The Gospel Advocate Creed: “Size Is Not the Issue”

ga.jpgThe August 2008 issue of the Gospel Advocate hit my mailbox yesterday, and it demonstrates plainly why the Churches of Christ are in numerical decline. The publisher, Neil W. Anderson, in a page 3 editorial, declares, “Size is not the issue.”

Well, if we were growing, we’d unquestionably be celebrating that fact. I remember the 1960’s, when we thought we were the nation’s fastest growing denomination, and we crowed about that later-disproven “fact.” Now that we’re  in decline, we’ve apparently decided that growing isn’t all that important.

Anderson begins by pointing out the decline of the Southern Baptists, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Catholics.

In the face of declining membership, many religious groups have placed a priority on attracting young adults and families by turning to the latest church growth fads and putting a religious spin on secular activities. Such programs can temporarily lure new members by gratifying the human desire for entertainment through a sense of spirituality — until a new program comes along.

Huh? I thought we should reject any distinction between religious activities and secular activities. Aren’t all activities religious? I thought I’d read than in the Advocate several times. Isn’t it a great thing when we make our “secular” activities religious? Shouldn’t my job and my family and even my recreation be religious?

What’s the problem with new programs? Must we always do exactly what we did last year?

Is entertainment the only response of the Christian world to declining numbers? Is it even a particularly common response?

Is the only choice between doing church as we did in the 1950’s or entertainment? Are there no other options?

Size is not the issue. As Barry Newton states, “perseverance and spiritual growth of God’s people is more important than mere numbers.” …

Actually, size is the issue. It’s not the only issue, but it’s a big one. You see, the reason we are declining in size is because we aren’t keeping our children in the church — or often any church of any kind! How can that not be the issue?

What if 25 percent of churches of Christ had no baptisms this year? What if attendance was at a modern-day low? Visualize 20 percent of our congregations without children or teens in attendance or an alarming number of our buildings empty? How would we confront such scenarios?

Anderson is referring to statistics for other denominations, but he seems not to realize that many of these statistics are true for the Churches of Christ. Congregations are closing their doors every day. Countless congregations go years without baptisms. Our numbers are falling — with the biggest losses among the most conservative churches in the states where we have the most members. We are losing our own children for crying out loud! “What if”? “What if“? We’re there.

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 (that is, members plus their unbaptized children). 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!

… [Christ’s] will is accomplished only through the concerted and committed efforts of individual Christians obeying God’s inspired, inerrant Word.

Well, that’s certainly true. But are we doing that? We certainly aren’t fulfilling the Great Commission. We aren’t being all things to all men.

Here is the Gospel Advocate‘s advice for how to reverse our numerical decline —

* Don’t place a priority on attracting young adults and families

* No entertainment allowed

* No new church growth ideas (fads)

* Don’t treat the secular as religious

* Pretend that it’s not a big deal, indeed, not even the real issue

* Keep on doing what we’ve been doing

This is a recipe for failure. It’s already been proven.

When what we’ve been doing no longer works, rather than asking how we can do better or correct mistakes or bring some imagination to our efforts, the Advocate advocates doing more of the same.

The underlying assumption in this kind of advice is that the scriptures give us no flexibility at all: the way we’ve always done church is the only way to do church. And yet it’s quite possible to be entirely a cappella and to insist on baptism into forgiveness and yet be creative, innovative … and effective. But not with the attitude evidenced by the Advocate.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

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.
This entry was posted in Gospel Advocate, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The Gospel Advocate Creed: “Size Is Not the Issue”

  1. Nick Gill says:

    Are they really still hammering seeker-sensitive? That ship sailed so long ago that many congregations have already disembarked at the end of the voyage, dissatisfied with the provisions and lodging on the cruise, and are moving toward activities based upon Scripture and ancient practice.

    I also find it ironic in articles like these that the community church movement is either ignored or disparaged in an accompanying piece. People who took our undenominational plea seriously, but who reject the more sectarian of our conclusions, cannot be trusted. We could be having a great leavening and edifying effect on these young congregations, since we've spent the last two hundred years trying to do what they're trying to do. But since we fear and distrust numerical success, we anathematize them. Deeply saddening indeed.

