The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Shrinking Congregations, Part 1

cooperation.jpgIt’s been an interesting week. I spent Tuesday meeting with Todd Deaver, Phil Sanders, and Greg Tidwell planning our GraceConversation dialogue. Toward the end of our meeting, Greg described how many Churches of Christ that have added an instrumental service are losing members, rather than growing as they’d hoped. Richland Hills is, of course, a major exception.

Then on Wednesday I attended our weekly elders meeting, and some of my fellow elders were describing how their (conservative) home congregations were dying — losing members, aging, and having no young members join them. There are, of course, exceptions, but around here, there aren’t many.

Well, I guess we can see how the Churches of Christ are in numerical decline. We have small rural churches preaching the 5-steps of salvation to an already-saved, declining audience, and progressive churches finding that change doesn’t always mean growth. It can trigger decline.

I don’t have all the answers, but I would like to put one idea on the table for consideration. Let’s suppose you’re an elder at a progressive congregation. You begin receiving pressure to add an instrumental service — to help the church grow. What’s your thought process, beyond the obvious “political” consideration of whether the church will support the change. Let’s assume the membership will be supportive.

I think a question we progressives sometimes forget to ask is: why are our members members? You see, in many of our churches, members are members because this the church that teaches sound doctrine, that is properly organized, that properly worships. They see no choice but to attend this congregation. Their salvation depends on it.

But as the members learn grace and find that there aren’t as many rules as they once imagined, they can quite reasonably ask themselves: why be a member here?

You see, if you take away the thinking that held us together for the last several generations, you have to be prepared to replace it with something else.

In fact, if you’re not very careful, by doing all the “right” things the church growth literature recommends to grow your church, you just might create a consumer mindset among your members. Of course we want our members to have the benefit of great youth programs and worship, but if you replace “we are the only church going to heaven” with “we have the best youth program,” some members may well prefer someone else’s youth program and leave.

You also have a consider a certain bit of psychology. Change is traumatic for most people, even if we are doctrinally okay with the change. And so, most of us don’t leave our home congregation just because change is so painful. But if the leaders make me endure painful change at my home church, I may decide to shop around because, well, I’m already in pain.

And for many — perhaps most — of our members, instrumental music is a difficult transition even if we are doctrinally quite fine with it. After all, we may have family members who see us as damned for attending a church with an instrumental service. We may lose friends over it. We may see our favorite elder resign in silent protest. We may just hate listening to the rancor it causes. And so we leave. After all, if my parents are going to disown me, I’ll be no more disowned for going to the Baptist Church — and they have cappuccinos before worship.

What’s the solution? After all, quite obviously, some churches, such as Richland Hills, with some 4,500 members the last I heard, have done quite well after the change. Some credit Rick Atchley’s excellent preaching, and wouldn’t question the value of great preaching, but I think there’s something more to it.

Long before Richland Hills was “the church with an instrumental service,” they were “the biggest Church of Christ.” And if you asked Rick or John Jones how it happened, they’d tell you it was due to their mission to the poor and hurting of their community. I know. I had breakfast with John Jones and asked that very question some years ago.

I’ve heard Rick preach on the vision of that congregation. Their vision isn’t “church growth using the latest innovations.” It’s “being about God’s mission.”

And so, long before they brought in the guitars and drums, they began ministering to victims of AIDs, the desperately poor, and many other marginalized people. They built the congregation on compassion and service.

You see, you can keep people in church either by —

* Building a fence of fear around the church, or
* Making church appeal to their self-interest, or
* Calling people to live like Jesus, by living lives of compassion for the lost and hurting

Escaping a works-based salvation is not about finding freedom to be selfish. We flee works to find grace — but we’ve not really found grace until grace changes us to become gracious people, that is, people who serve others, especially those others who least deserve it — you know, like us.

If all we do is enjoy the freedom rather than using the freedom to serve, well, that’s not really grace. That’s American consumerism.

Therefore, I think we make a mistake in unduly focusing on instrumental music. It’s an important issue, but it’s not what’s keeping us from growing. No, our selfishness and lack of mission is what’s killing the Churches of Christ — conservative and progressive.

But as ironic as it is, if we’ll ask more of our members, asking them to love as Jesus loved and show compassion as Jesus showed compassion, will be lifting Jesus up, and he’ll draw people to us.

We should still have great youth programs and worship, but not as attractors. Rather, we need youth programs that teach our kids to serve and worship that spurs us to love and good works.

