The PCA will probably continue to decline in the decade to come. Some of the reasons are sociological and demographic; others are theological. Some are intrinsic to our PCA identity, and cannot be changed.
I Chronicles 12:32 describes the men of Issachar, who had the ability to understand the times in which they lived. Can we be “Issacharites” with regard to the future of the PCA? Can we see the PCA in the larger context of our times? Some say that the PCA has reached the top of the membership number “S Curve,” and is beginning down the other side. I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but my thesis is that we are likely to see a smaller PCA in the coming decade.
The PCA grew quickly in its first twenty years. In 1973 we had 260 churches, and 41,428 members. In 2008 we were about eight times larger.
It should be noted that in spite of the fear of decline among the PCA leadership, even now some of our larger churches, and new churches in growing urban areas, are experiencing numerical growth. But I admit that’s not normative for our congregations. Many, perhaps most, of our PCA churches are rural, and have less than 100 members. As the rural countryside declines, the rural churches will decline, too. This is a fact of life for all American churches, not just the PCA. Thousands of churches close their doors every year. Rural villages are in decline and becoming ghost towns. The jobs are not there, and people are moving to the bigger cities.
Ten years ago, because of congregations leaving Liberal denominations for the PCA, we foolishly boasted that the PCA was growing at a rate of five percent per year. According to statistics from the office of the Stated Clerk of the PCA, our membership in 2002 was 311,817, and our membership in 2006 had increased to 338,873. This increase of 27,056 over a four year span shows a growth rate of 1.1% over four years, or .27% per year.
At our General Assembly in Orlando in June of 2009, it was reported that the PCA had experienced NEGATIVE growth (for the first time) in 2008. As with most other American denominations, PCA Sunday School attendance has been declining for several years. Our growth in our early years was largely due to receiving conservative churches exiting more liberal Presbyterian denominations. That sort of growth came to an end when the Evangelical Presbyterian Church began, because the EPC, while conservative, also admits churches with women elders and deacons.
The PCA has seen some growth through planting new churches; however I suspect most of the growth there has been church transfer growth, not conversion growth. Our church planters no longer speak of “reaching the lost with the gospel,” but of “reaching the unchurched or dechurched.” This is not a particular criticism of our denomination, because most of the evangelical church world has adopted the same methodology and vocabulary. We now shudder to say that anyone is lost and hell-bound, so we speak of being “unchurched” instead. We don’t aim to win the lost to Christ. We aim to gather the unchurched into new congregations.
None of this should surprise anyone. National polling by Barna and others shows that the percentage of Americans attending church has been steadily declining over the past decade. Americans, especially our younger generations, are interested in religion on their own terms. American Christians are less attached to denominations than ever before. PCA members share these wide-spread attitudes. The era of the baby boomers is coming to an end, and the newer generations (Baby-busters, Mosaics, etc.) of Americans seem to be turning away from the traditional way of “doing church.” When the tide rises, all the boats rise. But when the tide goes out, all the boats fall. The PCA is just one of the falling denominational boats.
Denominational shrinkage does not sit well with the leading figures in the PCA (or in any denomination). 2009 General Assembly Moderator Brad Bradley challenged each PCA church to plant a new church in the coming year. These were fine sounding words, but hardly feasible. Many PCA churches are small, aging, poor, and struggling to maintain their own membership. The American economy is declining, and churches have less money. His challenge also contradicts the stated goals of the PCA church planting arm, Mission to North America. MNA participated in the planting of 50 new PCA missions this past year (2008-2009). But their stated goal is to reach Hispanics, Blacks and inner city neighborhoods. We tip our hat and wish them well, yet somehow we don’t believe that this effort will do much to change the over all growth picture of the PCA. The era of church growth through planting new churches is coming to an end. More about this later in this article.
I offer ten reasons the PCA will probably continue to decline in the decade to come. Some of these reasons are sociological and demographic; others are theological. Some are intrinsic to our PCA identity, and cannot be changed. I have been a pastor in the PCA for thirty years, and I like our denomination. I would like to see us grow and be strong. But it is important that we get a realistic view of the situation. Why do I think the PCA will shrink?
