Alan Rouse, in a post on his blog, brought together several pieces of data that bear on the decline of conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ. I’d like to add a few more.
Nearly all church growth is the result of a circulation of the saints. Very little significant church growth occurs as a result of converting the unsaved, except for the conversion of ones’ offspring.
If he’s right, then it’s hardly surprising that the conservative denominations have stopped growing.
Second, it’s been long reported that the more liberal denominations have been in rapid decline. Well, the growth of the conservative churches tends to parallel the contraction of the liberal denominations as members transfer or drop out, become “unchurched,” and are later re-energized in a more conservative church. We can only feed off the liberal churches for so long!
Third, another trend has been emerging — that being toward nondenominational community churches and house churches. Many of our own members have drifted over to these bodies. And these new churches are also more attractive to those who feel abandoned by their liberal denominations. After all, why move from one bickering denomination to another? Why not just join up with a stand-alone congregation busy with the mission of God?
Ironic, isn’t it, that when America is finally ready for a nondenominational church, no one outside of our own members sees us as nondenominational!
In short, one reason we’ve peaked is that we’re no longer the most attractive alternative to the declining liberal churches. Worse yet, our focus on internal disputes only makes us all-the-less attractive.
Plainly, this analysis assumes that we aren’t converting many unchurched people, and that’s unquestionably a fact, given that our rate of growth is only 2/3rds of our birth rate!
Fourth, I’ve been thinking a lot about church plants. One of the fastest growing denominations from 1990 to 2000 was the independent Christian Churches/churches of Christ! Now, the amazing thing is that they are just like us except —
* They use instruments
* They don’t mind forming missionary and similar societies
* They are often much more conservative than our progressive congregations. You see, their use of instruments is not really built on a progressive theology.
* The bigger congregations are willing to let the staff manage the church, under the elders but not held back by the elders.
They grew 27.6% from 1980 to 2000, while we were growing 2.8% — they literally grew 10 times faster than us!
The reason they give is their willingness to plant churches, which they’ve done in a very thoughtful, organized way, largely through an organization called Stadia. Stadia has agreed to work with Churches of Christ to do the same thing. The Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Arkansas is working with Stadia in this area, through a ministry called Kairos.
Now, I’ve been to seminars where lecturers speak on church plants. They make this point: a church plant grows much faster than the mother church, even though the mother church is larger and has more resources. You see, after the mother church reaches a certain age, its energies are turned inward. It’s all about singing the preferred songs and keeping the air conditioning not too hot and not too cold for the members. The plant, however, is all about the mission.
Meanwhile, Dr. Yeakley’s statistics show that we are largely declining in areas where our churches are well established but growing in areas where there are church plants.