The PCUSA Continues Its Slide Into Oblivion

Jeffrey Walton reports that the membership Presbyterian Church (USA), the mainline liberal denomination, declined by 51, 584 in 2021. That is a loss of about 4%. The total membership of the PCUSA sits at about 1.19 million members. It was not long ago that the PCUSA was 4 million members. Presently it is a little more than twice as large as the much more conservative and confessional Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

For more on the history of the decline of mainline see the resources below.

Let the reader understand (Rev 2:5, 7). (HT: Julie Roys).


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  1. My denomination, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and a sister denomination (ECO) continues to gain conservative PCUSA congregations in droves. My presbytery gained over 120 PC USA congregations and ended up having to split into three different presbyteries due to the size. We are starting to see conservative UCC congregations come into our denomination as well. I’m sure that you and many of the people on this blog would point out some of the problems with these denominations when it comes to women in ministry and and openness to the “charismatic gifts of the Spirit.” And you wouldn’t be wrong to point that out the problems. But it is a rather curious phenomenon. I’m curious to see what the future will look like for both the PCUSA and denominations like mine who are continuing to pick up congregations that do teach the law and gospel.

    • Bradley,

      When you say “conservative” PCUSA congregations you’re speaking about congregations who’ve had Barthian ministers and female elders and ministers for several decades now.

      Congregations in the borderline denominations (and some in the sideline denoms) need to pay attention to the shifting definitions and boundary markers.

      I remember very clearly giving a conference talk at a very “conservative” PCUSA where a PCUSA minister approached me to whisper (lest someone hear him and find him out) that he still believes in the Westminster Confession. These are the congregations that are joining the EPC and ECO.

      There was a time when it seemed like Fourth Pres in Bethesda, MD might lead the EPC toward the sideline but the exodus of broadly evangelical congregations out of the PCUSA and into the EPC and ECO has, I fear, sealed their fate. They’ve simply rolled the clock back to 1975 but the clock will do what the clock will do.

    • Dr Clark, very much depends on the presbytery. What I am seeing are folks who are far more mainstream evangelical/nondenominational folks–5 point folks who aren’t too sure about the rest of the WCF. That is a far bigger concern to me. You really don’t see or hear folks who sympathize with Barth in my area–far more likely to sympathize too much with John Piper (but believe in infant baptism). That does not a Presbyterian make. I doubt we’ll end seeing a Side B situation like there is in the PCA–it’s the main reason why these PCUSA congregations are leaving. But it will be interesting to see where things go.

      • Bradley,

        There isn’t a minister in the PCUSA who, were he/she to publicly deny Barth, who would last 5 minutes in the PCUSA.

        Yes, there is a lot of broad evangelicalism in the PCUSA. That is typically the transitional state to liberalism. There’s been a significant influx of Fuller grads into the PCUSA, which accounts for some of the broad evangelicalism.

    • Dr. Clark, as a person who was baptized in the UCC and remained in a “big steeple” mainline Congregational church with well over a thousand members until I was more or less thrown out in the 1980s by my new pastor, who had been an advocate of abortion even before Roe v Wade, I think I know a bit about the dynamics of the mainline churches. I do not disagree with you about the problems of women in office, neo-orthodoxy, Barthianism, and even worse issues in the “conservative” churches in the mainline denominations.

      I was attending Calvin Seminary at the time my new pastor made clear that my views on abortion were intolerable to him, and while the council wasn’t in full agreement with the pastor, pretty much everybody including me agreed I needed to leave the church. I definitely wasn’t the most conservative person in membership, and several prominent community leaders on the church council were quite a bit more conservative than me at that time. As a big-steeple church, the membership included quite a few important Republicans who had known me and my father for many years, and who were definitely hard-right conservatives, but stayed in that church for political and social reasons in an era when being a member of a major congregation of a mainline denomination was important for political, professional, social, and personal reasons.

      However, my status as a seminary student forced the church to decide whether my views were acceptable for a person preparing for the pastorate, as opposed to merely a private member of the church. The majority of the church council thought it was best to avoid forcing the issue and just have me transfer out. In hindsight they were right. Years later, some of the same church council members who had defended me forced the new pastor out of the pulpit, but by then, I had become far more conservative and there was no way I was going back.

      To be clear, I wasn’t any sort of radical on abortion. My views were the standard evangelical pro-life position. Furthermore, all I would have had to do would have been to join the CRC congregation where I was doing my field education work, and I would have had all my tuition paid. Numerous Calvin faculty made clear I would be welcomed with open arms, largely because they didn’t realize just how conservative I was.