1. The PCA will shrink because of who we are. The PCA is a white, middle-class denomination, and the number (not just the percentage) of whites in America is declining. White people (including PCA church members) in the United States have purposely chosen to have fewer children than in years gone by. White families no longer have four children; they usually have one, and sometimes two. White America’s birth rate is below the replacement rate. Where women were once giving birth at twenty, they are now waiting until they are thirty or thirty-five. Where couples once got married in their early twenties they are now marrying at 35, or not marrying at all. As the family becomes simply another possible option in American society, the weakening of the family results in the weakening of churches, which are family-based institutions. With fewer children in our churches, the average church member’s age is going up. Sunday School was created in the nineteenth century when birthrates were high, and gangs of children roamed the streets of our cities. Now society has changed, and our white middle-class neighborhoods are becoming childless. Sunday School MUST decline in such an atmosphere, and it IS in fact declining across our land.
Mission to North America (MNA) is aware of the white racial make-up of the PCA, and has committed to the strategy of starting ethnic churches in larger cities. However, I believe it will be difficult for our white denomination to make numerically significant progress in this endeavor. We have a few more black and Latino pastors than previously, but it is difficult for them to feel at home in the PCA. We are what we are!
A PCA pastor wrote (sarcastically) recently on a blog: “We are a class-specific denomination… We are a narrow slice of the richest and most influential and most-educated citizens of the most powerful nation in the history of man and it is every PCA pastor’s privilege, having gotten the M.Div. union card and passed his ordination exams, to be granted entry into this stratosphere where privilege abounds…We are lawyers, doctors, authors, professors, engineers, architects, playwrights, artists, players in symphonies, gentleman farmers, entrepreneurs, working mothers with a “career”–not simply a “job.” …On the poorest continent, our missionaries are the cat’s meow and before they’re approved to move onto the field, they’ve raised somewhere close to $100,000 (per year) for their support–that’s close to one tenth of $1,000,000 per year before the PCA’s Mission to the World will release them to ministry, brothers…Who are we? Follow the money.”
Of course, he is painting with a very broad brush, and he is skipping over the many little rural PCA churches. We also have a number of inner-city urban congregations with strong ministries to the poor. All PCA folks are not white and wealthy. But there is a lot of truth to his statements.
2. The PCA will shrink because morally, the PCA aims to be a counter-culture denomination. Sexual immorality has been redefined in the United States. Our society vigorously defends “a woman’s right to choose.” In the PCA we call abortion “homicide.” We are vocally pro-life. Abortion is just one issue. America has accepted homosexuality as normal. We are about to end our “don’t ask don’t tell” policy in the USA military. Chaplains who call it a sin are likely to be in trouble. Pastors who preach against homosexuality may possibly be charged with hate crimes. The American acceptance of the gay life-style is out-front and celebrated every day on television. In May 2010 I was amazed to see a Fox TV (Bill O’Riley) discussion of morals in America in which the Conservative guests stated that the gay life and abortion were NOT immoral. Furthermore, Americans have accepted pre-marital sex and “shacking up” as not only an option, but as good and wise. America’s young adults, trained in tolerance from childhood, are not comfortable with the old-fashioned morality of the PCA. As American culture has moved further Left, we have become the far-Right, just by standing still. We are perceived by our society as being Fundamentalist extremists. We have been classified as “kooks.” We are compared to the Taliban.
3. The PCA will shrink because our view of the role of women in the church is also counter-culture, and is viewed (especially by the younger generation) as unfair, bigoted, discriminatory and astonishingly outdated. Ask the teens and young adults in your own congregation. To justify our stance by crying out “this is the teaching of the Bible” doesn’t help us gain new members, or hang on to our youth. In America today women earn the majority of college degrees, and have equal rights in every area of life. More and more women are exercising leadership in our society as lawyers, doctors, teachers and politicians. Egalitarianism is in the atmosphere we breathe. The youth already in our churches, and men and women of stature and influence in America, are uncomfortable with our position with regard to women in the church. The PCA is presently in a not-so-quiet uproar over the role of women in the church. Overtures are brought annually to our General Assembly, pressing for change. Why? Because we have a number of churches and teaching elders who want to stop doing church the old way. This unrest will continue. Every year the PCA loses a few churches which have decided to move to a more Liberal position about ordaining women.
