Asking the better questions

Reporter Erin Dunigan speaks about the 2023 PC(USA) statistical report with denominational leader Lee Hinson-Hasty.

wooden toy cube with a question mark viewed high angle on a blue background with copy space in a conceptual image

The Office of the General Assembly released its annual statistical report in late spring, and though it does offer high-level information about the state of the church, a closer look reveals more questions than answers.

The number of total churches has declined (from 8,813 in 2021 to 8,705 in 2022) and the total number of active members has declined by 53,105 in the past year, continuing recent trends.

But Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director for theological education funds development for the Committee on Theological Education (COTE) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Foundation, wonders if we are asking the right question: are we following the right data?

“I’m looking for vitality and health of the PC(USA) and how it lives out its mission,” said Hinson-Hasty, who is ordained in the PC(USA). “That is not necessarily revealed in the membership numbers.”

Journalist and public broadcaster Krista Tippett says that it is “not true what they taught us in school — there is such a thing as a bad question.” Her measure of the strength of a question is the honesty and eloquence it elicits.

“Questions are the means by which we explore ourselves, each other, and the world,” she says.

Hinson-Hasty thinks we need to begin to ask better questions.

“Clearly there is membership loss, but what else is happening?”

“Clearly there is membership loss, but what else is happening?”

For example: The report shows that the PC(USA) is losing churches and that membership is shrinking, which might lead one to think that fewer pastors will be needed. But those numbers are also accompanied by a loss in pastors – by retirement or death – which actually suggests a continued need for pastors.

“For the last four years there have been half as many ordinations as there have been retirements,” Hinson-Hasty said. “I don’t really know many congregations that are growing their membership … without some form of faithful pastoral leadership.”

He suggests that it is easy to get caught up in what feels like the crisis of the numbers but we must look to the bigger picture and not let the crisis change our course.

“When we talk about growth in the church it is not how many members are on the roles it is how that congregation is making an impact in the world,” he said.

What are those “better questions” that the church might be asking? And how can the data from the statistical report help to inform them?

“For me, the better question is the question of the health and vitality and impact of churches and their leaders to make a real difference in the world,” Hinson-Hasty said.

Questions such as, what are congregations doing about affordable housing in their neighborhoods? How many congregations are actively seeking new inquirers for ministry in their congregations? How are Presbyterians living out their call in faithful ways in the world, as presidents of corporations or doctors or teachers or parents? How many people are coming through church buildings for AA meetings? How many kids are in confirmation class? How many churches are helping to resettle refugees or are building homes or are protesting injustices?

Hinson-Hasty admits that the world has not gotten easier, but rather more complex. There is more for congregations to navigate and for pastors to shepherd. But he also sees this as an exciting moment. “It is not a moment to focus on simple answers, but to ask better questions and work toward solutions that we know that we can find together.”

“It is not a moment to focus on simple answers, but to ask better questions and work toward solutions that we know that we can find together.”

Some of those questions, suggested by the numbers in this year’s statistical report:

  • Why has the number of young adults (aged 18-25) dropped by almost half, and what might we do better to nurture those young people?
  • How might the church better represent all the people of God in the racial composition of members?
  • How might intentional space be made for non-binary/transgender members of the body of Christ?
  • Are there other ways we may begin to understand “church growth” other than just through membership rosters?
  • How might we continue to cultivate an increase in baptisms?
  • Youth professions of faith are up from both 2020 and 2021 — how might we continue to nurture and grow those youth in their faith so they are able to feel at home in the church through their 20s and beyond?

“The church,” Hinson-Hasty said, “is more than math and numbers — it is about faithful people doing faithful things often out of the limelight with their time, energy, imagination, love and using those gifts to glorify God.”