What the EPC Can Learn from the PCA

There is much my own Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) can learn from the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Although the EPC and PCA hold to the same doctrinal standards, the EPC is shrinking while the PCA is growing. The EPC can learn a lot from our larger partner about how to remain faithfully confessional and missionally relevant in post-Christian America.

Broadly speaking, the PCA is the only non-Pentecostal denomination still growing in the United States. That should cause every leader in the EPC to pay attention: the only non-Pentecostal denomination still growing in America is a confessionally Reformed, doctrinally rigorous church, and it’s not us.

So, here are the usually caveats at the outset. First, while the EPC should desire for its congregations to grow and to become a bigger denomination, our first goal should be to see Christ’s kingdom grow. Second, numerous individual EPC congregations are growing and healthy and some PCA congregations are shrinking and unhealthy. But on the whole, the EPC is shrinking while the PCA is growing, and I am focused on the general contours of both churches. Third, applying principles of denominational growth to individual congregations is immensely difficult. That requires a culture shift and buy-in. Fourth, most of what makes the PCA successful required steps it took 30-40 years ago. The EPC could try and replicate the PCA’s current practices, but without a similar foundation those practices will flounder. At the same time, the EPC cannot simply duplicate what the PCA was doing from 1984-1994 in 2024; the world is different, and so the application of this foundation will by necessity look different. Long-term vision and patience are required.

Grasping the Situation

Here is the membership trends of the major (100,000+ member) Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in the United States since 2000. There are weaknesses in this table: each denomination reports membership differently (I tried to include only active, communicant membership); these numbers tend to be generated by congregational self-reporting, which can be specious; and membership does not directly correlate with worship attendance. I selected the specific years to show the collapse of the PCUSA and transfer of congregations into the EPC and ECO, as well as to highlight the pre and post-COVID states. And yes, the RCA’s numbers are accurate; in fact, their 2023 numbers are in and it’s gotten even worse.

Change, 2019-2022-12.4%+1.7%-7.9%-6.1%-2.2%-52.7%

The PCA is the only Reformed church that has grown since 2000 without relying on transfers from the PCUSA. The PCA even had a number of disaffected groups leave it over the past few years and yet is still growing, including through COVID. The situation is actually worse for the EPC; we peaked at 150,042 members in 2016, and have declined by ~16.2% since then, while the PCA grew by 4.3% over that same period. It continues to worsen when attendance, not membership, is taken into account. The EPC’s average Sunday attendance across the denomination in 2014 was 118,947. It was down to 82,673 in 2022, a drop of a whopping 31.5%. Now, average denominational attendance is harder to measure and report accurately compared to membership, and the post-COVID practice of online “attendance” (which the EPC is trying to measure, but not well) has complicated matters. Yet the reality is clear: the EPC’s worship attendance is declining even faster than its membership. On the other hand, the PCA does not track Sunday worship attendance, but the consensus seems to be that their in-person worship attendance on Sundays is actually higher than their official membership (the OPC is on a similar path of growth and attendance as the PCA, but its total membership of 36,255 is significantly smaller).

This is not how the EPC talks about itself. We tend to talk about how much we’re growing and how the PCA is fracturing. How can the reality be so different? Regarding the PCA, the EPC has confused highly visible debates and a few departures with things going systemically wrong. Reflecting upon ourselves, the number of EPC congregations went from 182 in 2005 to 627 in 2022, but the number of congregations and pastors in the EPC has not yet declined. So the sense of growth we had from transfers in 2005-2014 has continued, even as we’ve shrunk by 25,000 members.

And long-term the situation is equally grim. Ryan Burge is a specialist in religious statistics, and he found that the overwhelming majority of American Protestant denominations have adult populations that are themselves majority over the age of 55 (the percentage of U.S. adults that are 55+ is about 35%), meaning that most Protestant groups are facing a demographic cliff. Pentecostals and congregationalist groups are the only churches with a majority of their adults ages of 18-54. However, the PCA just barely missed that cut, with 49% of its adult membership under the age of 55. The PCA’s 18-35 population is why: This group represents 29.4% of the U.S. adult population and 25% of the PCA’s adult membership, which are roughly comparable. The PCA is the only non-congregationalist denomination in the United States not staring at demographic extinction, and it looks to keep growing in the future.

