The 2015 Churches of Christ in the United States, Part 2

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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.

SouthernBaptistStatsTake the Southern Baptist Church, for example.

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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to The 2015 Churches of Christ in the United States, Part 2

  1. stacy0063 says:

    I left the One Cup/no class/no IM segment of our faith heritage almost 4 years ago. I now attend a Independent Christian Church, still part of the Restoration Movement. The conservative CofCs still see a digressive behind every bush and in every pew. They still attack one-another as their circle of fellowship gets smaller every year. However, many in that segment of the church continue to deny the facts you have presented. Your info should open their, our, eyes.

    Thanks!!

  2. Matt Bridgman says:

    I do not think this is an Ideological issue or a faith problem as some are contending. This is a cultural problem and we need to add some other statistics to this in order to fully understand. The estimated immigration population in 1990 (includes both legal and illegal) was 10,000,000, by 2013 this number had increased 4X to 40,000,000. The same time period also shows us a decline in the Non Hispanic White population of 11.9%. The birth rate for the Black community is 1.90, Hispanic 2.19, and Non Hispanic White 1.76.
    The CoC is still badly segregated there are Black CoC and White CoC. I have seen many communities change culture from a predominately white to a predominately black community. The local congregations response to this change of the time is to move congregations or just die down to nothing.
    Bottom line our decline has nothing to do with “conservative or liberal”. It has nothing to do with how we approach worship. The CoC is in decline because we are TO WHITE. I’ am not surprised at all that a mostly white group of people have declined by 10% in the last 25 years if the overall population the white community has declined by 12% in that same time period. I know some congregations are doing a good job with Hispanic ministry but as a whole we are failing to even attempt to reach out to the fastest growing segment of our country. It is very uncomfortable to reach out to those who you share no cultural background with.The same problem existed with Peter, he more than anybody understood the unification of Christ and still struggled to accept these gentiles who eat red meat, do not laugh or enjoy the same things. 1 Cor 9:9-13 describes the answer to our decline!

  3. Alabama John says:

    As long as we preach only a few will go in, many from the old school will continue to believe the more that leave, the better their chances of being counted in the few and up their chances of going to heaven.
    In many cases what we preached for so long has come back to bite us in the butt.

  4. need4news says:

    The politicization (Is that a word?) of the evangelical movement gave those assemblies a more ‘patriotic’ and thus more popular appeal. Those groups became bastions of conservative political thought–and had their leadership running for office from then ’till now. Seems that idea contributed heavily to the increase those groups saw in attendance over the past 20+ years.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    N4N,

    Bradley Wright’s book demonstrates that the evangelical church actually lost momentum during the time of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition when it comes to numbers. Members with Democratic leanings felt unwelcomed and left. Many evangelical leaders have seen the error of become a special interest group within a political party and the wisdom of stepping outside worldly politics to focus on the Kingdom.

    Scot McKnight, in Kingdom Conspiracy, argues the case well. The job of the Kingdom is not to compel obedience by unbelievers but to create more believers. And Congress and the Supreme Court aren’t means to that end.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Matt,

    You are exactly right. We cannot be a predominately white denomination in the US and reflect true Christianity. Not only are the demographics against us, but so is the gospel.

  7. Mark says:

    When churches got in bed with politics, it did not bring politics up but brought churches down. Whether or not the congregation went to the right or the left, the other side felt unwelcome. Thus when people went looking for a church, add politics to the list of things that had to be determined.

    Also, one of the things that causes issues in all cofCs is when the young realize one day that they missed out on what seems like everything. Their Jewish friends were bar mitzvah and got the party afterward and then confirmation a few years later. Their Christian friends got confirmation. (These all involved family and friends and put the young in with the clergy.) The cofC (and Baptist) kids got nothing. (No class on what it meant to be a Christian. No time with real clergy.) Baptism was so expected that the “dunkee” (I like the term. I think someone [Charles, perhaps] on this blog created it.) did not even get a handshake afterward while they were still wet. I never saw the happy clergy welcome the person.

  8. Friend of Bill W. says:

    JG,

    Rather than the Reagan/GWB years, I was thinking more of the Clinton through BHO years (’92-present) when the lines between “believers and Democrats” became more distinct. Does Wright say the Evangeliticos grew then? The politically charged churches around here (central TN) draw huge crowds to the patriotic events.

    I’ll have to give Wright a read…

  9. alegler says:

    According to a sermon I heard by Chris Seidman on a podcast from The Branch, it’s not so much that numbers have declined as it is people don’t go to church as consistently. Instead of going every Sun., the average Christian goes just 2 to 3 Sundays a month throwing off the averages.

  10. Alabama John says:

    Jay,

    here is a song we of the old Church of Christ have heard hundreds of times. No telling how many have responded to it in the evening services. Now we progressives have few night services and I’ll bet never this song. Would be interesting if we could just for a short time in the progressive churches sing these old songs and see the response. Young folks just might like and need these sung lessons.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rDCA4snOEc

    We forget what a short time it has been since most were pretty ignorant of the bible in this country.

