Large assemblies of mainline churches – on their way out?

Friday, September 4, 2020
Michael F. Haverluck (

More Light PresbyteriansHastened by preventative measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic, large biannual assemblies held by the Presbyterian Church (USA) – and perhaps by other mainline denominations that have leaned leftward over the years – may quickly become a thing of the past as their church membership continues to decline sharply.

Even though Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II – stated clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly – stops short of predicting the extinction of the highest legislative body of his denomination, he does forecast an abrupt end of its large convention hall events.

“[PC(USA)] cannot continue the big tent General Assembly, [where] we have people from all over coming in and spending six, seven, eight days at a general assembly and utilizing that in a big arena,” Nelson announced, according to The Christian Post.

Jeffrey Walton with The Institute on Religion & Democracy calls Nelson's pronouncement regarding the PC(USA) a "concrete example" of how declining attendance can eventually impact a denomination's national governance.


“I predict that it will be only the first of the oldline gatherings to be curtailed," Walton states on the Juicy Ecumenism website. "The Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church – which hold triennial and quadrilateral gatherings, respectively – will likely see significant reductions and limitations in their own ‘big tent’ convocations, as will the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA).”

This year, PC(USA)’s summer gathering, scheduled to be held in Baltimore, was instead convened online to abide by COVID regulations, and many of its other legislative meetings have been cancelled, as well – a trend that is expected to continue well past the pandemic.

“Oldline Protestant churches each have a major assembly drawing voting delegates – known as commissioners in PC(USA) parlance – as well as exhibitors and a significant number of other stakeholders,” Walton points out.

He notes how the PC(USA)’s lowering of biblical standards in favor of more progressive ideals has led to a drastic decline in membership for decades – resulting in not only a significant drop in revenue, but also large staff reductions at the denomination's Kentucky headquarters.

"… [T]he 2011 decision to delete the denomination’s ‘fidelity and chastity standard’ … stated that Presbyterian clergy should be faithful in marriage or celibate in the single life,” the church expert points out. “[But] the denomination later in 2014 permitted local presbyteries to allow their clergy to preside at same-sex marriage ceremonies …."

Both of those decisions, according to Walton, contributed to an ongoing "denominational exodus" of churches and individuals that has been documented each year in the reported statistics.

"The denomination has also adopted positions uniquely critical of Israel and has dramatically shifted to an embrace of leftist political causes,” he adds.

Embracing the LGBTQ agenda over biblical sexual morality has backfired on leftist church leaders, while those standing on God’s Word as a moral compass are seeing numbers rise.

“Revisionist caucus groups, which backed such changes – including More Light Presbyterians – argued that removing expectations for clergy sexual conduct were essential to remaining relevant amidst changing American culture and for the inclusion of potential new members,” Walton writes.

“That predicted influx of progressives has not arrived, while more conservative Presbyterian bodies – including the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians – have grown as they attracted former PC(USA) congregations.”

Receiving funds based on actual membership size, the General Assembly’s reported declining numbers have driven down the PC(USA)’s total revenue – despite its rising per-capita rate, but leadership in the denomination has discounted the depleting state of the church over the years.

“We are not dying – we are reforming,” Nelson insisted back in 2017. “We are moving towards a new future as a denomination.”

In fact, right after the denomination reported a loss of 50,000 members last year, the Presbyterian leader portrayed the PC(USA)’s condition as follows: “For the first time in more than 30 years, the PC(USA) is not reporting membership losses.”

Walton points out that a similar scaling down is happening elsewhere to other liberal denominations.

“At least one other body which counts mainline Protestants among its membership has already cut back on gatherings – the National Council of Churches held its last major assembly in 2010, citing budget limitations and reduced support from member communions,” his blog reports.

In addition, the United Methodist Church earlier this decade reduced the size of its General Conference to 864 delegates, down from nearly 1,000.


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