The EPC is not big enough to make Burge’s data, but we fall into the “Other Presbyterian” category (with the CRC, ECO, and the RCA) where 62% of adult membership is over 55. This is actually worse than the PCUSA (60% of their adult membership is over 55), whose demographic demise is typically treated by the EPC as all but assured. One of the big takeaways just from looking at this data is that the massive influx of PCUSA congregations into the EPC in 2005-2014 masked that the underlying culture and demographics for many of those churches were not primed for long-term health. The EPC is essentially still the church it was in 2005: approximately 75,000 members then and 82,000 worshipers now. And it’s not like the PCA is growing by births alone; it’s averaged 5,000 adult professions of faith and 2,500 adult baptisms a year for the past 5 years. Their church planting and foreign mission ministries are also far more developed than the EPC’s.

To their credit, many of the EPC’s leaders have been trying to take steps to address this (e.g. the Revelation 7:9 initiative, the recent push for every-member evangelism, and the foregrounding of church revitalization and “next generation” ministry training). The PCA is far from perfect and is itself facing a number of challenges (e.g. engaging the working class, catching up to American racial demographic changes), though any issue they have, the EPC has worse. So, in light of the EPC’s real situation of decline and the PCA’s of growth, we should consider what we can imitate for long-term success.

Rigor and Doctrine

Both the EPC and PCA are Reformed and Presbyterian churches that affirm the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine found in the scriptures. One thing that sets our denominations apart is that the PCA is robust about this affirmation while the EPC is minimalistic. We have the “Essentials of Our Faith”, after all. But the PCA’s confessional robustness is the primary factor in their growth. Cultivating a similar confessional rigor while maintaining our cultural ethos should be the first thing the EPC attempts in imitating the PCA.

Yes, doctrinal and confessional minimalism is a possible avenue for church growth. The Pentecostal, congregational, and non-denominational movements are all demographically viable, with non-denominational Christianity now the largest faction of American Protestantism. These groups tend to be doctrinally minimalistic. The problem is that doctrinal minimalism leads to doctrinal and cultural non-distinction: if your church tries to minimize distinctive doctrines and practices it inevitably becomes indistinguishable from broad, non-denominational evangelicalism. But as Reformed Presbyterians, we confess distinctive things. When Reformed churches downplay their Reformed distinctives, their witness, ministry, members, and children all cease being Reformed. Why attend the local EPC congregation that tries to be minimally Reformed when the local non-denominational church is exactly the same without the Presbyterian baggage? Why attend the local EPC congregation that tries to focus only on the evangelical essentials when the PCA church down the road is excited about their Reformed nature instead of minimizing it? The most famous example of this phenomenon is when the Christian Reformed Church burned their wooden shoes in the 1980s. In an attempt to go beyond their traditional, ethnic parochialism and join broader American evangelicalism, the CRC distanced themselves from their historic distinctives, and partially jettisoned their (Dutch) Reformed faith and practice along with their Dutch culture. It led to a massive numerical collapse, and the ongoing conflict in the CRC is about how to either reclaim or reframe the role of historic Reformed doctrines and practices. Reformed confessionalism and Reformed minimalism cannot coexist.

The PCA has taken the opposite tact: they have embraced and led with their Reformed values. No one is surprised about a PCA church not only affirming, but regularly teaching on predestination, unconditional election, limited and penal substitutionary atonement, monergestic salvation, the 10 commandments as God’s moral law, the regulative principle of worship, the spiritual efficacy of the sacraments, covenant theology, repentance unto life, etc. Ministry and discipleship are consciously informed by Reformed doctrinal principles, and the PCA and its congregations enthusiastically proclaim them as scripture’s testimony. And the PCA approaches this through the lens of Westminsterian confessionalism, not a reduced set of fundamental tenets. The PCA is known for its Reformed and Presbyterian distinctives. The EPC is known for letting pastors and churches disregard those distinctives.

