Churches of Christ in Decline: What to Do About It

Okay. I’m all over the Churches of Christ in the United States thing. It’s in the past. It’s time to look forward.

How do the Churches of Christ overcome their decline?

I’ve written lots of posts on this in the past, so this is going to be a particularly short series: one post — not because it’s unimportant but because we need to focus on the essentials.

1. The first priority is to overcome our legalism. So long as we define “the gospel” as “Jesus plus a cappella music” or “Jesus plus the right name on the building,” we have no hope of reversing the decline in our numbers. 

I would not even consider talking to a church trapped in legalism about marketing or better worship services or greeters or whatever other cosmetic change there might be. That’s like giving a manicure to someone having a heart attack. Dealing with the heart attack comes first. Everything else has to wait.

If we overcome legalism, we’ll simultaneously overcome our divisiveness, as our penchant for division is driven by our bad theology of grace.

We must come to recognize that God keeps us saved on the same terms on which we are first saved — repentance and faith, only.

2. Churches that have overcome legalism need to focus on three things. These should be somewhere from 90% to 100% of what the staff and leadership spend their time on. Anything else gets delegated or dropped altogether.

A. Spiritual formation, that is, working with God’s Holy Spirit to transform Christians into ever-closer approximations of Jesus. This includes helping members discover their gifts and talents and equipping them to use them in God’s service. Obviously, learning to study the scriptures is a large part of this, but Bible study alone doesn’t get it done.

B. Community formation, that is, working with God in building the congregation into a temple in which Jesus lives through the Holy Spirit. The plan is laid out in numerous passages, but I’d take special note of Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 13, and the Sermon on the Mount. It’s learning how to forgive and not hold grudges, how to confront sin in love, how to hold each other accountable, how to help each other make it as one of God’s people.

C. Mission, that is, being impelled by the Spirit to work with God in showing Jesus to the world, through teaching our friends about the gospel of Jesus, through good works done for those outside the church, and by showing the world a people formed into the body of Jesus — individually and as community.

That’s it. Everything else is commentary. But let’s indulge in a bit of commentary.

Leadership

First, notice the importance of leadership — leadership to help us overcome legalism and leadership to help God transform us individually, in community, and in mission. Leadership is critical.

Leadership is a gift from God. But even leadership that’s a gift from God requires training and equipping. Therefore, the wise eldership and the wise minister and the wise congregation should appreciate the importance of careful selection of leaders and of diligent training of leaders.

We desperately need to do a better job of this. Elders struggle to find good materials, and much of what they find is whatever’s new at the local Bible bookstore — which may be good or may be awful. We really need to help our elders and elders to be (and our preachers) get a solid foundation in Bible study and in what church is all about.

Kudos to Abilene Christian for its ElderLink program, which travels the country to do elder training. Kudos to our more progressive universities for their excellent annual lectureships (I’ve attended and recommend especially Pepperdine, Abilene Christian, and Lipscomb‘s lectureships). Kudos to the Tulsa Workshop.

And shame on our elders and deacons and budget committees who don’t insist that our elders and ministers travel to these events regularly. It’s more important than the teen beach trip. It’s more important than VBS. Insist that your elders make the trips and attend the conferences. Make it a high priority in your budgeting (somewhere right behind Welch’s grape juice and Matzos bread).

Synergy

Second, it’s the nature of language that I have to express myself linearly. I can’t say “spiritual formation,” “community formation,” and “mission” all at once. Our minds don’t work that way. But don’t think that the order is chronological or even the order of causation. All three are mutually synergistic.

Mission helps us become more like Jesus. We don’t wait until we’re one day sufficiently like Jesus to do mission. It won’t happen. No, mission changes us to be formed to do mission.

Mission also changes us as a community. Our worship becomes a celebration of victories given us by God, or a time of prayer for people who need to know Jesus or who need jobs or who need healing. Mission changes who we are as a people.

But community changes who we are individually, as we see examples to follow, as we’re held accountable, and as we’re equipped. And community surrounds us with people with whom to go into mission, to work and cooperate with. Community keeps mission from being lonely.

