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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Modern Age

Written by: Ted Vial

Like all mainline churches, the Reformed and Presbyterian churches are experiencing contraction in the places of their historical origin (Europe and the United States), and growth in the global south.  The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest North American Presbyterian denomination, began losing members in 1966, and has lost at least one percent of its membership every year since then.  In 2005 it lost over two percent, the largest drop since 1975, leaving it with 2,313,662 members.

Another general trend in North America is for churches that had split over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries to reunite. This trend originated in collaborations among different churches and denominations around mission work.  The American Bible Society was formed in 1816 with the mission of placing scripture in the hands of all people, the American Tract Society in 1823 to provide educational materials, and the American Sunday School Union in 1824.  Presbyterians joined other Protestants in these efforts.  These efforts at working together paved the way for reunification of Presbyterian denominations.  Old School and New School Presbyterians in the north unified in 1869, forming the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.   

Most Cumberland Presbyterians rejoined the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) between 1906 and 1910 after the PCUSA made some modest revisions to the Westminster Confession and catechisms.  In 1958, the PCUSA merged with the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPNA) to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States (UPCUSA).  In 1983, the UPCUSA and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), formed at the end of the Civil War, merged to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest North American Reformed denomination with (at the time) about 3 million members.  There are tensions within this Church over biblical authority and moral and social issues such as the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of gay unions.  As with all the major Protestant denominations there is some possibility of a split in the near future.

Presbyterians are also represented in the "Emerging Church Movement."   The movement is loose and a bit hard to define, but emerging churches tend to share the following characteristics:  They tend to be new congregations begun by young pastors in urban settings.  They tend to be organized less hierarchically than existing churches, typically have fairly traditional theologies and liturgies, but are socially progressive.  They are technologically sophisticated, making use of Facebook and Twitter.  They attract young members who may have grown up in a church tradition but have been alienated from it for a while.  Some of these churches in the Presbyterian tradition have formed a loose coalition called "Presbymergents."  There is some discussion about attaining legal status as a non-profit organization.


Study Questions:
     1.    Is the Presbyterian Church growing, or declining? Explain.
     2.    How did ecumenism influence the reunification of the Presbyterian denominations?
     3.    Describe the major mergers of Presbyterian denominations within the 20th century.
     4.    What is the Emerging Church Movement? How are its characteristics expressed in Presbyterian circles?

 

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