The National Congregations Study and Churches of Christ, Part 1

DU NCSResponReport11.inddDuke University has just released a report of its National Congregations Study for 2006-7, comparing American churches with churches in 1998. It’s an interesting read.  The survey includes 2,740 congregations across the country, and so is among the most detailed and statistically valid surveys available.

The full text is available for download.

The report concludes,

• Most congregations are small but most people are in large congregations.
• Worship services are becoming more informal.
• Congregational leaders are still overwhelmingly male.
• Predominantly white congregations are more ethnically diverse.
• Congregations embrace technology.
• Congregations and clergy are getting older.
• Congregations’ position in the social class structure remains unchanged.
• Congregations’ involvement in social service activities remains unchanged.
• Only a small minority of congregations describe themselves as theologically “liberal,” even within the Protestant mainline.
• Congregations are more tolerant and inclusive than we might expect them to be, even when it comes to hot-button issues.
• There has been no significant increase in congregational conflict since 1998.
• Congregations’ involvement in political activities is largely unchanged since 1998.

Some of these conclusions are pretty surprising to me, especially as you dig into some of the details.

Congregation size

• In both 1998 and 2006-07, the average congregation had just 75 regular participants.
• In both 1998 and 2006-07, the average attendee worshiped in a congregation with about 400 regular participants.

This is not inconsistent. The report explains,

To get a feel for just how concentrated people are in the largest congregations, imagine that we have lined up all congregations in the United States, from the smallest to the largest. Imagine that you are walking up this line, starting with the smallest. When you get to a congregation with 400 people, you would have walked past about half of all churchgoers, but more than 90% of all congregations!

This has some very practical implications —

It means that most seminarians come from large churches (since that’s where most people are), but most clergy jobs are in small churches.

When a Bible major graduates from one of our universities, he probably grew up in a church much larger than the first church that will hire him. He probably attended a church while in college much larger than the church that will hire him. And he will probably be moving to a much smaller town than the one he grew up in.

How well will his Bible major or M.Div. prepare him to minister in a congregation of 125? How well will he be prepared to minister to a rural congregation when he grew up in the suburbs?

In the Churches of Christ, his first ministry will likely be in a church that is more conservative than he is on many doctrinal issues. Progressive congregations tend to be more urban and larger. Will he be prepared to work with an eldership that has very different views than what he learned in college? Can he even get hired coming from ACU or Lipscomb or Pepperdine by a congregation that subscribes to the Gospel Advocate and the Spiritual Sword?

I really don’t have the answers. I just trust that our Bible faculties are aware of the issue and spend some time with their students counseling them on how to deal with the challenges.

I have a friend who excitedly told me that his old church — a congregation of 150 or so — had been radically turned around by their new minister, hired straight out of college. The minister had the personality and training needed to teach grace to a very old school congregation, and the church is thrilled by their new preacher. But many churches have fired ministers for the very same thing!

Worship services are more informal

• Fewer congregations incorporate choir singing into worship, falling from 54% in 1998 to 44% in 2006-07.
• The number of congregations that use a printed bulletin dropped from 72% to 68%.
• Far more use visual projection equipment in worship, increasing dramatically from only 12% to 27%.
• The number of congregations in which someone other than the leader speaks at worship about their own religious experience increased from 78% to 85%.
• More congregations report people spontaneously saying “amen,” jumping from 61% to 71%.
• More report people jumping, shouting, or dancing spontaneously, up from 19% to 26%.
• The number of congregations in which people raise their hands in praise grew from 45% to 57%.
• More congregations report applause breaking out, rising from 55% to 61%.
• The number of congregations that use drums increased from 20% to 33%.

Obviously, this survey wasn’t limited to Churches of Christ! We evidence our increasing informality by different means — mainly through changes in how we dress. We’ve always been pretty low church otherwise.

Interestingly, the report notes that the trend toward informality is largely among Protestants.

