Category Archives: Analysis

Last Week In The Presbyterian Church In Ireland: Everyday Disciples And Essentials

Last week was a busy one for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland with their Special Assembly on Everyday Disciples and in that the roll-out of the new Essentials discipleship program. A close look at the Essentials material in a moment, but first a brief review of the Special Assembly.

Beginning on Monday of last week, over 600 people gathered at Ulster University in Coleraine for this Special Assembly around the theme Everyday Disciples and focusing on discipleship. It was not a deliberative assembly but a four-day event to prepare and energize members in their own discipleship walks as well as reaching out to others. In the church’s news article in advance of the Assembly the Moderator of the GA, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Noble McNeely is quoted as saying:

As Christians, Jesus calls us to be His disciples in all aspects of our lives. The title and theme of our Special Assembly is in recognition of the increasing necessity for today’s followers of Jesus to be equipped by the Church to be effective disciple-makers in their various spheres of everyday life.

Many of us however, recognise that we have perhaps concentrated too much on programmes and activities in our churches and have not been as strong on providing the essentials to facilitate making mature disciples.

The daily keynote addresses from our two principal speakers and the range of seminars available will help us to consider seriously the need for daily discipleship. It will also help us to understand better how we can be involved in a 21st century reformation of church and society.

The two principal speakers were pastors from U.S. churches who spoke on the theme of discipleship with an emphasis on a believer’s life and the local church. The first speaker was Rev. Randy Pope, pastor of Perimeter Church (with the PCA) in Atlanta. The second speaker was the Rev. Dr. Ray Ortlund, Jr., pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville. More on the speakers from both the PCI news article as well as one from the Belfast Telegraph.

I saw no indication of a live stream of the event but there was a healthy (OK, one non sequitur has crept in) and helpful Twitter presence so I would encourage you to check out the hashtag #everydaydisciples. And tracking there, from all that I saw the conference had a laser-sharp focus on the topic of discipleship and good quality keynote sessions and workshops. I appreciated the high quality of the stream of tweets but have resisted pasting any in here.

At the end of the Special Assembly a new discipleship program called Essentials was rolled out. I have purchased a copy and am favorably impressed with the focus, quality and helpfulness of this resource.

So, for your £12 you get the eight videos and five participants books with additional books £1 each. There is also a leader’s guide and a preaching plan included. And with the purchase you get access to the videos online for download in a number of different formats.

As you might have guessed it is an eight session program with each session taking the participants through a step in the journey of Jesus with his disciples. Here is a breakdown of the sessions:

  1. Come – COME AND SEE: Discipleship starts with awareness of Jesus before activity for Him
  2. Call – FOLLOW ME: The essential call of discipleship is to follow our Master Jesus
  3. Community – SHARE LIFE: We can’t do discipleship alone. We learn to follow Jesus as part of His church
  4. Culture – STEP OUT: Disciples don’t escape or embrace culture, but engage with it as they follow Jesus
  5. Courage – SPEAK UP: Disciples aren’t just called to live well in culture, but also to speak up for Jesus
  6. Cost – DENY YOURSELF: Following Jesus brings a cost in every area of our lives
  7. Challenge – GO MAKE: The challenge of becoming disciples who make disciples
  8. Continue – LOOK UP: We never graduate from needing Jesus but continue following him in every age and stage of life

I really liked this progression and thought it was a useful and logical way to develop the concept of discipleship. And it should be clear from the progression above that this resource, like the Special Assembly, was about both our own discipleship as well as equipping disciples to make disciples of others. I also liked that this is not a prescribed formula for doing discipleship but a journey and way of life from which helping others develop as disciples is an integral part.

Each session has a Before You Watch opening discussion with some intro questions and the Bible reading. The book gives a basic idea to keep in mind during the video and provides space in the book to jot down thoughts or comments. And in the After You Watch section a time to respond and discuss based on the five concepts of React, Reflect, Apply, Story, and Respond.

Each video is about 15 minutes long (plus or minus about one minute) and are all follow the same pattern, opening with a brief intro, then the Bible passage followed by a couple of individuals commenting and reflecting on the Bible reading. Finally, just under half the video is a member, or in a couple cases two members together, telling a part of their spiritual journey relevant to the topic of that session. The videos are well produced, the timing of them and the segments in them right for the audience and generally interesting to watch. The almost four minute promo video on the web page uses segments from all the videos and gives you a flavour for them.

It is worth saying up front that this series is not intended for a world-wide audience as it is produced for individuals from Ireland with themes and stories that resonate within their cultural setting and experience. For example, near the beginning of video three as the speaker talks about Christian community he makes reference to a number of experiences in that society in saying “Doesn’t Jesus know this is Ireland… We do division really well.” The cultural focus is definitely a benefit in getting the material out to the intended audience. For me it detracted little from the videos but if used in another setting some interpretation may be necessary if viewers are unfamiliar with the cultural themes.

Overall I was very favorably impressed with this resource. High quality and well thought out. I can only say that I went through the whole thing on my own and not with a group but it seems like it should work well. It is not high-pressure and the spiritual journeys shared in the everyday members of the church are well chosen and engaging and would seem to give plenty to talk about in a group discussion.

There were a couple of minor items that did jump out at me: One was that the scripture passages which, while appropriate, were not in chronological order. While session one and session two did come from early in the Gospels, session 3 then jumps to the end of John and the High-Priestly Prayer to talk about community. If the over-arching framework is disciples on their journey being developed by Jesus something more in order might have been more powerful. The second is pretty minor and that is a mention by the person in session 5 in telling his story talking about leading someone to Christ and the Sinners Prayer. It is a quick passing reference and not in the spirit of “this is how its done” but in some Reformed circles that particular prayer is not highly regarded for various reasons. (e.g. Ligonier, TGC)

Finally a couple of nice touches I liked in the series. First, the series is bookended in forming disciples – at the beginning the call to become one and at the end the commission to go and make them. And second, the final session ends in prayer – a good conclusion and reminder of where, as disciples, we are grounded.

Bottom line – I liked the series and found it a good framework and model for such a resource. Clearly some significant thought and testing has gone into designing it and producing it. Yes, it is produced with a particular cultural setting in mind but I think the value of this outweigh’s the downside of portability. And you can’t argue with the cost and I have not figured out if the production budget is depending on volume of sales or subsidy, but I suspect the latter. However, I can say I enjoyed working through the series on my own and can say I was stretched a bit by it.

My thoughts for what they are worth. Your mileage may vary… (to use one of our cultural idioms 😉 )

PC(USA) Membership Numbers For 2016

A couple of days ago the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released the summary of statistics for 2016 and the corresponding narrative. This does of course provide new data points for my growing data set and gives me an opportunity for some statistical analysis which is, for me, a “source of innocent merriment.”

On the one hand, it is tempting to just tell you that if you read my analyses from the last couple of years you can move on since there is really nothing new in this year’s numbers. The bottom line is just about the same as 2015 and 2014 – number of churches down 2.0% and membership down 5.7%. OK, you are welcome to move on now if you want.

On the other hand, the commentary – some might refer to it as the spin – from the OGA invokes their new slogan, motto, mantra, tag line, I am not sure what they are calling it, regarding the PC(USA) that “We are not dying, we are Reforming.” There is an interesting statistical facet on that so in the second part I will drill down into that a bit.

