What The Dying Of The PCUSA Means

When, Dean Kelley published Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), the Protestant mainline was already in crisis. They were shrinking, and, as Kelley’s title suggests, the “conservative” churches were growing. This book was published the year before churches withdrew from the old Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) to form the Presbyterian Churches in America (PCA), which would become one of the fastest-growing denominations in the USA for more than three decades. The solution Kelley proposed was unsatisfactory. It was written eleven years before the formation of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) in 1983, which was the result of the United Presbyterian Church USA merging with the PCUS. He argued that what the mainline churches needed to do was to believe something (anything really), stick to that belief, and throw out some people so that everyone could see that the mainliners were serious about it. Then, he argued, Americans would be attracted to the mainline again. I do not recall that Kelley mentioned the case of J. Gresham Machen, who was expelled from the PCUSA in 1936 because he believed the Scriptures to be God’s holy, inspired, inerrant Word, and the Westminster Standards to be the true confession of the Christian faith. The formal cause of his expulsion was his refusal to quit the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, which was founded in response to the theological corruption of the denominational missions agency. That bold act, executed in a kangaroo court (the accounts are painful to read), did not lead to growth but rather signaled the beginning of the end of the Presbyterian mainline.

Take A Look At The Patient’s Chart

The PCUSA is hemorrhaging members and has been for decades. How bad is the bleeding? When the PCUSA was formed in 1983 by the merger, it had 3,121,238 members. In 2000, they reported 2 million members. In 2019, they reported 1.3 million members, and in 2022 they reported 1.1 million members. Church statistics are always to be suspected, and we may reasonably suspect that the actual number of active members in the PCUSA is actually lower. By their own figures, the PCUSA declined by 53,105 members between 2021 and 2022. If we impute the same rate of decline (which is a little smaller than it has been, usually about 70,000 members annually) to 2023, the PCUSA will be right at 1 million members. If that rate of decline continues for another 10–12 years, the PCUSA will meet the PCA numerically.

The PCUSA will continue, however, to sit upon mountains of wealth in the form of endowments, buildings, and institutions for which they fought vigorously, often in court, when the churches that formed the OPC left in the 1930s and 40s. Those fights left the OPC congregations not only small but broke and homeless—and we thought that the PCUSA was devoted to preventing and curing homelessness.

When asked by Fox News about the continuing decline, J. Herbert Nelson II, the PCUSA’s stated clerk, blamed it on the pandemic. Apparently, the pandemic has been going on longer than we knew. The only good news for the PCUSA is that in recent decades, it has been the influx of Fuller Seminary graduates who have brought some evangelical church-planting zeal to the denomination—but their little infusion will not likely save the patient. Thousands have fled to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the oddly named Evangelical Covenant Order. . . and people thought that Orthodox Presbyterian was odd.

Let us put this decline from 2022–23 into perspective. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church reported a membership of about 32,000 members in 2022, or about 60% of the number of members lost in one year by the PCUSA.

What Must Confessional Churches Learn From The Dying Of The PCUSA?

Kelley was wrong to suggest that the mainline churches needed to believe in something, anything. Had he said that what the mainline churches need to do is repent of their infidelity and return to God’s inspired Word as confessed in the Westminster Standards, he would have been right on the money. D. G. Hart in The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) analyzed the decline of the Protestant mainline in just those terms: the decline of fidelity to historic Christianity and the great confessions of the church.

J. Gresham Machen was spot on when he said that Protestant liberalism had, as Luther put it to Zwingli, “another spirit.” Indeed, re-reading Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (New York: MacMillan, 1923) is a stark reminder of how alien Protestant liberalism is to biblical and historic Christianity. The Christian religion stands or falls with the supernatural, with the great ecumenical truths and creeds, the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the atonement, and the resurrection. If Jesus is not raised from the dead, we are just wasting our time. The Protestant liberals had long ago given up on the resurrection. They tried to denature Christianity and save it from itself, to make it useful to the modern, enlightened world.

