By Peter Smith, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Yes, the Rev. Sheldon Sorge has seen his share of dwindling Presbyterian congregations shutting their doors in declining neighborhoods or communities. And just last week, he saw yet another congregation leave for a more conservative denomination.
But as the general minister of the Pittsburgh Presbytery travels around Allegheny County, Rev. Sorge says he sees plenty of vibrant Presbyterian congregations that seem to defy the bleak picture depicted by the denomination’s own numbers.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 6 percent of its membership in 2015, and that came after three consecutive years of 5 percent declines. Current membership is just under 1.6 million. The Pittsburgh Presbytery, still one of the nation’s largest, saw a 7 percent decline to 28,518 last year.
Several other presbyteries in Western Pennsylvania, a historic heartland of Presbyterianism dating back to early Scots-Irish settlement, also posted the latest in a succession of losses.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has seen 463 congregations nationwide depart for other denominations between 2012 and 2015, according to newly released statistics from the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination.
Virtually all left for smaller, more conservative denominations such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which the historic Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Oakland joined last week after reaching a separation agreement with the Pittsburgh Presbytery.
Many departing congregations reacted to liberal theological and social trends in the past five years that included the approvals of ordaining and marrying openly gay members. And while the national population as a whole has become more liberal on such topics, not one congregation has joined the Presbyterian Church (USA), and not only is membership down, but so are rates of baptisms and confirmations.
Other mainline churches have incurred similar chronic losses, including Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist bodies.
So Rev. Sorge admits that it’s a tough sell to say these statistics don’t tell it all.
“Honestly, I don’t see decline in the way that the numbers would suggest,” he said. “I grieve the numbers, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.”