Mainline Presbyterians (PCUSA) Continue Decline

According to their own news service, the PCUSA (not to be confused with the OPC or the PCA or any of the other NAPARC (sideline) Presbyterian denominations) lost more members last year than at any time since 1983. They claim 2.1 million members. Can this really be true? For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that church discipline is lax in the PCUSA. Let’s assume that, just as in some more confessional congregations, sometimes sessions are reluctant to “clear the rolls” of those who no longer attend.  If they erased 100,000 members last year (and they did) does that not suggest that there are likely many more folk who could be “cleared from the rolls”?  As in the case of the SBC, one suspects that the reported membership in the PCUSA is greatly exaggerated. Taking the SBC as a model, where the reported number of members is 16 million but estimated by insiders to be more like 6 million, might the PCUSA actually be only about 630,000? If so, then the PCA is about 1/2 to 2/3 of the PCUSA.

I’ve always thought of the NAPARC churches as the “sideline” and in important cultural ways they surely are, but what if they are not as marginal as I thought? Further, what does this mean for borderline churches such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the CRCNA? I’ve heard some reports from the most recent CRC synod and they seem to be racing to embrace their own destruction as quickly as the PCUSA. The CRC has been reporting losses for years now and the reports probably mask the real gravity of the situation.

So this leaves the EPC with a choice. Will they follow the path of the CRC toward the mainline and toward eventual destruction or will they embrace social marginalization but a brighter spiritual and theological and ecclesiastical future the sideline churches? This choice will become a more than a theoretical matter as the New Wineskin churches in the PCUSA and the other dissenters within the PCUSA finally make their exit. The EPC will be tempted to receive those new members many of whom are likely broadly evangelical at best with a marginal commitment to the Westminster Standards. It is not possible for most congregations to stay in the mainline this long and not look, sound, and think like the PCUSA. They may be more socially conservative than the rest of the PCUSA and they may be a little more theologically conservative than the rest of the PCUSA but are they more confessional? Is anyone in the EPC asking that question?

The effect of staying in the mainline has been evident in the experience of my own federation, the URCNA.  Some of our congregations stayed in the CRC long enough not to become liberal but long enough to become broadly evangelical, long enough to lose their confessional moorings and orientation. Some of the most important work done in the URCs for the last decade has been to recover the Reformed confession within our own churches, to re-introduce elders and members to the Three Forms of Unity and to churchly ways of thinking, worshipping, and acting. If it’s true of URCs that stayed in a borderline denomination, how much more true must it be of those who’ve stayed in one of the most liberal, most post-confessional, mainline denominations in North America? Whither the EPC?

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Dr.C,

    The EPC is likely a sinking ship. Over the past decade, the trend was favoring the Reformed/Confessional element in the EPC. The “Old Boys Club” (indifferentialists) was gradually be replaced by the “Young Guns” (passionately-confessional young pastors). With the deluge of NW churches, however, the Reformed churches have quickly been put on the defensive. As a student of Machen and the liberal-fundamentalist controversy, this whole scenario is looking eerily familiar. Tyrannical committees with unquestionable authority, ridicule and marginalization of “conservative reactionaries,” and of course, the influx of heterodox preachers. The tide has decisively turned and it’s almost “game over.”

  2. Several years ago I was mildly startled by one well-known PCA pastor who claimed that on any given Sunday the PCA has as many people in the pews as the PCUSA.

    That claim looks much more likely if you are right in your speculation here:

    “might the PCUSA actually be only about 630,000? If so, then the PCA is about 1/2 to 2/3 of the PCUSA.”

  3. My folks’ experience in their local PCUSA seems to bear this out. I’m told they have about 3000 on the roles and an average Sunday attendance (removing the Easter and Christmas outliers) of about 1000. My stepdad who is an RE at the church has been trying lead a charge to trim the fat, but with little success so far.

