(Photo: Covenant Presbyterian Church)
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) membership dipped below the 2 million mark in 2011, according to statistics released by the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly on Thursday.
According to the numbers, during 2011 the denomination experienced a decline of 63,804 members and the loss of 96 congregations due to a mixture of church dissolutions and dismissals.
Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, pastor to Presbytery for the PC(USA) Presbytery of Pittsburgh, told The Christian Post that he believed the decline was part of a larger trend for Christian denominations.
"There are many reasons for this decline, including for mainline Protestants a birthrate well below the threshold of maintaining population," said Sorge.
"For a significant number of our members to be so unengaged with the church that they can simply set aside church membership altogether constitutes an immense and urgent challenge to do a better job of leading our people to grow deeper in their commitment to following Jesus Christ."
The Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly, commented on the loss.
"The loss of membership through certificate-of-transfer is the lowest number it has been in at least four years, which is encouraging," said Parsons in a statement. "At least two challenges are before us … The first and primary need is to continue to increase our efforts to live out the Great Commission and share the good news of Jesus Christ. The second is to connect with the growing number of the 'Spiritual But Not Religious.'"
The statistics showed a years-old trend continuing. According to the PC(USA) General Assembly Mission Council, in 2000 the denomination had over 2.5 million members. Over the past decade the entire denomination has lost over 20 percent of its membership.
Michael Adee, executive director for More Light Presbyterians, a group that supports the PC(USA) adopting more pro-gay positions, told CP that he wanted the church to go beyond number issues.
"First and foremost, I care more about the soul and ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) than its size," said Adee.
"The Church does not exist for itself; the Church exists to reflect God's heart in the world and to relieve human suffering."
While some have argued that the PC(USA)'s membership issues are because of its growing liberal theology and high-profile increased acceptance of homosexuality, Adee believes it is the opposite.
"For this generation of young adults, they don't want to be part of a church that is anti-gay, that discriminates," said Adee, describing the opinions of many 16- to 29-year-olds in a recent Barna Group study.
"So, for the Presbyterian Church (USA), the passage of ordination policy in 2011 and the ministry of qualified LGBT persons is quite likely to be a key factor in reversing the decline."
In addition to fewer members, in 2011 the PC(USA) also lost 96 congregations. Of them, 21 of the 96 congregations voted for dismissal from the denomination over theological differences, including the approval of openly gay clergy.
Sorge of the Pittsburgh Presbytery told CP that he believed the trend of departing congregations would likely continue for the foreseeable future.
"More congregations will depart our fellowship," said Sorge, who considered the experience "painful and damaging as that is to the integrity of our fellowship" yet a common attribute of historic Christianity.
"A few congregations in my own presbytery seem increasingly inclined to leave for another denomination, much to my dismay, but most congregations will not consider leaving, even if they do not support certain teachings or policies that the denomination officially adopts or tolerates."
The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, a Reformed body recently created as part of the wave of departures from the PC(USA), declined to comment to The Christian Post for this story.