Churches of Christ in Decline? “Good News and Bad News” (revised)

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.

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0 Responses to Churches of Christ in Decline? “Good News and Bad News” (revised)

  1. I happened to read your article wherein you linked my website as an example of some who are saying that "we are doing just fine."

    I would kindly ask you to re-read my article, for that was not explictly or implicitly stated. The point of my article was that we were not in as bad shape has some "gloom and doom" reporters have claimed.

    In fact, I explicitly said, "while we certainly have room for improvement, these statistics prove that we’re doing some things right." That statement doesn't affirm that we are "doing fine," but rather acknowledges that we have need for improvement.

    Furthermore, I said in the close of my article, "These statistics aren’t given so that you will have something about which to brag…" That doesn't sound like I was stating that things are fine.

    The point of my article was that though we have room for improvement, we aren't as bad as some have been telling us.

    Sincerely,
    Steve Higginbotham

  2. Joe Baggett says:

    There are many people who will never believe the churches of Christ are in decline, even thought that is reality. Here is the problem even if we are "keeping" the majority of our offspring (Even though I disagree with Flavil Yeakley and Robert Ogelsby) the birth rate for non-hispanic whites has been well below the replacement level of 2.1 since 1990. So it really is irrelevant in looking at the future for most of our congregations. The fact is in about 10 years all of WWII builder generation will be dead and the Baby Boomers will begin to die of natural old age. So the low birth rates among the white middle class will begin to show it destructive power at the local congregational level. The future of any congregation can be easily understood in this manner. To increase the number a congregation has it must begin to make life long growing disciples of young lost and unchurched people (not just drag them to the baptistery) at rate faster than the people in the existing church are and will be dying, leaving, and not being born. Now I have taken those methods and put them into an excel spreadsheet where a congregation can put the age, race, birth rate, etc. in and see exactly what the congregation looks like in age, race etc. in 10 year intervals for the next 50 years. Guess what when I tried this with the congregations that were featured in the Christian Chronicle last year as growing. Guess what only one of them would even exist in the next 30 years. Flavil's formula is flawed because it looks at the fact the churches of Christ have basically held their own for the last thirty years as a method to look at the next thirty. There are several qualified demographers and sociologist that have been trying to tell us things like this but for some reason we just don't want to listen to them. We would rather listen to people like the Christian Chronicle and Flavil Yeakley and Robert Oglesby who have led us to the current crisis that most congregations are experiencing. Oh and 2.1% growth since 1980 for a data range of 2,000,000 in not growth but well within the margin of error of three points, even Flavil Yeakley will admit this as he is a statistician. Here is another reason I don’t believe Flavil Yeakley. In the same report he clams that 99.3% of the members of the churches of Christ attend on a regular basis. Then he uses this to say we do a better job than all the other religious groups in attendance. All I can say is he is on crack cocaine! Please find one congregation where those on the roles of the printed directory attend at least once a week? I encourage everyone to question these reports and you will see they cannot be accurate.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Steve,

    Your article is captioned, "The Sky Isn't Falling," plainly referring to the Chicken Little story. But the sky is falling.

    We are not converting enough from among the lost to even replace those of our own children whom we fail to keep. That's a falling sky!

    You then say, "That’s a far cry from the gloom and doom propaganda that some have been preaching. So much for the talk that we must embrace certain innovations if we want to grow and be remain relevant."

    Not even keeping up with the birth rate is gloom and doom in my book. Every year, we become a smaller percentage of the total population. This is an awful, completely unacceptable trend. It's the path to irrelevance.

    If we don't innovate, we'll just do what we've always done — which hasn't worked for many years. We're just now seeing the fruit of planting seasons past, and the harvest is nowhere near adequate.

    You conclude, "These statistics aren’t given so that you will have something about which to brag, but rather are given to encourage you to “keep your hand to the plow” and help you to realize that you are making a positive impact in the world"

    I just don't see it. Are we doing some good? Certainly. Do we need to keep our hand on the the plow? No. That implies to keep on doing what we've been doing. And it's not working. I mean, 26 years of failure is enough to demonstrate that more of the same isn't going to get it.