The PCA’s ordination standards are very high. Pastoral preparation is theologically and doctrinally rigorous; in the face of growing secularization and post-Christian pressure on the church, the PCA has decided that the only way the church will remain a faithful witness is if these standards are maintained. The PCA’s expectation is that pastors are to possess biblical and theological expertise and that they are trained accordingly. Pastors are to be biblical specialists who can speak scripture to an alienated culture, and this specialization operates from a clearly Reformed and confessional vantage point. It is through this pastoral approach that the PCA’s theological culture and health is maintained.

There are many ways to assess congregational health, but the PCA first evaluates church health on confessional terms. Is the biblical gospel being preached, the sacraments being properly administered, worship being performed purely, discipline being enacted? These questions are frontloaded and never taken for granted. Other questions about evangelism, being a sticky church, mercy ministries, skill of musicians, neighborhood demographics, budgets, valorizing the past, etc., are secondary. Those are important topics, but don’t supersede (by either commission or omission) the bigger doctrinal categories; the same cannot be said for the EPC at this moment.

The missional fruit for the PCA is clear: by being center-bounded on a robust confessional system for their pastors and churches, the PCA has successfully adapted to our culture and built healthy congregations without losing their Reformed distinctives. It may seem odd from an EPC perspective, but the PCA’s stricter approach to Reformed theology has granted them greater flexibility; having a broader foundation and knowing their center clarifies their missional parameters. In the EPC’s case, doctrinal minimalism leaves a void that gets filled with other cultural values, which becomes a lot more difficult to work around (e.g. downplaying the regulative principle more easily leads a congregation to elevate a particular worship style, which then becomes central to their identity, making it much more difficult for them to adapt).

So how does the EPC get there? Since we share the same doctrine as the PCA, in some ways this should be easy. But on the other hand, we already share the same doctrine as the PCA and the reason we don’t want their kind of rigor is because we have historically prided ourselves on being more relaxed. Changing that desire requires a massive cultural shift. That’s only going to happen if the ecosystem of the EPC changes, which must be driven by the same thing driving the PCA’s culture — their pastors. No amount of resourcing, publications, initiatives and strategies, denominational hires, or conferences can shape the culture of a church like its pastors. And that pivot requires intentionality and time, which demands patience. This is a change that will occur on a timeline of decades, not a few years.

So the first step is pastoral preparation. This is a drum that I’ve been beating for awhile, but in summary we should a) prioritize our candidates going to and being recruited from confessional Reformed seminaries that require the biblical languages; b) invest significant money in making sure that happens; c) institute practical experience requirements for pastoral candidates; d) have ordination exams that privilege systematic and biblical theology, and where the bar on Reformed confessional knowledge and reasoning is raised. All of these things characterize the PCA’s approach and are crucial steps that the EPC can take in forming and selecting its pastors.

The second step is to intentionally change our vocabulary at GA and presbytery, particularly from the stage. The EPC’s leaders can set the tone of the denomination, not only in how they speak about things but also in who and what they put before the different courts of the church. Organizations gain what they celebrate, and we should be pushing an explicit Westminsterian way of thinking and doing things. When the EPC is self-described by our leaders we should stop contrasting ourselves with our Reformed sister denominations by privileging our essential/non-essential ethos. Instead, we should celebrate our Reformed and distinctly Westminsterian way of reading scripture and doing ministry. As B.B. Warfield put it, Reformed theology is “Christianity come into its own”, and the EPC should happily and clearly communicate that along confessional lines. There are important things that distinguish the EPC from the PCA, but our doctrine is not one. If we are going to contrast ourselves with other Christians, we should do so by emphasizing our confessional system over and against broad evangelicalism. The EPC is no minimalistic collection of congregations, but possess a rich doctrinal treasury that will pay off in post-Christian America. This change in language and emphasis from the stage will help shift our culture, and signal what our denominational expectations and values are, particularly for Ruling Elders who drive pastoral search committees.

