A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
June 7, 2018
Each year, most denominations collect annual statistical data from their congregations. These are compiled and compared, in turn, by several organizations that map overall trends in religious groups. One such annual report, detailed in the Yearbook of Churches, shows that nearly all denominations are experiencing membership decline. “Membership” no longer is the priority it once was, whether in churches or civic and fraternal organizations. Increasing numbers of congregants show little interest in becoming official “members” of their church.
Several years ago our denomination discontinued its longtime practice of asking congregations to maintain both “active” and “inactive” membership rolls. Now each congregation needs to determine what level of activity is required to maintain “member” status. Sessions have an incentive to purge their membership rolls of those who have become inactive, so they can discontinue paying per capita assessments for them. Pittsburgh Presbytery’s 2018 assessment, which funds ministry at General Assembly, Synod, and Presbytery levels, is $33.05 per member.
The definition of what constitutes active membership varies between denominations, so researchers interpreting broad trends in church participation must make up their own criteria. Worship attendance is one of their baseline markers of active membership. In recent years, many researchers have lowered their threshold for active membership from three-times-a-month to twice or even once-a-month worship attendance.
There are many reasons for declining rates of worship attendance. We ought not to assume that such decline signals decreasing spiritual devotion, though that may surely be a factor. There are many other reasons church attendance drops off, including a broad general increase in weekend travel and extracurricular school activities on Sundays. So, should we just agree to set the participation bar lower?
Here’s the rub. Those few denominations that do show a membership increase consistently report that their members typically interact with their church at least twice a week. Once in worship, once elsewhere. If we want our churches to grow, might we not do well to set a similar goal? As a pastor, I discovered that those most likely to be in worship on Sunday were also engaged in some other weekly church-related commitment – Bible Study, choir, youth club, a mission team, etc.
Hebrews 10:24-25 urges us not to grow slack in our commitment to meeting together, because that is where we nurture the encouragement we all need to love one another and bear witness to the Gospel, as our Lord commands. Gathering regularly for prayer, fellowship, teaching, and breaking bread (Acts 2:42) has a direct impact on both our own well-being and our corporate witness in the world.
This counsel is just as important for the larger gatherings of the church (Presbytery and General Assembly) as it is for weekly congregational worship and service. A few weeks ago, our presbytery met in an experimental way. First, we moved the meeting from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to accommodate potential attenders who cannot make a 1 p.m. meeting. Second, and more significantly, we changed the format from beginning with worship then following with business, to an intermingling of worship and work, with a shared meal in the middle. Reports from those who attended have been universally positive. People were edified and encouraged in their service of our Lord. Love for our Lord and for one another deepened.
And yet…. Only one-quarter of our minister members were present, and only one-third of our congregations were represented by elders. Thank God for those who were present, but what of the rest, who missed that grand opportunity to be encouraged in our love and service for our Lord Jesus? I’ve heard some pastors say they stay away from presbytery meetings because they get nothing out of them; but in staying away, they also rob others whom they could have encouraged were they present. How can we inspire more of our pastors and elders to attend presbytery meetings? If you have any good ideas for that, please let me know.
Finally, in two short weeks General Assembly convenes in St. Louis. Just as with congregations and presbyteries, national gatherings of the church matter for keeping us healthy in our love for each other and our Lord, and for our service to the world. Please pray for Pittsburgh Presbytery’s commissioners, as well as for the whole Assembly, that the Spirit will guide and inspire as we gather together in Jesus’ name.
Yours in family bonds,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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