Some real talk: On a typical Sunday here in Lincoln, I would bet good money that there are more folks in PCA churches than there are PC(USA). 20 years ago, that would have been insane—but thanks to God’s kindness to us and two successful church plants… here we are.
Probably that pattern we have here is not too far from the national picture. I’m not sure how you’d check it, but there’s at least a decent chance that there are more people in PCA churches every Sunday morning than there are in PC(USA) churches, particularly given how mainline attendance has especially cratered post-pandemic.
I’m aware that this could come off as triumphalistic, and that’s not my desire here. I’m grateful for my faithful brothers and sisters in the PC(USA). Even so, I think the success of the PCA is something to celebrate, particularly given the original aspirations of the denomination’s founders to preserve the spirit of mainline Protestantism while preserving theological orthodoxy. I think, perhaps, we have accomplished something like that.
God has been very kind to the PCA and has blessed her ministry in all sorts of ways. In 1973, at our first GA, we had 16 presbyteries, 260 churches, and 41,232 members. At the 2021 GA, which is the most recent GA I can find data for, those numbers had grown to 88 presbyteries, 1,928 churches, and 383,000 members. That’s nearly tenfold growth in less than 50 years.
Obviously, again, a caveat is in order here, which is that we’re not driven exclusively by an objective to grow our churches numerically at any cost. But mostly that has not been a major struggle in the PCA. Rather, I think we have grown because of a combination of gifted evangelists like Frank Barker and Tim Keller, shrewd institutional movements (such as the merger with the RPC(ES) in the early 1980s), and preserving the awkward coalition of doctrinalists, pietists, and transformationalists that Keller has written about in the past. We have, to this point, mostly avoided the foolish and unnecessary schisms that so frequently beset reformed denominations in the US. I pray we will continue to do so.
Obviously the PCA has many problems and struggles right now, as do most denominations. But even so, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few days thinking about departed saints and legacies and how God works through sinful people to do his work. And as I look at the PCA today, even with all its inner turmoil and in-fighting, I can’t help feeling deeply grateful for it. And even now I think we still have one of the best, most exciting evangelistic success stories of the past 30 years that barely anyone is talking about in Reformed University Fellowship.
Certainly I don’t know where I’d have washed up in the late 2000s were it not for the PCA. And I think a number of my friends would say something similar. I was detoxing from a deeply unhealthy fundamentalist church but also trying to find my way after realizing the emergent move wasn’t an option for me either. I couldn’t have done the OPC or the LCMS. The ACNA did not exist—and even if it had, I’m not sure it’d have been a solution. We don’t have the ARP out here in Nebraska, and the Dutch Reformed are mostly invisible out here as well. But I couldn’t have gone back to the Baptists either.
I desperately needed something historically rooted in the church catholic as well as the tradition of the Reformation, and yet also still conversant in the problems of our contemporary world and keen to apply the Gospel to today’s challenges and questions. I found RUF. I found a church plant influenced by Tim Keller. And it was in those two ministries that I encountered a vision of Christian faith that did and still does enchant me.
So, certainly, there is much that needs repaired. But also there is much to be grateful for and much to celebrate. God has been kind to us.