A century later, Machen is utterly vindicated, and the PCUSA looks more petty, vindictive, shortsighted, and desperate than ever for defrocking those who tried to save them. When I was a lifeguard, one of the most valuable things I was taught was that I was no good to anyone if I allowed a drowning person to kill me. So, we were taught some self-defense techniques. One of those “aquatic martial arts” techniques is for the lifeguard to plant his heel squarely into the forehead of the drowning person, and then to drag them by the hair to the side of the pool or to the shore, and to resuscitate them there. To paraphrase the old country song, Machen tried, Machen tried.

The confessional Presbyterian and Reformed denominations (I am looking at you, PCA) should pay close attention here. The PCUSA is terminal, and its disease is the desire to be influential, to be approved of by the broader culture. Bob Godfrey has been warning us about the myth of influence for decades. Is anyone listening? Speaking of listening, you will enjoy listening to my interview with Bob on that essay.

Every time I see someone from the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed world talking about how their denomination “punches above its weight,” I think of Godfrey’s myth of influence. It is not that there is no expression of influence, but history tells us that, when we go about seeking to be influential, it is not we who influence the world but they who influence us. Was the church more or less faithful after Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion of the empire in AD 380? When Christianity came to the pagans of Europe, missionaries promised kings military victories in the name of Christ, and whole villages were baptized without catechesis or evidence of true faith—the promise of Genesis 17:7 is to believers and their children, not to professors and their children.

Getting invited to the right conferences and being interviewed by the Times or the Post is exhilarating, but it is also ephemeral. The approval of the culture goes as quickly as it comes, and it always comes with a price. The Evil One offered our Lord all the kingdoms of the earth (as though Jesus was not the sovereign Lord of all before the incarnation) if only he would bow the knee to Satan. Praise God that Jesus loved his Father and us more than he loved cultural acceptance and approval. We are not called to a coffee klatch but to a cross (Matt 16:24). We are not called to reclaim the city (let alone dominate it) but go outside the city, as the writer to the Hebrews wrote:

And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Heb 13:12–14; NIV).

The temptation to shed the disgrace of the cross is powerful, and it is one that the Protestant and Reformed churches must mortify if they are to take a different path than the PCUSA. One path leads to glory, and the other to the grave.


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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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16 comments

  1. In 1983 my father was an Elder in the PCUS when our congregation voted to Join the PC(USA). He had been a member of that congregation since 1930. We left a congregation which was at the time almost 200 years old and a beautiful Greek Revival style building, to begin a PCA plant. That PC(USA) congregation is still there with quite a few of those families we left behind still members. I often ponder as I pass by that building why so many stayed to witness a once solid “Southern” Presbyterian Church become such a doctrinal hodgepodge. Then again, why should I wonder when the answer is right before my eyes. They loved their “Church”, tall steeple and all.

  2. The real question might be *why* are people leaving the PCUSA? The easy answer has been that it has ceased to be biblically faithful. In that case one would expect a zero sum situation where they would go to those Presbyterian denominations which were relatively more biblically faithful. But it hasn’t happened. The PCA has peaked at approximately 300k members. The most favorable reading of the PCA membership trend is that it has leveled off. There are other indications that it is actually declining. So, those people leaving the PCUSA aren’t coming in droves to the PCA or any other Presbyterian denomination of which I am aware. My fear is that the majority of these people leaving the mainline Protestant churches are leaving the Church period. One could argue that as members of mainline Protestant churches they were never in the Church in the first place.

    • They are either leaving Christianity for good, or else joining themselves to big-box evangelical megastores (er, churches). QIRE strikes again!

    • Bob—I’m not sure the failure of PCUSA members to come to the PCA or another Presbyterian church is very meaningful. Evangelicals in the PCUSA are not necessarily Reformed even if some of their confessions are. And a lot of them, as you noted, were probably never in the church to begin with. My guess is that it conservatives/evangelicals in the PCUSA are not, by and large, concerned enough about doctrine to look for a Reformed church and would be just as content in a generic evangelical church.