But first, let’s run the numbers. Here is what I have for the last 24 years:

Year Num Churches Num Change % Change Num Members Num Change % Change
1993 11,416 -40 -0.3% 2,742,192 -38,214 -1.4%
1994 11,399 -17 -0.1% 2,698,262 -43,930 -1.6%
1995 11,361 -38 -0.3% 2,665,276 -32,986 -1.2%
1996 11,328 -33 -0.3% 2,631,466 -33,810 -1.3%
1997 11,295 -33 -0.3% 2,609,191 -22,275 -0.8%
1998 11,260 -35 -0.3% 2,587,674 -21,517 -0.8%
1999 11,216 -44 -0.4% 2,560,201 -27,473 -1.1%
2000 11,178 -38 -0.3% 2,525,330 -34,871 -1.4%
2001 11,141 -37 -0.3% 2,493,781 -31,549 -1.2%
2002 11,097 -44 -0.4% 2,451,969 -41,812 -1.7%
2003 11,064 -33 -0.3% 2,405,311 -46,658 -1.9%
2004 11,019 -45 -0.4% 2,362,136 -43,175 -1.8%
2005 10,959 -60 -0.5% 2,313,662 -48,474 -2.1%
2006 10,903 -56 -0.5% 2,267,118 -46,544 -2.0%
2007 10,820 -83 -0.8% 2,209,546 -57,572 -2.5%
2008 10,751 -69 -0.6% 2,140,165 -69,381 -3.1%
2009 10,657 -94 -0.9% 2,077,138 -63,027 -2.9%
2010 10,560 -97 -0.9% 2,016,091 -61,047 -2.9%
2011 10,466 -94 -0.9% 1,952,287 -63,804 -3.2%
2012 10,262 -204 -1.9% 1,849,496 -102,791 -5.3%
2013 10,038 -224 -2.2% 1,760,200 -89,296 -4.8%
2014 9,829 -209 -2.1% 1,667,767 -92,433 -5.2%
2015 9,642 -187 -1.9% 1,572,660 -95,107 -5.7%
2016 9,451 -191 -2.0% 1,482,767 -89,893 -5.7%

So what have we got? Both the number of churches and the number of members had a somewhat consistent decline for the first part of this time period through about 2004. The membership decline was creeping up but still hung below 2%/year. The rate of decline in the number of congregations was much more stable hanging a bit below 0.2%/year. Both then show a bit of a acceleration up to 2011 with the rate of church decline rising to just below 1%/year and the membership decline rising to a bit over 3%/year. Then in 2012 there was a rapid increase to a plateau that continues in the 2016 data. The rate of decline of the number of congregations has been right around 2.0%/year, the number for 2016, and the decline in total membership has generally been above 5%/year, with the 2016 number at 5.7%, a tie with the previous year for highest rate in the time period.

It is a bit interesting to see the headline of the narrative from the OGA: “PC(USA) membership decline continues but slows.” The answer to this headline is a bit of yes, and no. They are correct that in terms of net numbers the membership loss in 2016 is the lowest that it has been in three years. Good news? Not really, because as noted above the decreasing total membership number means there are fewer members to lose so the net number is magnified and the rate of decline, as expressed in percentage loss, is actually among the highest it has been.

Moving on, let me make some comments based on the slogan “We are not dying. We are Reforming.”

One important aspect of this is that the annual statistical reports and these summary statistics are more and more missing a developing component of the denomination. These reports reflect traditional congregations, but the PC(USA) is developing New Worshiping Communities which are not in the reports. While not yet substantial enough to offset the significant losses in the traditional congregations they do reflect one of the ways the denomination is trying to reform itself.

The second aspect, and one of the reasons I have posted the long timeline above, is what is happening to the denomination with the membership changes. Going back to 2000 I have the reports on categories of membership gains and losses. Members are gained through transfer, affirmation of faith, and “other.” Similarly, losses are counted in transfers to other churches, transfer to the Church Triumphant (id est, deaths), and again, the ever popular “other.” In the case of losses this can generally be though of as people who walk out the door and don’t come back.

So, at the end of 2000 the PC(USA) counted 2,525,330 members. In the intervening 16 years they gained 328,519 members by affirmation of faith of those 17 and younger. There were gains of 638,308 from affirmation of faith of those 18 and older. From transfers in it was 444,527 members gained and from other it was 200,440. So the total new members received in those 16 years was 1,611,794.

Going the other way, 573,098 were transferred to churches in other denominations, 528,030 joined the Church Triumphant, and 1,553,301 are in the other category. The total losses were 2,654,429. It is interesting to note that this is just slightly higher than the total membership in 2000. There is not much that can be done to stop, or induce to come back to church, the members lost to death, so the losses from transfers and walking away are 2,126,399.

My point, related to the reforming aspect, is that with turnover of this magnitude the PC(USA) of 2016 is not the same PC(USA) of 2000. That is not to say that aren’t some of those members from 2000 still around. But it must be acknowledged that unless there are a lot of people who leave and return the number that flow through the denomination is fairly high. (And I would note that there are some of the leave and return, as evidenced in my own church when there is a pastoral transition.)

If you want a graphical depiction of how this develops with time, here is one that I put together. It is a bit simplistic because all losses come out of the year 2000 total membership (the “Base Membership” in the figure). And at any given time the total membership of the PC(USA) would be the Base Membership plus the Members Added – the top edge of the orange indicated by the arrow on the right side of the figure.

It is a simple first-order model but it helps to show the interplay of the gains and losses how the losses build up with time. There is significant membership flow and so membership turnover is one way the PC(USA) is reforming.

To really consider the membership dynamics a more multidimensional model is needed that considers losses in both categories and that some gains may be individuals in a previous year’s losses. If I find some time I might play around a bit with modeling this with more parameters. Definitely would make losses proportional between the Base Membership and the Members Added. Maybe add a bit of reentry into membership from the Other and Transfer Losses. And if the demographics of the latest Presbyterian Panel are reported some estimate could be made of the retention time in the denomination. (Yes, there is a reason this is starting to sound like an aquifer model.)

I will note in closing that on a first look I see no changes in trends in this year’s numbers compared to the last few years. One interesting trend that continues is the increase in the number of candidates ( 2014 – 562; 2015 – 632; 2016 – 653) and the decrease in the number of ordinations ( 2014 – 292; 2015 – 249; 2016 – 215). Watching the Church of Scotland General Assembly this week they have a number of empty charges (id est, called positions) and mentioned this over-supply in the PC(USA) as a possible source of trained pastors.

And so we look forward to the release of the detailed comparative statistics in the fall to get a better breakdown on some of these summary numbers. But for now, at least as I read the reported numbers, it appears to be a bit of status quo in the PC(USA).

Stay tuned…

And now back to our regularly scheduled General Assembly tracking.

The Curious Case Of The Kuyper Prize

So apparently the tent is not that big…

But I am getting ahead of myself here.

First, in case you need the elevator pitch on what is happening, Princeton Theological Seminary announced that the Abraham Kuyper Lecture would be delivered by a Presbyterian pastor of some note, the Rev. Timothy Keller who is about to retire as the senior pastor of a church in New York City. A bit of a ruckus arose because TE Keller is apparently not the right type of Presbyterian pastor – it turns out that he is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. An initial attempt by the President of PTS, TE Craig Barnes, to explain the situation apparently did not help and so, with the gracious consent of both the Kuyper Committee and TE Keller the prize will not be awarded this year but in the interest of academic freedom and hearing a variety of voices Mr. Keller will still give the lecture.

When I initially heard about the prize I must admit that I was a bit surprised at the choice of Tim Keller. On the one hand, considering the description of the prize is:

The Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life is awarded each year to a scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement in matters of social, political and cultural significance in one or more of the ‘spheres’ of society. A condition of the Prize is that the recipient deliver a lecture on a topic appropriate to the aims of the Center. This lecture normally opens the annual spring conference, which is usually on a related theme.

Tim Keller – with his pastoral and missiology work – has easily done this. He founded, developed and put a program of expansion in place for church planting in an urban setting. If you want a statistic here, his multi-site congregation is roughly half the size of the combined total of the 101 PC(USA) congregations around him in New York City Presbytery. He has left a mark on Manhattan of “social, political and cultural significance.” On the other hand, my jaw dropped a bit at the chutzpah of a unit of PTS inviting a Presbyterian of another flavor to give the lecture knowing that he did not share some of what are becoming essential tenets of the modern PC(USA). It was no surprise to me that the controversy broke out.

Several strong voices of opposition appeared on the internet regarding the decision and how TE Keller was a part of a religious tradition that, while Presbyterian in governance, did not model the inclusiveness now expected in the PC(USA) and at its seminaries. Exempli gratia: Carol Howard Merritt, Traci Smith, and a faculty, staff and alumni online petition.

