Newark Presbytery General Presbyter Responds to PCUSA Report of Steepest Member Loss in 25 Years

This news of the steepest membership loss in twenty-five years comes as no surprise to Newark Presbytery. Or any other presbytery in our region. We address the evidence of these statistics every day. I am proud of our growing effort to build collaborative energy to increase the capacity of every one of our congregations to be viable, healthy, and effective. Each of our churches is a delivery station of the Good News. How do we respond to this news?

I continue to listen and engage in conversation with our denominational upstream in Louisville about our decline. The PC(USA) messages have included: Try harder at what you have been doing; Try something new; Invite neighbors to church, Blend your worship, Become multicultural, Support General Assembly Mission directly; Apply for under-funded grants; and in the meantime, Louisville will downsize the denominational structure (again).

The reason that these directives often fail to alter our experience of institutional trauma or the congregational outcomes from decades of decline is that Louisville attributes the decline, at least in part, to death, people being removed from the rolls, and to a "gradual" drifting away from our congregations. Gradual drifting? What's gradual about twenty-five years of consistent decline?

Even the Pew Forum, whose research was referenced by denominational execs, seems more like a distraction than a reason as it identifies why people change religious affiliation rather than addressing the real reasons people do not affiliate at all.

North Americans have consistently reduced their volunteer association affiliation for more than thirty years. The questions we ask define our assumptions. In this case, the PC(USA) and Pew, ask the question: "How do our neighbors choose between Protestant or Roman Catholic affiliation?" suggesting that the focus of their concern is religious affiliation. The critical question is not Protestant v Catholic, or Christian v Muslim v Jewish, etc. The critical, core, question we must consider together is: "Why do people fail to affiliate with volunteer associations at all, church or otherwise?" Almost every volunteer association in America has been in decline for decades. From the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, AMA, PTA, Elks, Lions, etc., to the political, civic, religious, and professional groups, membership is down.

There is a direct correlation between the membership decline of volunteer associations in North America and the associations' lack of community engagement. Even more consequential, corresponding benefits from these association networks to influence reciprocal behaviors (doing things for each other) have diminished.

It has been documented that Americans have steadily reduced their investment in "outside the family" activities. Our North American cultural milieu has normalized self-engagement and isolation. Our increasingly time-shifted ways to connect has corresponded to the rise of social media sites and technologies. We no longer derive value from connecting in person. In short, the church has experienced a reduction in its membership. However, the reduction in membership corresponds to the church's prior failure to return sufficient value to the community outside itself which could have sustained the community gathering "at the church." This destructive cycle has been perpetuated over the decades.

As Presbyterians, we have focused on ourselves, mistakenly believing that our "decline" was a Presbyterian one. We seemed to think it was our problem. How many curriculums, conferences, coaching, and action plans directed us to do something within ourselves and our space without realizing it was our almost narcissistic framing of the problem and our solution that made the situation worse. As a denomination, we missed opportunities to lead a revival of the re-investment of social capital, volunteerism, and instead, with little reflection, followed the status quo.

The good news is that our decline can be reversed by swift and decisive realignment of our congregational resources to tangibly benefit the communities we are located in. Our disconnect from the community reduced the community's connection to us. Instead of merely asking our congregants to bring a friend to church, (a fine but insufficient remedy), we must ask our congregants to re-engage in their communities. We need to invite our congregants back into their communities.

The Church is peculiarly well-suited for this transformational mandate of re-engaging communities since God has sent the Church into the world, not to be served, but to serve. We can lead our congregations as servants, empowering them to become a Reciprocating Church. A Reciprocating Church is a church that reinvests its experience of God's love into the world, so that their community knows God loves it, too. A Reciprocating Church will ensure congruence between its congregation and building capacities and by God's grace, be a healthy and effective demonstration of the Christian gospel in the Church and the world. The opportunities to be a Reciprocating Church are huge. Let's explore them, transforming together.



Dr. Kevin Yoho,

General Presbyter

Twitter: @kevinyoho

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