  2. Alan says:

    Not everyone who leaves one of these conservative churches leaves God. Maybe they leave to find a better spiritual environment.

    Forward-thinking church leadership needs to meet the spiritual needs of their members and surrounding communities today and in the future — not in the past. Those who meet spiritual needs best will have no problem growing IMO.

    These issues will solve themselves over time.

  3. kris says:

    I left because I could no longer stomach going to a church that believed they were the only ones who did church perfectly enough and could go to heaven. I don't believe that. Why should I align myself with a group who does? I was bringing my children to a place where I would never bring a friend. All the tracts on the wall about IM being sinful and those that practice it not having a chance at salvation. Rubbish. People are leaving because they are drowning spiritually, and they don't agree with the doctrine taught. There are few CoCs that are not like this and are safe, but not too many. A majority are hugely sectarian and are sucking the joy and peace out of Christianity. The ones that end up not declining will have to change their name eventually so they won't be confused with the spiritually abusive CoCs. Praise God that it is declining. The world will be better off without all the collateral damage they cause against Christianity as a whole.

  4. Helez says:

    Recently while on vacation I visited a small, "old school" church of Christ… it brought back childhood memories for sure. While they were very hospitable, it wasn't hard to see why they were so small… somewhere between the "Spiritual gifts have ended and now we have the Bible" and the "Holy spirit comes about by knowledge of the Bible", I decided that I wouldn't attend this congregation should chose to move there… not that I'm saying they're not part of the "true church", but I can't stomach the standard CoC playbook style exegesis and concordance style scripture reading.

    During Bible study, no one bothered to bring up a discenting remark or another point of view on any of the topics. In fact, nothing was left for the members to "question" or ponder. No one displayed a positive curiosity (or, if they did, they didn't dare present it). Just more of the same "this is how it is".

    No one seemed to recognize the fact that while we were reading a lot of scripture, it was very broken-up and free of context. The scripture memorization was imperssive, to say the least, but what is knowledge without understanding?

    In short, everyone was extremely satisfied with what was presented and discussed. It was very muc h a pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-having-it-figured-out environment.

    I'm prettu sure such congregations will no longer exist past the next two generations. If our larger congregations drop the "Church of Christ" from their signs and continue growing, would the last living members of these dying congregations truly believe that The Church has been overcome?

  5. Jeff says:

    The problem isn't that churches aren't retaining the children of current members. These are the problems:

    1. Many view Christianity as a "heritage" rather than a choice. It's something inherited from mom and dad rather than a path appointed by the Lord one chooses to follow. It's not a default state; children of Christians must be converted no less than those of atheists. God has no grandchildren.

    2. Many assume warming a pew is the same as conversion to Christ. We convert people to the church of their friends, the church of mom and dad, the church of their spouse, the church of that preacher they like listening to (though they don't really know what doctrine he preaches or why) rather than to the Lord. Thus, they have no root. A plant without a root is a tumbleweed. Small wonder some roll off when the wind changes direction.

    3. Most churches (in my experience) treat evangelism as optional or, at most, something they pay someone else to do. Thus, they usually only baptize the children of members. You don't need a preacher or a program or church-provided entertainment to evangelize; you just need a Bible, an informed, loving Christian or two, and an interested, honest lost soul.

    4. Another reason churches avoid evangelism is that "sinners" are scary. That single mom, that addict, that ex-con – who knows what they'll do? Instead of seeing souls needing sanctification, we worry that they might sully the church – or, worse, us! – with their sin.

    The solution to all these isn't parties and recreation and spectacle. The solution is the gospel. Implant in someone a true love for Christ and what He did for us, and all the rest will follow. Build on another foundation and we're destined to fail.

  6. Todd says:

    Funny, I was discussing this over lunch with the "staff."