On the other hand, I was appreciative of the Kuyper Center reaching out to TE Keller and although I understand the motivation behind the criticism I was saddened to see such a strong reaction. I will not deny his overall theological views and their incompatibility with the modern mainline, but I want to take a few steps back and consider all this in a wider temporal and spacial context. A few points came to mind.

First, the topic of the lecture is not about what we as American Presbyterians disagree on but on something which we share regarding the social impact of the church. I believe that the walls that American Presbyterians have put up in the name of orthodoxy do a disservice to the proclamation of the Gospel and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. (I sometimes wonder if we are a bit too much like an award winning heretic joke.)

Second, Tim Keller seems like a reasonable leader for those in the PC(USA) to reach out to if the point is to develop this dialog. Within each denomination the membership is spread across a range of opinions on any given issue and it is helpful to remember that within the PCA there are some who became a part of it when the Reformed Presbyterian Evangelical Synod merged with the PCA in 1982 and those from the RPES gave up their ordination of women. While TE Keller did not come in through that branch, his church has been the target of criticism for having deaconesses serving along side deacons in the church leadership. As the PC(USA) knows very well, church beliefs evolve and maybe an evolution will be seen in the PCA’s stance with time. And I dare say, we acknowledge there are those within the PC(USA) who do not affirm the latest moves towards inclusiveness and might there actually be a few individuals who are still not fully in favor of the ordination of women?

Finally, what does this controversy say to PC(USA) ecumenical partners, many in Latin America and Africa who still do not ordain women? Is this saying, there are certain non-negotiables in what we say presbyterianism means and you don’t fit it? Or is this broadcasting a double standard for what it means to be an American Presbyterian versus a global Presbyterian?

I should probably finish by saying there has been a lot of criticism of PTS for the flip-flop and to a wider audience I suspect the perception is turning out more negative than positive. Again, Exempli gratia: Owen Strachan, Denny Burk, and Rod Dreher. In the mainstream media there are stories from the Washington Times and the Deseret News picked up the RNS story. And it appears in Abrahan Kuyper’s homeland a Dutch news site has picked it up as well.

And so with that, we will see how this all goes. One commentator has even noted that Abraham Kuyper would not qualify for the prize named for him under these new unwritten expectations.

So how large is the tent? Hang on to your hats as we try to find out.

A First Look At Some New PC(USA) Numbers

Over the last couple of weeks the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has released two sets of data that will be the focus of attention at the upcoming General Assembly. At some point in the next few of months I hope to really drill down into the data some more, but to do that there is a third report that I am waiting for so a detailed analysis will have to wait for its release. But because they will be the focus of attention in a couple of weeks, here are some initial comments.

The first one I will look at is the annual report of the summary statistics for the denomination including the 2015 membership data. To some degree this is either “move along, nothing to see here” or a case of Alfred North Whitehead’s famous quote “It takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” But here we go anyways.

The money quote is always the totals so the PC(USA) finished 2015 with 9,642 churches, 20,077 teaching elders and 1,572,660 active members. That is a 1.9% drop in churches, fairly consistent with the 2.1% and 2.2% in the two preceding years. The number of teaching elders declined by 1.5% after declines of 0.9% in 2014 and 1.4% in 2013. The membership decline has been rising slightly with a 4.8% drop in 2013, a 5.3% drop in 2014 and then a 5.7% drop this past year.

Often times the story is “look how many churches and people are leaving the PC(USA) for more conservative denominations.” Now I will not deny that is an issue in these numbers but let’s add a little perspective here. The statistics show that in 2015 the PC(USA) dismissed 104 churches to other denominations. In the same year they dissolved/closed 91 churches. In general, over the last four years the number of churches dismissed has typically been roughly the same as the number closed. (2012: 86 closed, 110 dismissed; 2013: 74 closed, 148 dismissed; 2014: 110 closed, 101 dismissed) Over those four years there have been 13, 24, 15 and 14 churches organized.

It is the same story with membership losses. While the church lost 47,728 members by certificate of transfer in 2015, 27,469 joined the Church Triumphant (death) and 79,002 were lost to “other”, i.e. walking out the door and being dropped from the rolls. In general, the number of members transferred has been about half the number in the other category over the last several years. For perspective, the total gains by profession of faith, transfer, and other over the last year were 59,092.

In case you have not picked up where I am going with this my point is that dismissals are only part – roughly half – of the problem. Even ignoring dismissals of congregations and members the replacement rate in the PC(USA) is still well below the losses to dissolutions, deaths and disappearances.

There is another important component to keep in mind and that is the statistics use an old model and do not reflect a new paradigm. The major development emphasis in the PC(USA) right now is the 1001 New Worshiping Communities and as most of those are not chartered and do not have regular members they are not in these numbers. I could not find a specific current number but the number of 1001 NWCs appears to be between 250 and 300 at this time.

One piece of good news in the numbers is that for 2015 the total giving was up by 0.5%. With the decrease in membership this means that the per member giving rose 6.6% from $1043 to $1112.

The second report that was issued is the final report on The Church In The 21st Century. This resulted from a church-wide consultation and conversation on the denomination’s identity and where the PC(USA) should head. The report itself focuses on an online survey to which over 3000 members responded. There are two versions, a report only version with OGA annotations called When We Gather At The Table, and The Church in the 21st Century report from Research Services that has the appendix with detailed statistics. While the narrative is very similar, and in places identical in the two reports, I will be working from the latter one for the detailed statistics.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about this report is that it is self-reporting and not a random sample. Here are the two important paragraphs printed in both reports (page 6 of the detailed report):

Because this project invited the input of any and all people and entities of the PC(USA) (individuals, congregations, seminaries, mid-councils, and various affiliated groups [e.g. new worshiping communities, immigrant fellowships]) within a short time frame, creating a probability sample to ensure a representative group of Presbyterians was not feasible. Instead, a convenience sample (that is—a sample of volunteers) was used. As such, we cannot calculate a response rate.

Findings from the resulting convenience sample will not be as generalizable as findings would be if they had been taken from a (random) probability sample. However, an analysis of the demographics of those who participated in the study reveals that the sample somewhat matches the known demographics of Presbyterians as a whole. Exceptions are noted in the Demographics section, which follows.

So here is the caution: You can not take the numbers in this survey and say “According to the survey we know X about the PC(USA).” You can say that we know X about those that responded to the survey.

So does this mean that the survey is not useful? μὴ γένοιτο (by no means) But to consider what it does represent let’s take a look at a couple of points about who responded.

The report in Appendix A gives the results of each question. While I wish they would give the raw numbers we can work with the total responses and percentages of each question. To begin with, there were 3,427 responses and 98% were PC(USA) affiliated so that would be about 3358 PC(USA) individuals. Now, 3,055 submitted an answer to the question of whether they were ordained. Of those, 30% said they were teaching elders so that is about 917 meaning the other 2138 are members of churches. Considering those numbers, that means that 4.6% of teaching elders responded (based on the 2015 numbers discussed above) and 0.14% of members responded.

Let’s drill down on those members for a moment. Of the total of 3,055, 41%, or 1253, are ruling elders. Converting that into percent of members of churches, 59% of those who respondents who are not teaching elders self-identified as ruling elders. For comparison to a more controlled sample, in the 2011 demographic profile of the Presbyterian Panel 36% of members surveyed said they were ordained ruling elders.

In the new report participants were asked to rate their social orientation and theological orientation on a scale of 1 to 7. Based on the responses the report categorized 62% of all participants as socially liberal, 9% neutral and 29% conservative. The question was also asked for theological orientation with 54% liberal, 11% neutral and 35% conservative.

There is no perfect way to compare these results to the denomination as a whole. The question about social orientation has not been asked in previous surveys but the report makes a comparison to a question about political party affiliation in an earlier, more controlled study. A similar theological question was asked in the 2011 demographic profile with 19% of members saying they were liberal or very liberal, 39% saying they were moderate and 39% saying they were conservative or very conservative. The problem is that the earlier numbers are for members while new survey also includes teaching elders, who – based on that same survey question – are known to identify as more liberal, and there is no cross-tabulation or analysis of variance information to back out member versus ruling elder versus teaching elder groupings like the demographic profile does.