  3. Mr. Nelson throughout his tenure always has an excuse for the continuing – some factual due to broader societal trends, others seeking to lay blame elsewhere. First, it was the passage of the 2010 and 2014 BOO amendments, which officially declared what had already happened – the PC(USA) had apostatized itself – so remaining faithful churches, congregants, and pastors, who were able to do so, decided that it was time to leave. Then, it was, well religious affiliation is in decline in general – a factual statement. Now, it is the pandemic.

    Never has he or the Moderators or senior staff or their public facing direct reports at OGA and PMA considered that the reason is an abandonment of essential doctrines and whole-hearted embrace without question of worldly philosophies. In fact, they seem to celebrate it, when Mr. Nelson and Mrs. Diane Moffett, President and Executive Director of PMA, regularly tout as a magical incantation of blessing, the mantra, “The church reformed, always reforming.” However, any member of the PC(USA) who dares to push back on any of this stuff will be told under polity you have a right to disagree no matter how well founded on Scripture as well as facts outside of Scripture, but we still say you’re still a bigot.

    Ironically, setting aside the whole issue of salvation, this now includes LGBT individuals professing to be Christian and their supporters who push back on this transgenderism and children nonsense, the placement of materials that are not in libraries, or exposing children to drag queens that the left in generally has made its current cause celebre. Honestly, the old PCUSA was more honest with Machen with its kangaroo court than the bunch leading the current PC(USA) and it’s you have a right to disagree, but… Although, with this transgenderism nonsense, that mask of faux gentility is slipping. But I digress.

  4. Good point as to why conservative denominations like the PCA aren’t growing faster. And I don’t have a good answer. But I will point to our recent controversy over homosexuality that started in 2019 on the floor of the GA in Dallas (I was there.) And now hopefully is over with the dismissal of Memorial Presbyterian Church last November. We did grow numerically last year for the first time in several years, and so I am hopeful that we have put this time of confusion (1 Cor. 14:8) behind us and are moving in the right direction again. We will see.

    • Tom: If you think the homosexuality issue is over, there are a number of presbyteries/sessions who have once again submitted overtures on this issue to be heard at this year’s General Assembly. The next issue rearing its head is the designation of women as deaconesses by a number of churches in the PCA. Can female TEs and REs be far behind? One can look back to the adoption of “good faith subscription” as the first fatal domino which fell. If we are looking at membership “increases”, I would be curious how many very young children are being counted.

  5. There is a young Presbyterian man in his 20s who is advocating the retaking of the mainline churches https://redeemedzoomer.com/?page_id=143. His thesis is that, because the mainline churches are indeed dying numerically (lack of “evanglization,” low birth rates), cells of faithful Christian families can move in and retake congregations bit by bit. A mainline conservative resurgence. It is, in some ways, a pretty attractive idea. There does seem to be a certain demographic inevitability to it if conservatives could commit and follow through. La Revanche des berceaux by the Quebecois may well have worked if they hadn’t secularized and then experienced plummeting birth rates. I wonder if the idea is a bit overpragmatic and vain though…

    • There’s some stuff on the Church Society website about “revitalization” that’s got a similar bent for dying Anglican congregations. It’s an interesting mission field concept, though the catch will be getting elders and ministers ordained. Ironically, it’ll be the conservatives who have to squeak by the scrutiny of Presbyteries otherwise asleep at the wheel this time since there are clear confessional barriers in place with many of these on the liberal/ungodly side.

    • David, I’m strongly sympathetic to the principle of remaining as long as possible. I live in the rural Ozarks and I am very much aware that many of the small local congregations of the large liberal denominations are themselves evangelical on the local level.

      But my own experience of trying to do that should give a strong warning.

