The Christian Chronicle has run a story featuring the news of the declining membership in the Churches of Christ. You should definitely visit their site and read the story.
The story provides some additional data:
Add in unbaptized children and spouses of members, and the numbers are even more stark: The “adherents” figure stood at 1,684,872 in 1990. That number has dropped to 1,519,695, a decline of 165,177 souls — or 9.8 percent — the 2015 directory reveals.
We naturally think of the size of a church in terms of what statisticians call “adherents” — baptized members and unbaptized spouses and children who attend. And the fact that the rate of decline in adherents is faster than the rate of decline for baptized members means that we’re losing families with children significantly faster than families without children. That bodes very, very poorly for the future.
Now, the number of adherents fell by 8.3% from 2003 to 2015, meaning that the number only fell about 0.5% from 1990 to 2003 (13 years) and then fell 7.8% from 2003 to 2015 (12 years). That’s a dramatic increase in the pace of decline. We were declining before, but the pace has greatly quickened — over 15 times the earlier pace.
The Chronicle‘s article provides links to earlier reports where the decline of the Churches was earlier reported (although not as early as here!), as well as useful background information on the stats and how they were gathered. You should take a look.
You also take a look at a post by Michael Hanegan, analyzing the same stats, with particular emphasis on Oklahoma. He offers some very interesting insights.
Both posts suggest that the problem is a national cultural trend in the US toward secularism and unbelief, and that is doubtlessly part of the problem. But it’s not the heart of the problem. It’s just not.
And you really can’t analyze the problem without distinguishing the challenges faced by the more conservative Churches versus the challenges faced by the more progressive Churches. They are very different, and no one is helped by pretending it’s all the same. It’s just not.
Just a few years ago, they also slid into a membership decline.
And that would suggest that the problem is bigger than just the Churches of Christ and the Baptists. But during the 1990s, while the Churches of Christ were plateaued (0.5% growth in members from 1990 to 2003 — less than 0.05% growth per year — but a 0.5% decline in adherents), the Southern Baptists grew significantly. Why did they grow while we did not? If we were plateaued solely because of national trends, why were the Baptists not plateaued?
And, yes, it’s true that nationally the number of people who self-classify as “unaffiliated” rather than Christian is growing, but according to Ed Stetzer, consultant to the Southern Baptist Convention and church growth expert,
“The ‘nominals’ are becoming the ‘nones,’” Southern Baptist Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research sensibly explained. “In other words, those who had a nominal, name only, connection to Christianity simply are not identifying themselves that way any longer.” He also pointed out that the number of evangelicals as a share of the population has remained roughly stable.
So, yes, the national trends are quite real, but they are not driving what is going on. The percentage of evangelicals is constant (there was a drop in the 1980s likely tied to unhappiness of some with the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition trends), meaning the evangelical churches are growing at the same rate as the population — faster than the birth rate. But the percentage of Churches of Christ is falling rapidly in absolute terms, and even more rapidly compared to total population.
Now, on the other hand, beginning around 2005, the Southern Baptists began to lose numbers. And yet evangelicals in total were not in decline during the same time frame. What’s going on?
Well, check your stats and you’ll find that people are moving from the Baptist Churches (and others) to nondenominational community churches. According to Bradley Wright in his Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media
(mandatory reading!) —
In particular, an increasing number of Evangelical Christians now describe themselves in general terms such as nondenominational, born again, or just Christian instead of using denominational labels such as Baptist or Evangelical Free. Reflecting this change, in 1990, only about 200,000 Americans described themselves as nondenominational Christians, but in 2008, 8 million did so.
So the statistics don’t point toward a hopelessly negative national trend away from God or even the institutional church or even evangelical Christianity. Rather, the trend lines point toward evangelical, nondenominational Christianity (and less nominal Christianity), all of which is good — and not far from where the progressive Churches of Christ would like to be — except for the “nondenominational” part. I mean, so far as those outside the Churches of Christ are concerned, “Church of Christ” is a denominational label — and a label with some very negative associations.
Even the Southern Baptists are being hurt by the denominational name (as well as their clinging to denominational traditions that aren’t scriptural (sound familiar?)). So it’s not just “Church of Christ” that is off putting, but I’m aware of surveys that show strong negatives for the “Church of Christ” name. Wishful thinking won’t change that.
I’m not going to spend much more electronic ink on the problems of the conservative Churches. They have been well documented and thoroughly analyzed in many places. Rather, I’m far more interested in the challenges faced by the progressive Churches of Christ. But that’s for future posts (the Lord willing).
PS — Part 1 of this series had over 15,000 pageviews! That’s an absurdly high number for sites in the Church of Christ universe. This is a desperately needed conversation.