Hard Data and the PCA Strategic Plan

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.


19 responses

  1. Pingback: What is the “S Curve” Isn’t? « Heidelblog

  2. Pingback: What if the “S Curve” Isn’t? « Heidelblog

  3. It’s interesting to see the stats on the AM attendance. If the PCA really wants something to worry about, take a look at PM attendance! Whatever happened to evening church for a denomination that at least ostensibly places such an emphasis on worship on the Lord’s Day among its current members?

  4. Martin,

    Thanks for your comment on my blog but more importantly, thanks for working with the historical data and making such a compelling case. You’ve done a superb job!

    I’m only seeing this now for the first time (been out of town and without internet). Hope to meet you at GA.

  5. Randall – good thought on PM attendance. Although the data would likely be depressing. Still, what gets measured gets done, as the saying goes.

    Dave – you got me going! Hope to see you at GA also.

    JK – here are the sources that are online:
    For the historical stats: http://www.pcahistory.org/main/pcastats.html
    For recent stats: http://www.pcaac.org/Statistics.htm
    The 2009 data, not as complete though, is on page 203 of the 2010 GA Commissioner Handbook, if you have access to that.

  6. Be careful.

    There is a method used in the manufacturing industry called “control charting.” This method is based on 90% probabilities (keep in mind it is not hypothesis testing). I use this method all of the time.

    An I-MR chart is used to track individual statistics over time and search for a statistically significant trend or change in numbers. I did an I-MR chart on the growth rate in total membership from 1983 to 2008 (I have not had the chance to look up 2009 numbers yet). The growth rate was consistent (not increasing or decreasing) from 1990 to 2006. There was an “out of control” point in 2007 (growth rate from 2007 to 2009). It indicated that the growth rate from 2007 to 2008 was well below the prior years. This might well indicate the beginnings of a drop that would justify the report.

    A similar technique applied to the total membership number shows that the membership has been consistent since 2004. It has neither grown or shrunk during that time in a statistically significant sense.

    That should be cause to do something besides “business as usual.”

    A double-exponential smoothing model does predict future increases in total membership, however. That is contradictory evidence.

    This is an industrial statistician’s opinion (ASQ SSBB, CQE).

  7. J.K.

    Thank you – that is really cool! (I say that as a guy who had to take a bazillion stat classes just to get my BSIE.) I’m not familiar with I-MR, but it seems similar to the kinds of statistical analyses we used to do with things like learning curves and for quality control purposes. The question we always were struggling with was what to do with data points that didn’t easily fit the pattern (like the PCA’s decline in membership in 2008). Is it statistically significant? Is it an outlier? Is it the beginning of a trend? Senior management always wanted the positive outlier to indicate a new, improving trend. Pessimists were always ready to question any improvement at all. And vice versa.

    I’m not surprised the double exponential smooting shows further increase since it tends to be less impacted by one data point.

    For what it’s worth, here’s the total membership from the Commissioner Handbook for 2009: 346,408.

    Other data they give for 2009 related to the charts I made includes: presbyteries = 78; total churches/missions = 1740.

    Thanks again for running the data – very, very cool!!!


  8. Statistical analysis is interesting, but I am extremely troubled by this kind of application of it in the spiritual realm. I think there is a problem with how we are using statistical analysis if the result is that we think we must be doing something right or wrong based on that analysis. The Church does not fit a business or manufacturing model of any sort, and she has no mechanical processes that can be relied upon to provide a specific ‘positive growth’ result when properly deployed. Relying upon this kind of statistical analysis as an indicator of health (or not) is, at best, a category error — at worst it implies a crass Finneyism.

    I am not suggesting that we ought to ignore the statistics altogether. It is certainly good to have access to such information. But this information is no reliable indicator of the health of a denomination. The call of Christ upon the Church and her ministry is not to watch the numbers, but to be faithful in the means of grace. God does not promise us any kind of a mechanical correspondence between such faithfulness and numerical growth. It is a dangerous error to rely upon outward results, especially numerical results, as an indicator of faithfulness. When we see a change in the numbers we do not need “some new plan.” Whether the numbers go up, down, or stay the same, our duty and calling as a Church does not change. We are always and ever to remain steadfast and immovable in the faith, pouring out the Gospel in all its fulness. Yes, God is pleased to bless His means, and we ought not to expect His blessing apart from His appointed means. But God does not bless His appointed means mechanically. The numbers are no indication one way or the other with regard to obedience.

    • Agreed that numbers are not the primary barometer of health, Scriptural fidelity is.

      But the Westminster Confession says that “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (1.6). Statistical analysis can support the mission of the church in a secondary way. You say as much when you say we should “not ignore the statistics altogether.”

      If we are going to look at the numbers, we should use the best and most careful statistical methods available.

  9. Pingback: Statistics and the Strategic Plan « Pilgrim Steward

  10. Statistics can be bent any way one wishes to bend them. All I know is that the future of our denomination is cloudy as far as the next generation is concerned. I’ve had the privilege of watching a generation of kids growing up. I worked with them as children and now they are in college. I’ve worked with them in multiple churches, I follow their lives and take note of their church choices, etc.

    The good news is that, on the whole, these kids are Christians who desire to serve the Lord. The bad news is that many of them feel like the PCA isn’t about evangelism. Roughly 50% of the kids I’ve worked with over the years are in PCA churches still. Most have fled to Baptist or Non-Denominational churches.

    Of those that are in the PCA, most of them refuse to claim it as their denomination. There is a pervasive, generational sentiment that denominational labels are not helpful. Not saying I agree, I’m just reporting on the majority of kids I’ve worked with.

    What we have yet to see, however, is when these kids start having kids, will they return to the PCA, because they want them to have a good theological base? I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m interested to see.

    All that to say, when I heard that a majority of young people leave our denomination and then a few come back when they start having children, it is consistent with my experience over the last thirteen years. Of course, mine is one small area of the PCA and is a poor “data set”.

    I’ll say this: I’m a children’s minister in the PCA, you can count on your fingers how many ordained men work with children in the PCA. In a denomination that’s primary growth comes through baptisms of Covenant Children, if we do not keep these children, then we are in serious trouble. Take some time and research just how many Reformed, Christian resources are out there for children. Then research how many Reformed, Christian resources are out there for teens and then compare that to all the books and studies we have for adults. The results will be sobering.

    • Zack,

      No, statistics cannot be bent anyway one whishes to. That is the purpose of careful statistical analysis: find the truth. Statisticians must use sound methods to keep people from lying, either intentionally or unintentionally.

      I am curious. What can an interested layman do to help the current generation?

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  15. Pingback: Presbyterians And Homosexuals Together: The Crisis Of Christ And Culture | The Heidelblog

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