I have to admit to being caught a bit off guard when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released their membership numbers a couple of weeks ago. The summary numbers are typically released right around the time of the start of General Assembly in years that it meets. As for whether the early release was because they were ready or they wanted to get bad news out well before the GA I will leave to others to speculate.
Once again, I took a look at the numbers and wondered “what can I possibly say about them that is not being said by others and is worth my time?” Well, in thinking about it a bit I decided to drill down and look specifically at the categories of membership gain and loss and see if there was interesting information if we picked them apart a bit.
For the data set I use the Summary Statistics released by the Office of the Stated Clerk. While for many things the Comparative Statistics from Research Services are more detailed, for the gains and losses categories the Summary works better. Rummaging around on the web site I got summaries from 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013 taking the data back to 2005.
I decided not to deal in absolute numbers but to look at gains and losses as percentages of the total membership relative to the previous year’s total membership. This will help filter out the trend and allow a better year-to-year comparison.
First let’s look at where the gains have come from for the last nine years. Gains are reported in four categories – Profession of Faith, Reaffirmation, and Restoration for those 17 and younger, the same for those 18 and over, Certificate (i.e. documented transfers) and Other.
|| Profess <17
Here is the data in graphical terms. This is a stacked graph so for any given component its value is the distance between that symbol and the one below it. The plotted value of the top symbol (for Certificate gains) is the number in the Total column in the table above.
It is interesting that the Other category has held relatively constant – there was a bit of a dip but some recovery in recent years. The Profession of Faith for 17 and under has a bit of a drop, significant in its own right but smaller than the remaining two in both an absolute and proportional comparison. The real decreases are seen in the Profession of Faith for 18 and over and the Transfer by Certificate. So we have not just a problem retaining the youth as they grow up but getting them back to church as adults.
Turning to the categories of losses, here is the breakdown shown in corresponding table and graph form. This table also includes the percentage net change to the total membership number.
||Total Net Change
It is interesting here that losses from Death are fairly stable and the losses by Other show some greater variability but do seem to fall into a bit of a range. To no surprise the spike is in losses by Certificate from churches being dismissed and their membership being transferred to the new denomination. And, as usual, the largest source of loss is the Other category – members walking out the door.
Bottom Line? Not only is the PC(USA) losing members – accelerated in the last couple of years by dismissals – but the gains are decreasing on a percentage basis each year as well. Without an increase in gains there is no way to offset the losses.
So how do we explain this? While a number of explanations come to mind let me discuss four possibilities. And let me emphasize that these explanations are not exclusive from one another and that this data set alone is probably not sufficient to clearly distinguish between them – more work would have to be done.
1. The departing churches were the biggest contributors to growth. For many this is a temping explanation and there is a hint that this may be a contributor. It does appear that as the dismissals have accelerated over the last two or three years that the gains in membership by profession of faith have an accelerated decrease. A quick plot, not shown here, did show a suggestive correlation, but the data are clustered to the point that interpolating between the clusters would be problematic.
This is an easy explanation to fall back on since building churches and making disciples are part of the mission statement of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians and so you could argue that churches drawn to ECO would be more growth-focused. The problem is that the trend has persisted for longer than ECO has been in existence so this could be only a partial and recent contributor, recognizing that there was an earlier exodus to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
2. Fatigue or Distraction: Another thing that comes to mind is that the PC(USA) is falling behind in making disciples because it is tired or it is distracted. Maybe we are tired out or distracted by our internal discussions about various issues (fill in the blank yourself or see what bubbles to the surface at GA next week). Or maybe, with an aging population we are losing the energy and drive to reach out to bring others into the church or distracted by the work of keeping the church, both people and building, going.
3. Public Relations Problems: In a similar vain, rather than our internal discussions only distracting us, maybe it presents a public relations problem for the church. Are we presenting to those that we are tying to reach an image that is not appealing, one that does not resonate with the culture today? And this may not be just a result of the ongoing discussions in the church but could include those other issues that are brought up like worship style and music as well as building style or conditions.
4. Counting the Wrong Thing: Maybe, just maybe, we are counting the wrong thing. We are frequently told that younger generations are not joiners. We have an ecclesiastical theology of the Body of Christ and a covenant body that sees joining as a statement about being called by God belonging to Christ. That may work in our theology but does not necessarily work with current culture. I would not advocate giving up that ecclesiology, but for statistical purposes recognize that our worshiping communities may not all reflect that view. There is the drive to form 1001 New Worshiping Communities and at the present time their structure and activity is not reflected in the annual statistics as they are currently collected and reported. So can we hold onto our covenant theology but for statistical purposes recognize some who are part of us but see the joining through the eyes of modern culture and our outreach?
Just a few thoughts I have, you probably have a few of your own.
The take-away for me from this exercise is that our losses are just one part of the equation and that our decreasing gains are a significant issue that also must be addressed if the PC(USA) is to consider itself a vital denomination.