Perceived Problems in the Eastern Synods of the Reformed Church in America (RCA)

As demonstrated in the companion article “Characterizing Membership Growth and Decline in the Reformed Church in America 2000-2005,” the Eastern synods of the RCA have experienced drastic declines in membership in the last 40 years, a trend that continues to the present time. Specifically, the Eastern Synods of the RCA experienced a 16.3% decline in active membership in the five-year period 2000–2005. The article sought to account for these declines by identifying characteristics of growing and shrinking congregations. It found church size and activity to be among the factors significantly related to stability or growth. Congregations with many members, congregations with higher membership attendance rates at Sunday worship and congregations with higher participation rates in Sunday school suffered little or no decline.

In 2002 the RCA endorsed the statement “Our Call,” which outlines a vision for church multiplication and revitalization. It is arguable that this purposeful initiative is, in part, a response to continued declines in membership throughout the RCA. It is important to note, however, that not all agree that the vision outlined in “Our Call” is the right approach. In any event, this paper is more limited in scope than the companion article. It aims to determine if lay members of the Eastern Synods of the RCA, which have experienced the greatest membership loss, perceive membership decline to be a problem.


Sample. During the summer and fall of 2003, each of the 411 congregations in the three northeastern synods of the RCA (107 in the Albany Synod, 143 in the Mid- Atlantics, and 151 in New York) was contacted through a mailer requesting a church directory. The object was to find church members interested in participating in our survey. Seventy churches provided a church directory from which to sample its members. Eight hundred-forty members were selected from the church directories and received a copy of our survey through the mail. Two hundred thirty-seven surveys were returned for a response rate of 28%. Respondents were then weighted by region and church size so that the sample would be representative of the membership of the East Coast RCA.

Variables. In the context of a larger survey in which questions about participation and satisfaction with church programs were asked, respondents answered the question: “What are the biggest challenges/problems facing your local church today? (Name no more than 2)” Written responses by respondents were grouped by theme (e.g. low membership, outreach, etc.) independently by the two authors. Both authors identified similar themes.

Demographics. In addition to answering the challenges/problems question, respondents also had to give basic demographic information (age, gender, has children under 18), church size, and regional synod.


Distributions of demographic variables are presented below in order to reveal the demographic makeup of Eastern RCA members. Then, results are presented that summarize what Eastern RCA lay members perceive as the biggest problem facing their church today. Finally, demographic differences in people who perceive membership as one of the two biggest problems are presented. Demographic differences were considered significant if p<0.05.

Demographic profile of survey respondents. Table 1 shows the demographic profile of the sample. Church members in the moderate-large category account for the majority of the sample because the sample is representative of the entire population of Eastern RCA church members. However, it is important to note that approximately 33% of the congregations in the Eastern RCA are classified as moderate-large, 33% are classified as medium and 33% are classified as small.

Table 1: Demographic profile of the 237 survey respondents

Variable Percent
Church Size
Moderate-Large (90+ attend worship) 64.3%
Medium (50-89 attend worship) 23.9%
Small (49 or less attend worship) 11.8%
Albany 29.6%
Mid-Atlantics 36.2%
New York 36.9%
Male 39.6%
Female 60.4%
Less than 40 22.1%
40-64 48.9%
65+ 29.0
Has children under the age of 18
Yes 34.1%
No 65.9%

Challenges and problems facing local churches. Not surprisingly, based on the membership declines in the Eastern RCA in the last 40 years, low membership was the most commonly mentioned problem (43.3%) among lay RCA members (see figure 1). (Note: percentages do not add to 1 because some people mentioned two problems.)

Figure 1: Responses to the question “What are the biggest challenges/problems facing your church today (name no more than 2)?”

Responses to the question

Interestingly, 3 of the other 4 most commonly mentioned issues (financial strain, youth, and evangelism/outreach) could also be perceived as related to membership.

Relationship of low membership perceptions with demographics. Subsequently, we investigated whether there were particular types of individuals who were more or less likely to perceive low membership as one of the two biggest problems facing their church. An analysis of the four demographic variables mentioned earlier (church size, synod, gender, age, and having children under 18) showed that only church size was related to whether or not low membership was a problem. Figure 2 shows that between 50% and 66% of members of very small and small congregations in the East perceive membership as the biggest problem their church faces. However, even among “moderate-large” church members, low membership was the most commonly mentioned problem.

Figure 2: Percent of lay membership that perceives low membership to be one of the two biggest problems facing their church today

Percent of lay membership that perceives low membership …


We have already mentioned that congregations in the Eastern synods of the RCA continue to struggle to retain members. In this article we presented results of a representative survey of Eastern RCA lay members to determine which challenges and problems are perceived to be the biggest problems within congregations in the Eastern synods. Overwhelmingly, we found low membership as the biggest problem facing local congregations in the Eastern RCA. Other problems include financial strain, youth, and evangelism/outreach. Additionally, we showed that congregations with less than 90 people attending worship on a Sunday morning (66% of Eastern RCA congregations) were more likely to say that membership was a problem. Nevertheless, even churches with 90 or more people worshiping on a Sunday morning still mentioned frequently (34.9%) that low membership was a problem.  Findings from the earlier article that accompanies this paper showed that smaller congregations were shrinking at a faster rate than larger congregations across the RCA. The fact that 33% of Eastern RCA congregations have less than 90 members attending worship on a Sunday morning helps explain partly the reasons why the Eastern RCA is having trouble retaining members.