Dr. Flavil Yeakley, long the unofficial chief statistician of the Churches of Christ, has just published a booklet called “Good News and Bad News: A Realistic Assessment of the Churches of Christ in the United States 2008.” It can be bought from the Gospel Advocate Bookstore for $3.75.
Having just reported that the Southern Baptist Churches are in decline, it seems only fair that we take a look at the Churches of Christ.
From 1980 to 2000, the Churches grew by 45,407, a 2.8% increase, in terms of adherents. From 1980 to 2006, the growth was 2.5%. Now, these aren’t annual rates of growth — they reflect total growth. Hence, the annual rate from 1980 to 2000 was 0.14% (2.8% / 20).
But notice this — the rate for the 26 years from 1980 to 2006 was lower — meaning we were in decline during those last 6 years. Indeed, we lost 0.3% of our adherents from 2000 to 2006, which is a 0.05% (0.3% / 6) per year decline! Now, it’s a slow decline, but there’s no interpretation of the data that makes a loss of adherents a good thing!
On the other hand, the membership numbers show a 0.1% increase during the same 6 years, with a 2.0% increase in membership from 1980 to 2000 versus a 2.1% increase from 1980 to 2006. Again, these are total increase figures, not annual.
Yeakley asserts, “Churches of Christ have not declined as many have claimed,” but the data aren’t quite so optimistic. In terms of adherents — “adherents” includes unbaptized family members as well as baptized members — the numbers are unquestionably in decline. In terms of membership, there’s been a very slight growth.
When we think of who is a part of our congregation, we are generally thinking in terms of adherents. If a young couple with two young children places membership, we think of the entire family as a part of our church. Hence, the adherent figure shows a very real decline — fewer people at church!
It’s interesting to ponder how membership can go up while adherents go down. The answer has to be that we have fewer families with unbaptized children, which is also a very bad sign no matter how you want to spin it. It means we are attracting and keeping fewer young couples than we need to even maintain our numbers. This bodes very badly.
To see how we can lose adherents while gaining members, consider a congregation of 100 people. Over the course of 6 years, 2 members die and four teenagers are baptized. No one places membership. The church membership grows by two (4 baptized minus 2 deceased) but the number adherents declines by two. Even though the membership is up, the church is dying. And that’s the state of the Churches of Christ.
Worse yet, even during the 20 years of slight growth, our growth was much less than the rate of population growth in the U.S. And it was less than the rate of growth through the births of our own children! If you consider the fact that we did convert some people during this time, it’s clear that we’re losing many of our own children — and have been for at least 26 years. And these are net losses — not counting those who leave only to return later.
Yeakley puts the percentage of our children who leave never to return at around 33%. About 45% drop out of the Church of Christ, but about 12% later return, so we are keeping only about 67% of our own children (55% who never leave + 12% who leave but return).
Over a year ago, I analyzed the figures and came to a very similar figure. However, I concluded that the real retention rate is likely lower, because our overall rate of growth was 2/3rds the birthrate. If we were converting anyone other than our own children, then we would be retaining that many fewer of our own children — and we are.
I think the numbers can be reconciled by noting that Yeakley’s retention figures are limited to the 10 years after high school. I think we lose a lot of members later, for various reasons, such as looking for a better teen or youth program, unhappiness with the theology of the local Church of Christ, feeling rejected due to a divorce, etc. And people just aren’t as loyal to their denomination as they once were.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the highest drop out rates are from churches on the progressive and conservative extremes. The progressive drop outs tend to transfer to a church outside the Churches of Christ, while the drop outs from the most conservative church tend to leave Christianity altogether. Now, that’s a tragic statistic if ever there was one!
We’ve seen this from the progressive end. As our children grow up and leave town, if they can’t find a progressive Church of Christ, they’ll typically join a community church rather than a traditional Church of Christ. They have no taste for legalism.
From 1980 to 2007, Oklahoma (home of the Quail Springs Church of Christ and their critics) lost more members than any other state — 9,406 net and 11,011 adherents. Tennessee lost 5,479 members and 10,187 adherents, meaning they lost LOTS of families with young children! Imagine losing over 10,000 adherents, half of whom are children. That’s just unimaginably bad news!
The states where we’re the strongest tend to be the states where we lose the most members. Our growth tends to be in areas where churches are being planted, whereas established areas are in decline, often in severe decline.
Yeakley’s theology colors his reporting, and so we have no comparison of the growth of conservative churches versus the more progressive churches (“ultra-liberal,” he says). But I’ve been told by those who’ve been involved in these studies that the conservative congregations are in decline while the progressive Churches, despite their drop out rates, are growing. Again, this is no surprise.
We’ll consider Dr. Yeakley’s research further in future posts. But for the time being, as some have already commented, it’s significant that our brothers have reacted to this news much as the Baptists have reacted to their own bad news — with denial.
The Gospel Advocate has just run a story on these data and did not mentioned the fact that we’ve been in a net decline in adherents for the last 6 years. Indeed, the tone of the story, much like the tone of the booklet, is to emphasize the good news and how much better we’re doing than “other religious bodies.” Well, that’s the road to failure.
I mean, it actually appears that our more conservative brothers believe that reporting the decline as a decline would give too much comfort to the “change agents” as it would argue for change. As a result, there will be reports in the church media arguing that we are doing just fine, such as this one, but we aren’t. And while we may disagree among ourselves as to the changes required, change is undeniably required.
If we are to consider the data as disciples, rather than sectarians, the only statistics that matter are those that measure how well we’re doing as servants of Jesus — not how much worse others are doing! “Yes, Master, we don’t have enough oil for our lamps, but the guys over there have even less!” just won’t do, will it? (Mat 25:1-13).
If we want to spend our time and money damning each other over methods rather than making the changes required to be faithful servants, we’ll suffer the appropriate fate. The parable that should speak to us is the Parable of the Talents. The Master rewarded those who invested their talents (literally, bars of silver) and received a large return on their efforts. The one who was scared to take a risk, who wouldn’t even put his silver in a bank to earn interest, was damned.
The lesson is not just that Jesus expects a return on his investment, but that we aren’t supposed to be afraid to take a risk. In the First Century, giving silver to money lenders was a very risky investment. There was no FDIC and no government regulation. Banks often failed. And yet the Master said,
(Mat 25:27) “Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.”
You see, the damning sin was refusal to take a risk for fear of making a mistake.
(Mat 25:25) “I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
Well, Jesus isn’t getting his investment back from the Churches of Christ. He wants a return of 100% — double his money (Mat 25:20,22). He’ll accept a modest rate of interest. But merely returning to him what he gave us will damn us. If merely getting his investment back damns, imagine the fate of those who invest at a loss out of fear of the consequences of doing what it takes to succeed.