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.