When I last saw my cardiologist, there was good news and bad news. The good news was he assured me I wasn’t dead, yet. The bad news was he assured me his diagnosis regarding my amyloidosis-wild and congestive heart failure hadn’t changed, and his prognosis regarding my death remained the same. He said the Vyndamax (which was recently released by the FDA) is retarding the migration of bone proteins to my heart; nevertheless, the damage to my heart is extensive and continuing.
In other words, I’m going down. Death by heart attack, stroke, or both is not an intellectual discussion for me; rather, it is an ongoing reality.
GOING DOWN is a genuinely apropos metaphor for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church’s (ARP Church) condition today. As one looks at the ARP Church, all the major institutional indicators reveal the denomination is going down. This does not mean the denomination is deceased; however, the indicators reveal the no return point has probably been crossed.
It is my plan to analyze the major indicators: (1) the financial; (2) the numerical; (3) the leadership; (4) the missional; and (5) the educational.
In this issue of ARPTalk, I will tackle the financial and numerical.
FINANCIAL INDICATORS: Going Down!
Mr. Brian Such is the Director of Finance for General Synod. A member of an independent congregation in Greenville, SC, Mr. Such seems to have more concern for the financial welfare of the ARP Church than the members of the Board of Stewardship or General Synod meeting in Bonclarken. As warnings of the pending collapse of Social Security are ignored, the warnings of the financial collapse of General Synod are ignored by the Board of Stewardship and General Synod. Let me illustrate: (1) the Denominational Ministry (DM) for 2023 is $2,528,900; (2) General Synod is 259 congregations; (3) 166 congregations are pledging (something) to the 2023 DM budget; 94 congregations are pledging nothing (and are expected to give nothing); (4) of the pledging congregations, 24 congregations (9%) are pledging $2,035,500; the rest of the pledging congregations (91%) are pledging $493,383. Nevertheless, unless the economy tanks, revenue will probably be a little more than the expected $5.5 million. December is a wonderful month for giving, and remember congregations with a preponderance of senior members have more monies to give.
What does this mean? Well, it means (1) most of the 259 congregations in General Synod have little confidence in the direction, the future of the ARP Church, or the leaders who are leading the denomination, and (2) most of the congregations of the ARP Church are so financially weak and depleted of members they are unable to give or so distrusting of and disinterested in the denomination they have functionally become independent congregations. And, if you didn’t catch the math, this means the General Synod is a bit more than 24 healthy congregations.
What does this portend? As the title of this article says: Going Down!
NUMERICAL INDICATORS: Going Down!
The numerical decline in the ARP Church is alarming. There are at least 59% of General Synod’s congregations on the verge of closing, or they are so small they are little more than a Sunday morning Bible study. Twelve to twenty-five (12 to 25) people in worship does not a congregation make!
Since the “Statistical Report” in the “2022 Minutes of Synod” is so fouled-up by Central Services in Greenville as to be undecipherable, I am using the “Statistical Report” in the “2021 Minutes of Synod” to illustrate the numerical decline of General Synod. As a result, there is a discrepancy of 4 in the total number of congregations: 259 (as reported by Mr. Such in his report to the Board of Stewardship) and 255 (as reported in the “Statistical Report” in the “2021 Minutes of Synod).
Unless a congregation is a mission plant, congregations with a membership of 75 or fewer are “dead-and-don’t-know-it- yet” congregations. Older congregations with a membership of 75 or fewer members have an attendance of about 35 to 40 in worship, with attendance declining — they are hanging on for the sake of the building, the graveyard, and somewhere to go on Sunday morning. Normally, a mission congregation with a membership of 75 has an attendance more than the membership, with the attendance increasing.
The following is an analysis of the “Statistical Report” of the “2021 Minutes of Synod.”
- Canada Presbytery: 7 congregations out of 9 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 2 congregations.
- Catawba Presbytery: 27 congregations out of 47 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 20 congregations.
- First Presbytery: 27 congregations out of 48 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 21 congregations.
- Florida Presbytery: 9 congregations out of 20 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 11 congregations.
- Grace Presbytery: 12 congregations out of 18 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 6 congregations.
- Mississippi Valley Presbytery: 21 congregations out of 26 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 5 congregations.
- Northeast Presbytery: 20 congregations out of 31 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 11 congregations. (NOTE: with Northeast Presbytery being an Anglo- Korean presbytery, their reporting is unreliable, for the language and cultural barriers are a challenge to overcome in reporting.)