Has the denomination grown more theologically liberal? The departure of conservative congregations has almost certainly made this the case. But by 35%? That seems like a stretch. Similarly, has the middle shrunk by 28%? Maybe, but that is hard to understand as well.

Instead it seems more likely that the respondents to the survey are those that are the most connected and care the most about the PC(USA) — a fact that the survey acknowledges. The high response rate of teaching elders and ruling elders relative to members in general certainly seems to show this. By extension then it would follow that those on the theological ends are also more concerned and interested in being heard and those in the middle did not have as great an interest so they have a smaller response rate.

So what this survey says is that a lot of hard-core PC(USA) folks care about the PC(USA). Is it no wonder that when asked why it was important to a respondent to be part of the PC(USA) the top three answers were Theology (41%), Polity/Governance (29%), and Thinking Church/Educated Clergy (24%).

So that is what well-connected and involved members of the PC(USA) care about and see as the denomination’s identity and strengths.

But let me end this with this caution: While the study is a great snapshot of the identity and thoughts of the PC(USA) at this time it is biased towards those that know and care the most about the church. In one sense that is OK, because they are the ones who will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting related to restructuring in the years to come. But in another sense it is a problem because it reflects the status quo. If the PC(USA) is looking to recover and move forward it needs a close examination, more than can be done in one week at GA, ask some hard questions and make some difficult decisions. It is not just closing ranks around what it knows and understands but challenging some of the strongly held beliefs reflected in this report and possibly develop a new identity.

We will see where this goes. Stay tuned…

Postscript: I do want to acknowledge that there is a lot more material in the new identity reports and if you care it is worth a read. While I found it frustrating that more raw data was not released with it there is a lot of interesting info in there. Due to my intended focus of this article, as well as time constraints, I won’t be diving into it more now I may return to it later, probably in regards to how it is received by the General Assembly.

A Closer Look At Denominations And Twitter

My musing about Twitter accounts that I posted a week ago started a bunch of conversations and got me looking at it a bit more closely. Now fair warning – that post was the beginning of a look at the diversity of a denomination by thinking about how many different “voices” there are coming from that branch. Ultimately I want to find a way to categorize those voices on a diversity spectrum but a  couple of metrics I have tried already did not pan out. However, in casting the net a bit wider, that is in bringing more denominations into the data set, an interesting relationship appeared.

As we drill into that data a brief reminder about the data set. I was looking for official Twitter accounts from a denomination. My original list from the PC(USA) included the primary account, agencies, committees, periodicals and news sources. It did not include what I characterized as commercial project-specific accounts – like the Glory to God Hymnal and the Feasting on the Word series – as well as not counting seminaries and conference centers. As I move on to other denominations I will stick to these same parameters even though some have seminaries and conference centers with much closer oversight by their highest governing bodies. In addition, I am choosing at the onset of this analysis to include the inactive, duplicate and periodical accounts.

In this search for denominational Twitter accounts I found one more for the PC(USA) and have added that to the list in the original post and annotated it as an update. For the rest of the usual American Presbyterian branches I have these that I found:

ARPC – 32,000 members (from current issue of The ARP)

RPCNA – 7,000 members (from current issue of The ARP)

OPC – 31,122 (from Statistician’s report to 2015 GA)

No official Twitter accounts found

PCA – 358,516 members (from Clerk’s summary of 2015 GA)

EPC – 149,527 reported (from statistical report to 2015 GA)

BPC – 3500 members (Wikipedia)

No official Twitter accounts found

ECO – 60,000 members (report from 2014 Synod meeting)

Cumberland – 72,370 members (2015 GA Minutes Statistical Reports for 2014)

CPCA – 7676 members (2014 GA Minutes Statistical Reports for 2013)

No official Twitter accounts found

So if we take these and plot Twitter accounts versus membership what do we get? Here is the graph.

twitter_1

That’s a pretty nice trend line there — all the data give a correlation of 0.990. Tough to beat that. But those who regularly deal with statistics will notice a couple of issues.

First and foremost the trend line is highly leveraged. That is to say that you have a lot of data on the left and then a really, really long space until you get to the PC(USA) on the right. When calculating the trend that isolated data point can dominate and pull the trend line to itself. Compared to the actual number of 39 Twitter accounts the trend line predicts 39.06 accounts. Yes, there is the clear possibility of leveraging.

Second, even the data point for the PCA is a bit isolated there away from the cluster. In a sense, we have the statistics of small numbers with three meaningful populations: the PC(USA) point on the right, the PCA point in the middle and the cluster containing everyone else on the left.

However, looking at the data and the trend line it still seems to be a decent fit. Yes, the PC(USA) has leveraged it but the predicted 9.11 accounts for the PCA is still reasonably close to the actual 10 accounts. So let’s test the leveraging.

Dropping the PC(USA) point from the linear regression and fitting only on the lower nine points, including the PCA, the correlation drops to 0.827. So there is a correlation drop indicating some leveraging but that is still a respectably strong number. But have a look at the plot…

twitter_2

So if the trend line is only based on the lower nine data points and then extrapolated out four times that distance to predict the PC(USA) value, it only over-estimates by 1.54. This is starting to look like a more robust relationship.

Having now had a look at the data let me tell you that what I found is significantly different than my expected outcome. You might have noticed that a bit of my bias crept into the last post regarding the PC(USA) having a high number of Twitter accounts. As I was compiling that list it seemed to me that the church had gone wild in creating accounts.  Well, when viewed from the perspective of number of accounts per thousand members (that would be 0.024 accounts/member for the trend line if you care) the number is right in line with everyone else. They just happen to be four times larger than the next largest branch so the number of accounts is four times larger.

From a statistical point of view I went into this expecting that I would never be able to plot this on a linear line. I was expecting to have to fit it to a log scale on the number of accounts axis. Furthermore, from past experience I also expected the leveraging to be more dramatic and the extrapolated line to miss by a wider margin. So I share this little experiment to document something that truly surprised me when I took a close look at it. And furthermore, the decision of which accounts to include and which to exclude from the count was made at the beginning and carried through the analysis. It would of course be interesting to try this again with other subsets but I have not tried those and will leave that for another day.

Now, what we can say is that the number of accounts that the PCA and the PC(USA) have are completely in line with each other and generally with the smaller churches as well. While the smaller branches scatter a bit more around the line the trend is generally evident in that cluster.

What we can not say is whether, from an administrative and social media point of view, the PC(USA) and maybe the PCA have too many Twitter accounts. There is a statistical relationship here but that does not tell us whether the number of accounts per member helps or does not help get the message out. Furthermore, this relationship does not answer any questions about the consistency or coherence of the message in social media or the diversity of the branch as a whole.

Some of my preliminary thoughts are what this might mean for scaling relationships of institutional structure and self-similarity as a means of probing institutional development. In particular, it might be an interesting on-going study to see how accounts might be added as ECO becomes larger and how accounts might go dormant as the PC(USA) scales back its operations.

But it is a very interesting relationship and I put it out there for any social media theorists or practitioners who might be interested in this sort of thing. As I said, I was surprised by the proportionality, robustness and consistency of the relationship. I welcome any of you that are interested to continue pondering with me what possible implications there might be.

Musings On How Big Is The PC(USA) Big Tent – Part 1: Herding Cats?

So I got this research idea over lunch today: I have been considering ways to quantify how big the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tent really is and I thought that maybe Twitter accounts might be one metric. I am not sure how well this actually does what I want but it was an interesting experiment and so I thought I would share it as a musing.

The idea started when I was thinking about the articles I write as previews for various general assemblies and including the official social media links in the article. There is usually an official Twitter account for the denomination, maybe one for the GA itself, sometimes a news account, a couple of official individuals and typically a ministry agency or two. Check out the Presbyterian Church in Ireland post if you want a good example and one I consider typical.