4. The PCA will shrink because we have a number of small, rural congregations that may not survive the next decade for economic reasons. We also have some aging churches in the larger cities. Dividing our total church membership by the number of churches, gives us an average church membership of about 250. I believe this figure is high, due to non-active members still on church rolls, and the existence of PCA “megachurches” with thousands of members each. The PCA has many hundreds of churches with fewer than 100 in attendance, and these congregations are at risk, even from other churches in their own Presbytery drawing away members.
The “Wal-Mart Syndrome” is at work in the PCA. When the “Big Box” department store comes to town, the “mom and pop” stores lose business and fail. In and near larger cities the bigger PCA churches are attracting members away from the smaller PCA churches. Parents are seeking larger youth groups for their (1.5) children. They are seeking larger worship assemblies, for the “professional production quality” of the worship service. They sometimes drive past several smaller PCA churches to reach the larger one. This is already happening, and smaller PCA churches are struggling. In America, the community church is already largely a thing of the past, destroyed by the automobile. It is so easy to drive to the other side of town! What is the point of being loyal to a little declining congregation?
5. The PCA will shrink because denominational loyalty is becoming less meaningful in the PCA. In areas where there is only one smaller PCA church, PCA members will sometimes transfer to larger churches of other denominations. This is partly our own fault, because the PCA wants to be known as Evangelical, as well as Reformed. In fact, the Reformed aspect of the PCA is played down in our larger churches. Calvinism goes un-named. “Presbyterian” is left out of the name of the church, and so on. Our denominational seminary attracts students from many denominations, and it is not really dependent for survival on support from the PCA. It existed before the PCA existed, and it may outlive the PCA. PCA ministers sometimes joke with each other that the PCA is really Congregational and not Presbyterian. Only a fraction of our PCA congregations send money to support denominational agencies.
6. The PCA will shrink because we favor intellect and scholarship over emotion and experience (though some of our newer churches are becoming more seeker-sensitive, and “charismatic” in their approach to worship.) Many churches in other denominations have one-page doctrinal statements, but in the PCA we hand out a book: the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Plus, we have our Book of Church Order (BCO), and our Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO). Americans are increasingly interested in religious experiences, not theology. They are rightly turned off by denominational “politics” (of which we have quite a bit). In such a climate, PCA churches will likely be passed over by church-seeking Americans for livelier and less doctrinal churches.
7. The PCA will shrink because we profess to be Reformed and Calvinistic. This sets a very high educational and intellectual level for prospective members. According to Dr. Martha N. Ozawa of the U. of Wisconsin, the educational skills of the current generation of children are less than the skills of the previous generation. According to our Mission to North America, our goal is to establish churches among the poor and minorities, which equates to starting church among those who are comparatively less educated. But a denomination which emphasizes Calvinism is making it difficult for youth, minorities, and the poor to take an interest. Calvinism is certainly out of favor with American Christianity. Even within the PCA, many of our church members resist Calvinism as old-fashioned, or even repugnant, or simply too difficult to understand. Predestination and election and limited atonement are hard pills for even long-time PCA church members to digest!
8. The PCA will shrink because we practice infant baptism. This is negative as far as church growth is concerned, because we have no simple proof text. We have good biblical reasons, but the proof is long and convoluted. American Christians don’t like complexity in religion. They want quick easy answers. Some of our PCA visitors and prospective members leave for Baptist churches or Bible churches, after they eventually find out about our practicing infant baptism. Some PCA churches give their members choices: you may have your children baptized, or you may simply have a non-water infant dedication. Take your pick. Of course, this leads to more theological conflicts eventually.