    I believe we are now witnessing the next wave of the "Reformation." The established credal denominations (of which we have become a part) are all losing members who are not after entertainment, or an easier view of sin, or less Bible, but who are honestly and faithfully seeking a deeper experience of God. Ironically they are the fulfillment of the Stone-Campbell goals – at least in the beginning. They are what we were, onece, a long time ago. They are where God will pour His favor and eventually the resources necessary to take the world for Jesus. Do we condemn them or join them?

    The local non-denoms baptize for remission of sin, preach a Gospel of Jesus and a message of true life change. They challenge friendship with the world and seek unity with other believers. They reject manmade strictures and are seeking to "BE" the Body of Christ.

    It is arrogance to assume their difference from our mainstream is based on a lack of love for the text, or a less honest seeking after God or a desire for entertainment.

    Remember the knowledge of God the Bible speaks of – gnosko – is life experience, not academic understanding.

  7. Joe Baggett says:

    I wonder how it would sound when we get to Heaven.

    Oh God those people that Jesus died for, they were not really that imporatant so we just kept our tradittions thinking we were standing up for the truth and shut the kingdom of Heaven in the faces of many spiritual seekers.

    This is such a cop out. People who think like this will give an account when they reach the judgement.

  8. Nick Gill says:

    "Sinners" are scary! They might ask us for some of our precious stuff!

  9. Jeff says:

    True, Nick. What's worse, they might not really be in need, but just after a quick buck. Think how gullible we'd feel then! Easier to just stick with the kid we've known all their life.

  10. David says:

    Let me begin by saying I attended a congregation for 50 years – since birth as a matter of fact – that has not seen any significant growth in the whole time I've been there. They fluxuate between 300 and 400 members. Every time they start to show a little growth, a number of members will get mad over something and leave.

    Recently I finally left this congregation due to personal reasons – nothing at all to do with doctrine – and started attending a small (40 member) congregation. This all happened about 9 months ago. SInce then we've grown to well over 100 people and are growing literally every week.

    The difference I've found is that this small congregation is willing to discuss and learn and search the scriptures for answers. Recently I got thru teaching a series of lessons on the Holy Spirit and Grace – and used Jay's book as a resource. One of the things I did when I started teaching was encourage the people to study for themselves, ask questions, disagree if they felt like I was teaching anything unscriptural.

    The lessons were taken with an open heart and mind. This would have never been the case at my old congregation I regret to say. Keep it safe and keep it simple is their attitude. Unfortunately I'm afraid they're doomed to forever stay in that static state, and since their membership is mainly people over 65, will soon begin to decline as they fail to retain their youth or attract younger people. I really have to wonder what these people are so afraid of.

  11. Anonymous says:

    David,

    Just curious. Is the numerical increase of your new congregation mostly due to membership swaps or people moving to town who were members at another church of Christ previously or is it brand new disciples from true lost and unchurched backgrounds? This openess you speak of at your new congregation attracts many that are tired of the toxic atmosphere you describe of your preivous congregation.

  12. Jay Guin says:

    Is there no one to defend the Advocate?

  13. David says:

    Jay,

    We're getting a pretty good mix of both. A number of people are coming from much larger churches in the area. Many have left these larger congregations due to the fact they tend to hire “staff” to do all the work and all the “regular” members have to do is give. We get a lot of complaints about "my old congregation just hires people to do that job" and insert whatever job you want in there. About the only members we've lost since I've been there are due to moving away or we have a few that simply are not too faithful in their attendance – but they haven't gone anywhere else. When we have members that start missing we get on them pretty quick to try and encourage them to not forsake the assembly.

    In addition, since we do strive to be evangelistic, we get many people coming who are invited by our "regular" members. Others come simply because they either move to the area and are looking for a church home or have heard about us in the community. We have one couple that drives 70 miles one way to attend services.

    Visitors are our honored guests. We encourage all our members to try to greet every new face they see and invite them back and we have a luncheon after ever Sunday a.m. service especially for the visitors. Once a month we have a congregational fellowship meal as well.

