21st Century Christian has just published the 2015 edition of The Churches of Christ in the United States. The book is not yet available on Amazon.com. (The most recent version on Amazon is from 2012.) It’s not available in Kindle format.
Here’s a table of the raw data:
Here are some additional stats of interest:
* Congregations have been declining since 2003 at a rate of 0.54% per annum.
* Adherents (members plus unbaptized children) have been declining since 2003 at a rate of 0.69% per annum, meaning we’re losing people faster than we’re losing congregations. This is an 8.3% decline from 2003 to 2015.
* Since 2003, the average congregation size has declined by about two members per congregation, that is, from 126 to 124 adherents per congregation. This is not reflective of the rate of overall decline. Rather, we’re closing enough congregations to nearly keep the surviving congregations the same size they were before.
* The Christian Chronicle reports that the same figures reflect a 7.8% decline in membership since 1990, reflecting about 100,443 souls. (Oddly enough, this is buried in a report on urban ministry.) This is less than the 8.3% decline in adherents from 2015 to 2003. The 1990s were a time of plateaued growth of something like 0.5% over 13 years — essentially flat, even though it was a time of rapid population growth.
Notice that “membership” excludes unbaptized children. This is probably about 129,000 adherents, that is, members and unbaptized children — which is how most Churches of Christ think of membership.
* That’s a pace of 4,018 members and 5,159 adherents per year since 1990.
* Since 2003, the rate is 11,456 adherents per year lost to the Churches of Christ.
* Yes, the rate of decline is accelerating. A lot. The average rate of decline in members from 1990 to 2015 is 0.31% per year, that is, about half the current rate of decline. The loss of members, adherents, and congregations is picking up pace, doubling roughly every 15 to 20 years. I’ve not bothered to project those results into the future.
* During this same period, the population of the United States has grown from 249,438,712 in 1990 to 322,583,006 in 2015, an annual growth rate of 1.17%. That is, the nation is growing at twice the rate at which the Churches of Christ are declining.
* According to the Huffington Post,
The U.S. birth rate now is 1.9 births per woman over her lifetime, when 2 births per woman is necessary to sustain the population on its own. Because of immigration, the population is still growing, but the birth rate has been plunging since the recession started in 2007 and fell below population-sustaining levels in 2010. It’s projected to fall to a 25-year low this year and not recover to pre-recession levels anytime soon, according to the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence.
In short, we used to expect to grow congregations purely by keeping our own children. We now aren’t having enough children to replace our dying members.
* In fact, previous studies show that we’ve lost adherents faster than members, that is, we’ve lost more families with children than families without children — with obvious long term consequences. And this is doubtlessly why the pace of decline is accelerating.
Yeakley reports that, as of the early 1990s, only 55% of children growing up in a Church of Christ remain affiliated with the Churches of Christ after they leave home. Of the 45% who leave, 33% never return. The remaining 12% leave but return, generally when they marry and have children.
A more recent study focuses on those graduating from high school from 1997 to 2006. Of these, 58.2% remain members of a Church of Christ; 21.1% have transferred to another denomination; and 20.7% have no church affiliation at all.
Given that some of these graduates may yet marry, have children, and return to church, the numbers are fairly consistent with the earlier study.
In the recent past, reports such as this have been met with the following responses:
— My but aren’t the “progressives” gleeful about all this!
No, no one is happy about these numbers. They do validate the concerns of many in all factions of the Churches of Christ that something is seriously wrong. But no one is happy that things are so bad.
— Talking about this stuff only makes things worse! All this bad news is killing us!
There’s no sense in blaming the messenger, and our numbers were badly negative long before the studies revealed this truth. Denial is no solution. Blaming others for our own problems is no solution.
— Well, at least we’re doing better than [name a denomination].
True enough, I suppose, but our children are leaving Christianity entirely. How is 20% of our children having no church affiliation at all acceptable? How does the fact that others have worse problems make our losses acceptable?
— It’s all the criticism from the “progressives” that’s driving our children away!
You’re confusing cause with effect. We were in decline before there was much of any “progressive” movement in the Churches of Christ. And if you’d bother to speak to your congregation’s children who left to ask them why they left, they’ll tell you. And it won’t be because of progressive criticisms.
Flavil Yeakley, one of the Churches’ leading statisticians, who is quite conservative in his theology, took the trouble to do this, and the reasons are reported in his book Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ published by the Gospel Advocate — hardly a bastion of progressivism.
— I don’t believe these liberal statistics. Who made these things up anyway?
Well, these come from some of our more conservative institutions, from statisticians who are not among the “progressive” Churches.
— Maybe these stats are distorted by congregations that no longer consider themselves Churches of Christ.
A little bit. But 21st Century Christian continues to treat Churches of Christ with instrumental services as Churches of Christ. And only a handful of former Churches of Christ no longer consider themselves part of the denomination.
— Well, “God gives the increase!” If we’re not growing, it’s because God has chosen not to bless us with growth.
I read this passage to say that if we plant and water, God will give the increase. God is faithful to his promises. If we’re not growing, it’s because we’re not planting and watering
— or else because we’re planting the wrong seed.
Toward a solution
What’s the solution? Well, we’ve covered this before. But we have to start with —
* Being courageous enough to accept the facts as true and to deal with them as they are. We have to get over our denial and blaming of others.
* Being courageous enough to ask whether we’re really as right on our doctrine as we’d like to think. Obviously, we aren’t persuading our own children.
Of course, this isn’t essential. Wait a few decades and our church buildings will all be owned by church plants from other denominations with very different theologies. We can stay the same and be replaced — or we can do some honest self-examination.
I’m not suggesting that we should practice and teach what we should consider error just to hold onto our numbers. But neither should we remain the same just because it’s easier.
Change is coming. The question is whether we want to be part of it.
PS — At a reader’s request, here’s the above graph scaled from zero to the numbers shown:
The drop in adherents from 2003 to 2015 is 8.3%, regardless of the style of graph used. We’re about 1/12th of the way to zero, and declining at an accelerating pace.