Decentralized Polity

The PCA’s polity is Presbyterian and decentralized, which is a boon for their growth. The organizational structure of the PCA is bottom-up, meaning that the direction, energy, and action for ministry is primarily local and regional. The PCA’s culture prizes pastoral and congregational ministry as the prime locus for gospel ministry and their structure reflects this. The administration and organization of the denomination is designed to maximize the flexibility of lower courts of the church; the presbyteries of the PCA do not to wait on permission from the denominational administration in order to act. The reduction of bottlenecks means that the PCA is more much missionally agile and culturally responsive than more centralized Reformed denominations, like the PCUSA and CRC.

This is also means that ministry strategy is driven by regional (i.e. presbytery) interests, rather than national priorities. And this makes sense: if local pastors are trusted as specialists and leaders, and local congregations are the drivers of gospel ministry, then this should result in regional collaborations that are driven by local ministry, not national directives. Presbyteries are the incubators of regional, and therefore, denominational missional priorities. Campus ministries and church planting are the obvious examples here — the PCA’s church planting success has been borne out of local churches banding together in their presbyteries for this cause.

The PCA does have significant administrative infrastructure, but it flowed out of this culture; it did not create it. The PCA’s church planting and campus ministries are responsive to and presume a locally and presbyterially led church, and coordinate as partners rather than directors.

There is no equivalent in the PCA of the EPC’s National Leadership Team that “seeks the mind of Christ for our denomination” and can state what “God is calling the EPC to be” or can develop “vision and strategies that express what God is calling the EPC to do” or is ever described as being akin to the Session of the General Assembly. Nor do their presbyteries have executive councils that oversee the work of presbyteries and their churches or are ever described as akin to the Session of the presbytery. The EPC’s arrangement encourages a top-down, one-size fits all culture: the national leaders and administration set the direction for the church, and the regional subsets implement these strategic priorities as they defer to the top for direction. The PCA, by simultaneously having a stricter doctrinal standard and a “looser” polity, has freed their congregations and presbyteries to be entrepreneurial and confessional, and their growth is the fruit of that.

One of the symptoms of this is the lively debates that happen in the PCA. Many in the EPC look aghast at the arguments that happen, and sometimes the PCA does have a contentious streak. However, these debates are a sign of health. A denomination of 390,000 is going to have a larger variety of perspectives than a denomination of 125,000, and the PCA takes doctrine (i.e. God and his word) seriously enough to heartily discuss those perspectives and their effect on the church. And since the PCA treats its pastors as specialists and presbyteries as the drivers of missional priorities, then the staff and leadership of the PCA cannot control or set the terms of the denomination’s debates. There is no 15-minute debate limit for issues in the PCA GA, and since their pastors are treated as capable experts, issues are thoroughly examined, not only for doctrine but for their missional implications. Likewise, presbyteries do not exist to ratify what a GA has recommended, but are themselves deliberative bodies, exactly as you would expect to be the case in a bottom-up denomination. The pastors and presbyteries of the PCA have a direct say in the vision and strategies of the denomination, and those priorities arise from the grassroots of the denomination, not from the top. And the proof is in the pudding: this process has led to a doctrinally sharp and missionally effective church that sets the pace for the rest of the North American Reformed world.

How does the EPC get to a more decentralized, entrepreneurial state? First, we need smaller presbyteries. Presbyteries are strongest when they are able to foster local partnerships. The rounded average of churches per presbytery/classis in the following denominations is: PCUSA (52); EPC (39); PCA (22); CRC (20); OPC (17). The EPC needs to increase the number of its presbyteries by around 50% to have a ratio close to the PCA’s, and that should be a goal. This allows for greater proximity and familiarity to foster pastoral and congregational collaboration. Multiplying presbyteries also allows the newly formed groups to reexamine their inherited practices and break out of dated routines and structures.