    As Joe points out, the "growth" is less than the margin of error. For 26 years, we've been plateaued. Surely we're using the wrong plow!

    This is failure. It begs for change. Does the Church need encouragement? Oh, my, yes!! But encouragement to do differently and better and to stop doing the things that are defeating us.

    We have to surrender our legalism and we have to learn a more scriptural doctrine of grace. And we have to stop defending a failing status quo and get busy turning things around.

  4. Gerald White says:

    The article is like others I have seen in the past and it is a shame to see such decline.

    My wife and I were blessed to travel and also work in campaigns and we have seen the refusal to believe there is any way there is a decline.

    My early life was spent in an ultra-conservative church. At one time I was ready to give up altogether. We worship with a more progressive, not liberal, congregation that addresses the real ENEMY not other churches.

  5. I believe in the method that the fallen(and forgiven) Ted Haggard from Colorado Springs uses to "calculate" the impact that Christ has on a community……..

    By periodically counting the number of Christians in a Community as a percentage of the total population of the community ……… in Christ Centered churches
    Then doing it again periodically and charting/comparing the % of Believers in a community against the overall growth/decline rate. This is a much more realistic manner to "count" Christians…….. not to mention, less VAIN way! :>)

    Counting the membership of the C of C's only in my community and not acknowledging God's work in other Christian churchs in my community is the equivalent of checking for only one mineral in a water sample and ignoring the others…

    I would love to provide this kind of statistic to not only our own membership but to the other "Christ Centered churches" in our geographical area annually and develop new strategies to help raise the overall spiritual water level even at the risk of losing members from "our flavor of church" to other flavors……. what an impact we could have on crime, education, welfare, etc., if we would recognize the value of working together against SATAN instead of each other…….

  6. Scott says:

    God gives the increase.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Scott :

    While God does give the increase, we are to plant water and cultivate. That is what we have failed to do, or there would be increase more than what we are now witnessing and measuring.

    A question for everyone, if 30 years ago someone would have come to your congregation and told you that the churches of Christ in the next 20-30 years would be struggling to hold on to their membership would you have believed them?

    Here is an example back in 1990 I was a member of a congregation that is as middle of the road as you can get in a Texas town of 15,000 people. They were increasing membership quickly as a vibrant youth program attracted almost all of the young families from the surrounding churches of Christ. A sociologist from the University of Texas told us that we would reach a peak by 2002 and decline after that. Well what once was a congregation of 1000 with a median age of 36 is now a congregation of 400 with a median age of 41 still almost exclusively white middle class. They think they are integrated because they have two middle class black families. There are two churches they sucked all the young families from that are now gone (disbanded). But the bottom line is no one believed him. Why because there was plenty of people and plenty of money. This is the most dangerous time in any congregation. There are no young families to draw from now. The truth is during this period of great increase in membership they were not making disciples of all people. But they thought they were.

    So again I ask the question when someone tells us what the future holds for our congregations based on sound demographical and sociological data how much longer will we continue to ignore them? Remember that Flavil Yeakley and his crew of statisticians are the ones who have led us to the current delusion that we find ourselves.

  8. Todd Collier says:

    If we look at Jesus' stated expectations of increase and the examples we so love to proclaim in Acts it is obvious that we are doing something very wrong. In a hostile environment the original First Century Church experienced explosive life and community changing growth. There is no way that we are doing the things they did if we are not experiencing even somewhere the same results. The emperor has no clothes folks!

  9. Pingback: The Gospel Advocate Creed: “Size Is Not the Issue” « One In Jesus.info

  10. David says:

    I think an interesting statistic not mentioned would be how many congregations are there now as opposed to 1980? My guess, though I have absolutely no data to support this, is that there are many more congregations now than there's ever been.

    In looking at coC decline I would venture to guess part of the problem is the same root cause that is leading to the increase in the number of congregations. Like I said I have no hard data – other than my own community. In my hometown there were 4 chrches of Christ when I was growing up. A mainstream, one "anti" and one kind of "anti" and a black traditional. Today there are at least 7 coC's in the same general area.