      I was baptized in the 1960s at First Park Congregational UCC in downtown Grand Rapids. My mother transferred to Mayflower Congregational Church in suburban Grand Rapids, which at that point was politically conservative and full of rich upper-class and upper-middle-class Grand Rapids business leaders, but theologically moderate to liberal, when the new youth pastor at the downtown church tried to force my mother, as a choir member, to sign at a flag burning. (No, I am not kidding.)

      My father was in open revolt against his Roman Catholic upbringing, rarely if ever went to any church, and agreed to have me baptized only because my very conservative Roman Catholic grandmother refused to enter a home with an unbaptized baby out of fear she might drop me, send me to Limbo, and she would have to do who knows how many acts of penance. In other words, my family was far from any sort of model of Christian faith.

      When I was converted as a young adult, studying what being a Congregationalist was supposed to mean led me to the Reformed faith and specifically Calvin’s Institutes. There’s a longer story that’s not relevant here, including a Barthian professor at the college I was attending inviting me to enroll in an upper-level theology seminar studying the Institutes. The Mayflower pastor at that time was a former evangelical who asked me enough questions to understand what had happened and encouraged me in the direction I was headed, with the caution that most Congregational churches had long since left their roots and while I was clearly in line with what the church had once believed, I wasn’t going to find a lot of support for the direction in which I was headed. On the contrary, the church had many members who had left the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America and had left for a reason.

      When I transferred to Calvin College it quickly became obvious that the professors were teaching, and many of the CRC pastors were preaching, a watered-down version of the same liberalism I was seeing at Mayflower — the main difference being that the CRC liberals were being surreptitious and sometimes outright dishonest about what they believed, while my pastor and many of my church leaders were honest about their theological deviations from historic biblical Christianity. (There were still a number of evangelicals on the church council at that time who were tolerated, often because they were prominent local business leaders.)

      I probably would have remained a member of Mayflower indefinitely — I had no desire to get into the CRC fights of the 1980s which looked like copy-and-paste narratives from Congregationalism of the 1800s, and after growing up in Grand Rapids and seeing what too many CRC people acted like outside of church, I knew the CRC’s problems were far deeper than a few problem professors and pastors. However, during my first year at Calvin Seminary, the church called a new pastor who, unlike his predecessor, was aggressively liberal, had been a member of a “Clergy Consultation Service” in St. Louis helping women travel to other states to get abortions before they were legal in Missouri, and had no tolerance for dissent from his liberal views.

      Given the realities of what I saw happening in the Christian Reformed Church, I turned down some **VERY** lucrative offers that included full payment of my seminary tuition if I joined the CRC, and transferred instead to the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. About a year later, John Van Dyk of Christian Renewal became aware that there was a conservative student at Calvin who believed the CRC was following the same path into liberalism of his own Congregational tradition, asked me to write some articles, and the fiery response of some (to be fair, not all) of the Calvin professors led to me spending a decade working with Christian Renewal while being a conservative Congregationalist.

      While details differ, my story of someone who grew up in a mainline denomination, cared about, understood, and actually agreed with the history and doctrine of my denominational tradition, but was run out by aggressive liberalism is a story that could be told ten thousand times over of young men who were forced out of the mainline denominations. Remember — my local church was fully aware that I was **NOT** an outsider. I had grown up there, and even the most liberal people in the church were fully aware that the points on which I differed from the church were points on which the church had deviated from its history, and I was returning to it.

      Most evangelicals don’t know their doctrine well enough to do that, and many are broadly evangelicals who are, in fact, bringing broadly evangelical or baptistic or even charismatic doctrine into a church that has never taught those things.

      All it takes is one aggressively liberal pastor to slam the door shut in the face of an evangelical who wants to reform his church. The evangelicals in my church who had actual authority could do what they wanted because their financial contributions made them untouchable — but the same was true of the church’s big-giving liberals, who included some of the most important business and community leaders of Grand Rapids in that era.

