One way to test ourselves is to ask what has come of the actions — whether controversial or not — that were taken by the commissioners at last summer’s meeting in Pittsburgh. In addition to recent articles on great progress of the 1,001 new congregations, in this issue a team of writers weighs in on several such matters through our In Focus section, beginning on Page 10.
Another way to measure ourselves is to count heads. The news there is familiar, only more so. The annual statistical report from the stated clerk shows another year of accelerating loss of members, attendance, giving.
We can bolster our morale by noting that most American churches are shrinking. Indeed, Ed Stetzer, the head of LifeWay Research, reported to this spring’s Southern Baptist Convention that Baptists are “catching up with the Methodists” in declining numbers, having seen a steady loss of membership since 2000. This matches the demographic analysis long presented by Eileen Lindner, pastor of the Tenafly Presbyterian Church in New Jersey and editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (NCC). Lindner has been saying for years that the mainline gains that peaked in the early 1960s and slid thereafter would be echoed by the conservative denominations, which would peak in the 1990s, then decline.
Shrinkage and handwringing love company. But that’s no real consolation, is it?
In fact, this year’s report posts two stunning statistics. After losing an average of 51,452 members per year over five years (2007-11), in 2012 the losses doubled to 102,791. In the same five-year span, 99 churches transferred to other denominations; in 2012, 110 churches left, exceeding the total of the previous five years. Ouch.
Let’s talk turkey about those losses. Those leaving are doing so prayerfully. They exercise due diligence to assess whether they can faithfully serve our Lord in the PC(USA). Some of them leave with tears, while others kick the dust off of their feet — especially those whose exit has taken them through the grinder of hostile presbytery treatment. Some leave well-informed, and just cannot accept some of our recent policy changes.
Others leave misinformed. The most common confusion: they hear that more than half our pastors believe all religions offer valid paths to salvation. They base that claim on a 2012 Presbyterian Panel report that actually says something quite different. Yes, some do believe that other religions can lead people into the truth — but just 11 percent of our pastors believe that. Where pastors are split is on whether “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” Forty-one percent say yes, 45 percent say no, and 15 percent are unsure. The collective ambivalence reflects a biblical ambivalence. The same New Testament that says Jesus is the only way also tells of the salvation Jesus provided Hebrew folks ranging from Abraham to Rahab — none of whom had encountered the crucified and risen Lord (Hebrews 11:39-40). And each of us hopes to reunite in heaven with infants and other loved ones who we know didn’t devote their lives to following the Savior.
However, those of us who long to strengthen, not sever, our relationships are failing to correct the misinformed and make a compelling case for staying in this covenanted fellowship. We have tried to make that case in the Outlook, but the widespread belief of such misinformation testifies that we’ve done too little.
And, while our efforts have been too tepid, too limp, the provocateurs — those who love to play beyond the edges of orthodoxy — use their blog pages and Facebook groups to proclaim their eccentric ideas and pet heresies, thereby reinforcing the negative assessments of the rest of us.
How are we doing? At implementing the last GA’s initiatives, score us an A- or B+. But at studying the peace of the church, at promoting the benefits of interrelatedness, at making the case for connection, at presenting the shared vision, beliefs and values of the Reformed faith, I’d give a mid-term grade of “C-.” We could do so much better.