PC(USA) official effectively ignores decline, claims success

Tuesday, June 2, 2020
 | 
Michael F. Haverluck (OneNewsNow.com)

empty pews in churchInstead of addressing the Presbyterian Church USA's decline of more than 50,000 members last year, the denomination's Stated Clerk has adjusted the figure to overlook what is actually a significant drop.

"For the first time in more than 30 years, the PC(USA) is not reporting membership losses!" Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II exclaimed in response to his oldline Presbyterian denomination's annual release of statisticsaccording to The Institution on Religion & Democracy. "Our membership remains at 1.3 million – this is good news! We must celebrate while knowing that there remains work to be done."

Good news … or bad news?

Regardless of Nelson's optimistic view, the numbers show a marked decrease in the number of Presbyterians still affiliated with the denomination.

"It would be generous to say that Nelson's celebration is premature: the same PC(USA) report shows membership losses consistent with reports from recent years: numbers dropped from 1,352,678 in 2018 to 1,302,043 in 2019 (down 50,635 members)," IRD's Jeffrey Walton reports. "Apparently, in Nelson's assessment, the vanishing of more than 50,000 church members does not count as decline because of rounding."

Even the Episcopal Church USA, the farthest left-leaning mainline denomination in the United States – known for openly embracing same-sex "marriage" – reports losing fewer members than the PC(USA).

"The rate of decline continues to be greater than the most recently reported membership numbers in the Episcopal Church, which reported a loss of 36,214 persons in 2018 – [as the denomination] customarily releases statistics in the autumn of the following year," Walton points out.

A shadow of what it once was …

Even though Nelson expresses jubilance over retaining 1.3 million members today, that's less than a third of what Presbyterian membership used to be. Walton notes that predecessor bodies of the now-flagging PC(USA) denomination – The Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S. – at one time registered 4.25 million members combined. They merged in 1983 to form PC(USA), but the decline began in the mid-1960s, with a major plunge in membership taking place in the 2000s.

Yet the Presbyterian leader insists the numbers now are not dropping.

"Another factor is that the PC(USA) did not have any church dismissals in 2019," Nelson added. "This is a sign that we have stabilized previous membership loss in both congregation and member dismissals."

But as the IRD's Walton suggests, an examination of the actual figures reveals this interpretation is simply not the case.

"Again, Nelson's comments do not align with the reported 2019 statistics," Walton contends. "The PCUSA 2019 Comparative Summaries of Statistics lists 24 dismissals to other denominations – not zero. The report itself lists the number of PC(USA) churches down from 9,161 in 2018 to 9,041 in 2019 – a net drop of 120 churches – but remember, those are closures rather than gracious dismissals to another denomination, so POOF! They seemingly do not count."

And Nelson's report also sought to find a silver lining in the drop in professions of faith and reaffirmations among youth and adults from 2018 to 2019 – by comparing it to a year when that number was lower.

"[T]he number of overall professions of faith and reaffirmation is still higher than in 2016," Nelson said. "We are not dying. … We are reforming."

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