- Second Presbytery: 16 congregations out of 37 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 21 congregations. (NOTE: this count does not reflect that 4 congregations have been closed recently, the Oconee Presbyterian Church has been released to transfer to Calvary Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), and two mission congregations have been particularized.)
- Tennessee/Alabama Presbytery: 13 congregations out of 16 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 3 congregations.
- Virginia Presbytery: 7 congregations out 12 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 7. (NOTE: presently the Virginia Presbytery is described by one of its pastors as a “dumpster fire,” and no one really knows what is going on.)
For the General Synod, the total looks like this: 152 congregations out of 255 have a membership of 75 or fewer: the viable count is 103 (maybe) and declining. Remember 24 congregations support 61% of the budget.
Now, why is the ARP Church in a membership crisis?
Consider the following:
(1) The General Synod is aging — no, it’s very old! Congregations with young couples with babies and children are rare. As a pastor friend quipped, “We started a young couples class and called it ‘Sixty-five and Under.’” Indeed, as I have visited congregations in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, I have observed old buildings with extensive Sunday School facilities, but the condition of the rooms revealed they have not been used for years. These congregations are dying.
(2) For whatever reasons, young people are fleeing the congregations and denomination of their parents. Certainly, demographic change has not been kind to the ARP Church; still, even in population growth areas, numerous congregations are declining (i.e., see the history of the Tabernacle and Craig Avenue congregations going from two congregations to one congregation to the Craig Avenue Tabernacle Church/Kings Cross Church, and from a 1,000 members to 50 members in an ocean of people). Also to be noted, in the past when Associate Reformed Presbyterians migrated to other places, they took their Associate Reformed Presbyterianism with them and planted new congregations. Today, the young people who are leaving and relocating to other vicinities jettison their Associate Reformed Presbyterian identity before they get out of town.
(3) Here’s a question for those whose congregation is in decline: if you are in Charlotte and on the north side of the street and on the south side of the street is a PCA congregation, why would a church-hunter want to attend church with you? Another way to put the question is this: why would someone want to be an ARP Church today? That is, what are the distinctives of the ARP Church? As I speak with Associate Reformed Presbyterian ministers, their default response is to list how the ARP Church is not the PCA, which, in spite of all its conflicts over social issues, is growing, while the ARP Church hasn’t grown since 2008. These ministers insist the PCA is on the verge of a great split, and, as they say, “We don’t want to have any part of that!” Somehow they fail to notice the PCA has issues which are serious enough to fight for and split over, if necessary, but the ARP Church is too moribund to fight, too lacking in theological vigor to arouse itself, and too rotten to split. Well, this sort of thinking does not advance a good reason to be an Associate Reformed Presbyterian, does it?
Associate Reformed Presbyterian ministers prat about muttering nonsense about how, if the PCA splits, the ARP Church is the logical place for the conservatives in the PCA to land. Therefore, the presence of the ARP Church must be maintained for the sake of the homeless brothers migrating out of the broken PCA to the ARP Church. These Associate Reformed Presbyterian ministers are self-deluded and know nothing of the culture of the PCA. The conservative congregations in the PCA are afraid of the ARP Church’s policy on property ownership, and they are offended at and reject the ARP Church’s view on women deacons as unbiblical. For some odd reason which I don’t understand, in spite of the fact Associate Reformed Presbyterians do not enforce the policy on property ownership, they will not change it. And with regard to a change regarding women deacons, the leadership of General Synod is terrified by the threat of the 3100 member First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC, to leave if there is a change in the policy. Brothers, don’t expect an influx of PCA congregations! It ain’t gonna happen!
A few years ago, when a committee of the General Synod attempted to come up with a theological distinctive for the existence of the ARP Church, the committee members nostalgically returned to the denomination’s roots in Scotland. Borrowing from history, the free offer of the Gospel was set forth as the great distinctive for the ARP Church today. Well, as it has turned out, that wasn’t helpful, and the church continues to decline. Generally speaking, Associate Reformed Presbyterian ministers can only talk about the free offer of the Gospel. It’s not something they can do!
So, what is a good reason to be an Associate Reformed Presbyterian? I have been an Associate Reformed Presbyterian for 51 years, and I do not have a satisfying answer to my question, nor have I heard a good one explained to me. I guess the only reason I have remained an Associate Reformed Presbyterian is because I’m old, lazy, and dumb as a rock and don’t know any better!
