Churches of Christ in Decline? Data Points

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.

First, the Christian Chronicle interviewed Scott Thumma, a church-growth researcher, whose worked I’ve written about before. In that interview he said an amazingly depressing thing:

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.

Hmmm …

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Churches of Christ in Decline? Data Points

  1. Joe Baggett says:


    This all that you say is very accurate. But here is the problem I see when we look at church plants and over all growth of certain groups. The ways in which we measure church growth such as attendance, baptisms, contribution etc., are not very good at measuring our growth through making disciples of all people. I know it is a hard pill to swallow but the reason that people see the churches of Christ as a denomination is very simple. We may not have a headquarters or a convention. But we have Universities and Schools of preaching that control most of the thought in our congregations. We may not have Bishops but we have plenty of editors in some 100 publications only three of which are positively focused. We may not have written creeds but many of us recite the unwritten ones all the time and in the last years written creeds have begun to appear in the Christian Chronicle, and the Gospel Advocate the two largest publications in the churches of Christ. The news paper ads that are constantly taken out against the erring brethren just like Quail Springs show this issue to the public and they will never see us as anything but another denomination of organized formal religion that has failed!
    By all people I mean that to include rich, poor, all races, ethnicities, that live right in the neighborhoods where these church plants are at. Not a single one ever represents a proportionate demographic of the surrounding demographics. One of these days we will stop using membership statistics to measure growth and start making disciples of all people. We were at Southwest when they did their church plant still good friends of Jimmy Adcox there. We also planted a congregation in Conway Arkansas where the membership is mostly made of non-typical church people. All most all came from un-churched backgrounds. Several had been homosexual, cohabtiating. Some were black others were Hispanic or Asian. We all met and followed God together. We specifically left church of Christ out of the name because we did not want that baggage when we approached people with the Gospel.

  2. Jay Guin says:


    I'd be very interested in the methods you used to plant these churches. I mean, it's obviously much more than getting together, buying a building, and performing 5 acts of worship.

    There are many churches that start with 50 members and never grow, but the church plants seem to just take off. How do they break out of the mold and do the wonderful things you describe?

  3. Ray Perkins says:


    Nearly 3 years ago my family and I moved over the Independent Christian Church, a church plant in our community, New Discovery Christian Church In those three years we have been stunned by the growth. New Discovery was planted 5 years ago this Spring with approximately 8 people. Last Sunday our attendance was 193. We are seeing more conversions, more people coming to Christ, that we have ever witnessed during our lifetime in the Churches of Christ.

    To put this in perspective, we worship in a local Middle School on Sunday morning, and in homes throughout the week. We do not have any local presence such as an office, building, etc, and just recently have been allowed by the School to advertise. Most of our growth has come by creating the family atmosphere within our Home Groups and offering an energetic praise worship, while maintaining our Bibliocentric study and teaching. By contrast, the local CofC has struggled to maintain 120 in Sunday morning attendance.

    In a sort of microcosm, our growth seems to validate the data you have presented.

  4. Alan says:


    Your experience parallels mine back in the 1980's when I was part of a small church planting. (We doubled every 18 months for 5 years.) A small group of disciples focused on reaching the lost can grow quickly. That creates a new set of challenges in taking care of a church consisting of recent converts and leaders who are fairly young Christians also. But those are good problems to have.

    I think there is also a place for a larger church with more maturity, and shepherds caring for the flock through all the phases of life. In my experience, that scenario does not produce anywhere near the same growth rates. But it is still accomplishing the Great Commission — which also includes a clause about teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.

  5. The elders at Singing Oaks C of C in Denton, TX have partnered with Mission Alive ( to plant a new church in Savannah, Texas ….. just a mere 10 miles from our own facility……..

    The goals were:
    1. This church plant was NOT to be a more geographically convenient location for our membership or other Christians in the area.
    2. This church plant was NOT required to look like a SOCC clone as we had already proven that strategy didn't work.
    3. The church planter was to have freedom to develop their own Christ centered methodology to deliver the Gospel to those in desperate need in the area.

