The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continued to lose members in 2017, extending a pattern that has persisted since the mid-1960s. At the end of the year, church membership totaled 1,415,053, a decline of 67,714 members from 2016.
At the same time, a five-year period of unprecedented losses neared an end as net membership losses returned to previous levels over the last 50-plus years. The larger losses between 2012 and 2016 were brought on by the dismissal of about 100 churches (and their members) each year to splinter denominations after the 2010 General Assembly voted to allow the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as church officers and the 2014 Assembly voted to allow same-gender marriage.
“It is clear our unusually large losses between 2012 and 2016 are directly related to churches dismissed to other bodies,” says Kris Valerius, manager of records and statistics for the Office of the General Assembly.
From 21 churches and 4,718 members dismissed in 2011, the number jumped to 110 churches and 33,659 members dismissed in 2012. That pattern continued until 2017, when the number of dismissed churches fell to 45 and the number of members dismissed dipped to 6,910. The PC(USA) currently has 9,304 congregations, 147 fewer than at the end of 2016.
But while the turmoil of the previous five years seemed to abate in 2017, the PC(USA) is still showing an annual drop in membership, a reality that distresses General Assembly Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson II. “It is clear that Presbyterians are doing poorly at evangelism,” he says.
“Churches leaving was a temporary roadblock. Our inability to share the faith, to demonstrate the power and justice of Jesus Christ and his church to change a world where inequality, injustice, violence and war seem to gain strength daily is a critical factor in our failure to grow,” Nelson says.
“The church is not dying, it is reforming,” Nelson insists, “and that reformation must be built on a vision of God’s kin-dom that is compelling to people who find us lacking. We have that vision – it is part and parcel of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We simply must find new ways to proclaim it and, more importantly, live it out in our congregations.”
As evidence, Nelson points to “other losses” – persons who are simply removed from the rolls of PC(USA) congregations. In 2017, 20,162 members transferred to other churches, and 25,565 Presbyterian church members died. But the “other losses” totaled 74,129.
Those losses were not matched by gains. Total member gains (professions of faith, reaffirmations, restorations to membership and transfers from other churches totaled just 52,142 – the lowest number in nearly two decades.
Baptisms also declined in 2017: infants and children from 13,427 in 2016 to 12,598 in 2017, and adult baptisms from 4,775 in 2016 to 2,927 in 2017.
Demographically, the percentage of women ministers, ruling elders and deacons continues to increase, as does the percentage of ministers who are people of color. But the membership of the PC(USA) continues to exceed 90 percent white (90.62 percent). Asians make up 2.96 percent of the PC(USA). Hispanic Presbyterians make up 1.47 percent of the denomination, while 2.5 percent self-identify as African American, 1.12 percent as Black and .64 percent as African. Less than one-third of 1 percent of Presbyterians self-identify as Middle Eastern, Native American and “other.”
Another demographic anomaly for the PC(USA): two-thirds of the denomination’s congregations are 100 members or less, but two-thirds of Presbyterians are members of churches of 300 members or more.
“I don’t despair, I never despair,” Nelson says. “The challenges before us are clear, but so is our vision, so is our call and so is our determination to follow that call, which comes from Jesus Christ. I will not be satisfied until we are a growing church.”