Second, the EPC’s presbyteries need to own being bodies that deliberate rather than ratify. Something that often happens in the EPC is that our presbyteries vote to approve something because it sounds nice or we want to be pleasant, not because any of our churches are actually planning on following through. This leads to constant missional whiplash. Regional collaborations should be driven by friendship and partnership arising from within the presbytery’s pastors and churches, not by fiat. Efforts towards church revitalization and church planting are good examples of this. These, including the terms on which they are done, should be set by presbyteries. Trying to bootstrap ourselves to the PCA’s level (e.g. presbytery church planting coordinators) without the requisite developed network of bought-in churches will fail. This takes time, even decades. The potential cost otherwise is a lot of failed churches, disillusioned congregants, burnt out church planters and pastors, and wasted money.

Finally, we should amend our Rules of Assembly to try and encourage a decentralized polity. Adjusting things so that presbyteries have more ownership (e.g. ordination exams; defining church health parameters) will reduce bottle necks and increase regional ownership. Requiring amendments to the EPC’s constitution to first originate as overtures from a lower court before they are considered by GA would encourage our presbyteries to become centers of deliberation and leadership. Returning the National Leadership Team to something like our old administrative committee would help reset the EPC to a grassroots posture and encourage presbyteries to take greater ownership of the church’s mission. Requiring things like denominational officers and their job descriptions (e.g. Assistant Stated Clerk, Chief Parliamentarian, World Outreach Director) or denominational agencies, their heads, and strategic plans (e.g. Church Health, Church Planting) be put to a vote at General Assembly, or perhaps even ratified by the presbyteries, would help reestablish a bottom-up, bought-in direction in church polity. This shouldn’t seem radical to the EPC, not only because this is normal in other Reformed churches, but because we already do this for Stated Clerk, the Chaplain Endorser, World Outreach’s 5-year master plan, and the EPC’s position papers. Amending the Rules to allow for longer floor debate opens up the possibility that our General Assembly will meaningfully deliberate on important topics, which increases buy-in and encourages a culture of pastoral expertise and initiative.

Catechize Children

The PCA has been spectacularly successful in retaining children who grow up in their church. A few years ago I stumbled upon some data that, infuriatingly, I cannot find again. It showed that the PCA, OPC, and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) were the most effective denominations at retaining their children into adulthood. The reason was simple: they thoroughly catechized their children in the doctrines of their church. The PCA’s demographic numbers bear this out — they are great at inculcating the Reformed Christian faith in their kids. PCA kids know PCA doctrine, which is robust and able to provide stability in our post-Christian, secular world. For the growth of the church this a non-negotiable. As Rodney Stark showed in his classic The Rise of Christianity, the growth of Christianity has always been tied to how we raise our kids in the faith. Any growth strategy that doesn’t lead with this is doomed to failure.

This is something that should be easy for the EPC to implement. Our churches should not be satisfied with a generic, evangelical discipleship program for our children, but should prioritize a rigorous curriculum of biblical content and Westminsterian doctrine. How our kids stay Christian is important, and the EPC should stress a distinctly Reformed approach in our passing along the faith.

The EPC should embrace founding church-based schools to accomplish this. The CRC and Lutherans, including WELS, have done this well. The Reformed Episcopal Church (a subjurisdiction of the Anglican Church of North America) has called on all of their parishes to make starting a church-based school their number one missional priority. This could be an extraordinarily effective route in building the kids of the EPC up in their faith amidst our post-Christian age, as well as serve as entry point into the church for people in the community. This would be a good way for nearby EPC congregations to partner, and is the sort of low-hanging fruit that a denominational agency or staff would be well-positioned to assist in coordinating and resourcing. Perhaps the EPC should call upon every congregation to be a Parent, Partner, or Patron for a church-school. Once again, the numerical pay-off for this is in decades, not 2-3 years. But generational investment that works leads to an institution that endures for generations.