    This new fledgling congregation called VineLife ( is being blessed by God in ways that we don't comprehend. God is using this unlikely collection of Believers in reaching lost souls in ways that we at SOCC are either incapable of or unwilling to commit to……… membership is growing and lives are being changed….. committments to Christ are coming from a demographic that SOCC CAN'T attract to our own services.

    I pray that we will have the courage to do it AGAIN in the near future and not let Satan think we have done our duty and now we can get back to normal…….

  6. Joe Baggett says:

    Here is a question I asked an elder in the church we currently are members. He asked about planting a church not too far just like the Singing Oaks church did.

    I asked Him this. Don't you think we had better get a good understanding why our existing congregation(s) have failed before we plant another? If not won't we be perpetuating the same root problems? Until we understand the root problems not just the symptoms then we are just treating the symptoms. Defining the problem is always the hardest part of problem solving. Not being racially integrated is not the problem it is a symptom. Low attendance and giving is not a problem but a symptom. High rates of baptism but low discipleship is not a problem but a symptom.

    Did you ever notice how the Apostle Paul always understood the culture before he approached people with the Gospel. We would do ourselves well to base our next church planting efforts on a good understanding of our post modern culture not the latest methods of church planting developed by a University professor in an office.

    Here is the link to a church called Gateway that has baptized 10,000 people since 1998 71% were under the age of 30 and came from lost and unchurched backgrounds. The founding pastor also wrote a book about understanding the post modern generation called “No perfect people allowed” creating a come as you are culture in the church.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Joe, I'll be buying this one, too.


    Help me out. When you say a given church plant was different or nontraditional, what does that mean? Is it about instrumental music? Attitudes?

    I mean, some plants have had remarkable success. Others have been less successful.

    And I can't help but wonder: if a plant can have this kind of success, why can't an established church? Are we selling ourselves short?

  8. Ray Perkins says:


    Having arrived at New Discovery Christian Church early in its development, some 2 years into it all, I think I might be able to shed some light in a small way to your questions.

    First of all, the ICC (Independent Christian Churches) have the same tradition of worship structure as the CofC: Sunday morning bible classes, Sunday morning corporate worship, Sunday evening corporate worship, Wednesday evening bible study. Most are traditional in music also with few instruments and the use of standard Stamps-Baxter songs. The same structure of worship is also employed: Announcements, a song or two, opening prayer, a song or two, the sermon, invitation song, communion song, communion, dismissal song, closing prayer. New Discovery broke from all these traditions and has seen remarkable success.

    For example, we have a Praise and Worship service on Sunday mornings, with little set-in-stone structure. There is always a sermons and invitation and communion and a few announcements, but very few. Yet we do not do things in the same order in the same way every Sunday. We sing and praise sometimes for nearly an hour, then take communion and listen to a message. Sometimes is it shorter than that, but not often. Sometimes we end with prayer, or a song, or with a baptism. It is very fluid, incorporating a mixture of traditional and contemporary Christian music. Sometime we are fully instrumental, sometimes we are acoustic, sometimes we are a cappella.

    Second, we offer an accepting atmosphere were every one is welcome. The result is that we attract people from a wide array of social, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, and as time passes we teach and encourage and manage to win most of them to Christ. No one feels out of place there or out of sync…unless they are opposed to instrumental music, casual dress, or bibliocentric messages.

    Third, since we do not have a permanent presence in the community, we only meet one time on Sunday. This allows for more freedom, which some like, with the rest of the day, but it also gives more meaning to the worship time we have together. We also meet in home groups Tuesday thru Thursday each week. These are structured for almost every group and somewhat fluid, meaning one can attend a different group each week if he or she desires. This is where we develop that familial bond that is so necessary to spiritual growth. This is the best Bible study time I have ever been a part of.

    Fourth, we take an active roll in our community. We host cookouts, Barbques, a huge Easter Egg Hunt, we rent a booth at the local Spring Arts Fair and give away refreshments, we take part in community clean up days, etc. All of these things not only serve to bind us together, but also provides the community some sense of our care and commitment to them.

