Membership declines among Protestant denominations have become routine in recent decades, but for some, the news has been especially bleak lately.
For the third year in a row, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost 5 percent of its members nationwide and more than 100 congregations to other denominations in 2014, according to newly released statistics from the denomination. In and around southwestern Pennsylvania, where Presbyterians are especially concentrated, presbyteries all experienced losses of various levels.
Church members now number just fewer than 1.7 million nationwide.
A main cause is the defection of congregations to smaller, more conservative Presbyterian denominations in reaction to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s decisions to begin ordaining gays in 2011 and to begin marrying same-sex couples in the past year.
But the membership losses span a half-century and are similar in other so-called mainline Protestant denominations with low birthrates, such as United Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
The United Methodist Church, which so far has resisted calls to ordain gays or marry same-sex couples, lost 5 percent of members between 2009 and 2013. The chairman of the United Methodists’ economic advisory committee told church leaders last month that the denomination needs to turn around such losses within 15 years before they become irreversible.
For Presbyterians, “Nobody can be happy to see the numbers continue to go down,” said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, which lost 3 percent of members last year and stands at 30,614 members in Allegheny County.
Most of the presbytery’s loss last year is directly due to the departure of three congregations for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church, one of several more conservative Presbyterian bodies that are receiving such churches.
Neighboring presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have seen double-digit membership losses amid the current wave of congregational departures. Many churches that were thinking of leaving have done so by now, but it’s not clear how many more are still in the pipeline.
Rev. Sorge said the more longstanding challenge is posed by individual members dropping out of church life altogether. A recent Pew Research Center survey found declines among mainline Protestants coincided with growth among “nones,” or people identifying with no religion.
“We need to double down on our efforts to evangelize our own people,” Rev. Sorge said.
Regardless of ideology, he said, “churches that are deeply engaged in outward mission tend to be growing.”
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SOURCE: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette