The Future of the Churches of Christ: More Statistics from Ed Stetzer

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There’s a lot of false teaching going on within the evangelical church regarding statistics. Authors sell more books when they persuade their audience that sky is falling, the evangelical church is collapsing, and their book offers the solution. Preachers more easily persuade their members to knock on doors and attend next week’s gospel meeting when they are afraid of the imminent collapse of American Christianity. Politicians get more votes when the next election will decide the fate of the church in America.

But the stats say otherwise, according to Ed Stetzer, author and consultant on church growth —

The General Social Survey, the best-known ongoing survey tracking societal trends, finds the share of Americans who regularly attends a Protestant church has only declined three points — from 23 to 20 percent — in the last thirty years. According to Gallup, current church attendance rates areessentially the same as they were in the 1940s. Church attendance rates (over reported, yes, but consistently over reported so we can see trends) peaked in the ’50s.

But that’s Protestants. What about Evangelicals?

Even the most recent Pew data, which many (oddly and contrary to the actual data) took to spell doom for American Evangelicalism, showed a slight increase in numbers of evangelicals (with a small decline in terms of population percentage). In addition, the General Social Survey actually has the percent of Americans who regularly attend an evangelical church to be up over the last few decades and the last few years (though it peaked in the late ’80s).

Now, I in fact believe that evangelism is urgent, despite the stats. And I’m all for church growth literature. (But, no, the next election will neither make nor break the church. Our King doesn’t have to run for office.) But we need to motivate ourselves and our members with truth not lies. Means and ends and all that. Just because it’s for God, it’s not okay to lie to our members and claim to be on the verge of a disastrous collapse.

But, of course, I’m speaking of evangelicalism in general and American Protestantism in general. The Churches of Christ, as a denomination, are indeed in accelerating numerical decline, and the denomination really is on the verge of a disastrous collapse. The numbers are grim, no matter how they are viewed. Fewer members, fewer adherents (members and unbaptized children), fewer congregations, and fewer baptisms.

But it’s not because every branch of American Christianity is in decline. That’s just not true. There are other denominations in decline, like us, such as the Southern Baptists. But the Pentecostal denominations and non-denominational churches are growing quite well   — well enough to offset the declines in the other churches.

On the other hand, the un-churched and de-churched are increasingly secular in their worldviews. Indeed, we are increasingly surrounded by a world that is outright opposed to Christianity.

However, the ground is shifting and it requires some rethinking and refocusing on mission (and writing on that has been most of my ministry focus).

The trends are challenging and should concern us. Society is becoming more secular. Nominal Christians are often dropping the label and frequently changing their values. And, while church attendance and involvement is relatively steady for evangelicals, this should just remind us that we need to engage the new reality where we find ourselves.

Simply put, the mission force is now living in and engaging a very different (and more challenging) mission field.

In short, the church is becoming less denominational, less Reformation minded, less Great Awakening (gospel meetings, revivals, and responses to invitations were all invented in the First and Second Great Awakenings), and in many ways, more First Century (non-denominational, missional, Spirit-led). And the world is becoming more worldly. And this is why so much of Romans 1 speaks to us today. Modern America and ancient Rome have much in common.

Therefore, the Bible should speak more clearly to us today than it has since Constantine. Our mission has never been more clearly set before us. The question is whether we’ll truly become more First Century or insist on remaining true to the 19th Century and 20th Century versions of Christianity.

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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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14 Responses to The Future of the Churches of Christ: More Statistics from Ed Stetzer

  1. John says:

    The elephant in the room is that Pentecostal and Non-denominational churches are not Right Wing like much of the conservative Evangelical church. Race and Class have no bearing in these churches. Professionals and laborers share pews and works. They are multi-cultured and multi-racial, and Inter-racial marriage is common. People’s private lives are not under a microscope. Though most are Democrats, they are not grilled regarding their political views.

    Whereas, in most conservative Evangelical churches, in spite of much of the discussion on better race relations, people of color are still put to the test regarding their political and social views, while, in certain sections of the nation, the old segregationist ways are actually missed. Where these attitudes are so obvious, and they are, meetings and revivals to present “correct theology” do not stand a chance; nor, should they ever.

  2. TW Dockery says:

    “But, no, the next election will neither make nor break the church. Our King doesn’t have to run for office.”

