Lamenting Decline or Questioning Premises and Methods

Recovering the Reformed Confession-FeaturedIt started with John Frame’s “Warrior Children” piece in 2003. In June, 2012 Anthony Bradley wondered about the decline of popular presbyterians. More recently Bill Evans has elaborated on the theme of the decline of conservative presbyterianism. This morning I wake to find my friend Matt Tuininga has climbed aboard the Peace Train.

What do each of these writers have in common? They’re theologians. They theologize, i.e., if they’re doing their work properly, they study Scripture, they study the Reformed confessions, and they seek to present a systematic or topical account of the faith. Their focus tends to be on what should be whether that ought is doctrinal or ethical in focus. In my experience, theologians tend to spend less time thinking about what was and why things are the way they are. That’s the job of the historian. When they do interact with the past it tends to be in the form of arguments with the dead or appeals to the past in support of a theological/ethical program.

In the the nature of things, however, the theologian’s vocation leads to a certain blinkering. In this case I think the result is an over-simplified account of the fortunes of Reformed Christianity in North America. To be sure, Anthony’s brief post was simply raising an interesting question about the apparent triumph of Baptists within the “Reformed” world so I’m not including him in my analysis and critique. Most of these laments, however, seem to say the same thing: “if only we could get beyond our infighting and do/say/believe x.” In each case the proposed solution is a little different because the theological program is a little different but the bottom line is really “agree with my theological vision.”

The analysis is simplistic, however, because none of them really explain why there has been infighting and how the infighting, to the degree it really exists, came about and what it means. Most fundamentally, the lament assumes more than it has proved: that Reformed Christianity really is in decline in North America. Is there any sociological evidence for the “decline” thesis?

How one would measure such a decline is an open question. I’ve criticized “buildings, bodies, and budgets” as standard of measurement. The early, post-apostolic, church showed little interest in the “Killer Bs.” So, our fascination with them reveals our cultural biases. Nevertheless, in the interests of some objective standard by which to measure the alleged rise or fall of Reformed Christianity in North America we’ll use them in this post. To the best of my knowledge, there are about 500,000 confessional Reformed folk in North America. That’s roughly the number of people in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council, which is composed of 12 denominations. There are some boutique and micro denominations that are not included that might add a few thousand to the number and there is an ethnic denomination or two that is not included that might add a much larger number but if we say 500,000 we have one reasonably accurate standard by which to measure.

There are three kinds of Reformed/Presbyterian denominations in North America: Mainline, Borderline, and Sideline. The “mainline” refers to the largest Presbyterian body in North America, the PCUSA which claims more than 2 million members. This claim seems inflated since the PCUSA has been hemorrhaging members for decades and yet the membership statistic most often cited has not changed. The mainline also includes the Reformed Church in America, the oldest Dutch Reformed denomination in North America and the United Church of Christ, which subsumed the old German Reformed Church.

The borderline groups include the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The CRCNA was once about 300,000 but is smaller today since it began its journey toward the mainline. The EPC, which reports 115,000 members, once appeared to be heading toward the sideline but now appears have reversed course and is probably more oriented toward the mainline—largely due to the influx of congregations leaving the PCUSA and joining the EPC and bringing with them of mainline convictions and practices. The sideline denominations are mostly found in NAPARC. Numerically, taken together, the borderline denominations are about the same size as or a little smaller than NAPARC.

The mainline, by virtue of its possession (and retention of!) church properties and institutions is the wealthiest and probably has the largest and greatest number of buildings. For similar reasons, the borderline would be next, followed by the sideline denominations, several of whom are separating bodies that left behind substantial investments in buildings and budgets.

The greater story is one of disintegration and fragmentation of Presbyterian and Reformed churches in North America since the 19th century. The CRC judged that the RCA was already beyond hope in the 1850s and thus split to preserve its confessional identity. That lasted a little over 130 years. The move by the mainline in the 19th century to adapt to the growing influence of the Enlightenment ensured that those who who were determined to resist Modernism (rationalism, empiricism, and mysticism) would hive off the mainline with resulting fragmentation. The German Reformed Church (RCUS) followed the same pattern as the PCUSA leaving only a scattered, strongly ethnic minority continuing church scattered across the Dakotas.