But thinking about the PC(USA) I knew that it had a bunch more accounts so I started compiling a list. Here is the list of what I found in about an hour of searching. I was surprised at how many different official Twitter accounts the PC(USA) has. Besides the general official one (@Presbyterian) I found the following 37 (in no particular order):

[Update: The above list was one lunch-hours work. As I find more I am adding them here:

These additions are not reflected in the numbers discussed below. /Update]

Please note that this does not include churches, presbyteries or synods. I did not include accounts for wrapped-up special projects like the MC Commission or the Glory to God Hymnal. It does not include any seminaries or conference centers like Stony Point or Montreat. No affinity groups like APCE or alumni groups like YAV Alumni are in the list. And no individual accounts for officers of the denomination’s entities. It does include both the old and new Presbyterian Foundation accounts as well as two inactive Presbyterian News accounts of different vintages. It also has some periodical publications like Call to Worship, Presbyterians Today and the Mission Year Book for Prayer (which appears to have gone inactive). As I was compiling the list my criteria for inclusion if I did not recognize the entity was whether it had a web page URL that began with pcusa.org or presbyterianmission.org. But to be clear, some that I know are PC(USA) entities have their own branded web URL’s like 1001 New Worshiping Communities with www.onethousandone.org. You are welcome to argue with my include/cut line but the list is massive enough that one or two inclusions or deletions won’t change my musing about it.

Big tent? You have to admit that there is certainly something for everyone in those 38 Twitter accounts – although I am a bit disappointed to see the Evangelism account has not been active for almost four years so that pulls one edge of the tent in a bit. The list can be reduced a bit by removing the six inactive accounts and the three that I see as direct sales accounts (Store, WJK Books, ThoughtfulChristian, but not Giving Catalog). That still leaves 29 active Twitter accounts that cover the wide range of areas the PC(USA) is in. And it should be remembered that some of these represent multiple accounts in the same entity, such as Theology and Worship having a Twitter account for both general items as well as one dedicated to their periodical “Call to Worship.” It is also interesting to observe that neither of the two big top divisions, the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency, have stand-alone accounts but both tweet under the most general @Presbyterian account.

Some thoughts…

With so many sub-areas it does raise questions about the church. There is so much going on has the PC(USA) spread itself too thin, especially in light of declining membership? Do each of these areas end up as its own constituency and so the Big Tent ends up covering a multitude of separate groups with little mixing between them? With limited resources do these different areas compete for scarce resources or does their social media outreach provide the means of providing resources for their ministry?

As the title of this piece implies, when I looked at this list and from my knowledge of the activity on social media, I had to wonder if managing this large assemblage was akin to herding cats. How much does each area define its own mission, goals and objectives versus how much do they work together on a set of well-defined goals and objectives that are related to the mission of the body as a whole? Is there coordination of these accounts around common themes and events or does each sort of work its own themes out and focus on its own activities?

A quick test of this: The next churchwide event is the Big Tent event at the end of the month. I went through the 29 active Twitter feeds and looked to see how many had some reference to Big Tent since May 1. Some had numerous references, some had only one and sometimes that was a retweet. But in total I found 13 of the 29, almost half, had at least one mention of this summer’s churchwide event. I am not sure if that is good or bad but it does suggest there is not strong coordination across the entities regarding churchwide priorities.

OK, I will leave it at that for today. I saw a bunch of other points on which I could collect future data that might make interesting metrics of the big tent nature of the denomination. Maybe I will have time to chase some of those further at a later date. But for now, on to other things.

Brief Note On A California KAPC Civil Appeals Court Decision

About a week ago a California appellate court handed down a decision affirming the trial court decision in the case of Jun Ki Kim et al. (Respondents) v The True Church Members Of The Holy Hill Community Church et al. (Appellants). From here I will use the annotation of Kim v. Church for the parties. The particular church at the center of this is in the Los Angeles area and a member of the Western California Presbytery (WCP) of the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC). The two sides have been involved in a dispute over the church leadership and membership in the WCP since early 2011 which has resulted in a bit of a long and complex ecclesiastical and civil saga.

I am going to keep this relatively brief, or at least not dissect this decision as much as I commonly do, for two reasons. First, the history of the dispute and the presbytery involvement is complicated. In the time frame of the complaint each side has alternately been excommunicated by the presbytery and recognized by the presbytery as the true church. At the present time the Kim group is supported by the presbytery and the Church group is out. In addition, each group when they were in control tried to withdraw from the presbytery and the presbytery did not approve of their actions. Whether a KAPC church can take the action unilaterally I am not sure as I have not found an English language translation of their Book of Church Order (BOCO) to consult.

However, in the end the pivotal event of consequence to the trial was the Church group calling a congregational meeting to vote on whether to secede from the WCP, which they did. The presbytery did not recognize that vote, removed the church leadership, excommunicated the Church side in the dispute and brought the Kim side back into the church and the presbytery. The Church side alleged that the presbytery overstepped their authority and did not follow the process. The trail court said it was an ecclesiastical matter and did not interfere with the steps take by the presbytery.

The second reason that I will only consider part of this decision is that in the specifications of error the first applies to ecclesiastical control while the other two are legal procedural matters regarding admission of evidence and cross-examination.

So the Church group appealed the trial court decision on the three specifications of error including “the court erroneously found in favor of respondents based on appellants’ excommunication from the Holy Hill Community Church (Church) by the Western California Presbytery (WCP).” After reviewing the factual and procedural background, the decision discusses the deference to the presbytery’s excommunication decisions. In the discussion there is a section on the “Overview of law governing judicial deference to ecclesiastical decisions” which is an interesting read about the division of church and state (begins on page 8). The discussion is generally applicable since it focuses almost entirely on the classic U.S. Supreme Court decisions and only at the end brings in the controlling California decision, Episcopal Church Cases (2009).

One of the interesting polity arguments the appellants make is that while there was an internal dispute in 2011 there was no internal dispute in 2013 when the presbytery stepped in and excommunicated them. The court disagreed:

Substantial evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that there was “an internal church dispute which exists to this day.”… The mere fact that both factions—appellants and respondents—continued to participate in this case demonstrates that the dispute continued for at least as long as the case itself.

The money quote in this decision, at least as far as the ecclesiastical deference is involved, comes right at the very end of this section (pg. 12-13):

Appellants’ last two arguments seek to overturn the trial court’s ruling on the grounds that the WCP lacked authority to excommunicate them either because they validly seceded from the WCP or because no one from the Church had petitioned for any action by the WCP. They argue their secession was valid even though the WCP had previously removed [an] interim moderator, because BOCO rules permitted a “minister from the presbytery” to act as a temporary moderator. However, in arguing the validity of their secession vote, they highlight the entire reason behind the ecclesiastical rule, which is that courts are ill-equipped to interpret ecclesiastical rules, particularly in hierarchical church organizations. No party disputes that the KAPC is a hierarchical organization, consisting of various presbyteries, and that churches are subordinate to both the KAPC and the presbytery to which they belong. (See Concord Christian, supra 132 Cal.App.4th at p. 1409 [explaining distinction between hierarchical and congregational church structures].)

We have already determined that the court correctly deferred to the WCP’s decision as a higher ecclesiastical authority. Similarly, the ecclesiastical rule of judicial deference to the highest authority within a hierarchical church on questions of church governance and church membership requires that we defer to the WCP’s decision that appellants’ vote to secede did not comply with BOCO, and that the WCP had authority to intervene.

Now if this were a property case my usual caveat is that interpretation of church property cases is highly variable from state to state. Not being a property case and primarily a membership case we can see that at least this California court gives the hierarchical church, in this case the presbytery, significant latitude to intervene in this situation.

In reading this decision a detail about KAPC polity jumped out at me. I was interested in a couple lines from a section of the BOCO quoted in the decision concerning church property:

Their argument rests on language in BOCO, which states “[w]hen an internal dispute arises in the local church that is within the jurisdiction of a presbytery, regarding membership in the presbytery and the ownership of church property, the right to manage the church property shall temporarily be placed within the hands of the presbytery until the dispute is resolved and the normal operation of the local church is restored.”

An interesting process in implementing what might be considered a trust clause – in a dispute the property is automatically placed in the hands of the presbytery.

