Replanting a Denomination: Plateau and Decline

You won’t be surprised to learn that I have a theory as to why our rapid growth in the first part of the 20th Century came to an end. I think two events corresponded to upset the methods that had worked so well for decades.

First, the 1960s and early 1970s happened — the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, assassinations, Viet Nam — and the new generation learned to distrust human authority. President Johnson bungled Viet Nam. Nixon was a crook. Carter ruined the economy. Young people saw older people fight against racial and sex equality — with riots across the country (not just in the South). The generation born in the 1950s (my generation) grew up unwilling to believe something is true just because the government or some other authority figure said it was true. We decided that we’d find our own answers.

Second, the New International Version was published. When I was growing up, we studied out of the KJV, and most of my classmates in Sunday school could not understand it. I couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t even pronounce it. I mean, what’s a “sepulchre” and how do you say it?

And what on earth do these verses mean?

(Phil 3:20)  For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:

(Eph 4:22)  That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;

(Gen 15:4)  And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.

(1 Ki 3:26)  Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.

The Revised Standard Version had come out years before, but had failed to catch on. It was accused of liberal bias (not just in the Churches of Christ) and wasn’t as readable as it should have been. The NASB came out at about the same time as the NIV, but the NIV became the favorite version, in large part, I think, because it uses standard English paragraphing rather than verse-by-verse paragraphing, greatly improving its readability. It is also just plain easier to read.

And so, the publication of the NIV allowed people without training in Jacobean English to actually read and understand the Bible. And a lot of us found out that we understood it in ways that were dramatically different from what we’d been taught. Until then, most church goers relied on the experts — the editors of the Gospel Advocate, the commentary authors, the preacher — to tell us what the Bible said. We hadn’t a clue how to read it ourselves. But after the NIV came out, we all understood — at well enough to wonder whether we’d been taught correctly and so to begin our own studies.

William Tyndale famously said to Bishop John Bell, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest.” I don’t know if that was true when he published his translation of the Bible into English in 1525, but it wasn’t true in the 1960s. It’s true today.

As a result, many of the Churches of Christ periodicals lost their influence. Until then, the history of Church of Christ theology could be easily traced through the pages of the Gospel Advocate, the Firm Foundation, and similar publications. After about 1970, their influence greatly declined. The Churches were equally influenced by books publishing viewpoints that would never find a publisher among the periodicals, and soon, books published outside the Churches of Christ gained influence. I’d bet that The Purpose Driven Church was bought by far more members of the Churches than any book ever published within the Churches.

You see, until about 1970, the Churches of Christ were an authoritarian institution. Foy Wallace, Jr., for example, was able to drive entire congregations and theologies out of the Churches from his chair as editor of the Gospel Advocate. That’s just no longer true. Readership of periodicals is in severe decline — and aging rapidly. Far fewer than half our congregations are significantly influenced by any editor at all.

Other theories

There are, of course, other theories held by other people.

* Some argue that the Churches lost their momentum by leaving the teachings and methods of the 1950s. But I was there. That’s not how it happened. Rather, many congregations left the Churches over Pentecostalism, because the word-only view was obviously unscriptural and we had no better view to offer. (There is, of course, a better view than word-only or Pentecostalism. But Church of Christ members in the 1970s were unlikely to find help discovering it.) Meanwhile, the International Churches of Christ left because they saw the “mainstream” Churches as too uncommitted to discipleship, especially to personal evangelism. Others left because of the legalism and creedalism of the Churches.

No one left because we stopped having week-long gospel meetings. Rather, we stopped having gospel meetings because no one came. We didn’t stop growing because we lost respect for the editors of the periodicals. Rather, we stopped reading the periodicals because they were plainly inconsistent with the scriptures — especially the heart of God as revealed in the scriptures.

We didn’t stop attending debates because we no longer cared about doctrine. Rather, we stopped attending debates because both sides offered a false theology and our side rarely showed the heart of Jesus. We didn’t stop inviting our neighbors to church because we no longer loved Jesus. Rather, we stopped inviting our neighbors to church because we weren’t sure the preacher was teaching the real Bible.

* Some argue that the division occasioned by progressive Church members (such as me) undercut our evangelism. But —

— We’d been extremely divisive going back to 1889.

— The progressive movement is arguing for unity.

Now, an objective observer would conclude, I think, that greater Biblical literacy and freer flow of ideas is nothing but good. Why did the Churches plateau in numbers while gaining a healthier theology? Well, my theory is that there are several reasons —

* Progressive Churches are, on the whole, growing, and their growth largely offsets the decline of the more conservative Churches. The research supports this observation.

* The most conservative Churches are losing their children because their children are leaving Christianity altogether. This is according to Flavil Yeakley, who is quite conservative himself. The more progressive Churches often see their children attend non-Church of Christ churches when they leave home, but they remain faithful to Jesus. Those losses are offset by transfers joining their congregations from other Christian denominations.

* None of us are particularly good at converting people to Jesus. We’d spent nearly a century converting people to a denomination. We progressives learned that there were serious errors in the old approaches, but we’ve struggled to find a better approach. Old habits die hard.

