First, it should be noted that the phrase was “deathly ill” – not dead. Positively, that means that there is still life in the body. And the creep of death is not in the whole body all at once. Some parts are actually rather robust – like a strong handshake that can still be present within hours of a coming death. The assessment did not even say that hospice had been called. Nevertheless, there is enough disease in the system to suggest that a death is near.
It is well known by most observers that the PCUSA has been in a downward spiral of net growth since the mid-60s (1965 for the UPCUSA and 1969 for the PCUS). That decline has taken us from over 4 million members to what will probably be less than 2 million once the 2010 membership numbers are in. It has been well-documented that the PCUSA is dying in a similar pattern with other mainline denominations. However, there are other denominations and the burgeoning non-denominational traditions that are actually growing. Thus, numerical decline within North American denominations need not be inevitable.
For the PCUSA there are four large areas of concern in my analysis that suggest we are deathly ill. The first area is the loss of young adults within our tradition. The easiest way to measure that in relative terms is by following the number of infant baptisms. As recently as 1999 we enjoyed over 41,000 infant baptisms. By 2009 that number had dropped to 24,000. That is a precipitous drop and is a decline that is faster than the PCUSA rate of decline.
At Reunion in 1983, the number of baptisms was just over 50,000. From 1983 to 1999 the number dropped by 20%. But from 1999 to 2009 the number dropped by over 40%. In 2007, for the first time, our number of deaths exceeded the number of infant baptisms. Those numeric indices are unsustainable. The rate of our loss of these young adults is enormously concerning as we think about the future of this denomination. Certainly a lower percentage of the Millennial Generation and the next cohort, Gen X, seem to attend any church. Yet, something about who we are and how we relate seems to cause young adults to seek other places for worship. Whatever our problem, it needs to be clearly addressed and a remedy sought. At root, I believe it is a missiological issue as we endeavor to reach a new people group in our midst.
The second alarming number comes from our loss of professions of faith – which flows out of our desire to share the faith with unbelieving populations. There was a day when both our predecessor denominations had rates of professions of faith in the 6% range. Now we are under 3%. Until the mid-1950s we actually had more adult baptisms than infant baptisms each year in a denomination that affirmed Covenant Theology. That number was a signal that we were reaching lost people.
Something in our theology changed such that a dynamic outreach to people who were not in relationship to Jesus Christ has been lost. Again, changes could be made but it would require a theological re-orientation to again achieve these results.
The third dangerous number has come from our loss of new church development. There used to be a strong tradition of starting outpost Sunday school classes and new congregations. However, in recent decades that tradition has nearly dried up. Over the past 10 years with a membership over 2 million, we have started an average of less than 30 new churches each year. The high water mark for the PCUS (Southern Church) was 88 new churches in 1911 when we had only 287,000 members.
Finally, the ugliest number has to be the loss of over 100,000 members a year to the category we call “Other.” To remove people from a Presbyterian roll, you can transfer your membership to another church, or die, or simply have your name removed for non-participation. The mobility of culture has impacted this category, as have independent congregations not having fixed membership rolls. But a huge element is that people join our congregations yet never get assimilated into the family of faith. Hence, since Reunion (1983), we have dropped more than 3 million members from our rolls with no real idea where they are or why they left.
There are more than these four significant reasons for decline. Each of the four would require a different approach to remedy the problem. But do we have the will and the theological center to address these issues? The Presbyterian Fellowship believes that these issues will be better addressed without the pluralistic theological confusion currently existing within the PCUSA. Each group needs to offer the clarity of their respective positions that they may move forward.