Churches of Christ: Why They Left:, “Good News and Bad News”

Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ by Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr.We’ve been considering Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ by Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr. We can think of this as a sequel to his Good News and Bad News: A Realistic Assessment of the Churches of Christ in the United States 2008, which provides some additional statistical insights we should reflect on.

For example,

The general trend since 1980 has been for Churches of Christ to grow in”U.S. Mission Field” states, but to decline in states where the Churches of Christ have the greatest concentration of congregations, members, and adherents [unbaptized children].

Of course, this is consistent with my recent series taught at the Tulsa Workshop, questioning why established Churches don’t grow like church plants. Indeed, the evidence is that, on the whole, our established Churches are in accelerating decline.

The number of congregations that have closed their doors from 1980-2007 is the highest in many of the states where the Churches are the strongest.

States Congregations Closed Percent of Decline
Missouri -98 -18.0%
Texas -85 -3.8%
Oklahoma -45 -7.1%
Illinois -18 -5.9%
Kansas -17 -9.3%
Michigan -16 -7.5%
Arkansas -15 -2.0%

Oklahoma has long had a strong Church of Christ presence, and yet it’s lost 7.1% of its total number of congregations in 28 years.

And this is no statistical glitch. The total number of adherents (baptized members and their unbaptized children) declined by 11,011 (12%!) during the same time. You see, the loss of congregations is less dramatic than the loss of people. Indeed, despite the closings, the congregations that remain have, on average, a lower membership than in 1980.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Churches lost 10,187 people, representing 4.5% of their adherents — despite being the home of countless schools of preaching, colleges, and other institutions affiliated with the Churches.

Let’s be honest. These numbers are sheer disaster. When the states with the largest numbers of members and with the strongest institution are losing members and congregations, the denomination as a whole is in deep, deep trouble.

And these numbers are only through 2007 — five years ago. The pace of loss gives every evidence of accelerating. For example, while Tennessee lost 10,187 adherents, it only lost 5,479 baptized members, meaning that nearly half of those lost were unbaptized children. And when churches begin to lose their young families, they are ready for the church equivalent of hospice. They are terminal — absent dramatic changes.

In fact, many of congregations have chosen to dose themselves with spiritual morphine, to dull the pain of this disaster. Rather than dealing with the real problems, they’ve chosen to anesthetize the pain with nostalgia, denial, and blaming everyone but themselves.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I see few signs that many of our more conservative congregations are taking any steps at all to deal with the problem. And as I’ve said, the progressive Churches have their own related problem — being that they are used to growing by attracting unhappy sheep from the conservatives. That pond will soon fish out.

I do appreciate the courageous decision of the Gospel Advocate to publish Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ even though Dr. Yeakley takes positions contrary to the Advocate’s recent editorial policies. Perhaps the Advocate is taking this news seriously.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

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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10 Responses to Churches of Christ: Why They Left:, “Good News and Bad News”

  1. Skip says:

    Of course the churches in established areas are shrinking because the CoC is not a dynamic or powerful church where members see God at work. The traditional CoC is more about keeping the faith than spreading it. New congregations grow because the new members either haven’t figured out the frozen orthodoxy or the new members are merely lifetime CoC members who finally found a church in their area.

  2. Alan says:

    It feels a little less bad when we can point to someone else who is the problem. But it really comes down to each individual living the Christian life. If just one of us were to start converting a lost person to Jesus every year, and teaching them to do the same, the entire world would be Christian before we die. It’s not someone else’s fault. It’s mine.

  3. laymond says:

    “The number of congregations that have closed their doors from 1980-2007 is the highest in many of the states where the Churches are the strongest.”

    Does this time frame not raise any suspicions as to why the church started loosing members faster than before, does this time frame not coincide with the time that the so-called progressives started their attack (in earnest) on the church from inside the lines, and as the attack continues even today, so does the loss of members. Why would a young person want to join an organization that is fighting continually, member against member. Why would anyone want to stay in a place where even the long standing members could not agree. If you truly believe there is something dreadfully wrong with a group that you are a member of why not just leave, instead of trying to bring the building down on top of the pews in which you and your family sit , yes the church is being brought down, but slowly and very painfully. I don’t know which would be more painful, hanging on that cross, or watching your church being brought down, by those who claim membership.

  4. Norton says:

    Jay

    In one of your posts, I don’t remember which, I believe you stated that the Disciples of Christ were growing. Some ten years ago they were in a nose dive. If that is the case, do you have any idea how or why they reversed course?

  5. Dr. Yeakley’s book cover, could easily depict why any church would be in decline; if the light is on the outside, and darkness on the inside – they’ll leave.

    I would be interested in knowing what Greg thinks about the book.

    Jay, It has been an interesting series.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Norton,

    The Disciples of Christ have been losing members rapidly for quite some time, just like other mainline denominations.

    The independent Christian Churches, however, grew rapidly the latter part of the 20th Century. They pursued an aggressive church planting strategy. My understanding is that growth has slowed lately but they are not at all in decline.