    Fifth, we are not hamstrung by traditions, old money, or old, tired personalities. We are free to experiment, and if something works we keep it, if it doesn't we keep what we can from it that did and we move on to something else. This allows us some tremendous freedom and flexibility…and success.


  9. Roland says:

    Ray, that sounds great. I feel that one hurdle to many churches is the formalism that so many of our churches "require". That and the huge emphasis on the Sunday morning assembly. Have you noticed that just about every "change" that a church implements or desires to implement has to do with something in the assembly? From Praise Teams to music to drama to power point to this or is all about Sunday morning worship. How about fellowship, reaching out, building up? I look forward to my Sunday night life group much much more than worship on Sunday morning. I also look forward to class (as long as it is a Bible study and not the feel good lessons such as "how to be a Christian in the work place" or things like that.

    Speaking of the formalism, have you noticed that many churches that want to implement new things somehow never get around to doing away with this? I wear shorts to church during the summer. Due to this, I don't really feel comfortable leading a prayer or serving on the table or other functions because everyone else is still so formal. I think Ray has a great point in that we can attract more people by not being so hamstrung.

  10. Nancy says:

    Roland said: I also look forward to class (as long as it is a Bible study and not the feel good lessons such as “how to be a Christian in the work place” or things like that.

    Roland you are channelling my thoughts. Don't forget "how to be a better parent", "overcoming obstacles to whatever", and "managing your debt". All the pop culture theology. All very interesting and helpful, but these topics fall short of seeking the kingdom first.

  11. Alan says:


    I'm not sure if this will help… But I think the first ingredient required is for the members to be fully invested in their walk with God, including their full participation as part of the body, the church. It's not just one of the things they do, but instead it is what they live for. They have to love their relationship with God and with God's family.

    I think you have to abandon the idea of mass marketing. It needs to be person to person evangelism — every member as an evangelist. The term "evangelist" has been adopted for secular use to describe someone who is such a "true believer" in something that they promote it with zeal and sincerity wherever they go. In churches, the term doesn't always mean that any more. We need to get back to that.

    And I think we need to abandon the idea of marketing the type of service, the music, the activities, the facility, etc. That's not the right message. The message is the gospel — sin, repentance, forgiveness through Jesus, discipleship, and lordship.

  12. Nick Gill says:


    "every member as an evangelist"

    BCV, please?

    I understand your desire. Every member SHOULD BE a disciple (which is what I think you mean by "fully invested in their walk with God").

    But the New Testament does not demand personal evangelism like you are suggesting. The closest I can find is in Acts 8:4, and neither the rest of Acts nor the rest of the NT calls upon believers to do this, and there is no wholesale reprimand for not doing so. Eph 4:11 suggests, in fact, that NOT ALL members are expected to be evangelists.

    All disciples should be following Peter's instruction: BE PREPARED to give an answer. All disciples should be striving to live such lives that will inspire such questions. If we aren't being asked, this should be a warning that everyone thinks we're just like them!

    Part of our problem in churches of Christ, I think, is our longstanding tradition of teaching our members that evangelism = Q&A or argument (IE Ivan Stewart's OBS).

    We must eventually get people into the Bible; but we (God through us) have to get them to WANT to get into the Bible first. Our anti-denominational forms of "evangelism" have to change to address the post-biblical world where we live.

    If we are overwhelming the people around us with love, they will want to know why. When we invite them into our homes and tell them what Christ has done for us, they'll want to know more. THEN, we can introduce them to Jesus in the Word.

    We (I) have got to start opening our (my) homes to more than just the church (Heb 13:2). In a culture of isolation and fear, opening our homes will be far more likely to invite curiosity than many other tactics we might pursue.

  13. Roland says:

    Nancy, yep. Couldn't agree more. The "Pop Culture" definition is perfect. Many times there is more emphasis put on relationships than the word. Not that relationships are not important but, many times, every single discussion or class is about things like that with none on actual study of the word.

    Alan, I agree that we are all evangelists and we should be. That being said however, I feel that too many times we focus on reaching out and neglect our own flock and the needs there. We have hurting people and families that sometimes get ignored.

    I totally agree with the mass marketing worship service thing. Let's focus more not on the church of Christ or on the church but, simply, on Christ.