Three legal notes that I probably should mention about the decision. First, not withstanding the property reference I just quoted, this decision stays completely away from property disputes and explicitly says this is not a property dispute so there is no reason for the court to become entangled in the ecclesiastical issues. The ecclesiastical portion of this decision was about process and the power and authority of the presbytery regarding membership and leadership. Second, the WCP was originally a party in this case but following the second schism in 2013 where the Church party was excommunicated they dropped from the case. Finally, this appellate court was very deferential to the findings of the trial court and was primarily judging errors that would have affected the outcome of the trial decision, not just any little errors that might have occurred.

So is this case relevant to other civil litigation over church secessions and responses? Maybe. It is a well written decision that sets out the circumstances for hierarchical deference in this case and could be used as a model for others.

On the other hand, this is a lower appeals court decision in one state and while it might set an example or model, it does not set precedent outside that circuit. Its applicability to the State of California would be more important if further appeals take it to the state supreme court. In addition, most of the other cases I look at include litigation about the property which this decision explicitly says is not in play here. How likely are the circumstances in this one particular situation to be replicated in other disputes? This could be a unique example and other cases may be different enough that its reasoning and model are not applicable.

However, as a polity wonk I found it to be an interesting insight into both the process within the KAPC in situations like this as well as a court dealing with the interface of church and state and the boundaries placed by the U.S. Constitution in the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

An interesting diversion. Your mileage may vary.

Now back to the next round of General Assemblies…

PC(USA) 2014 Membership Numbers

At about the same time that I was drilling into the religious affiliation numbers from Pew Research the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of the General Assembly was releasing their membership numbers for 2014. Since the numbers did not show much new, and not much beyond the general pattern of the Pew numbers, I did not rush to print with an analysis. In addition, there was an interesting change in one number that I wanted to find out more about. Now I am ready so let’s dig in.

Between 2013 and 2014 the PC(USA) decreased by 209 congregations, dropping from 10,038 to 9,829. An interesting point in 2014 is that the church returned to dissolving more churches (110) than they dismissed (101). The last two years the dismissed churches (2012: 110; 2013: 148) outnumbered the dissolved churches (2012: 86; 2013: 74). It is important to note that if a church majority unilaterally leaves for another denomination without the formal dismissal from the presbytery they usually either remain on the books if there is a continuing congregation or are listed as dissolved.

Regarding gains, no churches were received from other denominations and 15 churches were chartered. Here again, there are some shadow congregations as many of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities are not chartered and are working under a new model in many presbyteries so that it may be a long time, if at all, before they would be chartered and appear in these stats.

So over all the change in the number of churches in 2014 represents an annual decline of 2.1%.

Membership numbers are also declining from 1,760,200 in 2013 to 1,667,767 in 2014, an annual drop of 5.3%. The largest category of loss continues to be Other – people who leave without transferring – at 78,107. Certificate, or transfer, losses are second at 51,352 and transfers to the Church Triumphant (deaths) were 28,389. The largest categories for gains is profession of faith for those over 18 with 24,051 joining the church and 16,637 transferred in.

The PC(USA) had a total of 65,415 join the church and 157,848 leave for a net loss of 92,433 and a ratio of loss to gain of  2.4.

A couple of comparisons: The Pew survey found that the percentage of individuals in the U.S. who identified as mainline Protestants declined from 18.1% of the total population in 2007 to 14.7% in 2014. Converting that to absolute numbers that would represent a 14.1% decline in the number of members of the mainline. For the PC(USA), the decline was from 2,209,546 in 2007 to 1,667,767 in 2014 or a 24.5% decrease, a number significantly ahead of the mainline as a whole.

The second comparison is with the Church of Scotland. A little while back I looked at their numbers and compared them to the PC(USA). Now that I have the 2014 numbers I can add that last PC(USA) data point and do the full comparison. From 2003 to 2014 the Church of Scotland had a 10.8% decline in the number of churches while the PC(USA) had an 11.2% decline. For membership, the Church of Scotland declined 31.1% and the PC(USA) declined 30.7%. Very close numbers and I have updated the graphs of the ratios from the previous post and you can see they have very similar trends. In both graphs the PC(USA) is in blue and the Church of Scotland in red.

CofS_PCUSA_Congregations_2014b CofS_PCUSA_Membership_2014b

There is one piece of data in the report that really caught my attention: The number of PC(USA) candidates for ministry declined by about 50%. With thanks to the folks at Research Services and Assistant Stated Clerk TE Timothy Cargal for answering my question, this is a known issue and represents a change in reporting method. Rev. Cargal answered this question for someone else in the comments of the report download page:

Most of this change resulted from transition in January 2014 from one reporting system used by the presbyteries that relied on mailed in forms to a new, easier online reporting system. During the transition, many individuals who had left the preparation for ministry process in previous years by withdrawal, removal, or even ordination, but for whom this information had not been reported, were removed from the system. The new system encourages more accurate reporting because presbyteries have direct access to the system and so make more regular use of it. Additionally, those under care can now also see their status in the system through their online exam accounts and encourage their presbyteries to make sure their individual profile records are accurate. We are seeing a decline in inquirers and candidates (just as the Association of Theological Schools is reporting declines in total seminary enrollment across the country), but nothing on the order of 50% in a year.

So, from a statistics point of view this is a reset of the number and no comparison of 2014 to preceding data is relevant. In addition, this is one of my bellwether numbers every year and I have commented on it multiple times in the past. The implication is that previous numbers have lower reliability so my past analyses and comments must now be viewed with a more critical eye.

It is still interesting to note that there are 562 (new system) candidates reported and 292 ordinations last year. But, Rev. Cargal helps us out here in a piece he just wrote for the PC(USA) Preparing for Ministry blog. The new system gives greater granularity and he shares with us that as of mid-May there are 288 candidates that have been certified ready to receive a call. (For those not familiar with the system, “certified ready” is short for the last formal status in the PC(USA) preparation process: certified ready for examination for ordination, pending a call.) So of those 562 candidates just over 50% were certified ready. Furthermore, those 288 are close in number to the 292 ordained last year.

But Rev. Cargal informs us of another interesting data discrepancy: While 292 ordinations were reported on forms to the OGA Records Manager, only 166 teaching elders listed in the online rolls have a 2014 ordination date. It looks like we will have to stay tuned for resolution of that discrepancy.

Looking further at Rev. Cargal’s analysis, he notes that of the 288 certified ready candidates in the system, about 3 of every 10 have been searching for less than a year, 4 of 10 have been searching between one and three years, and the remaining 3 have been searching for more than three years. He also says that for those that have been ordained, 29% were ordained within six months, 30% ordained in the next six months, 25% ordained in the following year and 16% after more than two years.

I am glad to see that better numbers have resolved one of the big issues that I have had with the PC(USA) call system, the high number of candidates and low number of ordinations. I am curious to see the more detailed comparative statistics in the fall to see what additional light those data might provide regarding the current status of the PC(USA) call system.

So is the PC(USA) in a death spiral? Losing 92,000 members a year would bring the church to zero in about 19 years. If the loss is 5% each year over that time in 20 years the church would have a membership of a bit more than 600,000. If it were to return to the average mainline loss from Pew of 2% per year then the PC(USA) would have about 1.1 million members in 20 years.

There are a couple of factors which could work in the PC(USA)’s favor over the next two decades. First, maybe it has its controversy now behind it so going forward the church could find a missional rallying point and work to decrease or reverse the decline. The other is that the PC(USA) has started thinking about what church membership means in the current cultural context and as New Worshiping Communities grow these annual membership reports may not properly reflect the numbers affiliated with the PC(USA). We may end up with a new model of being a church that is less concerned with statistics, per capita and formal membership.

Finally, if you are concerned with the overall decline in church affiliation currently in the news, I would encourage you to consider the long view and have a look at a piece by Tobin Grant, “Religious decline in America? The answer depends on your time frame.”

So, regarding membership and the pastoral preparation and call process there is a lot here for us to do some further thinking about. I am not sure where it will take me next, but this is GA season and with a bunch of GA’s coming up next week more analysis on this will probably wait a while. As I always say… Stay Tuned!

