The numbers are out: the Presbyterian Church (USA) dropped by more than 46,000 members in '06. But that is similar news to many mainline denominations in the past few decades, especially the older liberal ones, such as this Presbyterian denomination and the Episcopalians, or the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), which was the 1988 merger of older Lutheran bodies.
One can put forth any number of theories to explain such downturns. In our post-modern society we are well aware that denominational loyalty is at a very low ebb. People simply don't commit to denominational identity any more, or so we are told. They look for what best serves their personal needs and tastes.
However, there are other issues that drive these declines, and the Episcopalians share in this with their Presbyterian cousins. The AP article that reported the decline notes that "The latest drop comes as fighting intensifies within the church over how Presbyterians should interpret Scripture. Congregants are divided over whether the Bible bars gay relationships, among other theological issues."
The question of homosexuality, I believe, will prove to be the major divisive force of our time for the church-at-large. Right now the debate still rages and many are probably just looking and watching to see who wins the debate and the right to change the ancient practice of the church. The United Church of Christ long ago opened up its ordained clergy to actively practicing gays and lesbians, although discussions on the homosexuality issue are still divisive in the rank-and-file. And despite this radical move of freedom their numbers have continued to decline over the years as well. Their latest ad campaign tried to reverse this trends by glorying in their liberal all-inclusiveness by slamming the conservative denominations as being exclusive. The ad pictured pews as ejection-type seats rocketing people out of the church. However, as the American Spectator reports (relating its experiences to the Episcopalians):
"The spiritual descendant of New England's old Puritans, the UCC can claim an historical and social pedigree equal to the Episcopal Church. Both denominations are well-heeled, well educated and disproportionately comprised of social and political elites. Both are also liberal-controlled and suffering steep membership decline.
Despite all of its welcoming and affirming, the UCC has lost one million members over the last 40 years, or over 40 percent of its original membership....Last year's decision by the UCC to become the first major U.S. denomination formally to endorse same-sex 'marriage' only contributed to the UCC's membership plunge. At least one hundred congregations have voted to leave the UCC just since 2005, as recorded by faithfulandwelcoming.org. The ultimate number probably will be several times that”
I would like to believe that many Christians simply cannot accept the whole-sale rejection of this biblical truth regarding sexuality, and will finally vote with their feet sending these mainlines more and more into a death spiral. But who knows? In our day people are deeply influenced by relativism and look at what happens around them with the familiar "Whatever!" Still, the numbers do tell a story and show a trend. This has only begun.