And, of course, personal spiritual formation helps us contribute to our community by giving us something to offer, by making us a contributor rather than a taker. And personal spiritual formation prepares us for the rigors of mission.

It’s all-at-once together. I separate them in language to help the reader understand and to help leaders remember to lead in all three areas. But we rarely do just one a time. Like bananas, vanilla wafers, and pudding, they are best served together.

Missionality

Here’s the last point (for now). If we do these things well, we’ll be effective. But the better we are at knowing our community, its needs, its culture, and its language, the better we’ll be at mission. One danger in Christianity is to let our Christianity become our only community and so to become isolated, turning our churches into cloisters.

Paul was quite clear that we cannot do this —

(1 Cor 5:9-13)  I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”

Paul made it quite clear that he expects us to associate with the sexually immoral, the greedy, swindlers, and idolaters. For him, to do otherwise would be to leave the world. And some of us wish to leave the world and associate only with the pleasant, polite, and holy. But Paul says no. You see, we aren’t to judge those outside the church — other than to judge that they are outside the church and so lost and in need of Jesus.

Conclusion

Ignore the fads. Don’t fight over methods. Borrow good ideas wherever you find them, but never become the good ideas.

Don’t be a house church because you read a book or attended a seminar. Be a house church if that’s the best way to accomplish what God wants — in your time and place. And if it’s not, be something else.

Don’t ever let your identity be a method. Don’t found a church to be the first Saddleback-model church in your town. Serve in God’s mission, and if the Saddleback model is what God needs, then be like Saddleback.

Study lots of methods and lots of ideas, study your community and your people, pick a method and go with it. Ultimately, it’s about whether your potential converts see Jesus in you, and that doesn’t have that much to do with methods anyway. 

If a method you try fails, try another method. There are lots of approaches to spiritual formation, community formation, and mission — from baseball diamonds to selling all you have. And all have worked well at some place.

Don’t give up. Call on God often, listen to God, and wait on God when necessary.

If we plant and water, God will give the increase. I’ve been a gardener. When the plants didn’t grow to produce new seeds, the problem was always in me. It was never in the seeds. 

The only exception, of course, is when the soil is bad. And solution for bad dirt is to sow lots of seeds in lots of places. You see, one point of Jesus’ parable that we often overlook is that the farmer was a profligate sower — he sowed in good soil and bad. 

Sow like crazy.

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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18 Responses to Churches of Christ in Decline: What to Do About It

  1. Okay, Elders, Deacons and such need to learn.

    Learn what?

    Please help me here. What specifically do you believe church leaders should learn? Should learn how to be? Should learn how to do? Should learn in whatever terms you wish to describe it?

  2. mattdabbs says:

    It is not always a learning issue…some times it is a "being" issue. We have made disciples into the wrong image…into the image of a movement more than the image of God. We are to make Christ followers, not followers of this or that pet doctrine.

  3. Tim Archer says:

    I especially love your last point. I was thinking this weekend about how everyone (self included) points to the decline and then blames it on their hobbies. The conservatives say we're getting too liberal. The progressives blame it on traditionalism. We mission types blame it on a church that wants to build houses and call it "missions". Those with a heart for the poor blame it on our lack of engagement on social issues. Etc. ad infinitum.

    We are a fellowship in decline in a Western society where Christianity is in decline. It's not about applying cookie-cutter strategies here or there. It's about faithfully seeking to let God's Spirit work through or churches in our situation.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

  4. Alan says:

    To the degree that we are like Christ, we will do what he did. That should convict the socks off of us, because we aren't doing much of what he did.

    If you put a sponge into a bucket of vinegar, it is going to soak up vinegar. I am convinced that this is the biggest problem with our churches — we are imbibing the culture in which we live. We drink deeply from it. And it makes us less and less like Christ. The job of church leadership is to oppose the worldly influence, and to prepare the members to do likewise in their individual lives.