Most of the increase in informality occurs among Protestants. Catholic churches have increased only their use of visual projection equipment and drums, while the increase in jumping, shouting, and dancing remains concentrated in predominantly African American churches.

And this means the percentage increase among Protestants is much higher than shown, as the survey population was nearly 30% Catholic — so, roughly, a 10% overall increase would be a 15% increase among Protestants, for example.

White congregations are more racially diverse

In particular, predominantly white congregations are becoming less white. In the period between 1998 and 2006-07:

• The percent of congregations with more than 80% white participation dropped from 72 to 63%.
• The percent of people who attend congregations in which more than 80% of participants are white and non-Hispanic dropped from 72 to 66%.
• The percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with at least some Hispanic participants increased from 57 to 64%.
• The percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with at least some recent immigrants bumped up from 39 to 51%.
• The percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with at least some Asian participants increased from 41 to 50%.

These changes in part reflect recent immigration, but something more is afoot. The percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with some African American attendees also increased, from 60% to 66%.In short, there are fewer all white congregations in the United States today. More predominantly white congregations have at least some Latino, Asian, or African American presence.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously — and accurately — said that the most segregated hour of the week is 11:00 Sunday morning. We are centuries late in beginning to rectify this sin. And at this point, the movement toward racial integration are painfully slow, but progress is being made.

I believe we’ll see integration occur much more rapidly over the next several years. When the kids presently in college or their 20’s become elders, things will likely be radically different. I say this because I see much less consciousness of racial separation among the younger Christians. And it’s a very good, very needed thing.

The other side of the coin is this: if churches continue to segregate themselves, we’ll lose our young members. They see racial segregation as one of the worst of all sins — and they’re right. They won’t be able to see Jesus in a lily-white congregation in a racially mixed town. Therefore, people my age need to be working hard to break down racial barriers. It’s God’s will — and the church won’t last another generation if we don’t get with it.

It also is worth asking whether even a few African Americans, Hispanics, or recent immigrants in a congregation affect that congregation’s life in important ways. John Green, a University of Akron professor and a leading expert on religion and politics, argues that congregations are easier to politicize when they are more homogeneous. Is a clergyperson with even one black family in the pews likely to talk in quite the same way about race and social welfare issues as he would if that family was not there? Is a congregation with even one Latino family likely to approach immigration reform in quite the same way? How this increasing pluralism might change congregations deserves additional research and reflection.

This one blew me away. I mean, it’s so true … but I’d never thought in those terms. Oh, wow! We also need to be integrated because it’ll make us better people. It’s easy to be insensitive and self-centered in a church where everyone is white, middle class, and prosperous. When you have all kinds of people present, you learn to be more careful about what you say. Eventually, you realize that what you used to say was wrong. Segregation in church is an unspeakable evil, in part because of what we fail to learn when we’re segregated.

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.
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22 Responses to The National Congregations Study and Churches of Christ, Part 1

  1. The bullet that struck me is
    "Congregations and clergy are getting older."

    The day after high school graduation, kids fall off the face of the earth never to return. Even if they go to Harding, Lipscomb, etc. after college graduation we never see them again.

    This is a great challenge and opportunity for us.

    My congregation is trying to address it, with little success. Can you point me to anyone with experience and expertise to offer?

  2. Todd says:

    Brother Dwayne,

    Each of our institutions of higher learning has a professor tasked with training our next crop of youth and family ministers. Contact any of them and they will be able to come and give your congregation the benefit of their research and insight. There are also numerous books, studies and blogs extant which will help church leaders understand what is happening in our society and that provide suggestions for progress.

    The problem in your, my or any other congregation is not the "what do we need to do?" The answer to that question -with slight adjustment for context – is fairly uniform: Make whatever changes are necessary to bring Jesus to this current generation of young people.

    The real problem is: Are we willing to make those changes when they make our existing membership uncomfortable?