College Ministry

Perhaps the PCA’s best initiative is Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), their college campus ministry. This ministry is one of the best explanations for the PCA’s growth, resiliency in the face of secularism, and its strong young adult demographics. There are a few things that distinguish RUF and its success in helping the PCA grow. First, RUF, like the rest of the PCA, is unabashedly Reformed in its doctrine and practice. College students in particular, especially in our secular age, long for substantial faith that provides good answers and is intellectually satisfying. Second, on top of the RUF vetting process, RUFs and their campus evangelists are pastors screened by and accountable to PCA presbyteries. RUF is successful because it has buy-in from local congregations and the regional church. Third, RUF is very intentionally a servant of the local church, never an alternative, always directing students to the church. And since RUF is Presbyterian, it operates from a base of local church support and investment. Which means that, fourth, RUF is not only Reformed, but as a ministry is coded specifically for the PCA. In short, RUF is always Reformed, is owned by the local and regional church, and PCA churches direct their college students to RUF, which directs graduates back to local PCA congregations. When RUF students graduate, they look for PCA congregations.

The EPC partners with the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO), which is a wonderful ministry and a beneficial partnership. But there are some drawbacks to this partnership which will prevent CCO from having a similar effect on the EPC as RUF has on the PCA, at least without significant adjustment. CCO’s model is to partner with local churches, so that the congregation provides the campus minister and funding (or the staffer fundraisers) while CCO provides vetting, resources, and oversight. The benefit is that local churches don’t need to worry about training and administrative structure and the campus ministry is owned by the local church. The drawbacks are that if CCO has already partnered with a church of a different denomination (say, Methodists) on campus, the interested EPC church has limited options. Sometimes local churches of different, compatible denominations partner to support a CCO ministry (e.g. CCO at the University of Pittsburgh is partnered with ACNA and EPC congregations), but otherwise an interested EPC church may just not have any partner options if they want a Reformed campus ministry. If an EPC highschooler goes to college and begins attending CCO, there is no guarantee that it is EPC affiliated or even Reformed. While the CCO campus minister works for the local church, even if they are EPC they are not required to be vetted by a local presbytery, and will be duly influenced by CCO’s institutional values and framework. That’s just the reality of institutional influence, and CCO is broadly evangelical in nature, not Reformed. Students who attend RUF’s big Summer Conference attend a Reformed, PCA gathering. Students who attend CCO’s annual Jubilee Conference attend a broadly evangelical gathering, and that cultural interchange will influence the campus local ministry. CCO is also not EPC coded — it is CCO coded, and at best, branded as the ministry of the sponsoring EPC congregation. There is no CCO/EPC equivalent to the music of Indelible Grace, which moves seamlessly through RUF to Summer Conference to PCA churches. CCO is not a pipeline to EPC churches post-graduation the way that RUF is for the PCA.

That’s not inherently a bad thing, since the EPC’s main goal should be kingdom growth, not EPC growth. It’s also not clear to me how effective attempting to replicate the PCA’s strategy will work without serious adjustment; RUF grew rapidly in the 1990s and there are a finite number of colleges and a finite number of college students interested in Reformed Christianity on those college campuses. That being said, the EPC should make college ministry a top priority and take the long view. Campus ministries are primed for local church initiative (CCO’s lead story on church partnerships is about First Presbyterian Orlando, an EPC congregation) and regional church support. Presbyteries should consider pooling resources to assist EPC congregations adjacent to college campuses start a ministry there. If CCO is already present with a non-Reformed church, then a campus ministry exclusively associated with the local EPC congregation or presbytery might be necessary. If RUF is already there, then perhaps the campus doesn’t need a second (or third, if the CRC’s creatively named “Campus Ministry” is also present) Reformed campus ministry. Or maybe the campus could use two Reformed campus ministries, both CCO/EPC and RUF, which together demonstrate a unity in mission on campus just like there is a unity in mission between the EPC and PCA. If CCO’s administrative structure allows for it, an EPC sponsored chapter should consider doing cooperative work and attending conferences alongside RUF and other expressly Reformed ministries rather than the generically evangelical.

Any stronger push for EPC campus ministries should treat campus ministers as pastors ordained by and accountable to the presbytery, like in the PCA. This creates presbytery vetting, accountability, and buy-in, even if the ministry is fully funded by the local EPC congregation. It also helps ensure that the Reformed emphasis remains constant in the campus ministry and helps keep the CCO ministry not only coded for the local church, but for the EPC.