There is strength in the PCA. It is not time for a funeral. Instead, it is time for a sober assessment and perhaps some correction of purpose and strategy statements. Considering these dismal performances (if that is one’s assessment), one might ask, “How has the PCA grown?” That answer could be the most positive thing to come from this study. The conclusion is that the PCA has had a strong and consistent growth, numerically and financially from the churches in the under-300 category.
Pastor David W. Hall has given us the first published history of the inaugural 50 years of the Presbyterian Church in America. Single copies are available for purchase from Amazon.com, and discount pricing is available on bulk orders from the author.
Below is an excerpt charting the growth achieved and challenges overcome by the PCA following the joining and receiving of the RPCES.
PCA Church Growth, 1985-1989
Excerpts from a mid-1980s PCA document reflect the guiding principles for the desired PCA growth in the 1980s. The 1984 Assembly approved these purposes for our foreign mission board, which would also become operational for much of our home missions works in the ‘80s: “To reach . . . peoples with God’s Good News through the testimony of church-planting teams . . . Success will be judged by observable church growth.” (Min14GA, 346)
That Assembly heard that the term “observable” in the above purpose statement was to be understood as “that which is describable (possibly measurable) to such an extent that progress toward the accomplishment of our purpose can be compared to previous expectations” (Ibid, 355), and that “church growth” could be understood as “the final test of our ministry. The local body must grow in an observable fashion, qualitatively and quantitatively. We must be able to establish a causal relationship between . . . personnel and church growth.” (Ibid, 356)
Amendments to the package from the floor suggested that it was clear to most of the commissioners at that Assembly that this mission agency had embraced the numerical growth school of thought prevalent at the time. That this was so overt can also be discerned by comparing the final action of that Assembly on this recommendation. Rather than approving that entire recommended package, the Assembly amended this attempt from the floor to read finally: “To reach . . . peoples with God’s Good News through the testimony of church-planting teams . . . Success in observable church growth will be an important means of evaluation” (p. 355).
The Assembly further rejected the exclusively numeric standard of evaluation in these words, which were approved as amendments from the floor: “It is therefore our responsibility both to sow broadly and to reap the whitened fields . . . there may be exceptions, but under such church growth is the normal indicator by which we . . . will evaluate our effectiveness. . . Obedience to the Scriptures is the final test of our ministry. Such obedience will result in God’s blessing, which by the graciousness of our God may often be observed in qualitative and quantitative church growth.” (p. 125)
Thus, this mission purpose statement was diluted away from the total identification of numerical church growth as the observable manifestation of God’s blessing to the admission that such numerical church growth serving, at least as an “indicator” and the expected norm.
Below is a summary of a study to evaluate how well one of the PCA’s leading missions agency, Mission to North America (hereafter MNA), has done according to those criteria. MNA should be grateful to the commissioners who amended the original purpose statement (as should MTW), for these statistics reveal that not only would MNA have failed to reach such standards as proposed initially, but further that numerical church growth in the PCA has not even matched the diminished predictions as amended from the floor. In fact, after 1989, the PCA may be in a non-growth modality for the first time in its young life. If so, it is hoped that the appropriate agencies will hasten to make methodological adjustments to remedy some strategy problems.
Most of the non-repeatable transfer growth from other denominations (chiefly the PCUS) has vanished, and the atypical absorption of the RPCES was history, having been completed in 1982. With no imminent scenario of absorbing the OPC, for the years 1985-1989, the growth of the PCA has been measurable in terms of constants, which before 1985 were in flux. In short, the last 5-6 years had provided the PCA with a typical pattern of growth or slow growth. At the earliest opportunity, key strategists would desire to look at this honestly to make recommendations wisely for the future.
With the unmistakable warning signal of slowing growth, a trend for five years or more would not be ignored, after having proven its trend line. Planners for the future of our denomination will want to give this phenomenon (which hopefully will be reversed) attention sooner rather than later. Stewardship requires that we consider the measurable statistics in the lean years as well as in the fat years. Such “stewardship” measurability factor was given as part of the original justification for the emphasis on measurability. This recent trend line should call the strategists attention.
This study is one such attempt to ask if it is empirically justified for leadership to advocate the imitation of the largest churches within the PCA, as is normally and routinely done. We now have a long enough period to put forth some reliable statistics to compare our measurable growth. Given the available data, one might begin with the most prominent churches and ask: “Have the largest churches in the PCA grown greater than, equal to, or less than the denomination-wide average for the five years 1985-1989 and 1989?
From a comparison of the changes in large and medium-sized churches for the five years, the net number of churches in the 300-900 membership range is mainly unchanged, as is the net number of churches with over 300 members in the whole denomination. The year 1989 and the five-year period (1985-1989) saw little change in the total number of churches in this bracket which could be studied. Thus, the PCA (neither in the one-year nor the five-year slice) is notadding a gross number of churches to the pool as targeted.
Yet the most startling statistic is that the growth rate of the PCA has steadily declined from 5.4% to 5.0% to 4.0% to 2.9%, and most recently to 1.2% in 1989. When asked about the reasons, no one seems prepared to offer the two most likely explanations for such a declining growth rate.
The two most obvious reasons are that (1) one-time bonuses, such as the J&R with the RPCES in 1982 and transfer growth from the PCUS, are non-repeatable, and (2) the top quartile of the membership, contained in these largest churches has performed more poorly than the rest of the church. Without this inhibitor of growth from the top 25%, growth would have otherwise continued in the 5% region. Whatever the other possible reasons, these statistics could either be ignored to our detriment or taken seriously and used as a stimulus for policy adjustments before it is too late.