The Latest US Religion Demographic Data

Ah, the Siren Song of new data…

In case you were not on social media yesterday the Pew Research Center released their new report on American’s Changing Religious Landscape and it is all over the interwebs from national mainstream media, to local news outlets, to the religious news sources to bloggers to the people in the pew. And don’t worry if you have missed it because it probably only quantifies what you already know. I like the way Derek Rishmanwy put it on Twitter:

The cool thing about Pew numbers is how versatile they are; bloggers can wear them with triumph, grief, & multiple shades of schadenfreude!

And a nod to Andrew Wilson and his tweeted observation:

Ironic, a few days after the UK discovered just how inaccurate polls can be, to see so much excitement / distress in the US over … a poll.

All that to say, I initially thought I would just look at it and say “Nothing to see here. Move along folks.”

But remember that my mantra is “I never met a data set I didn’t like,” so casting caution to the wind I jumped into the fray. Now join me as I drill down into a very small piece of the data released with this report.

First, in the event you have not taken a look, let me give you the bullet points everyone else is focusing on. Between the last survey in 2007 and this one in 2014:

  • The proportion of the population identified as part of mainline denominations has dropped 3.4% from 18.1% to 14.7% of the population
  • At the same time those classified as part of evangelical Protestant churches has dropped 0.9% from 26.3% to 25.4%
  • There was a 1.2% gain in non-Christian faiths (now 5.9% of the total population) and a 6.7% gain in what they identify as Unaffiliated which has grown to 22.8% of the population.

Now, Pew favors reporting in percentages since they are most interested in the proportional interplay of groups. But it is instructive in this case to convert this into absolute numbers. So in 2007 the estimated population of the U.S. was about 301.6 million. By 2014 it had grown to 318.9 million. Using the above numbers that means that the mainline decreased from 54.6 million to 46.9 million. However, in an absolute sense the number of evangelical Protestants grew from 79.3 million to 81.0 million.

OK, now my two biggest pet peeves about this data set. (Yes, this data set pushes the limits of meeting data sets I didn’t like).

  • The basic categories for Protestants are mainline, evangelical and historically black. In other words, if you are not the first or the last you must be evangelical – that mushy category that is tough to define. So, for example, you are combining into a single group those that subscribe to the Westminster Standards with those that have “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no name but the name Christian.” I think this classification could be a bit more granular.
  • The category Unaffiliated is similarly a catch-all, at least at least as I look at it. The category includes Atheists (3.1% of the population), Agnostics (4.0%) and Nothing In Particular (15.8%). Furthermore, the Nothing In Particular are further divided into Religion Not Important (8.8%) and Religion Important (6.9%). Jack Jenkins over at Think Progress dissects this corner of the classification a bit more.

Specific to that first bullet point though, Appendix B says:

Protestant respondents who gave a vague answer to denominational questions (e.g., “I am just a Baptist” or “I know I am Methodist but don’t know which specific Methodist denomination I belong to”) were placed into one of the three Protestant traditions based on their race and/or their response to a question that asked if they would describe themselves as a “born-again or evangelical Christian.”

OK, so if I am PC(USA), but don’t know or admit that I am PC(USA) and acknowledge to being born again, I get placed in the Evangelical Presbyterian category. Likewise, someone in another Presbyterian tradition that does not identify which one but does not consider regeneration to be technically the same as being born again, they would be placed in the mainline. To this point the report goes on:

Overall, 38% of Protestants (including 36% of evangelical Protestants, 35% of mainline Protestants and 53% of those in the historically black Protestant tradition) gave a vague denominational identity, necessitating the use of their race or their born-again status (or sometimes both) to categorize them into one of the three major Protestant traditions.

That appendix does list 16 different Evangelical Presbyterian categories that were reported, some of which were specific (exempli gratia: Presbyterian Church in America, Cumberland Presbyterian, Bible Presbyterian), some of which are ambiguous (does Reformed Presbyterian refer to the RPCNA or to the Hanover Presbytery?) and some are general catch-all categories like Ethnic Presbyterian and “Presbyterian, ambiguous affiliation.”

[I will note that the main report does have a two page section (beginning on page 30) on identifying evangelicals and they discuss how it can be by denomination (so Presbyterians are never evangelical), by the born-again test, or by a more detailed analysis of their beliefs. The latter is outside the scope of this report but they expect another report on that later.]

So in the report of data they group Presbyterians into three categories: the mainline PC(USA) and two Evangelical categories: PCA and everyone else. I found it interesting that in the population numbers reported in that appendix the size of the PC(USA) and the size of the Evangelical everyone else was the same with each being 1.1% of the population in 2007 and 0.9% in 2014. The PCA held steady at 0.4% of the population. For comparison purposes, if the PC(USA) had about 1.7 million members in 2014 and the US population was 318.9 million that means that only 0.5% of the population of the US was a member of the PC(USA). So based on the Pew results the adherents, or those who identify with the PC(USA), almost doubles when you consider how people self-identify or the survey classifies ambiguous answers.

Moving on to the detailed data, I will focus only on Presbyterians and refer only to the breakout pages for Presbyterians. There is one for Mainline Presbyterians generally and a subset for the PC(USA). Similarly, there is one for Evangelical Presbyterians and the subset for the PCA. So keep in mind that for the the general evangelical numbers, about half are the PCA. In addition, since I am not sure what a mainline Presbyterian who is not in the PC(USA) is I will simply focus on the PC(USA) data. But there is another 0.5% of the population that they classify as being mainline without being PC(USA).

And as I start this drill-down let me add this warning: I will be looking at small changes in some of the categories but my interest must be tempered with caution, or even skepticism, because the table of Margins of Error shows that for these sample sizes the margin is between +/-7% and +/-5.5%. That means that while many of the differences between the numbers below are interesting, very few of them are statistically significant.

So let’s start with Age.

I find it interesting that differences between all the Presbyterian categories were so similar in the 2007 survey. In general, they all had about 10% in the 18-29 age group, and 30% in each of the other age groups – 30-49, 50-64 and 65+. Yes, there are some slight differences but the pattern looks solid and there are uncertainty ranges (and the ambiguous classifications) to consider so I don’t get too concerned about that range.

Between 2007 and 2014 the PC(USA) and the PCA show very similar patterns of change in the age ranges. The youngest range stays the same, the 30-49 range decreases markedly ( -11% for the PCA and -9% for the PC(USA) ), the 50-64 range also remains the same and the 65+ range increases markedly ( +12% for the PCA and +6% for the PC(USA) ). The general evangelical as a whole shows less change in each category except that there is a marked increase in the 50-64 range ( +6%).

Gender composition

In terms of gender composition the PC(USA) remained steady at 45%/55% men to women. The PCA and the overall general evangelical both had a 5% shift from men to women.

Racial composition

Each of the groups became more diverse over the last five years with the PC(USA) dropping from 91% to 88% white, the PCA from 86% to 80% white and the general group from 88% to 81%.

For the PC(USA) the change was distributed over all the other categories with Black respondents increasing from 4% to 5%, Asian from 2% to 3% and Latino from 2% to 4%.

In the PCA it was a similar pattern for Black adherents with an increase of 5% to 6%. Asian members decreased from 4% to 3%. The biggest increase was in the Other/Mixed category jumping from 1% to 5% and a noticeable increase in the Latino category from 4% to 6%.

For the combined general evangelical category the Black percentage increased from 4% to 6%, the Asian from 3% to 5%, Other/Mixed from 1% to 4% and Latino was constant at 4%.

Income and Education

These two demographic measures appear to have some correlation as you might expect. For the PC(USA) the peak in annual household income shifted from the $50,000-$99,999 group in 2007 (37%) to the $100,000+ group in 2014. Actually, considering the margin of error the two bins are pretty close in 2014 with that lower bin having 29%. For education, the distribution is pretty flat in 2014 with just about 25% in each of the categories – High School or less, Some College, College, Post-graduate.

