PCUSA and the Death Spiral

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Presbyterian Church 2014


It’s always hazardous to project current trends too far into the future, given that such a practice assumes no dramatic event will either accelerate or reverse those trends.  Still, it occurred to me that if we can just fight off the BDS virus for 2-3 more General Assemblies, there may no longer be a Presbyterian Church left to infect after that.

If you read the chapter on Mainline Protestant churches in Rabbi Poupko’s masterful Looking at Them Looking at Us, you’ll be familiar with what I’m talking about.  For Mainline Protestant churches (such as the Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians) have been watching membership rolls decline and the average age of members increase for close to 50 years.

Sensing the start of a general decline in church affiliation decades ago, leaders of many of the Mainline churches decided to put aside their doctrinal differences and join in Ecumenical communion where together they could more effectively compete with what they perceived as their main rivals: a growing Evangelical movement and society’s increasing secularization.

In theory, such a move makes perfect sense (why argue over subtle 150-year-old theological differences when your members – or, more specifically, your members’ children – are being lured into churches with competing belief systems, or into non-belief)?

But a Presbyterian Church that has nothing to argue about with one of its Mainline partners is also a church that offers no distinct reason for someone to join (or stay in).  And as churches started filling this void with secular politicking (usually under the Social Justice rubric where hostility to Israel now dwells), membership flight continued as (1) some members realized their political time and energy was better spent working with pure Social Justice organizations, rather than a church trying to blend religion and politics; and (2) members who fell outside the “consensus” of one or more political issue wanted no part in a church taking positions in their name with which they did not agree.

The Presbyterians are particularly vulnerable in this area, given that the country includes a number of alternative Presbyterian churches, many of whom broke away from the “mother church” over political or doctrinal issues.  And rather than exercise the type of compromise that might lead to reconciliation, the leadership of PCUSA continues to act in a way that almost seems calculated to create a smaller church with homogenous opinion on key political matters (vs. a larger one where members might contest where that leadership is taking the denomination).

But where should this shrinkage stop?  And is it even possible to stop it?

The answer might come in this rather depressing table that shows the decline of PCUSA members between 2006 and 2012:


You’ll notice not just an ongoing decline, but an accelerating one.  And with the average age of members rising to 63 during this same period, there is good demographic reason to believe that a return to just linear decline represents wishful thinking.  And, to make matters worse, a critical mass of members is required to keep any individual church operational.  So once a particular church loses too many members to sustain a building or pastor, it becomes yet another property the organization cannot afford to maintain.

Now one would think that a church facing this level of an existential crisis would find something better to do than spend another GA slapping their Jewish neighbors in the face (whoops!  I mean “bearing witness” to the suffering of the Palestinian people – but only the ones under Israeli jurisdiction), especially since some of those neighbors (such as Reform Synagogues) have figured out strategies that engage multiple generations in religious life, strategies that could help PCUSA pull out of its current demographic death spiral.

But if divestment finally re-passes this year, that will be a signal to the world that the church has decided to prioritize its anti-Israel animus over not just Christian-Jewish relations but over its own survival.

Series Navigation<< PCUSA and Divestment – 2014 Edition (sigh)PCUSA BDS – Dynamics >>


10 Responses to PCUSA and the Death Spiral

  1. Barbara Mazor March 4, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

    It is amazing to me that anyone would think political activism would draw people to a church.

    Don’t they know, people go to church to party?

  2. fizziks March 5, 2014 at 12:17 am #

    IIRC the last divestment resolution failed by only two votes out of around 600. Given that the church membership is rapidly declining, and that the people leaving are most likely to be those not interested in perpetual pet cause activism, it seems to me like we may very well lose this vote.

    • DivestThis March 5, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

      Your point is entirely well taken and, as I noted in the piece, such a dynamic would no doubt please church leaders eager for a smaller church whose members are more likely to rubber stamp what the leaders tell them is their only choice. But with regard to that narrow vote in 2012, keep in mind that this was based on maneuvering the BDSers engaged in which presented GA voters with the choice to either accept a recommendation for divestment overwhelming accepted in committee, or take the very unusual step of rejecting that majority report and instead voting in one offered by minority dissenters on the committee. Once this extraordinary action was taken (as you said, by two votes), the GA passed the minority measure (and other anti-divestment measures) by healthy margins.

      That said, there is no telling how this year’s maneuverings will ultimately play out, so we may very well see a replay of 2004 (albeit from a smaller and rapidly disappearing church).

      • will spotts March 6, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

        You’re right about the ‘parliamentary’ process issue. Commissioners to a GA are not usually inherently entrenched in anti-Israel positions. They just usually don’t have all the information and tend to rely on that provided by institutional PC(USA) sources.

        Those sources are animated by a horrific anti-Israel bias, and in some cases by a plainly antisemitic bias. Because of the nature of the assembly, the deck is stacked in favor of the institutional insider position – and that can be hard to overcome. I’ve been surprised at commissioners’ willingness to go against that in the past. If – and that’s a big if – they can be persuaded that there is more to the issues than they’re seeing.

        Still, I think fizziks has a point.

        And I have to add – the strategy of fighting this fight over and over and over again eventually usaully wins.

  3. Naftali March 5, 2014 at 6:03 am #

    Let them boycott us. What, Christians acting against Jews is something new? Who gives a damn. They might spin it any way they want, the world will see Christians boycotting Jews, again. ??? ????? ?????

  4. Lynne T March 6, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

    Perhaps these churches with declining memberships are hoping they can prosletyze successfully among the new immigrants from the middle east by showing their bona fides on Palestine. Judging by what I see while travelling on certain transit routes in Toronto, the Latter Day Saints are big on having their young members who do “outreach” become proficient in certain languages so they can make their pitch to those they perceive “more open” to their message.

    • DivestThis March 6, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

      It’s an interesting point, although one of the problems the Presbyterians have is that they have not succeeded in reaching out to any minority communities to the degree that would make up for the declining ranks. So even as they become smaller and older than ever before, they have maintained a 90%+ non-minority membership with no signs of new blood interested in changing that percentage.

      • will spotts March 7, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

        That’s not for want of trying. The PC(USA) views itself – and genuinely wants to be – “multi-cultural”. It just seems that the PC(USA) doesn’t hold much appeal for a lot of minority communities.

        Personally, I suspect that there is little that it uniquely offers in that realm. I mean, what does the PC(USA) have that is specifically unique that would provide a draw? It tends to reject most of its historically unique features so I suspect that – while certain minority communities might be pleased with certain aspects of PC(USA) activism – most individuals don’t see that as reason to join.

  5. Fred Milton Olsen March 7, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

    If one is to consider declining membership in any particular religion, one must also consider the possibility of declining membership in one’s own. Via cursory internet search, there seems to be a wide spectrum of opinion on how Judaism in its different flavors is doing. I was not able to get any real sense of decline or increase from the widely differeing opinions and cited statistics.

    • fizziks March 23, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

      It doesn’t matter because Jews are a people, not a religion. If you counted synagogue attendance statistics you would not count me, because I am not religious. But I am Jewish, and very pro-Israel, and there are millions more like me.

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