From perspective of “bodies,” i.e., membership statistics, the fact that the confessional/conservative churches are holding steady and showing moderate growth in some quarters despite the history of fragmentation since the mid-19th century is actually encouraging rather than discouraging. Given that NAPARC lost at least 200,000 members when the CRCNA elected to move toward the mainline the stability of NAPARC is remarkable.

We could look at some other objective measurements such as the rise in the number of seminaries serving NAPARC. Consider that from the time Old Westminster Seminary split from Princeton Seminary, in 1929, until the 1970s, there were very few Reformed seminaries serving the NAPARC churches. During the 1940s and 50s, the most important of those few schools, Westminster, was actually a very small school with a very small faculty. In the 1960s and 70s, the Westminster student body began to grow (due to a variety of factors not all of which had to do with a sudden surge of popularity of Reformed theology) and WTS tried to branch out to Florida and failed. The establishment of Westminster Seminary California in 1980 was, in that regard, a signal event. Through the 1980s and 90s the number of Reformed seminaries in North America grew markedly. The fragmentation of theological education has been lamented in some quarters (not without cause) but insofar as they all seem to be finding support and students there is some reason to be encouraged.

Always Reformed-FeaturedNone of the analyses offered by our theologians accounts for the fact that, since the early 19th century, evangelical Christianity in North America has been dominated by the theology, piety, and practice that is alien to the Reformation. All confessional Reformed congregations are missions in a largely Anabaptist, revivalist religious culture. We are cross-cultural missionaries but do not always seem to aware of that reality. This is Sister Aimee’s America, as it were, and we’re just living in it.

The lamentation of the theologians, however, isn’t really about buildings, bodies, and budgets. It’s theological and ethical. They want us all to get along more than we do. Well, as a matter of history, that was one of the pleas made by the mainline: “why must you conservatives been so contentious?” In 1923, J. Gresham Machen answered: “Because Modernism isn’t Christianity and we would be Christians.” So, the great schism between the conservatives and the modernists was over the existence of Christianity.

What about the infighting that has occurred within the NAPARC world since 1929? To be sure, some of it was perhaps avoidable but some of it was not. The spirit of the “Clark Case” in the 1940s was regrettable but the argument itself was worth having because the Creator/creature distinction is essential to catholic and Reformed Christianity. (See the essay on the free offer of the gospel in this volume). Indeed, some arguments that should have occurred, such as the Shepherd Case, were initiated but not concluded properly and thus, after lying dormant for a time, the thistle of moralism, re-armed and re-named, reappeared and threatened to choke the gospel life out of the NAPARC churches. The Shepherd/Federal Vision controversy is about the article that the Reformed theologian J. H. Alsted called the “article of the standing or falling of the church.” See this volume.

The ongoing arguments about worship are also worth having. After all, it is not as if we do not confess clearly a doctrine and practice of public worship. The trend in the NAPARC world, however, seems to be away from the Word of God as confessed by the churches and toward the revivalist pattern. The medieval church knew that “the law of praying is the law of believing.” What we do in worship will influence and eventually transform what we confess. When we worship like Pentecostals and charismatics we will train our children to become Pentecostals and charismatics. They will eventually see the discrepancy between our confession and our practice and history suggests they will resolve the tension, vote with their feet, and join the revivalists rather than remain with the Reformed.

I quite agree that there are arguments that are not worth having: King James Only, the length of the creation days as a measure of orthodoxy, theonomy, and the like. NAPARC is affected by the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. These are the side effects, however, of living in late Modernity, living in North America, and of having been in the borderline and mainline. The question is how we should respond?

Lost SoulThe theologians each seem to affirm the confessions but in three of the cases they also marginalized them. It’s true that mere affirmation of the documents will not preserve NAPARC or lead to its flourishing but they do play a central role in our renewal. Arguably, when the confessions lost their status, we lost our soul. That’s why I’ve argued for a recovery of the Reformed confession in a broader sense. We need to recover not only a set of doctrinal propositions, which is essential, but also a piety (a way of relating to God), and a way of practicing the faith. We must have a baseline and we do. Theologians tend to think of this “system” and that “theory” but they sometimes forget that there is an institution: the visible church, established by Christ himself for the propagation of the faith. They tend to think of confessions as mini-dogmatics but they aren’t any such thing. The confessions are an embodiment of certain doctrinal convictions but also of the church’s way of reading Scripture, of applying Scripture, of living, communing, and worshipping together.