The interesting thing across all three classifications of Presbyterians for income is that it is bi-modal as they have binned it. In all the cases there is a lower peak in the <$30,000 bin. For 2014 the PC(USA) it is 24%, for the PC it is 27% and for the general evangelical it is 28%.

For the PCA and general evangelical the income distributions have their primary peak in the $50,000-$99,999 range with 31% in the PCA and 21% in the general. Likewise, the education peak for both groups is in the Some College bracket with 37% of the PCA and 35% of the general.

I suggested the income/education correlation, but another one comes to mind. Is the apparent correlation age reflecting the higher incomes in the PC(USA) does an older demographic with higher earning power or with more two-wage earner households account for that result.

Switching and Retention

The last set of data I want to look at is the information on individuals switching denominations and the retention of members. For this we need to turn to the section in the full report beginning on page 32. Overall, 19.0% of the country grew up in the mainline Protestant church. In the survey the measurement is that 10.4% of the population has left, 6.1% have switch into the mainline giving 14.7% now in the mainline. For evangelical Protestants the numbers are 23.9% that grew up in it, 8.4% left, 9.8% joined and now 25.4% are in that category.

Looking at all Presbyterians, 3.0% of the population grew up in a Presbyterian church of some flavor. Those who have left make up 2.0% of the US population and those that have joined make up 1.1% for a current total of 2.2% of the population.

Now, returning back to that margin of error stuff – in compiling all this data is struck me that there are some interesting differences between these three groups, but based on the demographic data in the report these three groups of Presbyterians are not that different after all.

So where do we go from here?

One thing that struck me was the “the sky is falling” response. As I said in the early discussion there is nothing new about these demographic changes. A lot of attention is being paid to the Unaffiliated growth but this group comes in a number of flavors and I am not sure combining them gives much insight. Looking at the data my interpretation is that the Nothing in Particular category has now become the point for loosely or barely affiliated individuals to now identify with. As Ed Stetzer puts it in his helpful analysis

One of the primary reasons it appears as though “American Christianity” is experiencing a sharp decline is because the nominals that once made up (disproportionately) Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism are now checking “none” on religious affiliation surveys.

In the long view what is happening now is more of a pruning or consolidation. A vital core is still there for the church to move forward.

However, this consolidation does not seem to favor the mainline. There are enough theories as to why that is the case that I won’t go there now. But I think the same principle applies — there is pruning and consolidation going on with that branch. The key will be finding a central core and shared vision to organize around in the years ahead.

Can the mainline do that? It will be interesting to see. There is certainly a lot of pruning going on in the PC(USA) although you will get significant discussion as to whether there the mainline is the core that needs to be pruned or the part that is being shed in the consolidation. But with the Split-P’s the divisions come and reunion later comes as well. We will have to see which groups can develop strong cores or whether the declines will overtake them before they can.

I also wanted to add that for purposes of forecasting future trends grouping and reporting the data a bit differently would be useful. The primary example is the age data where the ranges are large enough that having a report with shifted age ranges so that individuals in the 2007 report are in the same group in the 2014 report would be useful. Even better, maybe a report with the age ranges reflecting the customary demographic groups – Builders, Boomers, Gen X and Millennials – could be considered. The purpose of course is to isolate the groups to see if they fit the oft-reported trends. Similarly, when dealing with something like household income it would be helpful to not just see it in the bins but also report the quartiles of the data.

So there are a few of the things I was chasing here. A couple other items jump out at me but this close to the opening of the Church of Scotland General Assembly convening that I want to chase those any further. Lots to think about here so something to return to later if times get slow. And there is always that report on Evangelical Protestants. But for now…

… On to Edinburgh

Church of Scotland Statistical Report (And Comparison to the PC(USA) )

As I was looking through the reports to the Church of Scotland General Assembly 2015 I found the most recent statistical report at the end of the Legal Questions Committee Report.

The numbers in the report help to quantify the comments about the declining number of adherents in the Kirk. For example, over the last year the number of individuals On the Rolls has declined from 398,389 to 380,163, a decrease of 4.6%. Since 2003 – the time span covered by the report – the Total on the Rolls has decreased 31.3% from 553,248. Similarly, back in 2003 there were 1546 congregations, in 2013 it had dropped to 1389 and in 2014 the number had further dropped to 1379. Since 2003 it reflects a 10.8% drop and a 0.7% decrease in the last year.

Looking at the categories of membership change, over the last decade I found it interesting that membership loss to the Church Triumphant (deaths) was almost always right around half of the losses. Removals by transfer shows a fairly steady decline while removals in the other category are consistently higher than transfer but jumps around a bit. On the plus side, admissions by Profession and by Resolution run about equal while admissions by Certificate are a bit higher. However, in the bottom line the number of removals was about three times the number of admissions in 2003 and they gradually diverge over the next decade until by 2014 the removals were more than four times higher than the admissions.

Considering the similar patterns seen in the PC(USA) I thought I would compare the two data sets to see how similar they are.

The numbers for 2014 for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are not out yet so the decade drop to 2013 will be considered. The PC(USA) numbers can be found in the annual Comparative Statistics reports.

In 2003 the PC(USA) reported 11,064 congragations and 2,405,311 members. The Church of Scotland had 1,546 congregations and 553,248 total on rolls. In 2013 the PC(USA) had 10038 churches and 1,760,200 members. The Church of Scotland had 1,389 congregations and 398,389 total on rolls.

The decade drop in number of congregations is 9.3% for the PC(USA) and 10.1% for the Church of Scotland. The membership drop is 26.8% for the PC(USA) and 27.9% for the Church of Scotland. A difference of just about 1% for each of the measurements.

Since the two branches have significantly different numbers of congregations and members I have plotted comparison graphs using their numbers normalized to 2003 and so it shows the proportion of members or churches in each of the following years. The red line and points are for the Church of Scotland the the blue line and points are for the PC(USA).

CofS_PCUSA_Congregations_2014CofS_PCUSA_Membership_2014

There are some interesting differences between the plots, particularly the higher rates of decline for the Church of Scotland earlier in the time period and an increased rate of decline for the PC(USA) in the last few years. But overall, declines for both are fairly steady and very similar.

This raises all sorts of questions about why this is. This is too limited a data set to really speculate too far, but similar combinations of factors are certainly in play for both. On the one hand they have been wrestling with very similar internal discussions and actions regarding the role of same-sex partnered leaders within the church. On the other hand, they both have the bigger cultural issues that are causing the decline of mainstream/established churches throughout the western developed world. Figuring out the interplay and strength of those two components, and some others we might be able to think of as well, will take a much broader set of data to consider.

The strength of the similarity came as a bit of surprise to me because of the accounts I see about the rapid decline of Christianity in Europe (exempli gratia) and I expected to see Scotland declining noticeably faster than the American branch. If there are significant differences between the continents, this either speaks well for the Church of Scotland or poorly for the PC(USA), or both. More work is needed here.

It is probably worthwhile briefly noting one additional statistical item from the report and a point of significant divergence between the two branches. The final table in the Church of Scotland report shows that at the end of 2014 there were 215 vacant charges, just about one-fifth of all the charges in the Kirk. Furthermore, 39 students were training for the ministry. In the PC(USA) the Church Leadership Connection Applications and Positions Report shows that there are currently 45 Head of Staff positions being searched for and over 800 individuals who might want those positions. There are 213 solo pastor positions in the search process and 1421 individuals who are searching for such a position. And in 2012 – the last year these statistics are available for – there were 12,807 active teaching elders and 1,078 candidates for 10,262 churches. (And for those not familiar with the PC(USA) system, candidates are those students in the final stages of training or those who have finished and not yet ordained to a call.) And yes, I have skimmed over a whole bunch of nuance in both sets of numbers, but it does show the marked difference between the scarcity of Church of Scotland clergy and the abundance of PC(USA) clergy.

The membership and congregation data is however an interesting and enlightening comparison and it shows two related and culturally similar Presbyterian branches in similar circumstances. I will keep an eye out for additional data sets which may throw more light on the forces which might be controlling the similar behaviour. But that is what I see in the data now – your mileage may vary.

Postscript: If you are interested in the data set and the calculations you can view them on a Google Sheet.