  4. Stephen: As an EPC pastor and church planter, I can with complete assurance say that I don’t recognize the EPC in the description you offer. “Tyrannical committees”? “Marginalization of ‘conservative reactionaries'”? You do not seem to have any first-hand experience with our denomination. We are remarkably united, and while the issue of women’s ordination is not without its challenges, the discussion I have seen at both General Assembly and Presbytery of the East has been respectful of differing points of view and full of determination that this one issue will not divide us.

    Dr. Clark: I can assure you that the EPC is unequivocally committed to the Westminster standards. One of the purposes of the five-year transitional presbytery for New Wineskins churches is for them to study the standards and be sure that they are ready and willing to commit to them. Our testing of pastors has been and will continue to be rigorous, and our questioning of ruling elders in each congregation seeking admission to the EPC has been similarly specific. We aren’t interested in bringing in churches that are “broadly evangelical”–we may bless their mission, but theological unity is of the utmost importance to us. I know that after 23 years of ministry in mainline churches, I wouldn’t have been received into the EPC unless I could demonstrate both a knowledge of and adherence to the standards, and that same reality is faced by the PCUSA churches seeking admission.

    We are convinced that if we aren’t all on the same page theologically, we cannot be faithful or effective in ministry. So when you are whether we are asking congregations and pastors seeking admission whether they are confessional, the answer is a resounding YES!

  5. Greetings in Christ,

    We in the EPC believe that the scriptures created the reformation and thus the confessions, not the other way around. Something about “sola scriptura”! Thus, we remain a confessional denomination, but acknowledge that no confession alone can give life or renewal.

    I’m grieved that you would judge the New Wineskins (NW) churches by saying, “it is not possible for most congregations to stay in the mainline this long and not look, sounds and think like the PCUSA.”? We are happy to welcome our brothers and sisters from the New Wineskins. They tell us that they finally feel like they have finally come home. That’s not because we are like the PCUSA, it’s because the NW are like us in the EPC. I have to ask, how long is too long? Was 1981 when the EPC began too late? How about 2008? Where do you think these lively Reformed EPC folks came from–mostly the PCUSA. Does our head start of 29 years over a 200 year history give us the right ethos?

    I hope that you will take the time to get to know us in the EPC a bit better before relegating us to the horns of a false dilemma. As if the only options are mainline toward destruction or embrace social marginalization by rejecting other believers who seek similar life together in Christ. Who will help them be “so” reformed? How about us?

    One small anecdote from literally 20 minutes ago. We are hosting the EPC GA this week and a brother from New Wineskins (entering our geographic presbytery) just thanked me for sharing with him how to buy the edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith I most preferred. (By the way, it’s the original language version with all the proof texts written in full at the bottom.) He’s now re-reading it chapter by chapter and encouraged me with his zeal. Go figure.

    Grace and peace,

    Tim Brown
    Cornerstone EPC
    Brighton, MI

  6. Hi David and Tim,

    I hope that you did not read my post as a condemnation of the EPC. It was not. As I wrote in RRC, I am hopeful about the future of the EPC, but she certainly has choices to make.

    One important source of my information about the EPC has been Rob Norris (3th Pres, Bethesda, MD) whom we had on campus a few years back as our annual den Dulk lecturer. Tragically those lectures were not recorded but they were wonderful.

    Tim, I’ve been watching the mainline and reading her history for a long time. If I may say, I think you’re naive about what the effects of being in the mainline. I certainly hope that you are right, but my experience with congregations from the CRC (a borderline denom) suggests that you are not. Your own example that the NW fellow had not his own copy of the WCF suggests the very problem I highlight. Yes, let us hope for reformation among the NW churches but let us be realistic about what it means to have been in the mainline and what it will take for folks to detox from the mainline and what it will take for them to become Reformed.

    As to “sola Scriptura” may I encourage you to get and read a copy of RRC before you decide that I don’t understand sola Scriptura? I deal with it at length.