    By far, most of the teaching to the NT church is about formation of faith and spiritual character (ok, godliness.) If we measure our teaching in proportion to the emphasis of scripture — spending the most time on the topics that receive the most attention in scripture — we'll be doing well. That's a great reason to teach the scriptures — all of them. Why experiement when God gave us the perfect recipe for feeding the church? You could do a whole lot worse than simply starting in Matthew and going through Revelation.

    I'm not talking about imparting head knowledge, but presenting the words of the Holy Spirit so that they can change hearts.

    Of course that just addresses what church leaders do during assemblies. Most of the job of leadership happens outside the assembly — setting the example for the flock and calling them to follow. That's a lot harder than teaching lessons.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Dwayne,

    When I became an elder, my first reaction was one of being overwhelmed. Elders get hit with questions and challenges from all directions. And I was better prepared than many, having been involved in the church leadership structure for many, many years in many ways. And I had a four-year degree from Lipscomb and years as a lawyer, which are very helpful. It was not enough.

    I went looking for resources and found next to nothing. Very few websites are dedicated to helping elders. Very few books are written for elders. Quite a few books have been written on who should be an elder, but very few on being an elder.

    Since then, ACU has put out some books based on their ElderLink material, and some seminars have been taught — all very good and helpful.

    One goal of this website is to build up a base of materials to help elders. Thus, you'll find here materials dealing with the doctrinal concerns that elders everywhere have to wrestle with — divorce and remarriage, the role of women, worship, as well as the larger issues of grace and baptism. There are outlines on the law and finances for elders. There are materials on church leadership.

    I don't pretend to have everything here an elder needs. I never will. I'm just trying to help fill the void.

    At the lectureships I've learned such practical lessons as how to lead a singles ministry, church planting, and praise teams. And I've been exposed to the teachings of Edward Fudge, Rick Atchley, and many other great teachers of our movement. I was there for ACU's unity celebration with the Christian Churches. I've spoken with an elder from Quail Springs about their addition of an instrumental service and learned valuable lessons in leading change generally.

    What does an elder need to learn? The internet wouldn't hold the answer.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    Your point is an important one. It's hard to escape our internal church culture. We'll never totally escape, but it helps, I think, to have contact with other denominations through readings and networks and blogs and to study history for the purpose of gaining perspective. For example, we are less likely to see today's scruples as defining who we are in Jesus when we learn that our scruples have changed — and changed a lot — over time.

  7. Please allow me to try again.

    For about five years now, our Elders have asked that we do training for Spiritual Leadership. From what I can see, the best training comes from family counselors and engineering managers – not ACU or other college lecturships. I am an engineer interested in the inter-workings of people, so that may explain my answer.

    Most Spiritual Leadership training materials I have seen say "Learn how to be a good communicator," but that is about as deep as it goes.

    I keep trying to complete the sentence, "a spiritual leader should be a good fill-in-the-blank."

  8. Joe Baggett says:

    The report was members of the “churches of Christ”. What to do about it? Hmm? Well let’s step back for a moment. Well what to do about? It is a miracle in my book that some have even admitted that those affiliated with the churches of Christ could even be in decline. Well first the churches of Christ are defined as a religious group whether we like it or not. Some are uncomfortable using the word denomination, but that is what it is. While the doctrine may be different than other religious groups it still has exclusive religious institutions, congregation’s etcetera. The underlying universal things affecting our fellowship are universally affecting all theologically orthodox evangelical religious groups 100+ tears old in America. Here they are.
    1. A significant departure of the emerging generations who were born and raised in the typical American church.
    a. Theology. Emerging generations disagree with the fundamentalist theology. They see it as inconsistent, arrogant, propaganda, biased, pre-supposed, based more on tradition rather than ideological merit, built on pietistic white middle class culture, empty religious dogma.
    b. Most traditional American churches do not have a culture of dialogue. There is only one hermeneutic those who question it or suggest other ways of looking at scripture are silenced or castigated.
    c. Most churches represent a very disproportionate demographic compared to the over all USA demographics and those surrounding the buildings. This is still viewed as racism.
    d. Institutionalism most traditional churches are a part of larger institutional structures that have colleges, universities, minister training schools, and para church organization affiliated almost exclusively with one religious group. Example Southern Methodist University, Abilene Christian University. This brand loyalty is largely absent in the emerging generations. Giving money to the church and especially the larger institutions just to keep the institution alive is futility in the minds of emerging generations.
    2. Multiculturalism
    a. Most traditional American churches are equipped to debate doctrines with other denominations and within themselves, but are not equipped to take Jesus to people who come from other religious (Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, ETC) backgrounds and non-religious post modern backgrounds. Most approaches are heavily based on presumptions that do not exist like the authority and inspiration of scripture. Hindu people (who are immigrating to the USA at fast rate) do not already believe the Bible is inspired nor many others. But most approaches to evangelism suppose people already believe this or think they should believe it very quickly. Many people who do not already believe these things that seem simple to us are relegated to being not true seekers. Most preachers can’t even tell you the basic theology of the five major world religions. Nor do they understand post modernism, other than “Were against it”. The reason that America grew at 36% and the church didn’t is most of people who have immigrated here in the last 30 years are not the white anlgo Saxon protestant that colonized America.