    Most elderships, focused on congregational survival instead of mission will not follow through even though ignoring the latter for short term stability makes the former impossible. We hire experts, pay preachers huge salaries, attend lectureships and what not, but when the screaming starts most will fold.

    Somewhere in the past thirty years we failed to pass on a mission mindset to our congregations. Don't misunderstand, we will send people all over the world. We will continue to support a missionary long after he has found other things to do. But we will not, ourselves, cross the street, much less the city to save a soul if it is in any way inconvenient. We will not sacrifice our "Mansion just over the hilltop" for "Awesome God." We recoil at the suggestion that our staid meditative assembly should give way to clapping, hand raising and other forms of more riotous praise.

    So, mostly we will die and fade away and Jesus will turn elsewhere to get His work accomplished.

  3. Joe Baggett says:

    Dwayne Phillips,

    I don't think you will find anyone in the coFC with good answers. Most of those books and answers are designed to keep children in the cofC. Where as the question is really deeper as most all other major denominations have the same issues. The bigger question is how do we help our emerging generations learn to think for themselves and come to a life long real faith in Jesus. They are fed up with the denominational and intradenominational wars so trying to keep them in one faith tradition is actually counterproductive to giving them a life long faith where they think for themselves. Integration is the most misunderstood thing. The Christian Chronicle reported how a black church and white church merged at Freetown Road n Grand Prairie. Well the truth is both congregations were dwindling just barely hanging on and saw this as way to avoid closing down. This is not about love for each other or people reaching out to others different than themselves. The integration that is occurring in a relatively few congregations of the churches of Christ is token integration plain and simple. For every church that the Chronicle reports having integration I can show you 100s more that are still exclusively white middle class or Afro-American. Survey after survey tells us the same thing but the leadership in average church of Christ is too scarred or ignorant to do anything about it they would rather just wait and close down then send the money from the building sale to a brotherhood institution. I suggest that you look outside the cofC for perspective.

  4. Joe Baggett says:

    You said “Each of our institutions of higher learning has a professor tasked with training our next crop of youth and family ministers. Contact any of them and they will be able to come and give your congregation the benefit of their research and insight.”
    I will be the first to tell you that our brotherhood institutions don’t have a clue. I had a meeting with Flavil Yeakley a couple of years ago. I gave much of the information such as how the birth rate among white middle class people had plummeted to below a replacement level. He ignored most of it. The brotherhood institutions are concerned with preserving the “institutions” are all costs not solving the problems. I have listened to folks from ACU, LCU, OCU and Harding and let me tell they don’t have a clue! The folks from ACU while willing to try some new things are still getting lost in the fads that are about 10-15 years old. The folks from OCU constantly publish articles of faith that a bunch of bible professors sign and try to find some congregations that are growing, Harding still has lectures about IM. The truth is the institutions are failing us they couldn’t come up with truly fresh ideas and perspective if their life depended on it. Don’t even get me started about the schools of preaching they are worse than the universities. I suggest that you look outside the institutionally loyal church of Christ structure for better more realistic perspective.

  5. Alan says:

    How well will his Bible major or M.Div. prepare him to minister in a congregation of 125?

    A very astute observation. There is something to be said for raising up your future leadership from within your own congregation — or at least within your own cultural setting.

  6. Jerry says:

    Joe, your comments are very interesting about our institiutions of Higher Learning. I see that you listed LCU in you list which caught my eye because we just had Dr. Steven Bonner speak at our church this weekend on the changing culture of adolesence. He actually answered this question you posed in your post above,
    "The bigger question is how do we help our emerging generations learn to think for themselves and come to a life long real faith in Jesus."
    You might try to give him a call. He maybe the person you are looking for. If you are interested email me and I can get you his number.

  7. Joe Baggett says:

    I have a friend and they have one black family in a congregation of about 1000 they think they are diverse. The black family was converted by church of Christ missionaries in Africa and immigrated here it is not like they were converts from the community. There are very few congregations whose racial, ethnic, socio-economic diversity is proportionate representative of the surrounding neighborhoods. Also something has to be wrong because According to book churches of Christ 2009 the majority of the membership in the churches of Christ in the USA is still in congregations of 109 or less.