* The changes in attitudes and power structures resulted in bitter, caustic division. It’s hard to invite someone to visit your church if the sermon is about what worship style God approves.

* We needed time to do some healing. It takes time to assimilate and truly understand the new theology we find in the scriptures. Indeed, we’ve had to spend more time unlearning than learning.

* We hit a leadership vacuum. With the weakening of the old editor-bishop structure, we didn’t know where to turn for ideas and leadership. We still struggle in that area. Some of our publishing houses offered very valuable leadership for a while. Now there’s not much out there now.

* While our church culture was shifting, so was the nation’s. The old authoritarian, KJV approach to Christianity wasn’t likely to convert many in the new Post-modern world, and we had no idea how to respond to a world that didn’t share our understandings of truth, scripture, and God. But this is a problem confronting American Protestantism in general.

As a result, many Churches have grown by attracting Church of Christ members from less healthy congregations. And just lately, some have grown by attracting Christians from less healthy congregations of other denominations. But there’s not been a lot of conversion growth. Some have done a good job of restoring de-churched Christians — people who grew up in a church and left it. We’re still not good at converting those from a non-Christian background.

But the problem has not gone unnoticed in the progressive Churches of Christ or the evangelical world, and new attitudes and approaches are being tried. We are in a liminal state, but we’re learning how to seek and save souls in this culture that surrounds us.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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12 Responses to Replanting a Denomination: Plateau and Decline

  1. Frank says:

    Provocative, as usual. An addition to your list of possible (probable?) causes for disintegration among Churches of Christ in the last four decades of the 20th century: We had colleges and universities that wanted to (a) remain accredited and (b) grow in their academic stature. The growth in higher education among Churches of Christ sent more and more of our people further into the world of ideas. Some of those ideas resulted in powerful criticisms of our beliefs and practices, even our assumptions. This was happening especially in our newly-founded institutions of graduate study in Bible and religion, which produced many of the preachers,professors, writers and missionaries of the next generation.

  2. I applaud your recognition of the influence of the NIV. I remember when I first started reading an NIV Bible. I could understand it. I was able to understand much of the NT in KJV, but almost none of the OT in KJV. I remembering the feeling of understanding for the first time the words in the Bible while reading the NIV the first few times.

    Today, there are almost too many "modern" English translations that are readable. Great stuff.

    And this Internet thing where almost anyone can "publish" their thoughts on what they read and have conversations with other people all over the world. The Internet almost makes preachers obsolete (almost).

    What the Internet does, IMHO, is cause congregations to evaluate why they are a congregation. Bible study? I can find that on the Internet at my own time and at my own place.

    So why do we have congregations?….a topic for another day.

    What will the Internet do to church membership and attendance? … another topic for another day.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Frank,

    I agree in giving a lot of the credit to our universities, but not for the reasons you give. I attended Lipscomb from 1972 – 75. Most professors were quite traditional, but Dr Harvey Floyd taught me Romans and the Holy Spirit. He also introduced me to Francis Schaeffer. He opened my eyes to the gospel of grace and to non-Church of Christ scholarship. But it had nothing at all to do with accreditation or the university's academic statute. Teaching a better theology of the Spirit has nothing to do with either — but it changes hearts and lives.

    Batsell Barrett Baxter taught a very traditional course called Apostolic Church. You could call it "Pattern Theology." But he co-taught some courses with Dr. Floyd to Bible majors (I was not a Bible major, but had friends who were and we were in constant conversation about the lessons), and agreed with this teachings — at least well enough to allow him to teach as he did. The fact that BBB — Mr Church of Christ — accepted Floyd's teachings encouraged me to be open minded.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Dwayne,

    Interesting topics for another day indeed.

    I don't think the internet is properly seen as a cause of the progressive movement or of the plateauing of the Churches, as the internet came later. But the internet has greatly enhanced the ability of the progressives to get the word out. After all, conservative periodicals (and the Christian Chronicle) don't offer a platform for progressives to challenge conservative teachings, and there are no progressive periodicals. It's pretty much the internet, book publishing, and word of mouth.

  5. Bob Harry says:

    One aspect of decline is that our services as viewed by many I have met say your services are boring, your singing traditional and poorly led and you are not at all friendly. Even your preaching focuses on who you are and why you believe who the churches of Christ are in an arguementive style.

    In 1991 we tried ways to make our sevices more ,forgive me, entertaining or interesting. The praise team worked and our preachers worked out harder tio preach Chist like living. We incorporated the CARE ministry and greeters to make visitors feel more accepted. This was not a program but a new way of letting the Holy Spiirt control our worship and our love for the new people who visited us. We let our life groups be a tool for evangelism . It worked in our area of the Woodlands and the conroe Texas area.

    We need to show a greated interest for our friends in the community by offereing ministries that help them with their needs rather than turning inward. It has been our attitude for years that we have the trutg and if you want it come to ouer services, that is if you can endure our boring services and listen to our traditions.