A call to return to our confession, defined narrowly as a document containing theological propositions and defined broadly as the embodiment of a piety and practice, is not backward looking. It is forward-looking. In order for us to grow and fulfill the mission with which we’ve been entrusted we must have a constitution. Systematic and dogmatic theologies are not our constitution: our churchly confession is our constitution, our charter, and our identity. In order for us to go about fulfilling our vocation we must first recover our identity. We are wanderers but there are different ways of wandering. Aimless, amnesic wandering would be fruitless but we don’t have to be aimless pilgrims. We are pilgrims with a purpose: to glorify God and enjoy him forever, to make known the riches of God’s grace in Christ to sinners, to call the lost to repentance, and to call the penitent to maturity, through the due use of ordinary means, in church, with a shared confession of the Word of God.

UPDATE: Darryl comments on this issue at Oldlife.

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  1. Thank you, Dr. Clark, for the excellent analysis.

    I have read each of the articles and essays mentioned in the first paragraph. The conclusions I draw are basically the same as yours.

    You sum it up well in the fourth paragraph: “The analysis is simplistic, however, because none of them really explain why there has been infighting and how the infighting, to the degree it really exists, came about and what it means.”

    I’m probably a little more angry toward these articles than you are. I am losing patience with writers who paint with such a broad brush and refuse to be specific. Wherein are the confessions deficient? What are those doctrines and traditions not worth fighting for? What are the examples of intramural time-wasting and useless nitpicking? In other words, “Brother, exactly what are you talking about?” Your thesis as a thesis means nothing to me unless you provide concrete examples. The fact that you fear we’ve become too narrow means nothing to me. You can suggest all day long that we’re just navel-gazing, but without specifics it just sounds like whining.

    In my opinion, the only way to interact with such writings is to ask (OK, demand) that the authors “come clean” and be specific. Then we have a basis for further discussion. Until then, I intend to ignore them.

    And, by the way, it’s not enough to provide a list and then try to back off from it by saying, “Well, I dont mean that these things are not important.” That’s cheating a little, don’t you think? Again, it’s the writer’s responsibility to tell us which subjects are a waste of our time, and which needless controversies have harmed our witness.

    The bottom line is, if you believe the Reformed confessions and catechisms accurately summarize Biblical teaching, and if you take your subscription vows seriously, you will think and behave a certain way. If you are doctrinally lax or have departed from the confessions at certain points, you will think and behave a different way. To quote Dr. Clark again, “The theologians each seem to affirm the confessions but in three of the cases they also marginalized them.”

    To give credit where it’s due, John Frame’s “Machen’s Warrior Children” has the virtue of specificity. He documents a number of issues in considerable detail. Frame gives us something to ineract with, and for that we can be thankful.

  2. RSC: “The confessions are an embodiment of certain doctrinal convictions but also of the church’s way of reading Scripture, of applying Scripture, of living, communing, and worshipping together.”

    Amen… and thanks for this good word.

  3. Thanks for the interaction Scott. You know that I generally agree with what you write here (though I would judge Reformed decline in terms of proportional influence and numbers over time, rather than in terms of absolute numbers); I am not challenging the confessions, and I hold solidly to the Three Forms of Unity.

    But here is the problem as I see it. Most (though not all) of the argumentation and dispute that divides our bodies/seminaries/pastors/churches from one another, that consumes our time, does not actually revolve around points of our confession. Rather, it revolves around matters of application or doubtful interpretation. To truly emphasize our confessions, to be confessional churches devoted first and foremost to the faithful proclamation of the word consistent with our confessions and the administration of the sacraments, I believe, would lead us to emphasize much more than we do the the relation of the content of those confessions for those outside of our churches/denominations/circles.

    To put it another way, we’ve turned our confessions into launching pads of conflict with those who affirm the confessions along side of us, rather than a basis for shared proclamation to those who desperately need to hear the gospel. We talk much more with each other than we do to those to whom we are supposed to be speaking.

    If I recall what you once said in one of your exhortations in class, holding up a magazine featuring a theologian involved in a significant internal controversy, “This is our problem! This is why no one knows who we are. This is why it was a sheer miracle that I even came to discover the Reformed faith.”