    3. Record low birth rates among the white middle class.
    a. Since 1970 the birth rate among white middle class people fell to a replacement level of 2.1. Then since 1990 the birth rate fell to below 1.8 well below the replacement level. So most churches even if they baptized and retained every single one of their children within their respective denomination, would not replace those who are dying in the church.
    So be willing to have a dialogue and make changes to your theology and hermeneutics. Just a hint this is an on going dialogue and journey not a destination. Though f. Laggard Smith tried in his book the cultural church, we will never again have one hermeneutic that most churches work under like CENI. Religious structures as we have understood them and the associated institutionalism are a thing of the past. Make changes to church as you re-study the scriptures.
    Erase all pre-suppositions in the approach to evangelism; learn about all the new people and new religions coming to the USA. Only short of sinning, base your approach to evangelism on understanding their theological questions not the pre-supposed religious dogma of your respective denomination. Prepare yourselves to compare Jesus to other ideas or claims to truth because that is what people are doing. Prepare to have the Bible and its claims to truth compared to other religious writings that also claim to be the word of God. Prepare yourself to know why you believe what you believe on very deep level. Have someone on staff to study post-modernism and cultural changes and teach the congregation about them. Again only short of sinning; apply this learning which shapes people’s theological questions to your approach in reaching the emerging post modern generation.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Dwayne,

    I'm at home fighting some sort of bug, so I suspect my lack of comprehension is entirely my fault. And I agree that the lectureships are inadequate. But I find them very helpful nonetheless, partly because of the networking that takes place and the encouragement they give to try new things and to get comfortable in God's grace. I've found I particularly enjoy talking with fellow elders from across the country and sharing ideas and problems. At ElderLink, I think the lunches are the best part, for this very reason.

    We elders need a wide variety of trainers because so many kinds of things are asked of us. If I were to assemble a training course, I might approach it along these lines —

    As shepherds, we need training in counseling, in dealing with death and dying, in helping those going through divorce, visiting hospitals, and such. It really helps to have one or more elders or staff members with some gifts in this area. Training can come from professional counselors but also nurses, many of whom are very gifted and highly trained in this area. A local hospital chaplain, people who work in hospice could be very helpful instructors. Ultimately, you learn these skills by going with those who know how to do it. It's not book learning.

    Shepherds, as shepherds, also need support in organizing small groups, training group leaders as under-shepherds, in the law regarding what counseling an unlicensed counselor can do and what requires professional help. Any good eldership needs a list of local Christian counselors to refer cases to.

    And we need to know how to protect ourselves and our ministers from sexual temptation. Lots of preachers destroy careers, families, and churches through sexual relations arising in counseling settings. Elders who counsel suffer the same risks.

    As overseers, we need to know about how to hire good ministers and support them. We need to know how to properly compensate them, set up fringe benefits, and set employment policies. We need to know about housing allowances, FICA, and such like.

    In the area of church programs, we need to know something of how to run adult education, small groups, and any number of other ministries. We don't have to be experts in all areas of ministry, but we need to be able to tell if the person(s) in charge is doing a decent job.

