Are the Churches of Christ Declining? More Good News and Bad News, Part 1

Flavil Yeakley’s booklet giving the latest statistical data on the Churches of Christ has a great deal more in it than I’ve covered so far.

We are the 11th largest Christian denomination in the US (4-5). However, we are the fourth largest in terms of number of congregations (5-6). Plainly, our average congregation is much smaller than for most denominations. 87.9% of all our congregations have fewer than 200 members. 5.5% are between 200 and 300. 6.7% have more than 300 members (6).

Yeakley doesn’t do the math, but here it is. In terms of adherents (baptized members and their children) and number of congregations, the top three in both categories are Southern Baptists, Catholics, and United Methodists. This table gives the details —

Denomination Adherents Congregations Adherents per Congregation
Southern Baptist

19,881,467

41,514

479

United Methodist

10,350,629

35,721

290

Catholic

62,035,042

21,792

2,847

Churches of Christ

1,645,584

13,027

126

You can see that we have more congregations by having smaller congregations.

And you don’t have to know us very well at all to know why — we don’t get along very well with each other. We are bad to split. A very small town often has three or four Churches, each teaching a slightly different grade of doctrine.

The effect is to burden our churches with duplicative preacher salaries, building payments, and utility bills, etc. This takes away money that could be used for missions, helping the needy, and paying our ministers more fairly.

Worse yet, it divides our God-given talents among the Churches, so that we can’t make the best use of the talents we have — and many Churches are deprived of talents they need.

It’s not that being small is a sin. It’s not. But being small because we can’t get along is. And it’s hurting God’s Kingdom in more ways that we can count. This is the price we pay for having a false doctrine of grace that can’t tolerate disagreement.

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 Are the Churches of Christ Declining? More Good News and Bad News, Part 1

  1. Joe Baggett says:

    Being small is actually a result of our sin. The average congregation of the churches of Christ has about 60 in regular attendance. The congregations with a regular attendance of 300 + is less than 2% of the 13,000. I used to think that most of the splitting was over liberal conservative issues but then we moved to Mississippi. Then we saw churches that split over kitchens, marriage divorce and remarriage and whole bunch of stuff that never made a hill of beans and it ruined their witness to the lost and un-churched community they had no credibility. Sadly this is the state of the brother, yes there are a few exceptions but they are few and far between. The average church of Christ of about 60 people who predominantly white middle class with a median age well over 40 will simply close down after a few more funerals for the main givers of the congregation. While Flavil Yeakley is a self proclaimed expert in church growth. I have made it my focus to understand the rapid decline that is evidenced if we look and are honest with ourselves.

    Here are a few questions for people to ask when they think their respective church is really growing. Remember the most dangerous time in a church is when there is plenty of money and plenty of people, because it causes delusions.

    How many people are actually the result of direct discipling efforts? Truly from the un-churched lost category.

    If you take away all the people that have just moved membership from another church in town or moved into to town and had been previous members at a church of Christ would there still be more people than a few years ago?

    Is the number of new disciples from the lost and un-churched category consistently making up for those who die, leave (after graduation or just fall away al together) and are not being born (Low birth rates among white middle class)?

    What is the age of the new disciples? A bunch of new disciples that 47+ old folks does not mean your congregation will still be around in the next 30 years. Average age of life expectancy is 77.3 for men and 77.9 for women.

  2. Alan says:

    The average congregation of the churches of Christ has about 60 in regular attendance.

    Joe, can you point me to a source for that statistic?

  3. Joe Baggett says:

    Yes Mac Lynn’s book and computer disks churches of in the United States 2006. You have to have the disks to run some of the queries like this. I believe in the book the median membership not attendance is around 98. You can also see that most of the churches of Christ did not exist 60 years ago as they do today just put in a query for all of the churches that were founded or existed before 1948 and it will tell you.

  4. Alan says:

    It's not very useful to compare medians in CoC to averages for Baptists. Neither is it very meaningful to compare average membership between the two, when their definitions of membership are so different. I was hoping we could compare average (not median) attendance.

    I don't doubt one bit that the number of CoC congregations is elevated due to splits over arcane issues. But that's a different subject.

    BTW, the Baptists have their own issues with church splits. They really aren't so different from us.

  5. Alan says:

    Statistics can be misleading for a lot of reasons. While Yeakley reports almost 20 million members of the Southern Baptist churches, the denomination itself reports that attendance was only 6.15 million. And they report 44,696 congregations — not 41,514. So their average Sunday attendance would be 137 (men, women, children, including visitors). Less than a third of those they claim as members attend on an average Sunday.

    Also, I doubt that Yeakley is counting unbaptized children in the membership of the church of Christ. So churches of Christ may not be that different from Baptists, on the matter of Sunday attendance.

  6. Tim Archer says:

    We’d also have to take a hard look at the Catholic definition of “adherents.” If we used their typical system (once a Catholic always a Catholic unless excommunicated), we would have much greater numbers.

    Still, the point is well taken. In most instances, the tactic of “divide and conquer” has served Satan well.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Joe and Alan,

    I've had a good bit of experience in counseling Baptist Church members over congregational disputes. They are indeed like us, but there are some critical differences.

    First, they aren't as bad to doctrinalize their disputes. They do it — just not as readily. This makes it easier to see that the fights are often over power and pride. So are many of ours, but we wrap ours in doctrinal clothing.

    Second, they don't have elders. Hence, when the dispute is over the pastor, they have trouble working it out, especially when they have a large number of deacons — as their large congregations typically do. Many Baptist congregations are wishing they had elders, and some are appointing them.

    Third, the Baptists are moving backwards, towards creedalism, partly due to the in-house politics that put "conservatives" in charge of the national convention and partly — ironically enough — because of a push toward a more traditional Calvinism. Calvinism is, after all, where we get the Regulative Principle.

  8. Alan says:

    Calvinism may well be the reason they have so many members who don't come to services, but are kept on the rolls. It's hard to take someone off the roll if it is impossible to fall away!

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