    As an eldership we try to be very proactive and are constantly looking at what we’re doing seeing how we can improve and serve our members better. I have seen too many elderships that spend all their time and energies putting out fires as opposed to teaching people to be safe with matches.

  14. Joe Baggett says:

    Jay:

    To me this thinking is hard to defend. I wonder what Jeremiah would have to say about the thinking expressed in the article from the Gospel Advocate? He placed almost all of the blame on the religious leaders of his day who also ignored every indicator that there were serious problems. The sad reality is this thinking is vigorously proliferated by many in our fellowship; it is a recipe for disaster. People steeped in this thinking are sacred and there is nothing, no statistics, no problems, no splits that will get their attention they are content to ride the storm all the way to the end. One elder I was coaching recently was in the process of closing down the church he has been a part of his whole life. Both of his children had left faith as soon as they left the house, along with 83% of children that grew up in his congregation. They had not brought anyone to faith from actual lost and un-churched back grounds in years. He still would not listen to any reason, and was convinced that the churches of Christ are growing rapidly in the USA because of a pamphlet that Flavil Yeakley had put out earlier this year. I have spent considerable time with many leaders in our fellowship that share the thinking expressed in the article, very few would listen. Maybe we need another Jeremiah?

  15. Helez says:

    My GA has arrived as well… I find a closing comment in the "Perspective" piece by Gregory Alan Tidwell to be quite interesting:

    "When the church begins to fellowship outsiders as if they were members of the Lord's church, soon the very heart of the gospel is laid aside."

    As well as a comment by Phil Sanders in "Doctrinal Challenges":

    "Even among a few in churches of Christ today, the open fellowship of people who were sprinkled as infants appears permissible. For them, grace overrides the need to obey the Lord with understanding. In their minds, people can become Christians even when they are untaught, a belief that denies John 6:44-45."

    A few sundays ago I heard an older member proclaim that "You can't be taught wrong and baptized right."

    Now I'm getting tired of generalities. People seem all about puffing each other up with this rhetoric, but this is the state of the soul we're speaking of, it's time to make a few things clear. So I have questions:

    * What must I agree on before I am recognized to be in "the church"? Who decides? Elders? The congregation?

    * What is an "outsider" to the church, and how should we treat them when they grace our church doors? Should we deny them from speaking in our Bible studies? Should we deny them the Lord's supper? Should we refuse to be seen in public with them? What's the deal?

    So perhaps we should come up with a list of requirements to be in the church… maybe we could form a nationwide meeting of elders and codify them? Maybe we could print them and use them as a guide for "new members". Maybe we decide who is in and who is out by vote? Maybe we could make people agree to our terms before we "fellowship" them?

    Hmm. That sounds familiar… oh, wait. 🙁

  16. Jay Guin says:

    Helez,

    Al Maxey ( http://www.zianet.com/maxey/Reflect2.htm ) keeps asking the more conservative guys to make exactly such a list — what are the laws that must be obeyed to be saved? So far, no one has made a serious response.

    They can't, of course, as new laws are being discovered every week! In just the last year, “Dub” McClish, editor of the Gospel Journal, decided that elder re-affirmation is a doctrinal issue that requires us to disfellowship those who disagree with him! And with those who fellowship those who disagree with him.

    Read this and then this

    And the Gospel Advocate says all we need to do is what we've been doing.

  17. David says:

    I can't believe it could be so difficult to come up with what "laws" must be obeyed in order to be saved or what one must do to be recgonized as a fellow Christian. I believe Eph. 4: 4- 6 makes it clear. I consider anyone my brother who believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who has confessed that, and who has been baptized for the remission of their sins.

    God established a Charter Covenant with us. In a Charter covenant the covenant maker makes an offer and all the person has to do is accept it. Its as simple as that. There are no acts (works) on our part in order to enjoy being in Covenant. We are only asked to have Faith – thats our part. God's part is Grace. Faith +Grace = salvation.