    And we need training on how to delegate and how to organize a church so that delegation works well. But we can't abdicate. We do need to keep up with what's going on. We need to know how to manage without micromanaging.

    As elders, we need to know good from bad doctrine — grace, baptism, the Spirit, MDR, the role of women, worship — and we need to deeply understand God's mission.

    We need to know how to help members in conflict with other members resolve those disputes. And we need to know how to disfellowship properly. And how to head off the problem before it gets that far.

    Now, that's not comprehensive, but it's a rough cut at the topics I'd take up if I were teaching a 13-week seminar. Obviously, this can't be covered in 13 weeks, particularly the doctrinal issues.

    The Church of Christ literature tends to come from counseling/conflict resolution/shepherding side. The evangelical material is about how to be a pastor. I have a couple dozen books on spiritual leadership. None are bad. None are nearly complete.

    Different members and ministers will have different expectations of the elders. Some will want them to be shepherds only — handling only pastoral duties while the preacher handles the doctrine and oversight. I don't think that's right. Some will deny that the elders ought to have any authority at all. That's wrong, too. And some will expect the elders to handle it all. Many will object when the elders delegate. And that's really wrong. A few will want the elders to be Jesus reincarnated, and we will never measure up.

    A spiritual leader should be good at everything, but he won't be. And so he needs to learn to work with others, to delegate, to rely on his fellow elders, ministers, and ministry leaders, study hard, network, and pray without ceasing.

  10. SB says:

    Jay, this may sound like it's coming out of left field, but I would add to your list of training/learning opportunities the US Army's "Civilian Education System Basic Course" (available only to Army employees, unfortunately–details here: http://www.amsc.belvoir.army.mil/ces/). As strange as it may sound, it is a very useful course in understanding and leading people, and I actually found it to be more helpful in learning to lead and influence other Christians than other Army employees.

    I by no means can imagine what all is involved in being an elder, but I can imagine most elders deal with situations and behaviors that are addressed in that class, and so I think Army-employeed elders could greatly benefit from it.

  11. David Himes says:

    I believe the way our culture has manifested religious organizations causes us to create a demand for spiritual leadership, which did not exist in the same way in New Testament times. And I think we need to separate the ideas.

    Elders need to model Jesus, the way Paul did. That's it.

    Now, because we have organizations of people, we call churches, we have a demand for organizational leadership. Which is not the same as modeling Jesus.

    Personally, one of the dilemmas many elders face is that primary role should be to model Jesus, but they are called upon to be organizational leaders. I wish we could separate those roles — but for the time being, our culture makes that very hard. And the cultural problems are both "American" and "Church of Christ" in origins.

  12. Patrick Mead says:

    Jay, I deeply appreciate your insights and this forum. I was sent here by some friends after I wrote a letter to 21st Century Christian deploring their decision. Since then, I have been drinking deeply here.

    God bless you. Anytime you find yourself in the frozen northlands near Detroit, come and be loved by your new friends.

  13. Alan says:

    Part of the problem with training elders is that for the most part we have day jobs to pay the bills. A few vacation days each year devoted to elder training just isn't enough.

    While it is certainly biblical to have elders supported by the congregation, it's not likely to happen any time soon where I live. Usually in the few cases where that is done, it is really just a fulltime minister who later became an elder. It's rare to see an elder quit his day job to be supported as an elder (only) by the congregation. It's even rarer to see all of the elders in a congregation do that. Since there are always at least two, and often more, it can be expensive. And those pesky mortgage payments still have to be made.

  14. Jay Guin says:

    SB,

    That's really interesting. It's not surprising. Paul himself compared Christian living with being a soldier. And I'm totally okay with "Army civilians will become multi-skilled leaders civilian leaders of the 21st Century who personify the warrior ethos in all aspects, from war-fighting support to statesmanship, to business management." I mean, the "warrior ethos" is —

    * I will always place the mission first
    * I will never accept defeat
    * I will never quit
    * I will never leave a fallen comrade

    We could use more of this.

