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.
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|
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.