  8. Rich says:

    This is a very informative post.

    Some thinking points:

    1. This is not an issue with which to bash the coC. As found in the study, this problem permeates throughout the U.S. Christian community.

    2. The winners will figure out how to make the Message relevant to the twentysomethings and younger without changing the Message. There is admittedly a lot of tension here.

    3. As a group, baby boomers fell away in their twenties. Remember the "God is Dead" theme of the sixties? They came back in their thirties. That's the gist of the phrase 'born again' Christian. We're all hoping the same will happen for our current crop of twentysomethings. Unfortunately, I'm not overly optimistic.

    4. I've only routinely attended racially integrated congregations so I can't comment from experience here.

    5. The cofC has always been relatively less formal than most other groups. That's the comments I get when inviting people to our services. It's an interesting irony that as we want to be more like other groups, they want to be more like us.

    6. The cofC has historically favored smaller congregations. I believe the numbers say that 90% of our congregations have 200 or fewer in membership. We are also in more counties within the U.S. than any other group including those with much larger overall membership. Perhaps that's a strength upon which we should capitalize. I would like to know how we stand in the growing zip codes.

    5. The trend I have seen in our younger people is they are much more interested in application and much less in theory. They are eager to serve but find Bible study boring. Therefore, we need to find many opportunities to serve our local communities in ways that more of our membership can participate.

  9. Todd says:

    Jerry dropped the name before I could. Dr. Bonner is on his game.

    But again, it is not a question of what we need to do, but what we are prepared to do.

  10. Royce says:

    There is perhaps a better way to examine churches. If each of us asks the question "How is my local church impacting the community for Christ's sake?" In far too many cases the answer would be " We are doing nothing".

    A wise fromer missionary friend recently observed "If a church is not touching the community around it in tangible ways they will not attract or keep young people".

    Love is a verb, it is not a mindset or a warm fuzzy feeling. Loving people like they are, where they are, in
    Christ's stead is a minimum requirement for any congregation who claims to be following Jesus.

    Those people who take the teaching and life of Jesus seriously will find themselves loving people in their neighborhoods without regard to race, social status, etc. Jesus went to the down and outs and so should we.


  11. Gary Cummings says:

    Where do you go to church? I would like to visit sometime if it is close to VA>

  12. Royce says:

    White's Ferry Road in West Monroe, LA. Come see us if you can.


  13. Joe Baggett says:


    I am in my middle thirties and I will tell that our generation is not returning as the baby boomers did. The fastest growing religious group in America is those who have no religion at all. This is not a cofC bashing but if we don't take these things seriously we are sealing our own fate. Many other denominations are just as deluded as the cofC. They say everybody else is having trouble so we are ok. When will the denominations stop comparing ourselves to each other for validation? Just because one has more members or congregations than the other doesn’t mean anything. The SBC has planted a bunch of new churches in the last two years but are still in decline. The younger generations are very interested in Bible study but in a different way. Looking at the same old things coming to same old conclusions in same old way and then doing nothing about it other than agreeing on the "right" doctrine is a repellent to them. The problems they have are essentially theological. This is not easily remedied. Until the theology changes the decline and all other issues will not change regardless of how many churches are planted or how many evangelistic campaigns or new programs are started. In his book “The New Christians” Tony Jones shows that the reason that most people age 18-35 left their traditional Church was irreconcilable theological differences. We can process all the data and all the trends but theology is the gradient. Ironically most major denominations can’t seem to accept this fact. The SBC refuses to reconsider its theology, the churches of Christ are hearing up for all out theological wars and so on. Theology is changing in some places but at a glacially slow pace.