      When the women in office vote went through at Synod 1990, and I saw the inerrancy-denying arguments being made in the Christian Reformed Church in favor of women’s ordination, and took a hard look at the arguments that were being made on the authority of Scripture with respect to Howard Van Till and theistic evolution, and a few years later with respect to homosexuality and feminine language for God, it was crystal clear to me that leaving my mainline Congregational church and joining the Christian Reformed Church would be jumping from the fire into the frying pan, and if I joined the CRC, I’d be walking out in a few years. That’s how I ended up in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference rather than the CRC — the 4Cs on paper held more problematic positions than the CRC in 1990, but in actual fact, the 4Cs were clearly committed to inerrancy while the CRC was on the verge of jumping off the cliff on that core doctrine. An increasing number of 4C churches were not only conservative but angry and quite militant conservatives, having gone through horrible fights in the UCC over the most basic principles of the Christian faith. They had seen where denying biblical authority leads, and wanted no part of it. By contrast, the CRC had great positions on paper but was no longer committed to biblical authority, and as the last three decades have shown, the dominoes are falling one by one since the foundations of biblical authority are no longer firmly believed.

      I now live in southwest Missouri — the territory of what, until a few years ago, was one of the most conservative presbyteries of the PC(USA). The large majority of those churches have now left and most though not all of those that left are now in the ECO. The parallels are clear to what I saw in the 4Cs thirty years ago with angry conservatives who see the consequences of denying biblical authority.

      I think we need to be clear-eyed about the people now leaving the PC(USA). If they wanted to be broadly evangelical, they wouldn’t have stayed in the PC(USA) as long as they did. They have at least some attachment to historic Presbyterianism, and often to what they would describe as “Calvinism.” (I’m well aware being Reformed is more than the five points, but to be a five-pointer or even a four-pointer in the PC(USA) is a pretty bold stance.)

      Are these ex-PC(USA) churches soundly Reformed congregations? In most cases, not really. If they were, they’d be joining a different denomination.

      But many of them are far better than what I saw in the Christian Reformed Church in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

      I’m cautiously optimistic for the future of the ECO and EPC. They clearly are not going to become confessionally Reformed denominations, though some of the individual churches may eventually decide the ECO is not Reformed enough for them. But given what is happening in the PCA, I could easily imagine a future in with the denominational stances taken by the EPC and ECO end up looking a lot better that the direction where the PCA seems to be headed.

      I think we need to be charitable to the people leaving the PC(USA) and joining the ECO and EPC. They’ve spent many years and often decades fighting for the core of the Gospel. They’ve been focused mostly on what they are AGAINST, not so much what they are FOR.

      Getting out of the PC(USA) provides churches an opportunity to re-evaluate their mission, and to position themselves, not as a “conservative Presbyterian church that’s not like those other liberal PC(USA) churches,” but rather to take the time to figure out what they believe rather than focusing on what they DON’T believe.

      That doesn’t happen overnight.

    • There is a process called gracious dismissal that can be sought. In this denomination in particular, you basically pay a large percentage of what the property is worth and the denomination signs over the building to you. Somewhere between 50 and 60%, I think. The issue for some of these congregations is that they legitimately cannot afford to buy their way out of the denomination. And buying property in an area close to the current property is not financially possible either. This is part of why I think Dr. Clark’s picture is more bleak than is warranted—in some instances. There are quite a lot of moderate PCUSA congregations that are inundated with bad theology as he suggests. But there’s also not a small number of congregations who have only had pastors who hold to the historic Christian faith. But leaving the denomination is difficult because of the cost of the building. My parents live near a thriving PCUSA church that is located on some of the most prime coastal real estate in the southeast. I have another family member who lives near a similar PCUSA church that’s also prime real estate in a major metropolitan area. paying 60% of what those properties would be valued at today would be impossible even if the membership tripled. Those congregations have always been led by ministers who graduated from Orthodox, reformed seminaries. But the fate of the congregation is questionable. Because leaving is incredibly difficult. But staying is incredibly difficult as well. Because most solid reformed pastors don’t want to deal with most of the members of the Presbytery being so incredibly outside of the bounds of Christianity.

      • Brad,

        Terms like “moderate” and “conservative” in the PCUSA are very fluid and quite subjective.

        When I enquired, in 1993, about the possibility of seeking admission to the Chicago Presbytery (since some of my colleagues at Wheaton were in the presbytery and they affirmed the same statement of faith at Wheaton as I) I was told that I had to affirm 1) the ordination of females and 2) a Barthian view of Scripture. Barth has been “orthodoxy” in the PCUSA since 1967. They confess it. It’s normative.

        So, the meaning of “moderate” and “conservative” in the PCUSA is quite skewed.

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