    The Southern Baptists, however, are in decline (very slow but measurable). This is in part due to a lack of transfer growth from the mainlines and, in my opinion, getting too close to the Republican Party. The Baptists made a colossal mistake in getting overly politicized at a time when those outside the church find any association between Christianity and partisan politics unattractive.

    A new generation of Baptists are making a big difference, leading the Baptists away from boycotts and sample ballots and toward transformative Christianity — see, for example, David Platt and his book Radical, as exemplifying the new trend.

    I expect to see the Baptists turn things around as they move toward a deeper spirituality, but it’ll take a long time for a ship that big to turn around.

    The independent Christian Churches, due to their Restoration roots, haven’t been nearly so politicized and are redoubling their efforts at planting, and should continue to be evangelistically effective, esp. since they can appeal to the desire of so many for non-denominational Christianity.

    The Churches of Christ are doing some planting, but we have a lot to learn and the plants that do the best aren’t traditional Churches of Christ — and might not make the listings published by 21st Century Christian, as they often won’t have a cappella services. But they save many lost people. That dynamic does make it hard to measure the growth the denomination — as the progressives are acting less and less like a denomination every day by planting churches unlike themselves and sometimes dropping the “Church of Christ” trademark.

    Hence, even if we do manage to turn things around, the positive results may be very hard for the statisticians to measure. Yeakley comments that the most growth among the CoC is around mission points and the most loss of members are where we are established, which should tell us a lot about why we are failing.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Laymond wrote,

    Does this time frame not raise any suspicions as to why the church started loosing members faster than before, does this time frame not coincide with the time that the so-called progressives started their attack (in earnest) on the church from inside the lines, and as the attack continues even today, so does the loss of members.

    Actually, no. The Churches’ plateau began between 1970 and 1980. Rubel Shelly’s “I Just Want to Be a Christian” wasn’t published until 1986 — and at least in this part of the country, there was no progressive movement of consequence until after that publication. However, the Churches began losing their children well before the progressive movement was of much consequence.

    I know of no one who has left upset over the progressive “attack.” I know countless people who have left over our legalism and gracelessness. Moreover, in Yeakley’s survey, the progressive movement was not mentioned by anyone as a cause for leaving. Rather, those who left point directly at the errors of 20th Century Church doctrine — especially the attitude that we are the only ones going to heaven and insistence on judging over instrumental music.

    Thus, to blame the progressive movement is to ignore the evidence.

  8. Jerry says:

    Jay,
    Landon Saunders delivered a lecture at Freed-Hardeman in the early 70’s that drew a lot of fire – and led to him being in the center of a storm of controversy. His basic thesis was that the church needed to make some changes. Also, in the early 70’s Chuck Lucas was beginning his work in Gainesville, FL. Of course, that work went off in a different direction from the current progressive movement, but he did talk about the Holy Spirit as being active. He also allowed women to pray in the presence of men. Both of those things drew a lot of fire.

    Some of the things that led to the later progressive movement were already occurring prior to Rubel’s I Just Want To Be A Christian. In fact, by the time I read that book, I did not find anything in it that I thought to be radical. It was basically a restatement of the basic restoration plea.

    In fact, it was my own understanding of that plea and applying the restoration principles that led me to question a number of the doctrines I had learned from my youth. And I have been amazed in the past 4-5 years at how many are coming to conclusions very similar to the ones I had quietly reached between the mid-60’s and, say, 2005.

  9. Jerry says:

    Again, I remember that in the mid-60’s when I was a student at Sunset, Richard Rogers observed, “The church in Texas is not strong; it’s just ‘thick’.” That may suggest one reason that some states in which there is numeric strength have had a higher percentage of decline than other states. It may be that in some places, the Church of Christ is not strong (though it may appear to be so); it is just thick.

    I appreciate your comment that the CoC certainly acts like a denomination, while denying it is one – and your challenge to anyone who did not believe that simply to try to call their congregation something other than the Church of Christ.

  10. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Jerry,

    There has been a progressive movement going back to Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. But at least in this SE US, there were precious few, if any, congregations that might be referred to as progressive until the 1990s.

    That is, there were hardly any Churches — nearly none — where the preacher would declare that IM is not a salvation issue from the pulpit. There were, of course, a great many preachers who’d arrived at progressive positions, going back to the beginning of the Movement, but after Foy Wallace Jr. squelched the Tennessee tradition (to use John Mark Hicks’ vocabulary) and imposed a strict legalism on the Churches via the Gospel Advocate, the Churches were remarkably uniform in practice and teaching — and fearful of criticism.

    In the SE US, that all changed with Rubel’s book. Some of us had been teaching to the contrary for a long time before, but we were mere Sunday school teachers. Our teaching was not reflected in the pulpit.

    Thus, you could not argue that the conservative/progressive divide that didn’t really reach full flower until the 1990s was the primary cause of the lack of growth of the Churches of Christ in the 1980s.

    Leonard Allen’s “Distant Voices” wasn’t published until 1999. Richard Hughes’ “Reclaiming a Heritage” was in 2002. Jim Woodruff’s “The Church in Transition” was published in 1990.

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