Let’s think about the statistics we discussed a couple of posts ago. At the current rate of decline — assuming no acceleration — the Churches of Christ will hit zero members in 121 years.
But, of course, for at least a while, the numbers will accelerate, because the numbers show the church becoming disproportionately older and the rate of decline is going up. We aren’t keeping our own children, much less bringing new children in.
Moreover, as congregations become smaller, they’ll struggle to hold on to their members. It’s hard to attract even Church of Christ members without enough children for a children’s program or teens for a teen program. The decline will accelerate.
And it gets worse. You see, you have to look behind the figures just a bit. The most conservative Churches are losing their children to Christianity altogether. They’ll be the first to die out. In fact, I’d guess they reflect most of the decline.
If you apply the rate of decline to the rightward 1/3 of the Churches, then they’d disappear in 40 years — less, really, because the rate is accelerating. Now, it won’t happen quite like that. There will be rightwing Churches of Christ 100 years from now, just as there are still Christadelphian congregations. But the numbers will surely plummet over the next few decades if current trends continue.
The moderate Churches aren’t losing their children as rapidly, but in my experience, there are fewer and fewer moderate churches. The leadership and membership are beginning to realize that moderate congregations are usually political institutions — with the leaders busily negotiating compromises among the various factions.
Moderate churches don’t stay moderate. They either split, lose the right or left faction to another church, or pick a direction. I don’t think there will be many more moderate churches in 10 years.
The progressive Churches often lose their children to community and other evangelical churches, as their children are raised to be more loyal to Jesus than to a denominational label. Until lately, progressive Churches grew by attracting disaffected members from other Churches of Christ. It’s still happening, but there are fewer and fewer sheep to steal.
The better progressive Churches are growing by actually converting the lost. But this requires a fairly dramatic change in how we “do church.” You can no longer be fixated on serving tradition when your goal is to reach out to those who care nothing about your tradition but may care greatly about Jesus.
Thus, the Churches of Christ find themselves in quite a fix. Give the churches another 10 years, and the moderate Churches will have largely disappeared, the most conservative Churches will be well on their way toward disappearance, and the progressive Churches will be looking for how to survive with no sheep to steal from the rest.
Now, as challenging as these observations are from the perspective of a congregational leader, imagine being the leader of a Church-affiliated college or publishing house. What does your 50-year plan look like if you’re a college? How does a publishing house stay afloat when its readership is in numerical decline and aging rapidly? The same-old same-old?
I observe that our more conservative colleges are moving toward the progressive spectrum, and our most progressive colleges are moving toward a generic evangelicalism. Indeed, the Christian Chronicle has recently run articles reporting that less than 50% of the students in our colleges are part of the Churches of Christ.
Now, if all this were a result of our intense devotion to Jesus and were happening despite serious efforts to live like Jesus and spread the gospel, then “God gives the increase.” But I’m not so sure that we’re planting and watering.
Indeed, I think we’re seeing the last gasp of our particular brand of sectarian, institutional, denominational Christianity. The nation is heading into a post-denominational era rapidly.
But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Indeed, we’re not far from seeing the realization of Barton W. Stone’s dream from the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery —
Imprimis. We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large: for there is but one body and one spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.
That’s the earliest document of the Stone-Campbell (Restoration) Movement, primarly authored by Richard McNemar but signed by Stone with others.
Kind of scary to imagine actually doing what it says, isn’t it? What would it be like to really, actually, and truly “sink into union with the Body of Christ at large”?
You see, we’ve never really meant it. Rick Atchley’s efforts to merge the Churches of Christ with the independent Christian Churches never really caught on — in part because many of our congregations consider instrumentalists damned. And in part because, well, why bother to merge denominations in a post-denominational world?
Crazy, I know, but the older leaders finally got ready to merge just about the time merger became irrelevant to most of our younger leaders.
Yep, I think the biggest problem with the merger effort was the fact it was so, you know, last century. The younger preachers really just don’t care about merging since, in their minds, we’ve already sunk into the larger Body of Christ. Or should have. Why merge with only a very small subset of Christianity in America?
But that’s a silly fiction. A self-delusion. We are not part of the larger Body. We’re just not. We may shop at their bookstores. We may go to their seminars. We may even buy their Bible class materials. But that only means we’re part of the same stream of commerce. That’s a capitalistic definition of “union.” We buy from each other. Not good enough.
So what would the realization of the original dream of the Restoration Movement mean on the ground? If we truly ceased to be a denomination and were “Christians only but not the only Christians,” how would life in the Churches of Christ change?