      Reform of a local church in the mainline denominations is not impossible. I’ve seen it happen, and there are some things happening with which I am involved right now that I am not at liberty to discuss publicly.

      But with the rise of “woke radicalism,” my experience of toleration at the hands of the somewhat sympathetic pastor I mentioned will be less common than my experience of aggressive liberalism of the youth pastor who drove my mother out of First Park Congregational Church and the senior pastor who was responsible for me leaving Mayflower Congregational Church and joining the 4Cs.

      God is sovereign. He has people in some strange places, and we need to recognize that the problems confronted by Martin Luther and the Swiss Reformers were far worse than those faced by evangelicals in many local rural conservative congregations of the mainline denominations. I don’t believe the first answer to all problems is immediate secession.

      But if we preach the gospel to people who are not used to hearing it, we have to expect opposition. God can and sometimes does bless gospel preaching in problematic churches with a return to biblical faith. The Reformation is an example of that.

      We also need to recognize that there is a fundamental difference in personality between sheep and goats, and it is based on conversion and fruits of the spirit. When sheep get fed goat food, they usually leave quietly to find some sheep food. (I’m not talking about elders or pastors called to defend the flock, but ordinary members.) However, when we try to feed goats sheep food, the goats kick, head-butt, and bite back. If the goats control the elder boards, candidates and credentials committees, seminary faculties, and other leadership roles on the denominational and regional levels, their response to the gospel is likely to be open or underhanded attacks on those who preach the gospel.

      I don’t think the mainline denominations can be saved at this point. Things are far worse today than when I was in the mainline world as a young evangelical back in the 1980s.

      Some of their local churches can be, however. When God opens doors, we ought to take a long hard look at whether we are being called to enter them. Doors opened in the 1990s for me to work with CRC conservatives and I’m the last one to say others shouldn’t do what I did.

    • David,

      As a Boomer he probably does not realize how entrenched theological liberalism is at the institutional level. The PCUSA has waved good bye to millions since 1983 (and before) because they are sitting on property and cash worth an enormous sum. They control the church buildings. They have fought tooth and claw, in court, when conservatives have tried to leave and take buildings. There are mainline seminaries with no students who nevertheless have the gall to send out materials advising the rest of us how to run a seminary. How can they do that? They’re sitting on piles of money. Some of those institutions have so much money they do not know how to spend it.

      In other words, the libs will own the PCUSA until the last one of them dies.

    • Dr Clark:

      With regard to the PC(USA) I probably agree with you. However, note that this website is including CRC and RCA congregations on its list of “mainline” congregations that could be taken over by conservatives joining them. There are plenty of demoralized aging RCA and CRC churches with declining memberships that could be changed fairly quickly by an influx of 10 or 20 younger conservative families. That’s more true with regard to evangelicals in the UCC where a congregation of 30, 40, or 50 people may own a building in a prime location that was built to seat 500. I’m less aware of on-the-ground dynamics today in the UCC, but the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference is full of churches in which a few decades ago a young evangelical man right out of seminary, or an older retired evangelical pastor who didn’t need a salary, took a call to a declining church whose members were mostly older people and turned the church around by preaching the gospel and attracting younger evangelicals, often Reformed, to a church that was well on its way to closing.

      As for the PC(USA), I agree with you about the problem of property ownership. The secession of the ECO may end up being the last gasp of the PC(USA)’s organized evangelicals. The ECO secession succeeded because in a number of cases the relevant presbyteries were controlled by conservatives — as was the case here in the Missouri Ozarks — and since the majority of the presbytery was seceding, the last vote before the conservatives seceded was to let any church leave with its property that wanted to leave. In a number of other cases when the liberals controlled the presbytery, they worked out a reasonable deal with small conservative churches to leave quietly, or if the church was more significant in size, they worked out a plan by which the seceding church paid the presbytery some money, but a small fraction of what the property was worth. In some cases, virtually the whole church was going to walk out no matter what the presbytery did, and the presbytery would be left with a building that would be difficult to sell or had a large mortgage the presbytery couldn’t afford to pay without a substantial congregation with high levels of giving, so the church had leverage it could use to force the presbytery to the negotiating table. In some other cases, conservatives in liberal presbyteries are stuck because they don’t have enough money to buy their building from the presbytery at the price the presbytery is demanding, can’t afford to walk out and build a new building, and thanks to what looked like good financial decisions long ago to pay off the mortgage, have no leverage to use against the presbytery.

