Saturday 10 July 2010

Disappearing Presbyterians (and Lutherans)

This morning I read of the imminent black-hole collapse of two church bodies, the Presbyterian Church in the USA and my own old stomping ground, the Lutheran Church of New Zealand.

It's all a matter of statistics and graphs, so beloved of bureaucrats.

"I am an ordained PC(USA) minister. It is time for a dose of reality and plain speaking. I will spare us the reflexive focus on all the diagnoses and treatments and the carefully worded prognoses of the specialists. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is dying. It has been decades since the last time the denomination recorded a net increase in membership. In 1983, the year of the merger of the old Southern (PCUS) and Northern (UPCUSA) Presbyterian churches to form the PC(USA) of today, the combined membership was 3,166,050. Today, it is somewhere near 2,108,000. Recently published statistics for 2008 indicate membership loss in that year to be a staggering 63,000. The year before, as yet another movement among churches to leave the denomination for greener pastures elsewhere gained traction, the loss was a jaw-dropping 170,000. Since the merger in 1983, losses have been less than 30,000 per year only twice. The least decline in membership numbers in the PC(USA) was registered in 1998, when membership numbers fell by ‘only’ 21,517. Some wag has observed that if membership continues to fall at the present rate, there will not be a single member left in the PC(USA) by 2050." (source)

Yeah, well that's pretty dire. Meanwhile, far across the mighty Pacific Ocean, New Zealand Lutherans are gathering this month to discuss a similar trend.

"A 1996 study revealed the LCNZ lost an average of 84 members a year for that decade. At that rate we would disappear in the year 2017. Now 2017 is only seven years away. Has the trend changed? Will we survive into the future? In what ways will we be a different Church?" (source)

Now, OK, 84 members vs. 63,000 seems no big deal, but unlike the US, New Zealand has only sparse Lutheran numbers to begin with, the result of overwhelmingly Anglo immigration patterns until recent decades. Either way, that line on the graph is rapidly heading South.

What's interesting though is how the insiders explain the decline. Here's how the LCNZ intends to tackle it.

"To define and address…
· Issues facing the LCNZ and strategies to achieve Godly outcomes
· Ways and means to build strong churches at the grassroots
· Review of vision statement
· Address the new Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand’s strategic initiatives of
  • Increasing leadership capacity at all levels
  • Increase Spiritual depth
  • Improve communication and engagement
  • Develop a pro-active mission culture
  • Leverage our assets to support ministry and mission"

Which sounds dandy, but open to wide interpretation. What, pray tell, are "Godly outcomes"?

But however inadequate those discussion points are, they at least don't misread the situation completely. Here's how one PCUSA minister explains it. First, the bit which truly does hit the nail on the head (Lutherans take note!)

"For years, denominational bureaucrats at all levels have been scrambling to come up with the magic program to reverse the terminal decline to no avail. Evangelism initiatives... church planting initiatives (which usually involves setting up a church-in-a-box in a fast growing area after identifying in surveys that there might be Presbyterians amongst the newcomers), as well as the usual retooling of the message so as to be relevant to the wider society. And yet the hemorrhage only increases.

"When asked ‘Why the decline?’, normally intelligent, educated, savvy denominational leaders become suddenly enfogged. ‘Most of the attrition seems to be as a result of older members dying,’ says one [not true, says the studies]. ‘People aren’t leaving our churches to join other churches, but rather are simply falling away to secular society’, says another [again, not true according to the statistics. And only amongst Presbyterians could one find someone who could consider losing members to secular society relative good news!]. ‘We aren’t “friendly” enough,’ ‘not “relevant” enough’, ‘not “engaged” enough’, ‘not “outwardly oriented” enough’, etc, etc. Studies are commissioned, presented in august committees, and shelved. Bureaucrats are shuffled, budgets cut, denominational structures redesigned. There is obligatory and collective wringing of hands. In the meantime, ordinary Presbyterians continue to vote with their feet. By their tens of thousands."

Yup, red herrings one and all. So what's the real problem?

"[T]he underlying cause of the decline and death of the PC(USA) will be that we traded the New Testament gospel of salvation from sin and death for a lesser model, equipped with all the religious-sounding language, ‘holding to an outward form of godliness,’ as Paul warns Timothy, ‘but denying its power.’ (2 Timothy 3:5)"

Translation: it's all because of those those wicked liberals!

"The PC(USA) is dying. The theological sideshows may continue for some years. So-called ‘liberals’ will continue to accrue and consolidate power. So-called ‘conservatives’ will continue to be outraged at the ever-increasing number of examples of the flaunting of orthodoxy."

The only problem with this analysis (well, not the only one, but a major one) is that conservative churches are inconsiderately in decline too.

Mainline churches simply have to adapt to the new world they find themselves in. The expectation that people will find themselves spiritually fulfilled on the old Sunday-go-to-church model is sadly delusional. A thirty minute drive to the church door, an hour of predictable liturgy and a forgettable ten minute sermon, bad coffee (if they're lucky!) and a thirty minute trip back home? No wonder they're staying away. Forget the navel-gazing, these folk need to bring in the services of a good sociologist.

High church attendance in the first half of the twentieth century had a lot to do with networking, especially for women who often stayed at home to raise families. No wonder then that on Sunday they'd eagerly drag the kids (and the husband if they could) to church to catch up with an extended community.

It was never about "spirituality" or brilliant homilies.

Times change. Society changes. We no longer live in the 1950s. Neither woolly good intentions nor a return to old fashioned rigidities are likely to solve the dilemma for either body.


  1. The Apostle Paul10 July 2010 at 14:39

    PC no longer stands for Presbyterian Church-USA.

    It stands for Politically Correct-USA.

  2. PSEUDEPIGRAPHICAL EPISTLES11 July 2010 at 02:16

    Yes indeed. Don't some of those committees sound like that Glendoran tripe?

    Why should an ancient pre scientific human sacrifice cult that syncretizes elements from dim Egyptian Mesopotamian Greek Roman and Far Eastern superstitions be having problems in the 21st century?

  3. Rand Zacharias13 July 2010 at 04:48

    Losing your religion should come as no surprise for any of these faiths. The trend toward organizational failure began in the mid 80's and won't stop until they're all gone.

    People just don't need this stuff to feel good about themselves, or save themselves for a positive afterlife, because the truth is out of the bag.

    The gospel of Jesus Christ was simply to love one another--not save our own asses. Organizational faiths will continue to fail until they start realizing that only the promulgation of the real love that Jesus taught will be allowed to continue.

    I can assure all of these organizations that Christ wasn't building up membership for his church--he was teaching humans how to live, not how to sign up to pay tithes, pay attention and pay false complimentary service to a religious leader or order.

    Try this on from my experience. It's a short article I wrote a few months ago.

  4. The Presbyterian church USA has some teachings that don't help their situation one bit. For instance, they teach their women that, should they be brutally attacked, they should submit, and even die, rather than defend themselves where the attacker might end up dead instead. That's their definition of "do not kill."

    If you were a woman, and were taught that, how long would it take you to reach the nearest exit?