Presbyterians Report 2006 Losses, Gains

Active membership in the nation's largest Presbyterian body has dropped to nearly 2.3 million. The number of churches is also on a continual decline.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has seen a minor yet growing number of congregations leave to other denominations, mainly more conservative ones, since 2003. According to the PC(USA)'s latest statistics, churches went down from 11,064 in 2003 to 10,903 in 2006. And this past year, six churches were dismissed to other denominations while previous years had seen three or four dismissals.

Baptisms have also decreased from 35,237 in 2003 to 30,493 in 2006 among children and 10,174 to 8,297 among adults.

Although the 2006 statistics were not surprisingly new to the Rev. Eric Hoey, the PC(USA)'s new director of evangelism and church growth, he was troubled by the declining baptism figures. With adult baptisms having averaged less than one per church, the figure "simply broke my heart," he said.

Churches began to leave the denomination when the PC(USA) General Assembly did not affirm Christ as the only way to God. In 2001, the General Assembly had approved a statement that while confessing "the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord" did not give a clear affirmation that Jesus Christ is the "singular saving Lord" as understood through Scripture.

Last summer's 217th General Assembly created further dissension within the PC(USA) when greater leeway was granted for the ordination of homosexuals.

Early this month, Pittsburgh presbytery's largest church voted to split and realign with the smaller and conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

While more discontent congregations consider leaving the denomination, Kristine Valerius, manager of Office of the General Assembly records, pointed out that fewer people transferred out of the PC(USA) in 2006 (780 less) than the previous year.

"[M]ore Presbyterians return to churches each year than are leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)," she further pointed out.

"The bottom line: For growth to appear, our overall losses need to go down and our overall gains need to go up," she said. "The 2006 picture shows we lost fewer people, but we also brought fewer into the church. Not the formula for growth."

Hoey's formula for growth: sharing one's faith.

"I firmly believe that if every Presbyterian were able to have the skill and the confidence to share his or her faith to only one person in the next 10 years, we could stop the decline of our denomination and start a new wave of bearing fruit in the name of Christ," he stated.

"If 'each one' were to 'reach one,' 2.4 million people would experience the life-changing transformation of Jesus Christ."

On a positive note, the number of ministers has continued to rise each year. Ministers increased from 21,248 in 2003 to 21,360 in 2006.

"Even with the continued decline in the total number of churches, people are still feeling the call to ministry," said Valerius. "For me, this shows hope for the future church."

According to Valerius, 88 percent of churches returned statistical data to their presbyteries. And of those 9,609 churches, 46 percent reported gains or maintained their previous membership.

And the 46 percent figure is something to celebrate, she said.

"Even though the statistics show an overall loss in 2006, there are still many things to celebrate among those statistics."