  14. Rich says:


    I really appreciate your perspective. At my previous congregation I've been saying we have to do something different to keep our twentysomethings but I didn't get much support (I was educational director). Unfortunately, we are in Michigan where the twentysomethings are leaving the state to find jobs. A double hit.

    I'm looking for solutions/ideas.

  15. Terry says:

    How have you and/or your readers racially integrated your local churches? What has worked?

  16. Joe Baggett says:

    Terry, may I suggest that racial integration is not the problem but the symptom. If people really saw others who were different than them they way that God does racial integration would be a moot point. Ask yourself or your eldership and congregations these questions.
    1. When I think of other people am I willing to make friends with someone who is different than myself?
    2. Does God ask us to "associate with people of low position"? What does that mean in our culture?
    3. When Paul says that there is no division but all people are loved by God – do we see people in the same manner?
    4. Would we be willing to have someone over to our house to eat that is of a different race, socio-economic level etcetera? Would we be willing to make life long friends with that person?
    Trying to force integration is a foolish move if people can't answer these questions in the positive first because their hearts are in the wrong place. I know of several congregations who have attempted forced integration and it went over like a pregnant povaulter. I would suggest classes and sermons first.

  17. Jay Guin says:


    There are plenty with expertise, but virtually none with experience. The churches — of all denominations — are just now beginning to confront the problem.

    I'm going to try to post something in the next few days suggesting some ideas — but I'm no expert.

  18. Rich says:

    I agree integration should not be forced.

    Several years ago a white family from our integrated (but predominately white) congregation decided to start attending a predominately African American congregation a few miles down the road. After about a year, the family returned. They said the people were great but there were too many cultural differences for them to enjoy the experience.

    Both congregations have an excellent relationship with each other to this day. They participate/organize special events together but prefer to remain as separate congregations.

  19. Jay Guin says:


    There's a definite trend among the megachurches to do their own training. This suggests they think they can do a better job somehow. Mars Hill in Seattle is training church planters in large numbers. It's interesting.

  20. Alan says:

    I'm not Jay… But here is what we've done.

    1) Target specific ethnic groups in evangelism. Do things in your worship services that cater to that group. Teach your current majority ethnic group to value diversity, and to embrace the steps taken to create it.

    2) Find a church in your area that has a substantial ethnic population that you lack. Plan events together with that church — picnics, joint services, service projects, marriage seminar, conference, or whatever. Urge your members to reach out to the members of the other church and to make friends with them.

    3) Once you have some diversity, it can lead to more diversity. Ethnic minorities often want to attend a diverse congregation. When they move into the area, they might just be looking for the congregation that is actively pursuing diversity.

    4) Consider merging congregations. I'd suggest going through some of the preceding steps first. But be sure you "date" awhile before you "get married."

  21. Larry Short says:

    My experience is somewhat different than most replies. My home congregation is about 10% afro-american, and about 45% hispanic. Services and classes in Spanish and English have gone without interruption for about 40 years. At least once a quarter, we have a bilingual service. I like bilingual singing, as I can imagine Corinth will multiple speakings in tongues. Our song book racks have song books and Bibles in each language. For bilingual singing, we choose hymns in both books, announce both numbers, and lead alternate verses in each language, but sing all verses in both. Our elders include hispanic and caucasian but currently no aftro-american.
    Rich said that younger appreciate application not theory, and I observe the same. Our high school, college age, and young adult do more charity work projects than the rest of the congregation. I suspect well taught lessons from the OT, where whole lives are seen, would be more interesting than the epistles.
    Paul's words at Athens is a good model of what we should do. God, faith, gospel, etc. should be related to the scene at hand. However we never need a new God or gospel for our time. Paul was always explaining the God that has always been there to an audience that knew some things but needed to understand more.
    One sadness of our culture is age segregation. Our classes, or small groups are largely selected by age. If I read the entire Bible correctly, God always favored the interaction of young and old. After all that's the only way values get passed on. Our society separates kids and parents a lot, hopefully the church family is built better.

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