    We have along way to go. Most folks are still afraid to do evangelism partly for the fear of failure and partly because most good church people don't have any so called lost friends.

    We need to stop our intense study and get out of the trenches and go teach the lost. We all have many bible degrees from years of study sp lets use it.

    When we have enteresting church services, friendly people and an evangelistic zeal we will grow.

    Lets go back to the first century style of evangelism.

    Bob Harry

  6. Frank B. says:

    But Jay, how and where did Harvey Floyd study his way to a better understanding? Because of things like his graduate training in Greek, etc. he (a) saw inconsistencies in much of our teaching and (b) was well-qualified to get a post at Lipscomb. Our schools needed people with his credentials in order to comply with the standards of the Southern Association.

    Look at the long list of faculty and alumni of Harding Graduate School of Religion (Rubel Shelly, Mike Cope, John Mark Hicks, etc. etc.). That our people pursued graduate education in Bible and theology, and that some of our schools offered it has made a huge difference among Churches of Christ since the middle of the 20th century. How many of our leading preachers think differently about the Holy Spirit and the Old Testament due to their studies with Rick Oster? Hundreds. And it's not simply what our professors have taught. It's the horizons that they have shown their students.

  7. Bob Harry says:

    Jay

    Much of what you say I applaud. Most of my understanding of the holy Spirit came from outside the Church of Christ with the exception of Terry Rush. Preachers with the reputation of Dr Charles Stanley, Dr. Gene Scott and Max Lucado have done much to help us understand the power of the spirit, in fact we are nothing without his help and guidance. I have convinced several COC preachers of being to timid to speak about the spirit for fear of alienating the members and elders.
    "The message" by Peterson presents the bible in an understanding of our modern english in the same manner the Koine Greek did to the folks in 100 AD.
    I do not subscibe to periodicas and gave up on the Gospel Advocate years ago as being to much inside the box ods COC thinking.
    Your post on Baptism are great and your teaching on the spirit have helped. But we have a along way to go to return to the primitive church ways, if we want to reurn there at all.
    I still maintain friendship evangelism and a spirit filled congregation are the only way to grow.
    I visit a Baptist Church for the last two Sundays and believe me I see their problem. Sometime it help you to keep in focus by visiting the other side.

    Grace and peace Bob

  8. GATidwell says:

    Jay;

    You paint with a very broad brush. Among those whom you would call "traditionalists" there have ALWAYS been a sizable number who believed in the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit and who taught very clearly the gospel of grace of God.

    I, also, was a student of Harvey Floyd's. Dr. Floyd is, and always has been, a proponent of inerrancy, of male leadership in worship, of the essential nature of baptism in salvation, and (believe it or not) he is a proponent of the regulative principle in worship. There is no way Harvey would fit in with what you call "progressive."

    As to the Gospel Advocate. Please recall that "The Way of Salvation" by K. C. Moser was published by Gospel Advocate way back in the traditional days of 1933. While I do not claim that everything published by Gospel Advocate has been to my liking over the past 150 years, there have been many authors who have written clearly both about the personal indwelling of the Spirit and concerning salvation by grace.

    As to your contention that conservative magazines have declined because of their traditionalism. I would just compare Gospel Advocates circulation with Wineskins' circulation…oh, wait, we can't…the progressives aren't even able to keep one journal afloat.

    There are many reasons journals have declined in readership, the digital revolution being just one example. To say that conservatism is the cause of decline is disingenuous considering that the same time GA was declining in circulation, the Spiritual Sword was gaining by leaps and bounds.

    But, then again, I am just a simple Midwestern preacher, what do I know?

    –Greg

  9. Bob Harry says:

    Tidwell

    I am just a simple midwestern follower of Christ and do you as a preacher teach the indwelling of the holy spirit?
    If so you are an exception. We learned from our own study of the word and from mostly those outside of the Church of Christ. We did hear one preacher call the book of Acts the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

    Another thing why in the good Lords name do you label people as progresive, moderates and conservative rather than brothers and sisters in Christ?

    A person going into a building with the name "Church of Christ" has no idea what to expect othr than to listen to your views about the errors other groups. I would not bring a visitor to somthing like that. Most of you I would not any way because you are too unfriendly and boreing.

  10. Larry Short says:

    Actually on the grass roots level the watershed translation was Good News for Modern Man. To a degree the NIV exists becoming a authoritative enhancement of the Good News.
    All mainline newspapers are in decline now. TV, radio, and the internet have erroded the base. Magazines, have a place but it will shake out to far fewer than now. Religious publishing just followes this trend.
    The Spirit is a neglected c of C topic. We are not alone, most Christian groups are afraid of Pentecostalism.

  11. Jay Guin says:

    Larry,

    There were several translations released at about the same time — Phillips was big. So were the New English Bible, the Living Bible, and Good News, not to mention the NASB. It was a remarkable time.

    You really have to wonder why all these translations came out within a few years of each other? Why then?

    At Lipscomb, there were kids carrying all of those. The NIV had the biggest influence, I think, because it was less paraphrased than many and yet easy to read.

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