Jun 26th, 2005 · Categories: Uncategorized · No Comments

PCUSA: "Gentlemen, that iceberg was a wake-up call"

As a member and observer of the PCUSA, it is easy for me to imagine Capt. Edward John Smith turning to the other officers on the bridge as the Titanic’s fate became clear and saying, “Gentlemen, that iceberg was a wake-up call.” Why so easy to imagine? Because, as the old joke goes, the difference between the Titanic and the PCUSA is the Titanic had a band.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a dying denomination. It has been dying since 1965. In that year, the two mainline Presbyterian denominations that would become the PCUSA had a combined total of 4,254,597* members. They included the northern branch, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the southern branch, the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

Since that high-water mark, the PCUSA and its predecessor denominations have lost members every single year. The northern and southern branches experienced a combined loss of 1,088,547 members leading up to the 1983 merger, leaving the PCUSA to start with 3,166,050 members. Since the merger, the PCUSA itself has managed to drive off another 803,914, leaving 2,362,136 members for a total loss of 1,892,461 (44.5%) since 1965. Membership loss is nothing new to the PCUSA.


It is interesting to note two events that coincided with the periods of greatest loss. First, the northern branch adopted the Confession of 1967. This confession contained the first official endorsement of the idea that the Scriptures, although inspired, “are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written.” In the six years following the adoption of this worldly view of the Bible, the combined membership loss was over a half-million (501,836), with each year’s loss higher than the one before:

Membership Losses 1968-1973

1968 – 38,093
1969 – 61,220
1970 – 76,543
1971 – 82,948
1972 – 103,150
1973 – 139,882

In 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America split from the southern branch in response to the encroachment of the same liberal, non-Biblical theology that was infecting their northern brethren. In the ten years following the establishment of the more orthodox PCA, the combined denominations lost another 592,183 members:

Membership Losses 1974-1983

1974 – 100,762
1975 – 78,550
1976 – 50,773
1977 – 54,196
1978 – 56,347
1979 – 52,708
1980 – 57,557
1981 – 61,493
1982 – 44,975
1983 – 34,822

It must be said that membership decline following an event does not prove that the event caused the decline. But, taken together, the steady drift from Biblical orthodoxy and the steady exodus of members certainly suggest the presence of a cause and an effect.

The Titanic

The PCUSA has continued to lose members every year since the merger, ranging from 21,517 in 1998 to a high of 46,658 in 2003. In 2004, 43,175 more decided to move on. What is remarkable about all this is the response from PCUSA leadership. In June 2004, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Clifton Kirkpatrick, the denomination’s highest official, explained that the 2003 loss of 46,658 was “to the secular world”, an assertion that was not backed by any facts.

Indeed, more than 1,000 of the departed were members of Rivermont Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, which withdrew en masse from the PCUSA and joined a more orthodox Presbyterian denomination (the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) – not exactly “the world”.

Still, the Stated Clerk may have been onto something. As the denomination continues its course of cultural accommodation, it is easy to imagine that some people, seeing little difference between their PCUSA church and the secular world, would simply leave the broader church altogether. After all, the world doesn’t ask for a tithe.

This year, the Stated Clerk declared the most recent loss a “wake-up call.” A wake-up call? What made the 2004 losses a wake-up call? Didn’t anybody at the PCUSA helm notice that membership has trended relentlessly downward for almost four decades? It is as if, with almost half his ship under water, Capt. Smith of the Titanic had declared “Gentlemen, that iceberg was a wake-up call. We need to figure out how to avoid icebergs, maybe by steering a different course. Oh, and we’d better figure out a way to keep this ship afloat too.”

While I can forgive our leadership, I cannot excuse their inattention to the dangerous waters they have chosen to sail. As long as I have been a member (15 years), renewal groups have sounded the alarm and tried to call the PCUSA back to its mission. The words of Jesus’ letter to the Ephesian church echo down the centuries, warning our church as well: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance…. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Revelation 2:2, 3-5)

Now that’s a wake-up call!

* Note: All figures are from PCUSA statistics reported by The Layman Online.

This entry was posted on Sunday, June 26th, 2005 at 9:00 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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