    David, perhaps we have slightly different definitions of what it means to be faithful to the standards. In the NAPARC churches we don’t allow the ordination of females and we are cessationist per the teaching of the Standards. I understand that the EPC allows for both the ordination of females to the pastoral office (which, I understand, is the norm among the NW churches also) and for non-cessationist approaches to Scripture.

    My hope for the EPC is that she continues to move toward confessional orthodoxy. I know that Rob’s hope but the question remains, for me anyway, whether receiving the NW churches will help or hinder that process of “semper Reformanda”?

    • Dear Scott,

      I hope you didn’t misunderstand two of my points.
      #1. I did not say, “(you) do not understand sola scriptura.” I’m sorry I haven’t read your book on the issue. By the time I order it and read it, no one will be commenting about this blog posting. I simply meant to say that in my opinion (as an EPC pastor), it is the word of God which is primary and confessions are chronologically and in principle secondary. Perhaps you take a different view. That’s fine.

      #2. My friend was not without the confession before speaking to me. So it’s not as though he never read it. I just helped him find a better copy. Friends have introduced me to their favorite bible edition, but I had my own copy before that. I wasn’t attempting to argue that he was a super confessional guy coming from NW, but that we’re talking about the confession in the context of preparations to enter the EPC.

      I think at the end of the day, you and I don’t share the same sense of causality of what makes for healthy church. You emphasize confessional conformity & enthusiasm, I’ll stake my claim on the Word of God believed and preached.

      • Tim,

        I did misunderstand you a bit. Thanks for clarifying.

        Why do you juxtapose the Word and the confession thus? Do you not think that the churches confess what they do because of what they understand the bible to teach?

        As I’ve said many times here (I understand that you’re new to the HB) there can be no question for Reformed folk about the supremacy of God’s Word! That’s the formal principle of the Reformation.

        Yet, the Word has to be read by someone, somewhere. You have to read the Word. So, the question is not whether the Word is supreme but whether it’s your reading of the Word or the church’s reading of the Word that will determine what the Reformed churches believe and do.

        The confessions are the result of the corporate reading of the Word. Thus, I wouldn’t juxtapose the Word and the confession as you do.

        Further, I’m sure exactly how cautioning the EPC about receiving NW congregations is tantamount to denying sola Scriptura. Can you explain the connection? Is there a biblical passage that gives prima facie evidence for merging the EPC and the NW that I’m contradicting?

  7. Offering modest support here to Tim and David, one feature of the whole Layman movement, from which NWI sprang, is that people have been drawn to reexamine their faith. A renewal organization has to be able to give people things to read, and more often than not, Boice, Sproul and others were high on the reading list. Sort of a mini-Reformation. The net effect was clearly for the good.

    Wayne Sparkman
    PCA Historical Center

    P.S.: Now you guys in the EPC get busy and start a denominational archives! Pronto.

  8. Dr. Clark: Thank you for the words of encouragement, and for your concern. We have a clear difference in approach on women, but I have to ask about cessationism. I thought I was pretty well versed in the standards, but I’ve either missed or forgotten where the issue is addressed. Can you help me out on that? (And since this form of communication can sometimes convey the wrong impression, please know I’m not being snarky or asking a rhetorical question. I really need the help!)

    • Hi David,

      Here are some posts on this topic:

      I take it that WCF 1.6 restricts Reformed folk from teaching continuing revelation:

      The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

  9. Dr. Clark: I’m not sure, be we may be talking about two different things. There is no one in the EPC that I know of that is open to “new revelation,” or who believes that the exercise of any form of spiritual gift can result in any word from God that is in any way on a level with Scripture. I think that most EPCers, when asked about spiritual gifts, would speak primarily if not entirely in terms of “non-revelatory” gifts. Even those who would accept the continuing validity of gifts such as tongues or prophecy would say that neither can ever take the place of Scripture, not should anything that comes from either that contradicts Scripture ever be given any credence. Does that move us closer to where you would like us to be?

  10. Dr. Clark: I’m not thoroughly familiar with Grudem’s view, though I believe I know it in outline. Before answering, I have to ask: how do you define “revelation”?

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