We are reflecting on Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ by Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr.
Yeakley begins by pointing out that the Stone-Campbell or Restoration Movement produced three major denominations.
In terms of total adherents (baptized members plus their unbaptized children), the three denominations* rank as the 12th (Churches of Christ), 13th (Christian Churches and Churches of Christ**), and 14th (Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)) largest denominations in the US.
Yeakley next points out that the Churches of Christ have a far higher percentage of their adherents actually attend church (76.4%) compared to all other denominations on this list for which data is available. By way of contrast, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) only have 26.1% of their adherents in church on a typical Sunday.
Does this mean our members feel more strongly about attendance? Or that we more readily clean up our church rolls? I imagine that some of both is true.
The Churches of Christ have the 4th highest number of congregations, despite having only the 12th largest number of adherents. Our congregations are smaller, on average, than for most other denominations. Indeed, 34.6% of our congregations have fewer than 50 members and 63.3% have fewer than 100 members.
The states with the highest concentration of Church of Christ adherents are Texas (22.4%), Tennessee (13.2%), Alabama (7.2%), and Arkansas (5.3%).
I live in Alabama. My congregation has a ministry to the University of Alabama, with over 30,000 students. By those numbers, there should be about 2,100 students who self-identify with the Churches of Christ. But, in fact, when the University published its list of Church of Christ students for the fall of 2011, only 200 (less than 10%) had so identified. 20 years ago, the number was 500 — even though the University had half as many students.
One argument made is that the University is drawing students from other states, which is true. But the state sending the most students to Tuscaloosa from outside Alabama is … (wait for it) … Texas. The next largest states are largely Southern states with similar Church of Christ ratios.
I’m looking at this on the ground. If you were to total the Church of Christ student works in town, you’d be hard pressed to get to the number to 200 students active in any Church of Christ — including the non-institutional Churches.
Now, this is not a new phenomenon. Many students don’t want phone calls and mailings from the local Churches, some because they commute from home and plan to keep their congregational affiliation and some because they want to church shop on their own — and some because they plan on abandoning the church or Christianity altogether.
But 20 years ago, about 50% of those freshmen growing up in a Church of Christ registered at UA as Church of Christ members. Now it’s about 10%. That tells you the direction we’re headed with our very own children.
* Yeakley carefully avoids the use of “denomination” to refer to the Churches of Christ, leading to the awkward and confusing “Christian religious bodies.” Regardless of what our preachers say, in standard English, the Churches of Christ are a denomination, and it’s much easier to read what’s being said when we write in standard English.
** The “Christian Churches and Churches of Christ” consist of those congregations of the Restoration Movement that use instrumental music and do not identify with the a cappella Churches of Christ and that declined to join the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which is organized at the national level as a formal denomination. Hence, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) do not practice complete congregational autonomy, unlike the other two denominations.
There are many autonomous Churches of Christ that have been instrumental for over 100 years, in fellowship with the Christian Churches. The choice of name was not originally associated with different doctrinal positions on the instrument, making it hard to know what to call this or that group of congregations. It’s confusing.