Update and Addendum
I have updated the charts below to include some 2009 data that is available in the PCA GA Commissioner Handbook. Thanks to Wes White for pointing me to it. At the end is an addendum with a couple additional charts that I should have thought to include initially…
A foundational aspect of the PCA’s proposed Strategic Plan, to be voted on at this year’s General Assembly in about a week, is the “modified S-curve” presented on the first page of the Plan. The curve drawn in the middle of that first page is part of the section meant to create a perspective for planning. In other words, the perspective we are being asked to bring is one informed by a growth curve showing rapid growth early and slowing – even declining growth – later in an organization’s development. While the Plan does not explicitly say that this curve is precisely representative of the history of growth in the PCA, it certainly does imply it. The curve is presented in the context of noting that the PCA’s early growth occurred at a rate of 5-8% per year, while more recent growth has happened at a rate of 2-3% per year. The first page also argues that “slowed growth at least requires consideration of how we should best represent our Savior” and that we need to anticipate “needed change before a decline in the S-curve becomes precipitous.”
The reason, then, the need for, a strategic plan is that we are facing slowed, perhaps even declining growth, as a denomination. This leads to the next section, arguing for healthy change motivated by a belief that we have a mission to accomplish rather than being extremists who are either apathetic, believing everything is right, or despairing, believing everything is wrong. From there the plan proceeds to a bit of history, an examination of the situation, challenges, opportunities, etc. that we face, which then “in light of the preceding analysis” flow into 12 questions to be addressed by the planning effort (page 17).
But all this (however well or poorly it proceeds from one argument to the next) depends on the initial dire picture presented on page one.
In my first post on the Strategic Plan, I asked whether or not the S-curve represented the real shape of the PCA’s growth. I didn’t doubt the percentage growth figures quoted. I was pretty sure I’d heard them before anyway. But I wondered if we were really facing decline. Was the real situation as bad as the curve and narrative surrounding it?
Well, inspired by TE Dave Sarafolean’s June 14 post on the Strategic Plan, I’ve done some data research of my own. TE Sarafolean points out that in 2008 only 44.4% of churches even reported data to Atlanta. That calls into question the accuracy of the data itself. Whether or not that percentage is consistent historically I do not know.
But I was able to track down historical statistical data for the PCA dating back to 1973, from both the PCA Historical Center website and the Administrative Committee’s website.
Below are four charts capturing that data. You should be able to click on each to see a larger view.
One can see the rapid early growth and slower later growth in both the membership chart and the AM attendance chart. However, the AM attendance chart shows fairly straight line, consistent growth since about 1990, while the membership chart shows fairly steady, consistent growth since about 1982. We seem to have grown fairly steadily in churches and presbyteries, with the expected jump in the early 1980’s when the joining/receiving with the RPCES occurred, and there were OPC churches also joining the PCA.
The only chart that shows any decline is the membership chart, and that only in 2008, with a rebound in 2009. Others who have commented on the Strategic Plan have noted that much – maybe all – of this 2008 decline is due to one large church cleaning up its membership rolls and removing members as a result.
But what I don’t see is an S-curve of any kind, modified or not.
What I do see is a pattern of early rapid growth followed by a longer period of steady growth. About 18-19 years of steady growth in terms of Sunday morning attendance at worship, and about 25-26 years of steady growth in terms of membership. To call this “slowed growth,” as the Strategic Plan does on page one, is I think an unhelpful designation at best.
This is a problem?
This is the cause of consternation and worries that a one-year decline (which might have a very plausible explanation) might become “precipitous?”
This is the reason we must adopt a vague, platitudinous Plan? A Plan that doesn’t really analyze cause and effect, that is short on data and data analysis, that seems to want to offer clever solutions to problems for which there are good, solid biblical answers?
What other assumptions in the Plan have little tangible connection to actual data or reality (see my second post on that subject)?
We should instead be rejoicing and thanking God for the continued growth of our denomination.
I’m not against planning. I like strategy and planning. Good planning is consistent with our call to proper stewardship of the resources and gifts given to us by God.
Dear friends, this is not good planning. I’m sorry – truly sorry to say that. But it’s true.
Good planning is brutally realistic. The Plan we have before us seems to be based on a perspective of fear and worry, of impending danger that may lead to precipitous decline, that is not supported by the actual data.
That doesn’t mean that some of the ideas in it, some of the weaknesses and strengths, some of the challenges and opportunities, aren’t valid and helpful.
But the Plan itself derives from a perspective and assumptions not supported by the data. The analysis of root causes of problems is non-existent. Which leads to themes and means that do not necessarily follow as solutions to the perceived problems.
I’m also not saying the PCA doesn’t have problems. We do. But to possibly beat a dead horse, the problems have a root cause we already know: sin. How do we deal with sin biblically? With the Word. With biblical church discipline. We apply the sacraments and we storm heaven with our prayers. We trust in the work of the Spirit rather than our own efforts, ideas, notions, perspectives, themes or means. We do so wisely, stewarding the resources and gifts God has given us, understanding the needs of our neighbors so that we might serve them in love, ever on the lookout and ever ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us: Jesus Christ and the Good News of His work for poor sinners.
I realized after I posted this that there is a solid mathematical reason churches don’t, in fact cannot grow at a constant rate of 8% or even 5% per year. That kind of year on year growth rate is unsustainable over the long term. Below is a made up chart covering the same period as the PCA (1973 – 2009). I started at 100,000 people and applied growth rates of 5% and 8% annually. You can see an upward sloping parabola. Go on long enough and the curve becomes so steep as to not be realistic. The greater the percentage growth per year the faster this happens, as can be seen by comparing the 8%/year line with the 5%/year line.
So, no denomination, much less the PCA, should be surprised if percentage growth rates decrease over time. That’s natural. It’s not a cause for concern, in and of itself. I think we’ve heard this data about early high growth rates and slower recent growth rates so often in the PCA that we haven’t stopped to think about how and why that happens, and that in reality it is not itself to be greatly worried about.
Another way of looking at it, just be beat the drum a little more, is in the chart below. Here I just started with 100 people and increased it by a steady amount of 100 people per year. The drop off in percentage growth per year is pretty dramatic, and would continue in a regular mathematical progression over time. It appears from the data in the four charts above that the PCA fits more the pattern of the chart below – constant, steady growth in numbers – than constant percentage growth.
Again, we are growing. Slowly but surely. Steadily. Let’s focus on that rather than misperceptions and unnecessary fears about slowed percentage growth. Let’s be thankful to God for what He has done and we pray will continue to do in the PCA.
And, please, let’s vote down this unnecessary Strategic Plan.