We’ll lose a few selfish people along the way, but not many. After all, we’ve always talked about First Century Christianity. It’s high time we started practicing it.

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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25 Responses to The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Shrinking Congregations, Part 1

  1. Matthew Robert says:

    I completely agree.

  2. andy says:

    "After all, if my parents are going to disown me, I’ll be no more disowned for going to the Baptist Church — and they have cappuchinos before worship."


    That's a fantastic line…I wish I'd used it when I once attended Thursday night services with instruments 🙂

  3. Matthew says:

    I agree. I'm heavily invested in mental health ministry, with all its quirks and non-traditional problems. Nonetheless, the past two years in this ministry have seen some of my most powerful spiritual growth to date. "Being about God's Mission" in my opinion is the most powerful way to grow a church–by spiritually maturing the christian. Not only is this what we should be about anyway, but in my opinion, its the only antidote to the consumerism rampant in the church anyway. Church growth be damned…just go find a disenfranchised group of folks and start building relationships with them, showing them that there is a place at the church's table for them too. Essentially, that's what Jesus was doing anyway.

  4. Alan says:

    You see, if you take away the thinking that held us together for the last several generations, you have to be prepared to replace it with something else.

    You'd better get the right reason in place long before you take away the wrong one.

    Not to belittle serving the poor or other aspects of the Christian mission, but Jesus said the identifying characteristic of the church is that the members love each other. If that is in place, I don't think your members are going anywhere. I'm not talking about having warm feelings toward each other. Rather, its the devotion to one another built by years of carrying one another's burdens, trusting and being trusted, over and over, sharing everything in our lives with each other, because we serve the same Lord.

    Next most important is that the members' spiritual needs are being fully met. That doesn't mean they are being taught the five steps of salvation week after week for a lifetime. It means they are getting help with their finances, with their marriages, with their kids, with their careers… It means that they are growing to be more like Christ, in significant part because they are being encouraged and admonished by their brothers and sisters. The church is relevant to the real needs in their lives.

    If those things are in place, the style of music is such an insignificant thing by comparison. You could introduce Gregorian chant as the sole musical style, and nobody would leave. Or maybe even Barry Manilow. (…ducking and running!)

    Even with those things in place, a conscientious Christian would leave if you started practicing what they consider heresy. But they would do so with tears and deep sorrow, and only after exhausting every alternative to leaving.

  5. kris says:

    Jay said: But as the members learn grace and find that there aren’t as many rules as they once imagined, they can quite reasonably ask themselves: why be a member here?

    That was a major factor for me. I also realized I was taking my young children to a place where I would never bring my friends. I no longer agreed that Christianity (or Christ-following) was about doing church, but about imitating Christ in our daily lives. I was not stirred up to love and good works at the NI CoC where I had been raised. And we weren't allowed collective good works anyway there (being anti and all).

    When we ended up at White Station CoC in Memphis (where Rodney Plunkett preaches) they had about 700 members. Two years later they are over 900. They are teaching the love of Jesus there and are HEAVILY committed to the very impoverished area where they reside. They built a community center, not for themselves, but for the community…the children at risk… the families with alcoholics… the poor and hungry in general. When the elders started focusing on the spiritual needs of the church instead of the administrative ones, the church grew. Heavily. We have moved away, but it is one of the few CoC's where I would be willing to take my kids or friends. There is no IM, but they don't judge others who have it… it's just a preference. And they do have a phenomenal preacher who explodes with love every time he preaches the word. You've heard his sermon on Nadab and Abihu… a completely different take than what we all heard growing up. It was the first sermon I heard there, and I knew I would be safe there spiritually… no more abuse. (The anti church members we left considered us lost for going there since it had a food pantry, youth group, kitchen, a depression support group, hand raising, praise team, etc. ) Oh well.

