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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

May 28, 2015

Two reports on national statistical trends in religious faith and practice were released earlier this month: the massive Pew Report “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) annual statistics for 2014. The Pew Report is based on interviews with a representative cross-section of 35,000 Americans, while the PCUSA study compiles the annual statistical reports filed by all congregations and presbyteries at the end of each year.

The Pew Report probes responses to the same questions that researchers had given to a similarly large sample of people seven years earlier, permitting them to make some strong claims about religious trends over time. The interactive tools available in the online report provide a wealth of data that take countless hours just to ruffle through, let alone assimilate.

To summarize in the broadest brush strokes: The share of Americans that claim to be Christian is shrinking, while adherence to other faiths is rising (primarily due to immigration). The most significant shift is a rapid rise in the number of Americans who profess no religious affiliation of any kind. Most of these “nones” (as they are often called by religion researchers) were formerly in Christian churches.

The 2014 PCUSA statistics show that our losses have not yet bottomed out. Like other historic Protestant churches, we have been on a steady membership decline for 50 years. Our net loss of 92,433 members in 2014 is not the worst annual hit we’ve taken, but it is still huge. We know that departures of entire congregations is responsible for a significant part of that loss. Yet even if we take them out of the picture, we are losing far too many people each year – and if Pew researchers are right, most of our losses are not to other churches, but to the “nones” who have entirely abandoned organized religion.

In Pittsburgh Presbytery, if we factor out the churches that have left us, we are nearly holding our own in terms of membership. Many of our congregations are in fact growing in numbers, while others are shrinking. Most of our churches periodically cull their rolls of inactive members, so they don’t need to pay per capita on them; those are not truly losses, but accounting corrections.

Forty years ago Dean Kelley published a study that became the “Bible” for many students of church trends, Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion. Many have asked whether the growth that he observed among conservative churches was in fact due to their conservatism or to other factors. The Pew Report indicates that conservative and liberal denominations are both experiencing the same megatrends. Closer to home, there is no discernible connection between growth patterns and theological identifiers in Pittsburgh Presbytery congregations.

While statistics and trends can help us understand broad patterns of religious life and church vitality, there is no magical growth formula for particular congregations. Churches do not grow by changing their staffing, music, theology, or marketing. Yet I do not believe that congregations are inescapably tied to the narratives of decline that constitute our religious megatrends. I believe with all my heart that when we join together to proclaim joyfully in word and deed the good news of God’s salvation revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit will be at work to do great things among us, in us, and through us. I have seen it happen too many times to believe otherwise.

Here is what I find in churches that are growing: passion and authenticity. They engage the mission of Jesus passionately. They care deeply for those who need the healing and renewing touch of God. They bear joyful witness to the good news that God loves us and desires to save us more than we can possibly imagine. This passion gets expressed in their worship and mission alike. Whatever they do, whether in their gathering to worship or their scattering to serve, they do with all their heart and mind and soul and strength.

Finally, authenticity – thriving churches live in a way that is consistent with the message they proclaim. When our message of reconciliation is betrayed by our showing ourselves uncooperative with or even hostile to one another, we fail the smell test. It is the crux of Jesus’ critique of the religious community of his own time: hypocrisy. It is one of the most oft-cited reasons that people give for becoming “nones.”

Friends, let us set aside the complacency and hypocrisy that all too easily infect and hobble the church of Jesus Christ. Our first task in this is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who shows us the pathway to abundant life. As we do, let us lift our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees, so that we may be fully equipped to run this race joyously and victoriously. (Hebrews 12:1-13)

Your race partner,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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