9. The PCA will shrink because we are constantly bothered by inner ecclesiastical, doctrinal and worship-related factors that are pulling us in different directions. The “Broadly Evangelical” side has demonstrated in the General Assembly, by various changes over the last decade, that it is the majority. This is jarring for the “Truly Reformed” faction. The “Church Growth Movement Pastor as Change Agent” mentality is strong with our PCA leadership. “Prune away the dead wood, so we can get on with our plans.” This is offensive to many. We are divided in our approach to worship. Some are “seeker-sensitive” and “rock the house down” with contemporary Christian music. Others are more traditional, feature pipe organs, and sing “Blessed Assurance.” Still others favor exclusive Psalm-singing from a Psalter. Every year at General Assembly some of the brothers are intensely offended by the worship services, and they let us know about it. Some of our churches would like to ordain women as deacons, and already have women serving as deaconesses on a male/female diaconate. Some churches won’t even allow a woman to read Scripture out loud in a worship service. Some churches honor the Book of Church Order. Other churches want to change the BCO.
A good question is: “What is the glue that holds us together?” The PCA “motto” is “Faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” But these three things are broad general statements that are open to a variety of interpretations. We are not on the same page regarding what the Scriptures say about women in ministry. We are not on the same page about the meaning of “Reformed.” Many PCA churches have no annual missions conference, and do little to evangelize at home or overseas. So, what is the glue that holds us together? That’s a difficult question.
10. The PCA will shrink because the institutional Church as a whole in the Western world seems to be declining. I am not saying that the Church, the Body of Christ as a whole, is declining. Jesus promised, “I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” But the institution made of buildings and organizations and denominations is declining. This is increasingly evident in the younger generations. Baby-boomers carried on, maintained, and built up the organizations created by their parents and preceding generations. Baby-boomers created the “mega churches,” and the Christian radio and TV networks. They started and maintained Christian colleges and seminaries. Baby-boomers made the PCA. But my intuition is that the new generations are less interested in maintaining existing institutions. The philosophy of “individualism” is reigning, and increasing its hold on young people every day. Note these attributes of the new generation:
· The new generation has 400 cable TV channels, and each person finds the one he likes best.
· The new generation is on the internet, with millions of links to whatever you can think of.
· The new generation grew up with cell phones and is constantly in touch with their peers via texting and tweeting.
· The new generation grew up with divorced parents and step moms and dads, and distrusts the concept of marriage.
· The new generation doesn’t care if a person is gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or straight. It has no moral meaning, and it is an individual choice.
· The new generation doesn’t share a common popular music, because the choices are multitudinous, and each person can have exactly what he/she wants.
· The new generation doesn’t date, they hang out. Commitment to one person for very long is just an option. “Dating” is meaningless.
· The new generation has casual sex more than any previous generation. Sex is no big deal. Contraception is easy and expected.
· The new generation is not concerned about abortion. It’s just another individual choice.
· The new generation has a prolonged adolescence. Who wants to grow up and take on burdens of responsibility?
· The new generation doesn’t hope to better than their parents did in life. The economy is in decline. Live for today. You will likely be poor no matter what.
· The new generation thinks that all religions or no religion at all is just fine. It’s just another choice. Why get worked up about it? Be cool.
· The new generation believes in Evolution. That was proved to them in the public school system. Creationists are kooks! God did not make us.
· The new generation believes in Socialism. They have been taught it in public school all their lives. They believe in Big Government.
· The new generation is largely poor, and they believe in higher taxes on wealthier people. After all, they themselves have little to tax.
· The new generation believes that the Bible is out-moded and not to be taken seriously. Whatever religion you like, or no religion at all, it doesn’t matter.
· The new generation voted for Obama. I doubt very much the older PCA people did that. Times are changing!
Like other American denominations, the PCA has stopped growing. We once grew quickly, as relatively conservative churches dropped out of the PCUSA. But any churches dropping out of the PCUSA now are heading toward the EPC, which accepts women as elders, and has a more Liberal atmosphere. In the decades ahead we will probably continue our decline. It is happening all over the Western world; and the PCA is not immune to what is happening in our culture. The decline in the PCA cannot be reversed, because there are many forces at work pulling us apart, and there is not much “glue” holding us together.
Is there a future for the PCA in light of these considerations? The next article will present helpful and hopeful remedies and suggestions.
Dr. Marshall C. St. John is pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church in Signal Mountain, Tenn.