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for this. Responses seriatim.

      1. Proportional influence. Presbyterian influence began declining in the 19th century. We think of old Princeton as this monumental institution but in reality, by the end of the 19th century, Princeton was being marginalized even in the mainline.The confessional P&R world hasn’t had very much influence since Machen died. Because of his status at Princeton, the major media were interested in him and the mainline still had status and warranted coverage. Since that time, however, a lot has changed. The first few classes at WTS included refugees from Princeton and some of them went on to become leaders of the neo-evangleical movement in the 40s. So, the influence of Machen and WTS was extended through the neo-evangelicals but with the rise of Fuller, which turned its back on Machen in the early 60s, and the subsequent decline of the neo-evangelicals in the late 70s and early 80s, the last vestiges of significant Machen/confessionalist influence waned. The neo-evangelicals figured out that confessionalism was no path to influence or prominence. That’s Fuller Seminary cast its lot with the PCUSA.
      2. We should, however, question the whole business of seeking influence. The mainline has become what it is in large measure because she has been seeking cultural approval and influence. The paradox of influence is that the church, to the degree it has had it, hasn’t found it by seeking it. Nothing in the NT suggests that we should be seeking cultural influence. I’m not saying that we should run and hide nor am I counseling withdrawal. I’m an advocate of engagement but Reformed folk are about process not outcomes.
      3. You seem to assume that being confessional would reduce conflict. It would in certain cases by allowing us to set priorities but the very act of calling our churches to do as you suggest, to preach and teach consistent with the confession is a controversial message. It is a partisan message. I accept that fact. It shouldn’t be partisan, but it is. The reality is that “confessional” is just another niche in the P & R universe. That’s why the local progressive, hipster, emerg* presbyterian pastor isn’t offended when a visitor asks where the local “confessional” congregation is. He knows he isn’t and doesn’t care. To call for a return to a confessional theology, piety, and practice is inherently controversial in a world where the confession is marginal.
      4. How can we avoid conflict when, e.g., the FV folks said, “We affirm the confessions.” Mere formal affirmation doesn’t cut it when the substance of what is being taught and promoted and practice is at odds with the very documents being professed.
      5. People don’t know who we are because WE don’t know who or what we are. We need to win people to Christ and to the most biblical account of the Christian faith but we must have someplace to send the converts. I run into this all the time. I get heart-breaking correspondence saying, “You told me to be confessional and worship in a Reformed church but I can’t find one. They’re all just like the broad evangelical church I just left.”
  4. Matthew,

    With all due respect, your reply suffers from the same defects that I wrote about in my post. I repeat, “Brother, what exactly are you talking about?”

    You say, “To put it another way, we’ve turned our confessions into launching pads of conflict with those who affirm the confessions along side of us, rather than a basis for shared proclamation to those who desperately need to hear the gospel. We talk much more with each other than we do to those to whom we are supposed to be speaking.”

    Examples, please.

  5. This reminded me of an article by Carl Trueman from a couple of years ago he says in part:

    “…99 times out of a 100, a nasty controversy only ever erupts because, at an earlier point in time somebody, somewhere took the easy way out and chose to turn a blind eye to a peccadillo, moral or theological. Think of David and Adonijah, the son who rebelled. We are told in 1 Ki. 1:6 that his father had never checked his behaviour as he had grown up, surely one of the most eloquent verses in the Bible. What had presumably started with Adonijah throwing toys out of the pram or not observing a teenage curfew ended with full-scale rebellion. In my limited experience in both local churches and institutions, all of the major conflicts in which I have been involved could have been avoided if somebody at some point in the past had had the backbone — and the love for an erring brother or sister — to check them gently when they first showed signs of wandering.”

  6. Dr. Clark,

    To put a little historical spin on what Matthew T. is saying: It seems what has happened and is happening is little different than the decline after the High Orthodox period which Richard Muller describes as mere repristination of the Reformed symbols without doing fresh work (i.e. Benedict Pictet and others). The loss of the philosophical coherence in which the Reformed symbols were made compelling has been entirely eroded (i.e. Voetius vs. Descartes). Could it be that this is simply the continuation of that same fundamental problem?

