The Gospel Advocate has recently published Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ by Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr. (Sadly, not available in electronic form.)
Dr. Yeakley has long served as an un-official statistician for the Churches of Christ, and his work has been extremely valuable to the Churches. It’s due to Dr. Yeakley’s research that we know that the Churches of Christ are in decline in terms of members, members and adherents (members plus unbaptized children), and congregations.
In this book, he looks at the available data as to why this is so. It’s a valuable resource and much appreciated.
Dr. Yeakley has been sounding this alarm for a while, but until now, the reaction of far too many of our thought leaders has been denial or dismissal: “It’s a glitch,” “At least others are losing more members than we are!” “Numbers don’t matter.”
And there is an argument for “Numbers don’t matter.” Indeed, we should very seriously reflect on that question. Those who advocate for this position typically come from either of two very different directions.
* Some argue that numbers don’t matter because our job is to plant and water and God gives the increase. If we’re not growing, it’s God’s fault for not giving the increase!
I find this line of argumentation sacrilegious, even blasphemous. If we’re not growing, it’s not because God doesn’t keep his promises! It’s because we aren’t planting or watering — or because we’re planting and watering the wrong seed.
* Some argue that the numbers don’t matter because our members are merely transferring to churches of other denominations — they aren’t abandoning Jesus. There’s a lot of truth to this, but there remain at least two serious problems this response doesn’t address —
— First, if our members are abandoning our congregations for others, something is decidedly unhealthy. Either we are doing a poor job as churches, and so they are moving to a better place to serve Jesus. Or else we’re teaching them so poorly that they prefer an inferior form of Christianity.
So often we blame those who leave, accusing them of having a preference for “entertainment” or tickled ears or whatever. But we had these people in our congregations for their entire lives. If they have immature, shallow hearts, isn’t that at least partly our own fault?
— Second, while some of our own members leave for other denominations, an amazing number are leaving all expressions of organized Christianity. They may have a faith of sorts, but they reject the Christian community entirely. Thus, our churches are producing an astonishing number of departures from the congregational life of any denomination.
Again, there are arguments that this is not so bad. After all, one can believe in Jesus and not be part of an organized congregation. Moreover, many people gather in house churches that aren’t in the Yellow Pages and therefore are untrackable by those taking surveys.
But one of God’s specific purposes in saving us is to form his children into a loving, missional community. The gospel is about much more than salvation, and it’s not possible to live the life God envisions for us or for God to further his mission through us as he wishes as individuals. That’s Western radical individuality talking, not God or his Scriptures.
I’m familiar with Barna’s teachings on house churches, and there are certainly many very fine Christian families who form Christian communities in this fashion. I just don’t think there is any evidence that those who abandon the Churches of Christ are leaving the Churches in order to form house churches in substantial numbers. Some are, but if we think all our former members are going to church somewhere, somehow, we’re fooling ourselves.
We’ll learn more about the numbers as we work through Yeakley’s report. For now, the cold, hard reality is that our numbers are in decline, many of those who are leaving us have utterly abandoned the visible church (of any denomination), and indeed many have lost their faith altogether.
And the numbers are net figures. Yes, it’s true that many leave the Churches once they leave home, only to return when they marry and have children, but the numbers Yeakley reports are net numbers, that is, they include both those leaving and those returning. And it’s a net loss.
Moreover, the fact that our children very nearly routinely leave church upon leaving home, only to return when they have children, warns us that we must be — somehow — teaching them that church only has value for children. They learned that from their parents or someone. That behavior didn’t come from nowhere.
The time for rationalization and denial is over. It’s time to seriously reflect on how we’ve messed up and how we can do better. And Yeakley’s book is an excellent place to begin, because the facts matter.
I don’t think the book goes nearly far enough. But it’s a very helpful, very necessary start.