The PCUSA has recorded its largest loss since the merger of 1983 created the denomination. The Presbyterian News Service has the details:

Membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) fell by 69,381 in 2008, the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) has announced in its annual statistical report, continuing a trend that began in the mid-1960s.

Total membership of the denomination is now 2,140,165.

According to the Research Services office of the General Assembly Council (GAC), the 2008 decline was the PC(USA)’s largest numerical and percentage net membership loss since Presbyterian reunion in 1983.

Almost 104,000 people joined the PC(USA) last year, but that good news was more than offset by the 34,101 Presbyterians who died, the 34,340 who were members of the 25 congregations that left the PC(USA) for other denominations, and the staggering 104,428 who were removed from the rolls by their sessions without apparently joining any other church.

Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons responded to the news this way:

The total membership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2008 was 2,140,165 members. The statistics contain the good news that 103,528 people joined the PC(USA) in 2008. The sad news is that 34,340 joined other denominations. An almost equal number of our sisters and brothers in Christ joined the church triumphant.

The very sad news is the over 100,000 people were removed from the membership rolls by their sessions. This number includes some of our family who became members of another Reformed body as a result of their congregation being dismissed to that body.

We are all diminished by the loss of these congregations. The PC(USA) needs to include people and congregations of every theological voice so that we can be faithful to where God is leading us in this world.

The largest part of the 100,000, however, is the number of those who were removed from the membership rolls after they gradually drifted away from our congregations. It is a trend supported by a recent survey on religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey reports that seven in ten former Protestants gradually drifted away from their childhood religion. Initially, they are in worship every Sunday, then every other Sunday, and then gone.

These are sisters and brothers with whom we break bread and sing the doxology. We should not let them drift.

Chapter 3 of the Book of Order contains a powerful section on being Christ’s faithful evangelist (G-3.0300c.) In it are three main aspects. The first is to go into the world, making disciples of all nations. The second is to demonstrate the new reality in Christ by the love we have for one another in the church. The third is to participate in God’s activity of bringing justice and mercy to God’s world.

Presbyterians can be evangelists! But we often stumble over the words. Can we not challenge one another to be able to answer these basic questions — Why do I believe in God? Why do I go to church? Why do I go to that particular church?

There’s something genuinely sad about Parsons’ questions, and not just for the PCUSA, or even just the mainline  denominations. The fact is that the problem Parsons identifies is pervasive throughout American Christianity. All too many members of theologically sound evangelical churches are unable to articulate their faith in even the most basic terms, or in answer to the most basic questions. Nor are many American Christians able to articulate a coherent testimony to what God has done and is doing in their lives, at least not without redirecting the primary focus to themselves. The theological confusion and even unfaithfulness that afflicts all the mainline churches contributes mightily to this problem, of course–when members are fed a steady diet of pluralism, universalism, and relativism, as they are in all too many mainline churches, they have no good news to offer. But while evangelical denominations may not have that problem, they undoubtedly have a serious problem with both a lack of evangelism training and a lack of systematic catechesis, which renders so many members theologically and biblical illiterate or semi-literate. So I offer this post, not to point fingers or snicker at the PCUSA, but to say that the phenomenon they embody in terms of membership loss and ineffective evangelism is not just a mainline problem, but a Christian problem here in America.