    There seems to be a fundamental unity from what Matthew is saying concerning the lack of real Confessing today which you describe in your RRC. The lack of substantial discussion and interplay with those around in our day in age has left us on the sidelines as merely repristinating the doctrines of the past (for those who still hold to it).

    It does seem that for many we have fallen into the modern error of religion as either therapy (liberal/psychological) or cynical critique (fundamentalist) ala Slavoj Zizek. We in our late modern era have subconsciously realized life is fragmented and things are in disunity. Therefore religion is either a crutch by which we get by in life realizing this fragmentation (i.e. therapy), or we sit on the sidelines wagging our fingers at how culture has gone to hell in a hand-basket and how much superior we are to them (i.e. criticism by fundamentalism). It seems we have fallen in this trap without realizing it. We have been so concerned with the rearguard approach that we have failed to confess in our day and age. We don’t know our identity, that is true, but it is because we don’t know the age in which we live and the existential situation of the late modern man.

    The kind of positive theological reemplotment that is needed is eschewed and an anti-philosophical impulse adds to such degradation even in confessional seminaries. Could it be that we simultaneously need to recover Reformed confessions, the scholastics, and confess anew in our day with the kind of philosophical, historical, and exegetical exactness that was seen in our Reformed orthodox predecessors, reintegrating biblical and systematic studies?

    The fragmentation within the NAPARC community shows this underlying divided framework. Some seminaries attempt to reinvigorate a Calvinistic-Pietist schema, others a Biblicist-Redemptive Historical schema, and so on. Everyone is coming to the tradition with these varying lenses on that do not take seriously that philosophical presupposition which lead them to such conclusions.

    This can be seen with the varying discussions of Union with Christ. Some are looking at the situation from a more comfortable Aristotelian view of causality while others seem to view it from a more post-Ritschlian view that cannot begin to understand causality outside a Cartesian-Spinozan view of the created order. What is needed it seems is a much more fundamental framework by which the doctrines in the confessions make sense and can be confessed and exegeted afresh for positive confessing to those in the world what it means for Christ to act in history post-Lessing, post-Feuerbach, etc.

    These are just some thoughts, and questions. I hope that we can thus overcome the impasse. It seems this is a highly historical, theological, and philosophical problem that we have in our midst. Thoughts?

    • Hi Tim,

      I agree with Muller’s historical analysis of what happened to Reformed theology. I don’t accept necessarily that repristination leads to spiritual torpor. Maybe it’s because I am an epiogone but I think they get a bad rap. It’s not true in Muller’s case but typically, “epigone” is historical code for “I don’t know who this guy was.” Sometimes folks are justifiably obscure. I’ve decided that not every work needs to be translated. I gave up on Olevianus’ commentary on Romans because it’s unwieldy and undisciplined. He wasn’t doing that much of value that would have justified the labor, time, and expense of the translation but I do think De substantia is worth the effort. I say this to give evidence that it’s possible to discriminate between epigones and their works. Was Pictet a mere repristinator?

      Still, I think you’re writing about theology and not the state of the church per se. The quality of theology being done at any given time ebbs and flows but the church continues. I don’t think there’s a direct correlation between the flourishing of the church as an institution and the quality of theology being done.

      That said, who wants more thoughtful, intelligent engagement with the academy than Horton’s 4 vols through WJKP, his survey of covenant theology, or his new systematic theology? One author alone doesn’t prove that Reformed theology is not in decline but as I look about I think the Reformed academy is healthier now than it was when I became Reformed c. 1980. I’m sure there are other examples but since I mainly read and think about dead people I’m not the best fellow to identify all the best contemporary theologians. I can say that there are a lot more systematics volumes than when I became Reformed. We had Berkhof and Hodge and that was about it, then Murray’s collected works and Shedd and some ad hoc volumes. Today there are lots of systems out there. Now, perhaps you’ll say that they aren’t as engaged as they should be and perhaps that’s true but if we look at the classical period that was probably true. Wollebius is great but he wasn’t highly engaged with the academy in his day– no handbook really is.

      In that respect, I understand that the “Reformed guys” don’t have as much pull in broad evangelicalism as they once did. Horton gets asked to write for CT occasionally but it’s been a long time since CT asked E J Young to be an editor (he refused because they weren’t confessionally Reformed!).

      Media have evolved. When I began in radio the goal was to start in a small market and work my way to Chicago or LA or some other major market. Now, with media fragmentation and the interwebs, the old media latter doesn’t really exist. The old starter jobs don’t exist and the personalities are relocating from radio to the internet anyway. So it is with the evangelical sub-culture. Time was one had to read CT to know what is going on. That’s not true anymore. Time was, to reach evangelicals, one had to be in CT. Not true any more. So, Mod Ref is a part of the fragmentation but it’a also a part of the solution.

      I don’t know whether re-integration is really possible. If we’re going to continue to engage with the academy then specialization is the order of the day. Can we from our little corner upend the entire academic behemoth and say: integrate? No.

      If we’re talking about writing for the church, then yes, a greater degree of integration is not only possible but necessary. I’m committed to it. We’ve tried to do it in a couple of the volumes in which I’ve been involved (e.g., CJPM, the Always Reformed).

      I don’t see any ready cure for the education fragmentation you describe because that fragmentation is more about market demand than it is intellectual fragmentation. We live in a market economy and we don’t have a state church. So long as the various sub-traditions exist and can fund schools, those schools will exist.

      Finally, your last paragraph is why I am a historian! 🙂

  7. Timothy M.,

    Forgive me for being a fly in the ointment, or more pointedly, sounding like a cranky old man.

    I have to ask you the same question I posed earlier: “What in the world are you talking about?”

    What precisely do you mean by this: “We have been so concerned with the rearguard approach that we have failed to confess in our day and age. We don’t know our identity, that is true, but it is because we don’t know the age in which we live and the existential situation of the late modern man.”

    Well, fine, that sounds nice, but I don’t have the slightest clue about how to apply your convictions at a practical level, with “boots on the ground,” so to speak. What, specifically, is a “rearguard approach”? How have we “failed to confess”? What do you mean by “We don’t know our identity”? What have we failed to know about “the age in which we live and the existential situation of the late modern man”?

    Am I the only one here who is not helped by sweeping generalizations, learned references, and abstruse philosophizing?

    I’ve been in dozens of discussions just like this among Reformed guys, in person and on the web. It took me decades to realize that many times we talk in abstractions without communicating much of anything.

    I may be the only one who feels this way. If so, I stand corrected.

    Here’s a rule of thumb I try to follow: For every general statement of principle, back it up with at least one specific example. Then we can have a real conversation.

  8. Providentially, today I read Clarence Thomas’ recent remarks about writing opinions for the Supreme Court. His practice can apply equally to theologians, especially Reformed theologians:

    “What I tell my law clerks is that we write these so that they are accessible to regular people. That doesn’t mean that there’s no law in it. But there are simple ways to put important things in language that’s accessible. As I say to them, the beauty, the genius is not to write a 5 cent idea in a ten dollar sentence. It’s to put a ten dollar idea in a 5 cent sentence.

    That’s beauty. That’s editing. That’s writing.

    The editing we do is for clarity and simplicity without losing meaning, and without adding things. You don’t see a lot of double entendres, you don’t see word play and cuteness. We’re not there to win a literary award. We’re there to write opinions that some busy person or somebody at their kitchen table can read and say, ‘I don’t agree with a word he said, but I understand what he said.'”

  9. I belong to a PCUSA church that is likely leaving for ECO. According to the PCUSA’s own data (available at their website), the current membership (based upon “active membership”) is 1.9 million as of 2011. Here is what the decline has looked like since 2000:

    year PCUSA
    2000 2,525,330
    2001 2,493,781
    2002 2,451,969
    2003 2,405,311
    2004 2,362,136
    2005 2,313,662
    2006 2,267,118
    2007 2,209,546
    2008 2,140,165
    2009 2,077,138
    2010 2,016,091
    2011 1,952,287

    The actual situation is even more devastating, given the demographics of the denomination: overwhelmingly baby-boomer and older. Moreover, the congregations that have the most young families are evangelical…and we’re leaving! FPC-Orlando and FPC-Colorado Spring have both left, and they were two of our largest churches. FPC-Greenville (SC) has also left. Peachtree might leave as well, and this is (by far) the largest PCUSA church.

