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?