    However what one must realize is that even though this Covenant (just like Grace) is unmerited – it is not unconditional. We must put ourselves into a position to receive it. In order to do that we must pass thru blood. This was a common parctice in the more traditional Suzeranity covenants seen in the Old Testament. Our passing thru blood happens at baptism – it is where we put ourselves into position to receive God's salvation and His Grace.

    Putting all these other conditional requirements (based on what may be our very narrow interpertation of scriptures) on our fellow Christians is an unbiblical practice. The only time we see a hint of a congregation in jeopardy of "having its candlestick removed" it is God that is going to do the removing – not some other congregation or person.

    That said I don't believe we can be totally blind either. Obviously a congregation practicing human sacrifices – regardless of whatever else they beleive – cannot be tolerated nor recgonized as being part of the brotherhood. But the reality is, that simply is not so much the case this day and age. We argue and divide over the most increasingly technical nuances of scripture. "Do you hold the fruit of the vine in your right hand or are you one of those heatherns who hold it in their left"? That may be a stretch – but sadly its not much of one.

  18. Jay, you asked, "Is there no one to defend the Advocate?"

    It advocates doing what we have always done in order, presumably, to get a different and better result.

    Isn't that Albert Einstein's classic definition of – dare I say it – "insanity"?

    Or is it that the current declining result is sufficient, and the method therefore acceptable?

  19. Joe Baggett says:

    Keith:

    The more I study postmodernism, the more I understand that it is a visceral reaction to the arrogance of modernism. The definition of insanity as you bring out means nothing to the people who wrote the article in the GA. If someone has the "right" ideas or in this case biblical conclusions there is no further thinking needed regardless of the results.
    Postmodernist view religion through the results (what kind of people does this thinking produce?), not rhetoric or polemics.
    Take for instances the churches of Christ. When the typical postmodern spiritual seeker looks at the average person affiliated with the churches of Christ they do not ask themselves what is true but rather do I want to be like people who adhere to this type of thinking.

  20. Jay Guin says:

    The tragedy of the GA point of view is that it offers no means of self-correction. When "truth" is defined as "how we've always done things," you become your own standard.

    Many in the Churches of Christ are in deep, deep denial regarding our weaknesses and failings. And I see little hope that many of our leaders will ever get it — especially while many within our leadership are declaring that everything is just fine.

    (Ezek 13:10-12) "'Because they lead my people astray, saying, "Peace," when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, 11 therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. 12 When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, "Where is the whitewash you covered it with?"

  21. Methodist Girl says:

    I left the COC and my parents think I left for bells, whistles, and entertainment. No, I left because the Methodist church reflects what I believe much more. But I let my parents believe I left for bells and whistles and entertainment. I let them rant and rave about bells, whistles, and entertainment because I have a feeling they would take it worse if they knew I was a dedicated Methodist Sunday School teacher who attends the traditional service with not a happy clappy in sight.

  22. Nick Gill says:

    Joe, that is a brilliant sentence that I wish could be sent to every single GA subscriber.

    "When the typical postmodern spiritual seeker looks at the average person affiliated with the churches of Christ, they do not ask themselves, 'What is true?' but rather, 'Do I want to be like people who adhere to this type of thinking?'"

    People did not follow Jesus because of his doctrinal perfection. People followed Jesus because they wanted to be like him. As they spent time with him, DOING what he DID and listening to his teaching, they became like him, even though none of them was doctrinally perfect. His closest follower was still turning up his nose at Gentiles 20 years later!!!

    Oh wait.

    Racial reconciliation isn't a doctrinal issue like elder reaffirmation or clapping.

    Ezekiel 34 simply blows this current stream of thinking right out of the water. I am literally weeping in my chair as I try and understand what MADNESS Br. Tidwell believes that could drive him to say such a thing as, "When the church begins to fellowship outsiders as if they were members of the Lord’s church, soon the very heart of the gospel is laid aside."

    It is only BY fellowshipping "outsiders" that they will ever BECOME part of the Lord's church!

  23. Pingback: Recent Links Tagged With "buildings" - JabberTags

Leave a Reply