The 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.