Presbyterian Church in America Defies Odds, Resumes Growth

Membership in the PCA is on the rise once again

Leaders in the PCA are thankful for the growth, but not necessarily content with it. “With virtually all mainline and some evangelical denominations plateaued or declining, PCA growth, though not as spectacular as in our early years, is noteworthy,” wrote Taylor in his recent summary of the 44th PCA General Assembly.

 

“I still don’t believe we can reverse the decline of the PCA. There are many reasons this will happen,” Dr. Marshall C. St. John wrote in 2010. St. John referenced a decline not necessarily in vitality, but simply in size. After nearly four decades of steady growth, official Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) membership declined by 4,886 in 2008. The PCA takes conservative, counter-cultural theological and moral positions, emphasizes intellect over experience, and practices infant baptism. Moreover, the PCA is predominantly made up of white, middle class families, a demographic no longer reproducing at replacement rate. Given these and other facts, Rev. St. John ends his piece, “And who knows . . . God can do miracles. Maybe the PCA will continue to grow after all.”

By that standard God seems to be doing a miracle! Membership in the PCA is on the rise once again. A recent article from Christianity Today specifies that “over the last five years the denomination has added 68 churches, 374 ministers, and almost 19,000 members. The PCA now has 370,000 members.” Sunday school attendance also increased by 1,096 last year, the first such increase in “a number of years,” according to Dr. Roy Taylor, Stated Clerk of the PCA.

Leaders in the PCA are thankful for the growth, but not necessarily content with it. “With virtually all mainline and some evangelical denominations plateaued or declining, PCA growth, though not as spectacular as in our early years, is noteworthy,” wrote Taylor in his recent summary of the 44th PCA General Assembly. Dr. Harry Reeder, senior pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian in Birmingham, AL, told me that recent growth “is encouraging in comparison to the decreases of sister evangelical denominations. But . . . [it] is certainly not satisfactory.”

In the first several decades after the PCA broke away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS – a predecessor body to the Presbyterian Church USA), a steady stream of churches departing the PCUSA fueled PCA growth. Nowadays, however, these departing churches tend to enter the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) or the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). According to Reeder this is in large part because many have, contra the PCA, accepted the ordination of women. Churches departing the Reformed Church in America (RCA) do migrate toward the PCA, but in small numbers that account for little of its continued growth.

Why has PCA membership increased after the 2008 slump, despite projections of decline? A confluence of factors are likely at work. In a 1990 essay on Presbyterian membership trends, Donald A. Luidens wrote, “When the broader sweep of two centuries is considered, it is apparent that mono-dimensional explanations of denominational membership trends will be of little use.” With this in mind, I want to sketch out two of the components likely underlying recent PCA growth.

First, the PCA has been active in urban ministry. Randy Nabors, leader of the Urban and Mercy Ministry program of Mission to North America (MNA), an outreach arm of the PCA, notes that “if we are spreading the gospel to poor people, they will be in our church.” Nabors also heads up the New City Network program, founded in 2010, which includes PCA and non-PCA churches and seeks to build new churches in poor and urban communities.

The most spectacular example of successful PCA urban ministry is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, pastored by Tim Keller. In the late 1980s MNA prompted Keller to establish a church in NYC with the primary goal of ministering to young professionals. In 2015 Redeemer had 1,882 members and three campuses. Attendance at Sunday morning children’s ministries increased by nearly 20% in both 2014 and 2015 at the Downtown campus. In its own urban ministry Redeemer seeks to create flourishing, mixed income neighborhoods. In 2015 it also began the Rise campaign, which looks to increase the number of New Yorkers attending gospel-centered churches from 5% to 15% by 2026.

Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Washington, D.C., a Redeemer church plant, is another encouraging example. Grace D.C.’s pastor, Glenn Hoburg, told me that his church borrows a lot from Redeemer’s experience preaching the Gospel in a cosmopolitan city. In particular, the emphasis on what Hoburg called “theology of place” makes his church unique. Grace D.C. only plants churches in the District of Columbia and all its small group networks meet within the District’s boundaries. There are many great churches in Northern Virginia and Maryland, noted Hoburg, but Grace D.C. concentrates its focus, because “you cannot love someone without loving their place.” Since its formation in 2003, Grace Presbyterian has expanded considerably. Like Redeemer, it now consists of three churches in three different neighborhoods.

Part of St. John’s pessimism in 2010 stemmed from the belief that new generations would begin migrating from rural areas toward urban centers in search of jobs. Such migration patterns may certainly be affecting rural PCA churches, but the denomination is making its mark in urban areas.

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