The Future of the Churches of Christ: More Stats

totalmembershipAccording to a recent Christianity Today article, the Southern Baptists report yet another year of numerical decline. And the rate of decline is accelerating.

A new major survey from the Pew Research Center shows a similar decline for the SBC. In 2007, Pew found that about 6.7 percent of Americans claimed to be Southern Baptists. In 2014, 5.3 percent of Americans were Southern Baptists.

Pew also found that Southern Baptists are aging, with the median age rising from 49 in 2007 to 54 in 2014. That makes them older than Nazarenes, “nones,” and non-denominational Christians, but younger than Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists.

Other news from the recent Annual Church Profile (ACP) report released by LifeWay Christian Resources, which compiles SBC stats:

  • About a third of Southern Baptists show up in church each week, with attendance dropping to about 5.67 million Sunday worshippers.

  • Total baptisms declined 305,301, or about 1 for every 51 members. The rate remained unchanged from last year, thanks to the membership decline. But the overall number of baptisms is the lowest since 1947.

  • Churches spent about $1.2 billion on missions—out of $11.1 billion in donations—in 2014, about 5 percent less than in 2013.

The Churches of Christ don’t track or report baptisms or attendance nearly as well as the Baptists, but our numbers have closely paralleled those of the Southern Baptists for the last 10 or 15 years. So bad news for the Baptists likely also means bad news for the Churches of Christ.

memberchangeFor my fellow math nerds, if the pace of change is linear, then the resulting change over time is parabolic and hence accelerating.

In fact, it’s amazing how closely the SBC numbers match a parabola — growing rapidly beginning in the 1950s, flattening, and then beginning to fall.

The Churches of Christ are similar, except we plateaued in the 1970s-1990s, and then began to decline. And like the Baptists, our rate of decline is accelerating.

Like evangelicals in general, the Baptists took a hit during about 1998, a time when the Baptists nationally became very involved in US national politics, and the last couple of years show a significant dip — due, I believe, to the challenges that all conservative churches face regarding gay rights as well as the broader issue of liminality.

“Liminality” refers to the chaos and uncertainty that institutions and people suffer from when faced with unexpected change — and the Baptists, like the Churches of Christ, are struggling with how to be Christ’s church in a world where Christianity is no longer a privileged perspective. And like the Churches of Christ, many of their members aren’t interested in change or experimentation. It’s a problem.

Ed Stetzer urges the following strategies:

So, for the future, the SBC needs to find a way to cooperatively work together (what Ronnie Floyd has called “visible unity”), to lead out in evangelism and church planting, provide resources for church revitalization, engage young and more non-Anglo leaders, and do so as a denominational family.

I would disagree with his “and do so as a denominational family.” I see no sign that either the lost or Jesus is looking for denominational revitalization.

Nondenominational Growth

Here’s a chart that’s not hard to interpret

Obviously, if you were an investor, you’d be putting your retirement funds in the Nondenominational market segment, right? That category has grown by nearly 430% since 1977.

Look a little more closely, and you’ll see that the bottom horizontal line is -50%.  The zero line is one up from there. The only categories above zero are Nondenominational and “Other.” All the named denominations are negative, although the Baptists are the least negative.

But this chart ignores some of the smaller and Pentecostal denominations. The Assemblies of God just announced their 25th year of continued growth, and so having a denominational name doesn’t necessarily prevent growth.

The Assemblies of God, USA, growth streak began in 1990. In 1989, the AG reported 2,137,890 adherents. Since then, the AG has seen 47 percent growth in adherents to its current level of more than 3.1 million.

What is of particular note about the past 25 years of AG growth is that according to U.S. Census statistics, the U.S. population grew by approximately 29 percent (246.8 million to 318.9 million) in the same time period that the AG grew by 47 percent.

The AG has also shown a strong trend in becoming increasingly diversified in the last quarter century. In 1989, 20 percent of AG churches were primarily non-white ethnic minority; today 35 percent are. Currently, more than 40 percent of all AG USA adherents are non-white ethnic minority. And possibly to the surprise of some, millennials are a strong part of the AG, with those ages 18-34 making up nearly a quarter (23.4 percent) of church adherents.

Earlier this year, the AG also reported a record number of churches, with 12,849, and a record number of ministers, with 36,884.

“The growth of the Assemblies of God can only be attributed to God’s blessing and His work through the Holy Spirit,” says AG General Superintendent George O. Wood. “It’s through the infilling of the Spirit that we are given the confidence, the words, and the power to proclaim the gospel to our friends, neighbors, communities, and around the world (Acts 1:8).”

The Pentecostal denominations are doing well.

And so, the trend is toward either Pentecostal or nondenominational evangelical Christianity. And while the Churches of Christ are certainly not Pentecostal, we were nondenominational before nondenominational was cool. It’s just that we managed to be extremely denominational in our nondenominationalism.

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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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4 Responses to The Future of the Churches of Christ: More Stats

  1. Mark says:

    The cofC should be happy that the number of nondenominational Christians is growing. I think some are upset because it is hurting their numbers and subsequently their donation amounts.

  2. John F says:

    What may be less than clear is that many of the “new” community churches have an AG backing. Many downplay the charismatic portions of their doctrine (and focus little on “doctrine”. Also, the personality of the “pastor” becomes predominant. The literature talks about “your team, your church, your plan, etc.”

    Just a comment, not intended as a “put down.”

    Luke 9:49-50 John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.”

    Churches of Christ have a particular problem applying this verse.

  3. Mark says:

    John F,
    Some of the community churches look very much like cofC and/or Baptist. Besides, every denomination today has all flavors and it is not always easy to pick them out without attending though sometimes you can figure it out through the websites.

  4. John F says:

    I can agree with Mark’s comment, although the overwhelming majority are heavily into IM, and organized much like — pastor/evangelist/elder leader. Thus we have seen the great fall when the leader fails.

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