The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). lost 56,689 members in 2020, a pandemic year.
That’s a membership loss of 4.3% in 2020 — from 1.30 million active members in 2019 to 1.24 million active members in 2020.
To give some perspective:
- The PC(USA) membership decline in 2020 was a little bigger than the drop in 2019 (when it declined by 50,635 members, or 3.7%). But it’s a little less than in the two previous years, with losses of 62,375 members from 2017 to 2018 (down 4.4%) and of 67,714 members from 2016 to 2017 (down 4.5%). So: think steady continuation of losses, with the percentage rate being about the same in a pandemic year as in the several preceding years.
- Like many of the mainline denominations, the PC(USA)’s membership losses go back more than 50 years now — with a peak membership in 1965 of 4.25 million members of the two denominations that later merged to form the PC(USA).
- From 2007 to 2014, the percentage of American adults who identified as mainline Protestants dropped from 18.1% to 14.7%, according to the Changing U.S. Religious Landscape Report from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public life.
- Since then, the declines have likely accelerated, with a March 2021 Gallup Poll reporting that only 47% of American adults – less than half – say they belong to a house of worship.
In short, what’s happening in the Presbyterian Church is part of a much broader picture of the increasing secularization of American religious life, particularly with young adults — and with PC(USA) congregations being filled with older adults, and seeing the numbers of baptisms and confirmations continuing to decline.
The number of PC(USA) churches dropped by 116 last year, from 9,041 congregations in 2019 to 8,925 congregations in 2020.
Most of that decline was from the 103 churches that dissolved — typically because they grew too small and could not survive. In 2020, only seven congregations were dismissed to other denominations, compared to 24 in 2019. Essentially, the burst of congregations leaving for more conservative denominations in the early to mid-2010s, after the PC(USA) decided to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians with spouses or partners and to allow its ministers to perform same-gender marriages, has slowed to a relative few.
There are signs of experimentation and evangelism in the PC(USA). The number of new worshipping communities increased by 30, from 176 in 2019 to 206 in 2020. And the number of new church developments and fellowships rose a bit, from 110 in 2019 to 112 in 2020.
But most Presbyterian churches remain small — with close to one in five having 25 members or less. Of the 8,925 congregations, 5,699 had 100 members or fewer — or nearly 64%.
The PC(USA) remains a predominantly white denomination — more than 89% of Presbyterians are white.
The PC(USA) also skews older, with about a third of members being age 71 and up.
And there were significant drops in baptisms and youth professions of faith in 2020.
From 2019 to 2020, the number of baptisms dropped by 6,150 (with 4,251 baptisms reported in 2020, down from 10,401 the previous year) and the number of youth professions of faith declined by 3,704 (dropping from 9,023 in 2019 to 5,319 in 2020). The fact that many churches weren’t meeting in person likely was a factor in the sharply lower numbers.
In a statement accompanying the release of the statistical report, PC(USA) stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson said: “There are certain aspects of our work such as communion classes and Bible study that generally perpetuate interest in people coming to church. The inability to have fellowship and personal interaction has had an impact. Our church buildings, the places where we met together, have been closed for the most part.”
Nelson also said what the PC(USA) is facing “is a challenge for all Christian denominations.”
The PC(USA) also saw a drop in the number of ministers and of those being ordained.
The number of PC(USA) ministers declined by 281, from 19,066 in 2019 to 18,785 in 2020. While there were eight more candidates for ministry (rising from 703 in 2019 to 711 in 2020), the number of ordinations of ministers dropped by 61 — from 206 ministers ordained in 2019 to 145 in 2020.
The full 2020 statistical report can be found here.