PCUSA lost 50K members, 120 congregations in 2019; celebrates apparent slowing of decline

The Presbyterian Center, a building belonging to Presbyterian Church (USA) and located in Louisville, Kentucky. | (Photo: PCUSA)

Presbyterian Church (USA) recently reported that it lost around 50,000 members and over 100 congregations in 2019, which was hailed as a slowing of their years-long decline.

The largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States released a report last Thursday regarding the current membership and church numbers.

From 2018 to 2019, PC(USA) went from approximately 1,352,000 active members to approximately 1,302,000 members, or a drop of around 50,000.

The number of congregations belonging to PC(USA) also declined, going from 9,161 in 2018 to 9,041 in 2019. This is around 400 fewer congregations than the denomination had in 2016.

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, stated clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly, said that report was “good news” since membership did not drop below the 1.3 million mark.

“We must celebrate while knowing that there remains work to be done,” stated Nelson, claiming that this was the first time in three decades that they were “not reporting membership losses.”

“We are witnessing congregational transformation and renewal through innovative leadership, discipleship training, spiritual renewal, and contextual ministry implementation.”

Nelson went on to state that he believed a key feature of eventual growth for the denomination will be “dependent on evangelizing immigrant communities.”

“Church planting in immigrant communities is leading the way towards our current and future church growth,” he continued. “We are not dying. … We are Reforming.”

Jeff Walton of the Institute on Religion & Democracy was critical of Nelson’s optimism, noting that the losses over the past year are “consistent with reports from recent years.”

“Apparently in Nelson’s assessment the vanishing of more than 50,000 church members does not count as decline because of rounding,” wrote Walton. 

“The rate of decline continues to be greater than the most recently reported membership numbers in the Episcopal Church, which reported a loss of 36,214 persons in 2018 (the Episcopal Church customarily releases statistics in the autumn of the following year).”

As with other mainline Protestant denominations, PC(USA) has experienced severe decline over the past several years, having had about 1.2 million more members in 2000 than at present.

In 2011, membership slipped below the 2 million mark and in 2014, the number of congregations affiliated with the denomination went below the 10,000 mark.

One factor has been the liberal theological direction of the PC(USA), as seen with its increased acceptance of homosexuality, which prompted large numbers of congregations to seek dismissal.

Many of these departing congregations formed a new conservative denomination called ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians in 2012.

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