  6. Joe Baggett says:

    To the contrary of Greg's concern there are many churches that have gone IM with no fuss and loss of membership. We are at First Colony in Sugarland they went IM in February and with no problems and are still growing. The Quail Springs thing has just blown things out of proportion.
    The so called progressive (I hate using that word) churches have drawn most of (but not all) their membership increases from other churches of Christ. Even leaders at NRH cofC admit that most of their increase was from surrounding churches of Christ and long time cofCers moving to the area for jobs. So as these other dying congregations dry up where will they get their members? The church I grew up at the Turnpike church of Christ in Grand Prairie next to NRH cofC is dying out. Most of old friends from Turnpike now go to NRH cofC. The time is quickly approaching where all churches regardless of theology, geographic location, or worship format will have to make new disciples of all people from our emerging diverse multicultural post modern society or close down!
    I was speaking the other day with a good friend of mine who is 84 and a long time Bible professor at a cofC University. I asked him if somebody would have told him 30-40 years ago the churches of Christ as whole would be barely hanging on and mostly in decline if he would have believed them or listened to them. He said “Honestly….No”.
    P.S. To use better terms a most people I know of who are referred to as progressive are those who have done serious independent study and seeking for themselves and reached different conclusions then before. Those who are referred to as conservative seem to be those who for whatever reason believe that re-study and re-thinking are enemies of truth and refuse to listen (And I mean listen like Jay talks about listening) to any idea or method of thinking that challenges their conclusions.

  7. "We'll lose a few selfish people along the way, but not many." That's probably the only statement in this article with which I'd take issue, given the experience of Wade Hodges and Greg Taylor at Garnett. (See We Can't Do Megachurch Anymore in Christianity Today / Leadership.)

    It could be more than a few – but God bless you, Jay, for anticipating the best in us.

  8. Pingback: The Shrinking Church « Words of Wisdom

  9. Robert Baty says:


    Gil Yoder was involved in that "ad" regarding Quail Springs in Oklahoma City.

    Gil lives and works not far from Sugarland.

    Any word out of Gil, in his own backyard, regarding Sugarland's move to instrumental music?

    Robert Baty

  10. Alan says:

    Hi, Joe.

    I am at First Colony as well. We have lost some members, but our attendance at both services seems to be about equal (maybe 5% moree at the IM service)and both steady or growing. Our biggest challenge has been with family members in the Churches of Christ who disgaree with FCCofC decision.

  11. Joe Baggett says:


    We have only been at FCCC since Dec 08' so were pretty new. I didn't know anything about people leaving. I just see people placing membership each Sunday. We should meet sometime. I will actually be singing in the praise team at 1st service this Sunday morning for the first time. Yeah I know about the family issues. We helped start a non-denom church in Conway AR back in 2000 it had IM and no "church of Christ" in the name only Four Winds church. Some of our family had real problems with it but now it is pretty much smoothed out.

  12. I guess most of you guys missed the report last year regarding the growth of the Lord’s church. It seems that all we hear about lately is how churches of Christ in the U.S. are declining (not the case overseas, where church is growing greatly). But last year, a recent study by Harding University professor Dr. Flavil Yeakley indicated that churches of Christ in America have better numbers than many may have realized. Yeakley surveyed where the church stands in relation to other religious groups:
    • Churches of Christ constitute the twelfth largest religious group in the U. S.
    • They are the sixth fastest-growing group in the U.S.
    • They rank fourth in the total number of congregations.
    • The church is fifth in the U.S. in number of counties in which there is a congregation.
    • It ranks first in the nation in distribution of congregations.
    • Churches of Christ are first in the nation in weekly attendance among membership.
    Yeakley’s study revealed that the greatest retention rate of high school graduates comes from those congregations who are described as “middle of the road.” The worst retention rate comes from those bodies who are described as “liberal.” Yeakley shared these results on the campus of Freed-Hardeman University. He has studied church growth among the congregations in the U.S. for many years.
    Truly the call by some leading “voices” in the church to change our doctrine or die is completely premature. We still need to dedicate ourselves to the unchanging message that progressive seem to never quite be able to figure out.

    Robert Prater

  13. Joe Baggett says:

    I am sure he has something to so say about it but I don't know if he has contacted the elders directly. The elders at FCCC are pretty good folks. They take the autonomy thing to mean other people from other churches don't tell them what to do. So even if he had something to say I don't think it would really make much difference.

  14. Joe Baggett says:


    Just some perspective, don’t take offense. Even Yeakley himself as admitted beyond the shadow of a doubt that the churches of Christ as whole in the USA are in decline that is why he is conducting a study to understand why some many leaving the churches of Christ, per the 2009 count from 21st century Christian. The comparison that you cite which is now almost 3 years old only compares the churches of Christ to other religious groups that are in trouble and in decline. While the distribution and number of congregations he cites seems to be correct per the 2006 publishing the congregations have declined in median size and represent a median age well above the national average. They also represent a disproportionate demographic of the general population still being mostly white middle class. About the overseas growth, there are certain areas such as in Africa, Indian, and Ukraine that are seeing baptism and numerical increase with institutional loyalty to the “churches of Christ” but there are many places overseas such places in Japan, England, Western Europe and the Philippines which have seen significant declines and in some cases total extinction of any religious group with institutional loyalty to the churches of Christ. The growth rate that you refer to as the being the 6th fastest in the USA was only 1.6% in 2006 (which was in the margin of error according to Yeakley) in 2006.
    I can take you to many churches of Christ who never "changed a thing". They are now gone. Everyone just died off.

