The Christian Chronicle has just posted an article criticizing the notion that the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ* have been enjoying “phenomenal” growth.
But figures released by the U.S. Religion Census last week show the total number of congregations of instrumental Christian Churches and Churches of Christ has declined over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, the total number of adherents has risen less than 1 percent. The specific figures:
2010: 1,453,160 adherents and 5,293 congregations
2000: 1,439,253 adherents and 5,471 congregations
The comparable numbers for a cappella Churches of Christ:
2010: 1,584,162 adherents and 12,584 congregations
2000: 1,645,645 adherents and 13,032 congregations
I posted the following comment:
For more historical context, the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ had 1,213,188 adherents in 1990 (http://www.adherents.com/Na/Na_152.html), meaning they grew 19% from 1990 to 2000 — which is indeed a phenomenal growth rate. During the same time, the a cappella Churches of Christ were plateaued.
Oddly enough, the number of congregation in 1990 was 5228, meaning they added 3% more congregations while growing 19% in adherents. Then from 2000 to 2010 they declined about 4% in congregations while growing 1% in adherents. Their congregations are, on average, getting larger (average of 229 in 1990 to an average of 278 in 2010).
I don’t know why the rate of growth declined from 2000 to 2010, but if we’re going to compare the two denominations, we need to include both the 1990 to 2000 figures and the 2000 to 2010 figures — as the 1990 to 2000 figures demonstrate that growth was possible during those years even though we in the Churches of Christ failed to achieve it.
We shouldn’t use the slow growth of the independent Christian Churches from 2000 to 2010 as some sort of excuse for the poor harvest we are producing for our Lord.
My guess is that the independent Christian Churches grew in average congregational size because their smallest churches either closed or merged. It’s a phenomenon the Churches of Christ are seeing as well. The difference is that we’re not replacing the failing churches with new, larger churches because we’re not having much success in church planting — partly due to not trying very hard and partly due to attempting to plant churches on failed models.
Of course, all denominations are struggling with the failure of older, larger churches to grow — except for an exceptional few. Most large churches fail to grow because they’re too inwardly focused — and it’s only when a church is planted with a vision of outward focus — a vision that is preserved and perpetuated by the leadership year after year — that the tendency to become inward focused is overcome.
There is, of course, no good reason that a congregation has to become inwardly focused — but we allow an entitlement mentality among our members, due to a theology that focuses on externals (acts of worship, form of organization) rather than following Jesus and transformation by the Spirit. Changing that would be quite a challenge, but it’s the only path that leads away from eventual death.
After all, if our members are allowed to be selfish and entitled, they aren’t exactly being like Jesus — and if they’re not like Jesus, why are we bothering?
* The independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (often shortened to “independent Christian Churches”) are congregations with roots in the Restoration Movement that are doctrinally nearly identical to the a cappella Churches of Christ except, of course, for the instrumental music. Since they’ve not endured a century of preaching on the Regulative Principle and CENI, they’ve also not suffered nearly as many divisions as the a cappella Churches — the primary division being the Disciples of Christ (Christian Churches), which became a centralized denomination, adopted mainline attitudes, and is dying.