(4) Another complexity to the question of why someone would want to join the ARP Church is the naïveté of most Associate Reformed Presbyterians. That is, Associate Reformed Presbyterians think all congregations are like their congregation. So, to be an Associate Reformed Presbyterian is to be like them. They are loyal to their local congregation and not the denomination. Such parochialism does not produce healthy congregational growth. It has been years since most Associate Reformed Presbyterian congregations have witnessed an adult baptism occurring because someone in the congregation lead a person to the Lord Jesus. Associate Reformed Presbyterians don’t do conversions! I know of one congregation which was so bold at the beginning of last year to pray every Sunday for ONE public profession of faith and baptism during the year (and their prayer was answered, and they were so amazed that God answered and so encouraged they have asked for more this year). To illustrate this point, I call your attention to the 3100 member First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, SC, which, in spite of their ability to secure “rock star” Reformed preachers, grows not by professions of faith but by transfers. According to the “2021 Statistical Report” only 3 members were received by profession of faith and baptism. However, the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia plays a special role in the ARP Church and the state of South Carolina. The congregation has been called “the Republican Party of Columbia in Prayer.” And it fits! Associate Reformed Presbyterians are so pleased the Governor of South Carolina is an Associate Reformed Presbyterian!
(5) In June, all the prophets of the ARP Church go on pilgrimage to Mount Bonclarken for holy convocation. Since 1973 I have been amongst the prophets, preachers, and seers, listening to their prayers. God doesn’t hear! Silence and decline! Or is there something else here? Has God answered in judgment? IN JUDGMENT, has God turned the fertile and watered plain of the House of the ARP Church into a barren land of sand? A denomination of only 24 congregations bearing 61% of the financial weight of the denomination is not singing “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” because it rolls around in increase, prosperity, success, and acclaim. Are the bitter words of Elijah in 1 Kings 18.27 appropriate to be heard here? “Cry louder to the god to which you are praying. Perhaps he is in deep contemplation. Perhaps he is in the bathroom relieving himself. Perhaps he is vacationing in a distant land. Perhaps he is asleep and needs awakening.”
Finally, let me share with you some research I gathered on what constitutes an unhealthy congregation or denomination. And most of these points are obvious. There are more, but let me share seven with you.
One, there is a nostalgic over-emphasis on what the congregation or denomination was. And usually the people and leaders are misremembering what they were. Actually, the bygone days were not that good, for these folks magnify the good and forget and sugarcoat the bad. And, for what it’s worth, for many Associate Reformed Presbyterians, the concerns are the old building and graveyard. That is, “My grandfather bought the bricks for the sanctuary, and three generations of my people are buried in the graveyard.”
Two, growth by conversions and adult baptism is non- existent. There are many reasons why conversion growth is the most important growth. At this point, let one suffice: new converts are usually excited about their new found faith and church, have many non-Christian friends, and are not reticent about sharing their faith and asking their friends to attend church with them.
Three, there is no room for change. The ideas of new people are not welcomed. As I was once told, “We don’t want people who are not like us.” As an older church member once said to me, “Chuck, do you know these new people who have come into our church are not Calvinists?” My response was, “Yes! Thank God! It gives me something to do.” What I did not say was, “And neither are you a Calvinist.”
Four, there is no sense of direction. There is no sense of where the church is going. The attitude is, “We want to stay the way we are!” The first hymn at Sunday morning worship is “Misty Water-colored Memories of the way We Were.”
Five, an unwillingness to risk. This, of course, involves money. The budget for the new year is what we gave last year. “If we step out in faith for ministry, what will God do among us?” is never asked, for it terrifies them. A corollary to this is the savings account in the bank. Often the savings account is looked on as a talisman — a substitute for God. The concept of generosity before budget is as foreign to these folks as rocks from Mars.
Six, there is excuse making. When asked why the congregation or denomination is not growing, the answer is the Pharisee’s response: “We are not like those sinners who don’t do it the way we do it!”
Seven, it helps to like each other. I have preached in Associate Reformed Presbyterian congregations where the people on the left side of the sanctuary didn’t like the people on the right, and the people on the right side of the sanctuary didn’t like the people on the left. This reminds me of the old cigarette commercial: “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight that switch!” Nevertheless, both sides were proud of being Associate Reformed Presbyterians. However, to be fair, this malady is infectious and is found in all evangelical denominations of which I know.
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson