Is the Presbyterian Church (USA) going to collapse?

By Jeff Gissing

The Presbyterian Church (USA) recently released the findings of its “Religious and Demographic Profile of Presbyterians 2011” (the report). More than 6,000 clergy and members of the PC (USA) were asked to participate in the study for a three-year period. The goal was to sketch a broad landscape of the denomination in demographic and theological terms. The report is availablehere in its entirety. In many respects the report is grim reading. In fact, it points to the coming collapse of the PC (USA)demographic and theological realities will force the denomination to accept a new, diminished future.

The report reveals, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the PC (USA) is old and white. 94% of the randomly selected members reported their race as “white or Caucasian,” as did the randomly selected Ruling Elders. Of clergy, 91% of pastors and 89% of specialized ministers (chaplains, professors, etc) reported their race as white. For all categories of respondent, more than 90% were born U.S. citizens. The study notes, most alarmingly, that the racial-ethnic makeup of the denomination has remained virtually unchanged in the last forty years. This discontinuity makes the future of the denomination untenable since it has not reached either immigrant communities or people of color in any meaningful way. While there are flickers of light in the 1001 New Worshipping Communities initiative, it seems to be rather too late for this to significantly offset coming losses.

The denomination also continues to age. The median age of members rose from 60 to 63 between 2008 and 2011. That means that if you were to list the ages of each of the member respondents, half of them would be older than 63 and half younger. The number is similar62for ruling elders. The report also indicates that almost 50% of church members are not employed, while only 7% of members report being “full-time homemakers.” Could it be that almost half of our church members are retired? Perhaps the PC (USA) should be called the AARP at prayer?

Pastor median age is 55 whereas for specialized ministers it is 57. As a point of comparison, the median age of the United States (as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau) is 36.8, a significant difference. If we isolate for race and report only non-Hispanic whites, the median age is still only 42.3.

This does not bode well for the future. Over the last forty years, the make up of our nation has changed considerably. That this change is all but absent in the profile of the PC (USA) suggests that it has been unable to effectively carry out the very essence of its stated missionbearing witness to the kingdom of God in there here and nowwhich includes both ethnic and age diversity under the gospel.

What does the report show us about the devotional practices of members and clergy of the PC (USA)? 80% of pastors reported praying privately “daily/almost daily.” For members the number was less, 56%. It is, of course, difficult to discover a cause for this lack of attention to prayer. I’m sure there are numerous reasons, but it is alarming to think that one of the chief means of grace is so absent in the life of church members and even clergy.

The church is also not attending well to Scripture. Only 39% of members report reading the Bible weekly. For ruling elders the number is higher49%. This is a serious problem. Where professed Christians are failing in the practice of prayer and of reading the Scripture, we can be sure that a sense of “cheap grace” will also be present. Scripture and prayerboth individually and corporatelyshape us to follow Christ. Where they are absent, or unattended to, other voices and influences will exert power to form us.

This reality may contribute to the fact that 46% of members agree with the statement, “An individual should arrive at his or her own religious belief independent of any church.” At play here is an autonomous individualism that cheapens the value of community in the formation of Christians. It’s promising, however, that 76% of pastors disagreed with this statement although that number really ought to be higher.

In terms of giving insight into the current battles raging within the PC (USA) and the exodus of evangelical churches, the report is quite helpful. Consider the following statement: “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” Among pastors, 45% disagreed or strongly disagreed. 41% agreed or strongly agreed. Among our clergy, there is a clearly demonstrable variance about a fundamental tenet of Christian belief that is central to the mission of the churchthe proclamation of the Gospel.

Again, in terms of theological self-identification the report helpfully shows that pastors are split on how they identify themselves. 33% report that they are “very conservative or conservative” theologically. 33% report that they are moderate. 34% report that they are “very liberal or liberal.” That clergy leaders of the church express such fundamental disagreement suggests that the future of the PC (USA) as a single denomination is untenable. These beliefs are irreconcilable, which suggests that the best way forward is amicable separation or perhaps some degree of negotiated toleration of evangelical belief and practice in certain PC (USA) congregations.

Such divisions often come to light while discussing the nature of marriage and the increased support for same sex marriage in parts of the country. Incidentally, the PC (USA) is smallest in states that have approved same sex marriage. It is largest in the south, where states have repeatedly defended traditional marriage. Interestingly, church members are less enthusiastic about the potential of same sex marriages in the church. Respondents were asked whether they favored the PC (USA) permitting pastors to officiate at such services where provided for by state law. Only 30% of members and 33% of ruling elders favored this. Only 44% of pastors favored it, and 56% of specialized ministers favored it.

The narrative around the church’s discussions of same sex marriage has painted it as something supported by most and almost inevitable. This contention is demonstrably false. More likely is a mixture of ambivalence, ambiguity, and uncertainty in most thatwhen mixed with a healthy dose of culture’s laissez-fare mentalityproduces the absence of any firm conviction or resolve to doctrinal purity.

God alone knows the future. Yet, in looking at the numbers there is much that ought to concern us about the future of the PC (USA). It is hard to imagine a future that does not include a significant diminishing of the cultural influence of the denomination. This influence has steadily been diminishing over the last forty years.

What is different about the future as forecasted by extrapolating the data in the study is that it is no long clear that the denomination can exist in any form resembling the PC (USA) we have known till now. In fact, it is likely that tomorrow’s PC (USA) will be a fraction of its present size. Its financial resources will be stretched beyond the breaking point. Young clergy will suffer as the Board of Pensions is forced to materially alter the terms of their retirement and insurance packages. As older clergy retire it cannot be taken for granted that paid clergy will fill those vacant pulpits. Yet, the denomination seems to be incapable of taking the drastic steps required to alter this possible future. In the end, this is a failure both of theological integrity and of organizational leadership.

Jeff Gissing is IRD’s Presbyterian writer

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