  10. And for those who care, here is the PCA since 2000:

    2011 –351,406

    So, that is a 14.78% increase in membership. Also, the EPC has gone from 64,939 in 2000 to approx. 115,000 in 2011. That is a 77.09% increase…thanks to the shenanigans of the PCUSA.

    • Thank you Kevin for these statistics.

      You inspired me. According to the CRCNA:

      1963: 256,015
      1973: 287,114
      1983: 299,685
      1993: 311,202
      2003: 278,798
      2012: 251,727

      So the CRCNA reports about 5,000 fewer members today than she did in 1963. She is down 60,000 members since right before the 1995 vote at Synod to ordain females.

  11. R.S. Clark wrote: “We should, however, question the whole business of seeking influence. The mainline has become what it is in large measure because she has been seeking cultural approval and influence. The paradox of influence is that the church, to the degree it has had it, hasn’t found it by seeking it.”

    GW: Amen, and amen! All the hand-wringing in our communions about “losing influence” and all the stress on the need to be “culturally relevant” just goes to show that we have lost our focus on the priorities of the kingdom of God. Didn’t our Lord say that the kingdom would come without observation, that the wind blows where it wills, but we don’t see it (we only see its effects), etc.? But we still seem to think we’re not being faithful unless we are reading about ourselves in the paper, or building our empires to compete with the world’s, or cranking out our own version of Christian celebrities to compete with their secular counterparts.

    Even after its declension into modernism, the PCUSA sought, and (to some extent) found, “cultural relevance.” For a time its membership was quite high (still is compared to us smaller confessional churches!), it possessed cultural clout (even including powerful politicians amongst its membership),was endowed with significant financial resources, and boasted large and often stately edifices. But what “relevance” did the PCUSA, on the whole, have to the biblical priorities of God’s kingdom? What “influence” for eternal good did the PCUSA as a whole exercise for the salvation of souls and the spread of God’s kingdom? Aside from small pockets of renewal, it (like many other “mainline” denominations) has “Ichabod” written all over it, and many of the faithful are making their exodus.

    Let’s face it, we’ve already lost our “influence.” We are already sidelined, marginalized, and despised by the broader culture. We no longer have the cultural clout we once did, and it doesn’t look like we are going to regain it any time soon. A cause for handwringing? An occasion for shrill pronouncements of doom and gloom? On the contrary, I suggest it is a cause for rejoicing. Why? Because when we are weak, He is strong! Because, in God’s good providence, the genuine, spiritual “influence” of the gospel often grows the most when the church is despised, resisted, even persecuted (think Book of Acts). Because Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and because it has been granted to us, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake. In short, our loss of cultural “influence” may end up being a long-term blessing in disguise.

  12. Lemme see.
    Prof. Frame’s Worship Children include most, if not all those who graduated to the Federal Vision, all the while Mr. Evans thinks FV is merely an intramural squabble.

    But if to be reformed refers to our doctrine and our worship and our government, presbyterian popularizers such as Boice or Sproul never really talked about the last two did they? (For his part, Frame deconstructed the second without the aid of Derrida or De Man.) Hence Baptists doing what Baptists do best, the popular American thing to Mr. Bradley’s disappointment.

    Still when all is said and done, if the truth and the love of it is not paramount, what is? Unity? In what? Are the reformed confessions still the best summaries of the whole counsel of God available or not?

    Yes, sound doctrine is divisive, but we walk by faith. Not by numbers and both censoriousness and compromise are evils to be avoided, rather than good and necessary consequences of confessionalism.

    Otherwise, if history is any record, Cat Steven’s Peace Train usually morphs into Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express.

    All aboard?
    Not on your life.

  13. Scott,

    I’m actually not (either here or in my original post) talking about cultural influence. I’m talking about influence on the proclamation of the Christian message. It’s not just that the Reformed tradition has lost influence culturally; it no longer has much effect on the way the gospel is heard in this country. And that is the great tragedy.

    The problem, as I originally stated, is not with the confessions. It’s with the way we use the confessions to argue with one another rather than to confess, together, to the world, what we believe.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you when you say, “People don’t know who we are because WE don’t know who or what we are. We need to win people to Christ and to the most biblical account of the Christian faith but we must have someplace to send the converts.”