  15. Hal Jackson says:

    Their vision isn’t “church growth using the latest innovations.” It’s “being about God’s mission.”

    Taking the biblical approach…now there's a novel idea! It is such a blessing to be part of a church family who has adopted this mindset.

    BTW…at the next elders' meeting would you please lobby for adding the cappuccino!

  16. John Randy Royse says:

    Jay, thanks for all your excellent work and words…..

    As a RHCC member for the last 7 years, most of the comments made here do touch on the aspects of the effort of our fellowship to deal with the workings of how a congregation deals with internal and external influences. How it sees it's place in community; local, regional, national, and international. I've never been in a C/C community with a 20 year vision till I wound up at RHCC.

    The various aspects of the RHCC church are well documented and available on their website. But to really understand, you have to know that this is a community really trying to look out, not inward. All of our ministries are guided to be outward focused and our annual review(s) make us reflect on how we server all the communities we can touch. There is certainly an internal aspect (we must feed our flock), but we must explain how we touch Samaria (the very international community that lives in the DFW area) and the uttermost ends of the earth.

    We're not perfect of course, but we are forbidden to bury our talents. I've never been in a place where people are empowered to make their own decisions, do what they think is needed, and encouraged to come ask for more support when we need it. No nit-picky 2nd guessing, just what did you learn and are you ready to go again?

    It's what happens when leaders love their flock, trust that the Spirit will lead us all, and have faith that mistakes are just a learning process towards growth. That is an attitude that attracts both believers, seekers, and those who don't know they're looking, but who can sense the presence of those who will help.

  17. Alan says:

    I'll look for you Sunday – at least look for someone on the praise team whom I do not know 🙂 I'll be in the back on the camera.

  18. John Randy Royse,
    That's a great testimony. I pray every congregation can seek to emulate that kind of thing.

    I believe the biggest threat to Christianity, is the hypocrisy of Christians. The second biggest threat — especially for many Churches of Christ — is that, by our behavior and practices, we leave many people with the impression they will not fit into our fellowship.

    Focusing internally on grace and externally on serving out of love for others are the only ways to fight such effects. But ultimately, it's an individual struggle, not a corporate one.

  19. Jim K. says:

    BEFORE everyone runs in with a "ready – fire – aim" approach, let me suggest a book that is quietly making many ripples across the ponds of many churches everywhere in the kingdom.

    "Church Unique" bu WIll Mancinni is an excellent book that will guide all of us regardless of church, denomination etc. to take a hard – long look at ourselves, to determine who we are and what our purpose really is. The leadership (Elders, and church staff and spouses) are currently going through this process and being facilitated by Mancinni, to see this. We are a progressive church of Christ that does not have an instrument and yet are growing. We don't know yet who we really are, but we are going to find out and I know that we will be very blessed for having done this process. As a Shepherd/Elder I am excited to see that we can use this process to get to the root of who we are and what we are to be about. It's not being like everyone else, with the latest store bought products, its much much more.

    Church Unique is a great catelyst that will cause you to think. I would ask you to check it out, and we can even discuss it on this blog – if Jay wants to. We are going to be a progressive church that grows regardless!!!

  20. Mark says:

    Another thing to consider is that churches of Christ are seeing a dynamic change in their congregations. Other denominational people experiencing fallout from their churches have the coC as an alternative. However when this 1 to 2% of the church growth is not connected to the basic belief system of the church serious relational problems arise.

    What this means is the coC liberal or not have to ask tough question of their new members. When these questions are not asked out of fear of losing the person or family our basic theology begins shift.

    What happens is a secret systems of organization and ministry begins to emerge. Several years ago I went to a life group in a Florida coC. I asked the the leaders how did you come into the coC? The couple replied what do mean we are Baptist. We are here because we like your church!