    As I read the link, the books that make up the course are books available to civilians at Amazon. I'm familiar with some. http://www.amsc.belvoir.army.mil/library/readings…. It looks like a good list. Any books you'd particularly recommend?

  15. Jay Guin says:

    Patrick Mead like my blog. PATRICK MEAD LIKES MY BLOG! :mrgreen: 😀

    Patrick,

    It's far more likely that we'll cross paths on this side of the Mason-Dixon line. Next time you're in Alabama, give me call and I'll show up the best BBQ on the planet. It's here in Tuscaloosa.

  16. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    We have two elders on staff — both part time. It's a great benefit to the church (and their fellow elders).

    I think part of the solution is to begin training leaders long before they become elders. Some of this can be done just by being certain the key doctrines are covered in the adult Bible class department. The other topics can be handled through mentorships, assigning future leaders to under-shepherding roles, such as small group leaders, by encouraging those not yet elders to attend elder training programs, by occasional classes on leadership, and by making sure potential elders are given substantial leadership roles.

    Now, it's important to realize that different men will bring different gifts to the eldership — and no one will arrive with the full array of skills. We don't need everyone to be a master of doctrine or a master counselor or a master organizer. But it's sure nice to have one at the table.

  17. SB says:

    Jay,

    I definitely agree that the church could use more of a warrior ethos as you describe it.

    Unfortunately, I don't have any books to recommend. I do know someone who is currently doing a PhD dissertation on his own leadership style who is quite a fan of John Maxwell, so I'd recommend Maxwell based solely on that person's recommendation.

    The Army class itself doesn't really involve a lot of book learning. Most of the time is spent doing fairly uncomfortable group activities and role playing and such. For example, students are squeezed into being *very* open with other people in the class–complete strangers, by the way–about themselves and about what they think of the other people based on their few days spent in class with them. It's quite an experience, and it really helped me understand more about how I and other people think and behave and live. I initially hated the class but eventually grew to embrace it and endorse it.

    Regarding Alan's comment about elders with day jobs, this class is a unique employer-provided opportunity that definitely could benefit Army elders at work and at church and not require them take costly vacation.

  18. Joe Baggett says:

    May I suggest that instead of just training the elders how to lead or run a church that we spiritually prepare them for the role and task? When I say spiritually prepare I mean to be overcomers and becomers. There are only a few elders that have gained my respect. They were the ones who were open, honest and transparent. Who were seekers, becomers and overcomers. If you are not a people person then you should not be an elder I don’t care how much bible knowledge, money or personal morality you have. Love and passion for people is not something that can be learned in an academic setting no matter how many tests you pass, it is something that only comes from the Spirit of God.
    1. You must have people over to your home constantly, cook meals for people and have them over. By doing this you will earn their respect and trust of the people in you congregation, you will also get to know them on deeper level.
    2. You must be not only willing, but be passionate about making friends and relationships with people who are not like you by race, age, socio-economic group etcetera.
    3. You must be constantly learning, not only about God but about our culture that we seek to reach. Read every book you can including the Bible it has some of the greatest perspective on our current culture of post modernity. Brotherhood seminars and weekend campaigns are only marginally effective and focus more on institutional religious dogma rather than spiritual growth.
    4. Make it a point to interact and understand unchurched people. Have them over to your house regularly for meals as well. Strike up a conversation in coffee shop. Or where ever you get in contact with people.
    5. The best elders are those who lead by example and show their congregation by their own spiritual growth. If you want the congregation you lead to become peace makers than you as an elder should seek to become a peacemaker. If you want them to become self controlled then you should seek to become self controlled. You get the idea. An elder who is constantly growing spiritually is the best leader.
    6. Lastly, be willing to look outside the churches of Christ for perspective. I continue to read books put out by our brotherhood and be disappointed. Some are good and helping us overcome the legalism that haunts us to this day, but most are still entrenched in religious dogma specific to our brotherhood. The most compelling and personally life altering books on spirituality that I have read in recent years are neither authored nor published by those affiliated with the churches of Christ.

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