    But if it is true that the confessions no longer unite us but turn us against one another, then I would suggest the confessions no longer play the role they were written to play. The confessions of my church are called the Three Forms of Unity for a reason. If they unify us we should start acting like it; if they don’t, we should be honest and write new confessions.

    I don’t think we’re there. I think we are simply too inward focused and obsessed with arguing with one another about things that are not really about our confession.

    Frank, you ask for examples. Scott provides some in this post. As a graduate of Westminster Seminary California I am well aware of the obsession some Reformed people have with intramural theological debates that are not about our basic confession (i.e., Klinean view of the covenants, creation days, two kingdoms, etc.) and I can readily think of numerous other points of dispute dividing us (style of instruments and songs, women as deacons, manner of conducting Lord’s Supper, views of the Lord’s Day, etc.). We can talk about these things and work through them, but they should not be our obsession such that they distract us from our true mission: proclaiming our confession to the world.

    • Matt,

      Didn’t I address the historical reasons for the decline of the influence of confessional Reformed voices since 1929? Look, this isn’t even 1947. Things have changed. Influence is mediated and the the media have fragmented. There was a time when one of us might have snuck into a position of influence, when the media were more centralized and controlled by a few elites (yes, I think that much of the mainstream political media is controlled by a relatively small number of elites but we’re talking religion and theology here) but those days are mostly behind us.

      The SBC is something like 16 million people. The entire NAPARC world is 1/2 million at most. Even if we add the sidelines we still don’t get to a million people. Even if the real SBC constituency is only 6 million, as some say, we’re still only a tiny percentage. There are (or were when I last looked) 60 million American evangelicals, most of whom operate with Anabaptist assumptions. They don’t even know we exist and they aren’t looking for us.

      I suppose that you and I assess the state of the NAPARC world rather differently. The 2K argument is really about Christ and culture and I think the C and c argument is a pressing issue facing the URCNA right now. For a variety of historical reasons some of our congregations are not outward looking, not because they are taken up with intramural theological fights, but because they make assumptions that are deeply rooted in various cultures and those assumptions are not subject to criticism. The 2K argument, which has been a sometimes ugly affair, is a symbol of a deeper problem.

      You seem dismissive of the matter of intinction but I think it’s a significant issue because, like the 2K argument, it signals a more profound problem. If people can simply withdraw the cup from the laity largely on a pragmatic basis, what else can churches do? What are the limits of ecclesiastical authority? What are the limits of pragmatism? Who authorized sessions to remove the cup from the laity? Don’t those sessions realize the cost of recovering the cup for the laity in the Reformation? Do they care? Is the supper a means of grace or the way to close a sale? I worry about those sorts of things and so I’m happy to see people in the PCA pushing back against the practice of intinction.

      The Sabbath and its loss is a large issue. It’s worth discussing. It’s about the loss of a creational pattern. It’s about the normative authority of the creational pattern and the moral law; it’s about whether Christians will be wholly conformed to the prevailing culture (back to Christ and culture but on a broader scale).

      What you describe as “intramural theological debates” have a great deal to do with our confession. We confess a theology, piety, and practice in these areas.

      So, what would happen if we did as you say? Let’s say we stopped arguing/talking about these issues. What then? What do you envision to be the salutary outcome of such a pivot (as they say in politics)?

  14. I do not understand all the handwringing. Of course, we have many areas for improvement, but there are great reasons to be optimistic, especially when it comes to proclaiming the gospel to the world. The number of Reformed church plants in North America in the last decade or so is astounding and it is on the rise. A few of the bloggers have lamented the infighting of Reformed seminaries, but we have more well-trained men today than in any other period in Reformed history. In the past, one man might pastor two or three congregations due to a shortage of ministers. Today, we have a shortage of congregations for our qualified ministers. We need to rectify this. Reformed influence might be waning in North America but it is exploding in Brazil, Nigeria, South Korea, and many other places around the globe. Much of the credit for their “success” goes to the NAPARC (and pre-NAPARC) churches who sent church-planters to these nations decades and centuries ago. Despite their so-called infighting, NAPARC missions continue to spread the gospel in countries that, Lord willing, will experience the same fruit as Brazil, South Korea, etc.
    We need to make some in-flight adjustments, but the plane is headed in the right direction.

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