    The real question comes as to why this is happening. I could make an argument that when we were seeing great growth back in the 1950's our message was a much more conservative one than is seen today. So is it the fact that we've "gone liberal" in some instances or the fact that we're too legalistic in other instances? Or is it that there are just too many mixed signals and arguing amongst ourselves and thats driving people away? For the church I attend (and we've experianced 120% growth (praise God) in the last 9 months) I can tell you what we do.

    We are fairly conservative but do not spend our time or energies condeming other groups. We condemn sin regardless of who's committing it. We don't spend our time defining what we're not – we tell people who we are and what we believe – not what we aren't and what we don't believe.

    We practice and encourage open and honest communication between the members and elders. The eldership is open and honest with the membership and very little is kept from the corporate body. If we have a big decision that affects the whole church we do not call a mens meeting – we call a membership meeting. We expect everyone to support our works so why would we limit our discussion to just the men? Ultimately I believe the elderships have to take responsibility for the shape the churchs are in – good or bad.

  11. Jay Guin says:

    Flavil Yeakley's "Good News and Bad News" gives the available statistics.

    From 1980 to 2000 our number of congregations grew by 2.4%, while the number of adherents (members and their children) grew by 2.8%, meaning we had slightly more churches that were, on average, slightly larger.

    From 1980 to 2006 our number of congregations grew by 1.9%, meaning that from 2000 to 2006 we lost 0.5% (2.4% – 1.9%) of our congregation, or about 1 per 1,000 per year. We had 13,000 congregations in 2000, so we are losing about 1 congregation per month, net. Of course, church splits and plants are creating congregations, but we are closing more than we are forming.

    Our adherents grew by 2.5% from 1980 to 2006, meaning we declined by 0.3% from 2000 to 2006 in terms of members + children.

    In my experience, most of the congregations closing are very traditional/conservative. Most of the plants are more progressive. Most of the splits are along conservative/progressive lines. Hence, on the whole, more progressive churches are being created while more conservative churches are closing.

    And, yes, I agree, much of this is the fault of weak elderships. But I blame our schools of preaching and some of our colleges even more.

  12. Methodist Girl says:

    Some of these posts almost sound like the only hope for the COC is the white middle class. I hope I'm wrong and it only sounds that way! Meanwhile other evangelicals and the Mormons are making huMONgous numbers of converts in Latin America. Also five of the biggest megachurches in the world are in Korea. These tend to be of the Pentacostal variety.

    If the COC is not aware of the huge numbers of converts other evangelicals are making in Latin America and Asia, then the COC is behind the times in more ways than happy clapping.

    Get out of the 50's and I don't mean doctrine! I mean don't be so scared of nonwhite folks!

  13. Jay Guin says:

    Methodist Girl,

    Please re-read the posts. I think you'll find that the complaint is that our congregations are far too white and middle class.

    Actually, my experience is that the Churches of Christ have always been very interested in mission work without regard to skin color. The problem with skin color has been at home. Like many other denominations, we wrongly have white churches and black churches here in the US .

  14. Terry says:

    Some Churches of Christ have done a good job of reaching a variety of people from different ethnic and racial groups. But it would be nice if more would try.

  15. Royce says:

    Churches of Christ grew like mad in the mid years of last century. That was a time when the only information about the Bible was what your preacher told you, some other coC man, or coC author, and that's what you tended to believe. In the early 1990's the internet and the information age started to boom. I got my first computer in early 1990 and found thriving discussions going on then in chat rooms and on bbs about the coC and the Bible.

    In today's world, the preacher, elders, and coC authors are only a small percentage of the source of information, teaching, etc. Almost every home has at least one desktop connected to the rest of the world. Now more and more people know there is an option to legalism and it's a very good option.

    When we talk about charts, percentages, etc my suggestion is that we consider the mortality rate. As older coC folks die off, especially in more "conservative" congregations which are for the most part gray hairs like myself, there will be no younger folks to take their places and those churches will die too.

    What is the answer? Stop preaching the coC, a "gospel system" (as Apologitics Press puts it) and preach the gospel of Christ. Spend less time being critical of what some congregation is doing 400 miles away and tend to God's business of redemption.

    Only those who are born again go to heaven no matter what the statistics say and rule keeping, having the correct theology, and being in the right church does not make a person fit for heaven.

