How Are Presbyterian Churches Different from Other Protestant Churches?

We want to answer the question: What are the dynamics behind high levels of giving in Presbyterian churches? Before we can do that, however, it is helpful to have a better understanding of what is unique about Presbyterian churches compared to other congregations.

The table below shows a set of factors that previous research has linked to congregational giving levels. We are interested in how Presbyterian churches and worshipers differ from other mainline and conservative Protestant churches. Perhaps these differences are related to how and why Presbyterians give to their local congregation.

The first category relates to the church’s overall worshiper demographics—the ratio of males to females, the racial-ethnic makeup of the congregation, and the percent of worshipers who attend as part of a couple.[i]

Presbyterian demographics: Women make up the majority of worshipers in Presbyterian churches (63%). This is the typical pattern in churches of most Protestant traditions—women outnumber men in the pews. Most Presbyterian worshipers are white (98%). Remember that this is a national random sample. There are some PC(USA) churches where most members are racial-ethnic minorities. However, nationally these racial-ethnic churches are a small percentage of all PC(USA) churches. About half of the Presbyterian worshipers attending services say their spouse comes as well.

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The second category captures information about Presbyterian worshipers’ participation patterns and beliefs:  the percentage who attend weekly or more often and how they describe themselves theologically (very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal, or very liberal).

Presbyterian participation patterns and beliefs: In the average Presbyterian church, 78% of the worshipers report they attend weekly or more often. About half of worshipers describe themselves as very conservative or conservative on theological issues.

The third category of factors we examine in relation to congregational giving relates tocongregational values. We asked worshipers to choose three aspects of their congregation that they most value (from a list of 14 items). Two values—focusing on the needs of others in the community (social gospel value) and focusing on reaching the unchurched (evangelistic concern for others)—set Presbyterian congregations apart from conservative Protestant traditions.

Presbyterian values: In the typical Presbyterian church, about equal percentages of worshipers place a high value on the community care ministries of the congregation and on reaching those who do not currently attend anywhere. Of course, in most churches one value would be higher than the other. The figures represent the average overall. Conservative Protestant worshipers tend to value evangelistic outreach to the unchurched more than worshipers in Presbyterian congregations.[ii]

The fourth category of variables relates to characteristics of the local church. The size of the congregation generally plays a role in giving levels. Size is based on average worship attendance. (Because the data are highly skewed, we use the log of church size in subsequent analyses of giving.) Another factor that is often explored in the literature is the impact of church conflict on vitality.

Presbyterian church characteristics: The typical PC(USA) congregation has about 78 people in worship. One-half of Presbyterian churches experienced minor conflict in recent years.[iii]

How are Presbyterian churches similar to other mainline Protestant congregations? The short answer is—in almost all ways. Demographically (gender ratio, racial-ethnic composition, attending with spouse) and in terms of participation and beliefs, worshipers’ values, congregational size, and amount of conflict, Presbyterian churches look strikingly similar to other mainline churches.

However, Presbyterian churches differ in big ways from the typical conservative Protestant church. Compared to conservative Protestant ones, PC(USA) churches:

  • Are less likely to see worshipers attending with a spouse.
  • Draw worshipers who attend services less often.
  • Have worshipers with less conservative views on theological issues.
  • Have lower percentages of worshipers who value reaching those who do not attend church.
  • More often experience minor conflict.

Do any of these unique characteristics of Presbyterian churches make a difference in the overall giving level of these congregations? Stay tuned for the answer!

[i] Note that the figures in Table 1 are median percentages of worshipers across all Protestant churches in the random sample and in a random sample of PC(USA) churches.

[ii] Among the 14 items, the highest percentages of worshipers choose traditional style of worship, sermons, and sharing in Holy Communion.

[iii] A relatively few pastors reported major conflict that resulted in the departure of worshipers and/or the pastor. The presence of minor conflict was a feature that distinguished the giving levels in congregations.