  21. Joe Baggett says:

    Becoming all things to all people requires some of the so called”innovations”. Paul adjusted his approach as he realized that every person’s spiritual journey is different. He focused on the theological questions people were asking not a general one size fits all come and hear it if you want to approach nor did he relegate theological dialogue with unbelievers and evangelism to service though it is a big part of it. Internal grace and outward serving gain credit among the ever watching unbelieving world but they don’t completely answer the theological questions of our diverse post –modern culture. Please understand I am not suggesting that having Star Bucks coffee in the foyer of the building or stuff like that would completely answer their questions either. It may create a more relaxed atmosphere where people feel more comfortable asking questions or developing a relationship where questions can be asked. If it has not been noticed people are not asking the same theological questions they did 30 years ago. People are not asking what acts or rituals are authorized to occur in a one hour assembly once a week. They are not asking which church is right and which church is wrong or which is the correct religious affiliation. They are asking deeper questions like why is the Bible true but all other religious writings are not? They were all written by men and all seem to say the same things. Or another important one is how is the God described in the Bible different than the God described in the tanoak or the Koran or any other book claiming to be the word of God. Does God really treat Gay and Lesbian people the way evangelical Christian do; marching in the streets with signs and declaring how God will punish them. Does God really exist at all with all the evil in the world? There are many more questions but you get the idea. We must prepare ourselves spiritually to defend the faith not against other denominations or so called erring churches of Christ but against other claims to truth. I asked our Sunday morning Bible class if they knew the basic theology of the five major religions or the fastest growing religion of secular humanism called Baha’i? No one knew. Then I told ever body that within 10 miles of our church building there were buildings representing all of those other groups. People were surprised. If we think that post-modernism and multi-culturism are just going to go away in a few years we are fooling ourselves.

  22. Joe Baggett says:

    Church Unique is great!

  23. Robert Baty says:

    David wrote, in part:

    > I believe the biggest threat to
    > Christianity, is the hypocrisy
    > of Christians.

    Some might consider the following an example recently presented for discussion on this blog:

    OCUSA founders' unanimous landmark resolution:

    > "Whereas, we believe that such an
    > institution should be kept separate
    > and apart from the church;"…

    OCUSA Board Chairman, before the court, on behalf of its "basketball minister" and similar employees:

    > (Caesar) "erred in failing to recognize
    > (OCUSA) as being an integral agency
    > of the churches (sic) of Christ."

    Matthew 7:1,2 & James 3:1!

    Robert Baty

  24. Glenn Ziegler says:


    I think there have been several good answers here. But i also think we're kind of missing the forest for the trees. Why did Jesus say people would be drawn to Him? Because HE was lifted up. Why did Jesus say people would leave Him? Because their own ideas about Him were more important to them than HIS message about Himself. Ask somebody in your congregation to tell you who Jesus is and note how many can say anything after "He's the Christ, the Son of the Living God"…how many can tell you in personal terms what Jesus has meant to them?

    Our church growth studies remind me of David's numbering of Israel sometimes – looking for strength in numbers of men or types of people drawn in or whatever other flavor looks good on the menu, from adding IM services to re-evaluating VBS. After all, why WAS it wrong for David to count Israel? Because numbering Israel took the focus on relying on God's strength behind a new focus on relying on themselves to be strong enough to do God's bidding. Gideon's amazing shrinking army should have been enough to tell them where the real strength can be found. And it should be enough for us, too.

    Use the methods, innovations, traditions, and all the other stuff to give shape to your service to the King, but fix your eyes on the King – NOT the programs you are utilizing. It isn't the programs we've gotten wrong. It is the focus.

    Why can I trust Jesus? How do I know HE is relevant to my everyday life? Where do I go for the hard answers that stump all my friends and the local church leaders … (gulp!) and me?!! Who do I turn to and how do I express a need without sounding stupid? If failure isn't final, then why is it that none of my friends have responded to my outreach? Why is our church (gasp!) actually losing members?

    Jesus can answer these questions, if we can tear ourselves away from the newest or tastiest fad long enough to listen to Him. His spirit is available to anyone with enough humility to shut up and listen past the thundering herds going this way and that way and hear His voice. How many of us have been listening to what the Lord is doing among us? Could it be that He is reminding us that our strength is NOT in the numbers of our attendees or members listing their loyalty to one of the many congregations in out town? Could it be that our strength really comes only from the Lord? Could it even possibly be that we have found our own voices so well and published them so widely that we think we're past simply following Jesus every day wherever HE leads? Have we forgotten how to hear HIS voice?

    Thanks for making us think, Jay and everyone who commented. We've heard our voices. Now how about we get quiet and listen to Jesus?



  25. Pingback: The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Shrinking Congregations, Part 4 (Community) « One In

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