associated axis on the right. 


Note that net annual membership loss has been below 60,000 since 2008.  Although the number of dismissed churches is falling, this is because most of the churches that wish to exit have already done so.  Also, for any year prior to 2012 a total of 35 dismissed churches would have been considered a catastrophe.  Thus the 2018 “improvement” in dismissed churches cannot plausibly be credited to a healing denomination.

The following plot shows the four components of church gain/loss discussed in a previous post.


The dashed black curve shows the annual net change in PCUSA churches (by combining the four components).  Note that prior to 2011 net loss was less than 100 (and less than 50 prior to 2006).  Since 2011 the annual net church loss has always been greater than 120.  Note also that:

  • The number of dissolved churches has been increasing each year since 2016;
  • No church has joined the PCUSA from outside the denomination (i.e., received) since 2010;
  • Less than 25 new churches (i.e., organized) have been added each year between 2009 and 2018.

Previous charts focused on net membership, which obviously is the difference between membership gain and loss.  While net information is informative and useful, the detail provided by annual membership gain and loss enables additional insight.

Therefore the following figure shows membership gain and loss data so that these constituent elements of net change (also plotted) can be observed.  This data is plotted over the past twenty-one years.


This data results in a couple of rather shocking observations:

  1. The number of members gained has fallen for each consecutive year since at least 1998.
  2. The number of members lost has increased and decreased with a maximum of 184,000 in the year 2000 and a minimum of 109,000 in 2018 and a twenty-one year average of 163,000.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the primary reason for net membership loss over the past twenty-one years is falling membership gains as opposed to rising membership losses.  For example, 2012 was not the worst net loss year ever because of unprecedented loss, but rather because loss returned to the 1998 – 2004 level while gains had fallen by almost 51% from the 1998 value.  Comparing 1998 and 2018 membership gains shows over a 70% reduction.

One can hardly imagine a result more damning of the PCUSA leadership.  For, it is over this period that they proclaimed their motivation for radical theological and organizational change to be increased inclusion for a changing population.  Thus, while this gut-wrenching change was being foisted upon an unwilling rank and file, the exact opposite of their stated goal was occurring.

The above data clearly contradicts the “happy talk” used by our denominational leadership.  The fact that things appear to be getting “better” is only because the denomination is exiting an unprecedented period of debacle.

However, we are not approaching health.  Rather we are entering a new period of general decline that is far worse than the previous period of general decline.  So, our denominational leadership continues its gaslighting (“What debacle, can’t you see that things are just getting better and better?”) of the membership. Would any self-respecting organization accept this performance by its leadership?  It’s far past time that we demanded accountability for the debacle that our leadership has created.

Perhaps some readers are unconvinced that the preceding PCUSA data indicates that a debacle has indeed occurred.  One final data set should settle this issue.  In 2015 the Pew Research Center published data on America’s Changing Religious Landscape.  This data covered the change in United States membership of Catholic, Evangelical, Mainline and All Christians between 2007 and 2014.  This time span includes the first three of the PCUSA’s six-year debacle period.  The following figure shows the Pew membership change data along with the PCUSA change over the same time span.


Note that the PCUSA’s percentage membership decline is twice the rate of Mainline churches, four-times the rate of the Catholic church and eight-times the rate of all Christian churches in the United States.  Evangelical church membership increased by 4%, thus falsifying the canard that all denominations are experiencing membership decline.  These results would have been worse were the time span 2010 through 2017, as all the massive PCUSA losses would then be included.

I rest my case. 

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