    We are only a few generations from the 1700’s. My grandfather was born before the Civil War. His father in the 1700’s. We’ve come far!

    How many just a few years ago saw the open bible sitting up on the fireplace mantel, couldn’t read it, but saw the letters on its wings and called it the great speckled bird. Jeremiah 12:9

    Roy Acuff sang a song about that. Was very popular. The Great Speckled Bird. Believed it, the bible, would carry you to heaven on its wings as the song says.

    Its not been so long ago our folks were for the most of us, not very well educated, had no idea how to debate as we do and God will take that into account on Judgement day.

    Everything of the old ways was not ignorant and bad as some seem to think.

  11. Joe B says:

    Don’t read the comment section of the Chronicle post unless you want to be sick. It only confirms the main issue of why the churches of Christ are in numerical decline. The next time I hear we are the church of the first century or we need to be the church of the first century I think I will explode. Instead of that why don’t we say let’s be Lord’s body in the 21st century whatever that means? It is obvious that some are viciously clinging to the idea that we had a magic formula in the middle part of the last century. Can we please just stop. Modernism has run it’s course in the United States and is never coming back period.
    So yeah why don’t we bring back the debates and the Gospel Meetings aka doctrinal correction seminars? That will surely solve the problem. Convincing a previously religious person that their way of ding church is wrong is not the equivalent to convincing somebody to believe in Jesus for the first time. Or better yet let’s get some more syndicated shows like the Lord Speaks and blast out religious castigation to all our religious friends in the name of contending for the truth, that will really solve the problem. Or better yet let’s plant more churches with same failed leadership and theological models we have now that should really put a button on it. Planting churches with the same failed theology and leadership model will only exacerbate the problem and is not evangelistic but a last gasp to hold on to intuitionalism. One truth is many will never study themselves out of legalism and institutionalism because of fear of castigation from their religious friends or diminution for making one doctrinal mistake.
    How would any of our traditional rhetoric mean anything to a postmodern seeker who doesn’t even consider the bible truth with which to begin. You want to talk about the early Christians then talk about love about a love that transcends all human barriers, about sacrifice like giving beyond what they were able, talk about constant transformation, talk about leaving everything for the kingdom, talk about visiting people in jail, talking about feeding people, talk about martyrdom, talk about no church buildings only homes, talk about praying all through the night, talk about being friends with someone who is completely different than you are by race, age, color ethnicity etc., talk about ongoing spiritual transformation (not just getting dunked once and saying I am sorry), talk about bearing fruit worthy of repentance, about a church made up mostly of previous addicts and prostitutes and thieves and cheats and sexually immoral like one in Corinth, talk about a church that becomes all things to all people to bring them to Christ, talk about a church that considers pure and undefiled religion as taking care of the orphans and widows, talk about confessing one to another so that we may be healed. Well this list is lengthy but you get the idea that in essence rather than “form” the present day church doesn’t look anything like the early church. The early church looked more like a spiritual triage center that was messy but beautiful. The present day church looks like the book group of a country club. The truth is the greatest failure of our form and theology is that it has not led us to be the church of first century in essence regardless of how much we assert that we have copied any forms or patterns from it. In fact in essence we have become a social group with our set of religious laws claiming doctrinal perfection and believing if we have everything right then all else will fall into line.
    I am one of those that Flavil Yeakley spoke of that left. A young spiritually minded person who is evangelistic. In good conscience I could not bring anyone to a local church who was a new convert because the legalism, institutionalism, keeping up appearances and doctrinal perfectionism would have driven them further from the Lord. When I was in high school in Belton TX in the early 90s I was blessed to be used an a gospel instrument in ministering to several that made decisions to follow the Lord all but one eventually left church all together and the one who is still following in faith goes to a …gasp community church. It was only at the community church that this person was really able to reach freedom and unpack spiritual baggage that they had carried their whole life and find the Lord’s calling for them. I am tired of the criticism of the younger generation. I am 37 years old, an older Xer. I will tell you that no matter how much the present leadership in the churches of Christ tighten their grip and continue in their Rhetoric will they ever be able to re-capture emerging generations that were reared in the churches of Christ or those who were not and come from no modernistic assumption at all. If those in the leadership of the churches of Christ really want to do something it will not be easy or popular. First you must have the permission and culture to restudy everything and to make changes once a different conclusion is reached after re-study. Then you must have am incarnational reflection of that theology. The theology must be consistent and it must line up with the nature of God. Then most of allt what the church does together must be what living the gospel out looks like not just the old assembly model. Even a good theology with an incarnational manifestation of it is useless to the emerging generations just like it was to Paul. Then we must learn how to talk with people who come from a postmodern mind set. Most of us are not even equipped to have a dialogue with somebody who comes from a postmodern world view. So let’s equip ourselves. That is our true evangelistic challenge in this time in the USA. Once we address those issues then church planting can really be used as an evangelistic tool.
    These are hard discussion but if you want the perspective of my generation with which so many speak of there it is.

  12. Monty says:

    Well that was a mouth full Joe B, and one well said!

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