      As for the issue of the endowments established long ago to pay for mainline seminaries — yes, Dr. Clark, we agree. Endowments are both a blessing and a curse to educational institutions. But except for the very largest “old money” churches in major urban areas, or a few rural churches that had a wealthy benefactor, perhaps a rich businessman who left money in his will for the church where he grew up or where he worshipped on vacation, not many local congregations have well-managed endowments that sustain them apart from continued membership giving. Even if a wealthy man endowed a small rural church a century ago, small churches tend not to attract members who are business professionals with good money management skills, and there is a constant temptation to draw down the principal to pay for major repairs that the small worshipping congregation can’t afford. (Trust me, I know that from direct firsthand experience decades ago with wasteful spending in a church that finally closed, long after I left, when the endowment ran out, most of the members had died, and all but a handful of the last remaining members were too sick to come to church anymore.)

      As the mainline denominations continue to collapse, I would not be surprised if we end up seeing cross-denominational mergers similar to what created the United Church of Christ and that could change the dynamics considerably. How much is there realistically left that separates the “Seven Sisters of the Mainline” other than church polity? The Episcopalians aren’t going to give up their bishops. The American Baptists and the Disciples of Christ aren’t going to accept denominational control of their property, and the UCC isn’t going to accept denominational control of property without a massive split by those, both liberal and conservative, who want to keep local ownership. But after the United Methodists figure out what the post-secession denomination is going to look like, I wouldn’t be surprised to see merger talks between the UMC and some of the smaller mainline bodies that are willing to accept denominational ownership of their church buildings, which could well include the PC(USA) and maybe all or part of the ELCA. As for the American Baptists and Disciples of Christ, their differences are less than any of the other “Seven Sisters.”

  6. I interned for a summer at a PCUSA church in Nashville. They bragged about how they had over 5,000 members (though maybe 400 showed up on a Sunday), their giving amounts, and the size of their staff (30+). I interned with the student ministry where the pastor married his sister to her wife. Why? Because “Jesus loved everybody” and would’ve wanted him to do so. The PCUSA has forgone the doctrines of Scripture and ultimately the doctrine of God. They are not Presbyterian. I dare to say that they, as a denomination, are not Christian! For those within the PCA and EPC: stay strong. There must be a rigid, strict guideline for allowing such churches in these denominations. Or else you get issues like Greg Johnson and Scott Sauls. You get “side B” disagreements. You start compromising on the power of Christ’s shedding blood on the cross. Remain steadfast friends!

  7. Whom do they believe in? What do they teach? The Jesus of their own making and delusions.
    Jesus says, “many will call me Lord Lord, but not do what I say”…

    I can’t think that the idea of the PCUSA being a confessional church is even considered.
    They have deviated, rewritten, redefined, and reinterpreted about every important part of WCF.
    Often, many liberals use words that sound Orthodox, but they redefine the meaning and use. Words have meaning. It does not take long when visiting PCUSA congregation that their idea of GOD, Gender, Belief, Trinity, Miracles, The Resurrection,,, is off.
    Federal Vision, NPP, ECT, Liberal Secular Main Line Protectants… All these groups deconstruct the Bible and deform its teachings. They all seem to redefine certain catch words that keeps them connected to the past or to the New Testament. I like to ask what people mean by what they say. Define Words. I am looking for a definition that is Biblical and Historic. They truly can’t call themselves Protestants’ anymore. They are not protesting anything. They bear no resemblance to their historic roots. It is sad.

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