  16. Gary Cummings says:

    As one who became a member of the Churches of Christ in 1965, and left in 1971, I have a few comments. While at ACC, I saw how the youth of the church lived: about 2 out of 3 I met were baptized pagans. I saw no difference between them and the kids in high school who were not Christians. Also I saw no difference between them and the Baptist Church I attended from 1963 to 1965.

    Studies indicate that 80% of evangelical children leave their faith and never return. I honestly think the number of COC kids who leave is closer to that number. Why stay in a church that does not teach grace and love. Legalism drives people away.

    Pattern theology and bad music drives the young away. Give me some good Biblical Theology and a little Blue Grass Gospel with banjos and I am quite happy.

    Thanks,Gary

  17. Paula says:

    I enjoyed reading all these comments about church growth/decline. Can anyone tell me if the International Churches of Christ was counted among the numbers of congregations? If not, why not? Thanks.

  18. Jay Guin says:

    The ICOC separated from the COC several years ago, asking to be considered a different denomination. However, many former ICOC congregations now count themselves as COC, and they were counted. At least, this is how I understand it.

    This means that some of the lack of growth in the 20th Century was really due to the departure of the ICOC churches. However, even though many returned in the 21st Century, the statistics show a net decline — which likely would have been much worse but for the return of these congregations.

  19. dw says:

    Many of the denominations which are growing offer what people want whether it is the truth or not. We are told the love of many will grow cold. The parable of the sower is still true. But many also have a wrong concept of faith. Many see faith as the title of a denomination. It is all too common to hear "what is your faith" rather than "in whom is your trust?". People look for unity. The Mormons may be wrong but they are unified(here and hereafter). Pentecostalism has it's drawbacks, but for one who was raised in the desert of legalistic fear it can be a drink of cool water.
    Sadly too many from the coC follow Hosea 6:4 as well as any other denomination. Many follow blindly a synod or convention. But the governing body controls what is taught so they are still unified. For years the coCs have self-righteously touted congregational autonomy(Paul went to the apostles at Jerusalem) yet the numerous doctrines depended on which school the present minister might espouse and few would have the true faith to contend. Many raised in the coC know the pain of tough decisions, but the words of Christ are fulfilled when one who comes to understand realizes the true cost of putting the Groom above a false bride, even if most of the group is family. Revelation speaks of returning to our first love. Many congregations put love of self and tradition above mercy and truth. Having quenched the true Spirit or been found to be full of dead men's bones they will and are dying. But the numbers game is as of David when he counted Israel. Christ knows who his sheep are.

  20. scott says:

    I no longer attend any church, but in the past I've attended legalistic as well as progressive C of C and Southern Baptist as well. The fact is Christianity is in decline, and it is affecting legalistic churches as well as progressive churches of all groups. The progressive churches may have some numbers, but it's a revolving door. Many attend these churches for several months then head for the door. Ministry leaders need to wake up and smell the REAL problem with loosing young adults.

    The real problem is the delay of marriage in American culture. People generally do not get married until their late 20's now, if at all. Denominations and church groups which preach "sexual purity" (no premarital sex) will keep getting clobbered in this environment. Across Christianity at large the are two or more churches closing for every new one that gets planted. This trend could dramatically accelerate in the next few years as the babyboomers start passing on. I've also seen the statistics that 80% of Christian youth quit church after high school, and few return later.

    Frankly, I don't believe the "sexual purity" dogmas are so strong they are undebatable, they are simply never debated because ministry leaders know the legalists and their money will run for the door if the "traditional" views were even remotely questioned from a pulpit.

    The idea that adding instrumental and modern worship will be any kind of long-term fix for church decline is ludicrous. In order to revitalize churches, the issues of marriage and premarital sex must be publicly discussed in a two-sided manner rather than spewing one sided sermons merely to please the legalists.

  21. Rodney sills says:

    The Bible is as powerful now as it was then. Draw any conclusion for a decline in the Lord’s body that you desire, but the bottom line is simply this. The word of God will be the only thing that wins souls to Christ and It will be within that framework of truth that any “number” matters anyway. Romans 1:16 I appreciate this information. It will make us think.

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