Last week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) announced the loss of 46,658 members in 2003 - much higher than the projected downturn and the highest percentage loss since it reunited in 1983.
The disheartening exodus reduced total membership to 2.4 million, shifting the PC(USA) five places down from its once-held position as the fourth largest denomination in the U.S.; at its peak in 1965, the church and its predecessors had 4.6 million members.
Sadly, this bitter pattern of decline has become a customary part of America's strongest mainline denominations including the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church USA and the United Church of Christ.
Ecumenical in nature, these denominations are known for their justice-related works in the social and public square: they aid the poor, protect the environment, rally for minority rights and call for peace. However, internally, they struggle to find their stance on issues even the secular world finds controversial: homosexuality, abortion and the like. This disproportionately extensive involvement of socially conscious activities often obscures the identity of the denominations as the Christian characters that distinguish the groups from secular organizations become ambiguous.
According to the PC(USA) statistical release, most of the membership losses came not from congregants leaving to other churches, but rather, leaving Christianity entirely.
What can be said on this part?
Reaching out to the community is an integral part of Christian life, but it should never eclipse the scripture-based, evangelical focus of the church. It must first restore its Christian identity and seek renewal in the word of God before acting as a humanitarian agency. For what good would it be for a church to serve the community if it loses its own identity?
Next week, the officials and representatives of the PC(USA) congregations will meet for their annual conference where the future church policies, focuses, actions and themes are set. At this meeting, the PC(USA) could choose to continue on its long-running path of decline, which it followed for the past fifty years. Conversely, the meeting can become the first big step in regaining the true identity of the PC(USA) as an accurate mainline representative of Christianity in America.