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  15. Alan says:

    Hi Nick,

    I guess I touched a nerve. My point was merely that to get the "church plant" results you need to have every member evangelizing.


    I'm 100% with you on the point about the needs of those already in the flock. The Great Commission had two parts: 1) Go make disciples of all nations; and 2) teach them to obey everything. Right at the top of the list of things to teach them is to love one another. So, in carrying out the second part of the Great Commission, the needs of every member should be abundantly met.

  16. Joe Baggett says:

    It is important to remember that evangelism is only a part of the mission, not the mission itself. Our mission is to make disciples of all people. There are many things that roll up into that mission and we (churches of Christ) generally do not understand that mission or have a firm grip on the cultural perspective to carry out that mission. Our ethnocentric assumption about evangelism is to get someone to sit down to Bible study where we will show them all the right verses and convince them to be baptized. This paradigm of evangelism was mainly developed by default to reach mainline Protestants and rarely Catholics who already saw the Bible as an authority and convince them that the church of Christ was the “right way”. Back in the 40s-60s there were very few un-churched people. So if you were going to grow a religious movement you had better be able to win a doctrinal argument; then you won the person. Now if you “win” a doctrinal argument you loose the person. May I suggest that we need to begin honest dialogue with people first before pushing them into a Bible study? Ask what they think about God and why, do not judge, just listen. Let them see that you genuinely care about them will be their friend whether they jump into a Bible study right away or not. Have them over to your house to eat, get to know them. Ask them what they think about the Bible and what the reasons are for their beliefs and views. Be willing to develop a dialogue not a discussion and not a monologue, there is a big difference. Many people have come to faith in Christ simply by seeing the kindness or love in the life of a person that claims to follow Him. Understand that many people are on a spiritual journey and are seeking truth but are very skeptical of formal organized religion and for good reason.
    Did you ever wonder why in the letters to the seven churches in Asia in minor (Revelation) Jesus never mentioned things by which we measure church growth such as baptism, or attendance, or contribution? Yet Jesus spoke to the heart of his mission as he addressed the spiritual problems and thinking problems such as no need for God in the Laodicea.

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  18. Doug says:

    This past winter I worshipped with the New Day Christian Church in Port Charlotte Florida. It is a restructured Church and was formerly known as !st Christian Church. It has had significant growth since it was restructured and has more than doubled in size in the past 3 or 4 years.

    The first thing I noticed when I entered the Church was there was just a very happy spirit in the building. People were laughing and happy and very quick to greet each other and visitors. The next thing I noticed was the diversity of the Church… there were young and old, black and white (and all the colors in between). I also noticed a good spirit during worship, people were clapping and moving with the music… they were engaged and not just sitting there. The service itself was pretty laid back… the preacher wasn't dressed in a suit and didn't have a pulpet to stand behind, just a music stand and a stool to sit/lean upon.

  19. Doug says:

    Posting continued…. The music was instumental, mostly electric guitars, synthesizers, drums… standard rock and roll although one Sunday the music was more acoutstic. I read the Sunday bulletin and discovered that there was no "order of service" in it. The bulletin was more about what was happening in the Church the next week. And there was a lot going on during the week with class offering and youth events and life groups, etc. The order of service varied from week to week…sometimes a lot of singing first and sometimes the bulk of the singing was at the end of services. But, every week there were prayers, communion, offerings, and an invitation for individuals to state their fatih in Jesus Christ. And yes, women did help serve communion and take up offerings and sometimes when the occasion was right talked to the Church about their Christian journey.

  20. Doug says:

    Posting continued… Before I left last year I talked to the preacher and asked him what he thought was causing the growth they were experiencing. He said "we began to see peoples lives being changed" and that it semed that growth led to more growth.

    I came back to my traditional Church of Christ. Last Sunday was my first Sunday back and I have to say the difference between the two Churches was pretty sobering. The spirit seemed lacking, the music was uninspiring, the happiness was several levels lower. I couldn't help but miss my winter Church.

    Jay, why did I have to split this into 3 comments in order for it to be accepted?

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