    Amen!

  3. Monty says:

    John,

    Can you hold traditional values and be “conservative” and not be a “Right Winger.” Is there any leeway there? Would you define “Right Wing.” That term is just as inflammatory as calling someone or group the Far Left . I don’t really believe conservative in politics equals right wing in theology, though it may surely lend itself in that direction as one might imagine a liberal leaning in politics hardly making for a conservative theology. The lens by which we view the world often affects our way we view scripture.

  4. John says:

    Monty,
    I’ll do my best. The Right Wing consist of white Christians who believe that as long as they accept Christians of color as their brothers and sisters IN CHRIST, that they are one IN CHRIST, then their views that whites are superior in leadership, culture and intelligence cannot be called racist. The RW consist of those Christians who look back on segregation as if it wasn’t really that bad for African Americans. The RW consist of those who have no problem making it “legally” difficult for people of color, the elderly and the youth to vote because, in their rational, the “righteous” result of the election is more important than a person’s freedom to vote. The RW consist of those Christians who wish to make it more difficult for those they are not culturally comfortable with to be enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, yet desire them for themselves. And all of these are people who proudly call themselves CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS.

  5. Dwight says:

    John, I would consider myself consrevative right wing, but not white wing, and I know many who consider themselves right wing and do not hold to your definition. My brothers and sisters who are predominatly right wing oriented, but some are independent, are eager to accept others who do not look or act like them. I and others would and have driven another person of another color, race or sex to the poll booth to vote. Most RW don’t try to rely on those social programs, so they don’t desire them for themselves. They do expect people to work though and not rely on the system if they can. I can’t think of a person on this blog site and from my congregation that wouldn’t help another in need of any color, race, etc. So your view as your data is skewed.

  6. Monty says:

    John,

    Perhaps you know the hearts of strangers better than I do. But I know of no such RW’s and I attend(preach for)a small conservative congregation in a smaller town in GA. Several of our white older conservative brethren actually voted for Obama the first time around. Imagine that. After four years of his policies they felt embarrassed they had. I know of many white conservatives who would vote for Ben Carsons in a heart beat. Of course to those on the left he’s just an Uncle Tom. It’s not about color but about conservative values vs. abortion on demand, the selling of aborted body parts(has anyone on the left denounced planned parenthood?) No, and they won’t. It’s about the Gay agenda, making it possible for those that chant “Death TO America ” to get nukes, keeping folks tied to the Welfare state making them slaves(I don’t expect you to agree) and on and on I could go. Does that mean conservatives are without fault? Horrors no! I myself despise the current political system we have now.

  7. John says:

    Dwight,

    You said, “Most RW don’t try to rely on those social programs, so they don’t desire them for themselves.”

    Yes, they do!!!! They most certainly need and desire Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They could not exist without them as elderly citizens, especially when it comes to hospital care and long term health care (nursing home care). How many people do you know who can pay ten to twelve thousand dollars a month for nursing home care? Not many; I should know. I worked in nursing home finance for twenty years. I am at this time on Social Security and Medicare. when I enter a nursing home I will need those as well as Medicaid: AND SO WILL YOU!!!!!!!!!!!

    As far as my view being skewed, I know what I hear. And when I hear white Christians say that African Americans were happier during segregation, I take them at their word that that is what they believe.

  8. John says:

    Monty

    See my response to Dwight.

    AND SO WILL YOU!!!!!

  9. Monty says:

    John’

    I’m not against govt. assistance or Social Security. I know of no one that is. I know of many who believe those programs #1 need overhauling, #2 they are terribly mismanaged, #3 are wrought with fraud and #4 they tend to enslave folks …. The biggest problem I see as a preacher who tries to help the poor and underprivileged on a weekly basis is the lack of education… mind you I’m not a sociologist… but when the Welfare state makes it more advantageous for them to have babies out of wedlock and live in govt housing and let Uncle Sam take care of you, it robs people of their opportunity to have to stay in school and make something of themselves. When you have generations of folks who didn’t complete high school, it tends to dumb down academic achievement in the home. It promotes a lack of achievement attitude. When most folks around you are quitting school or have no plans for college or trade school then why should I? It really is a desperate cycle of manual labor type jobs for those who don’t graduate high school(if they can find one), low ceiling type jobs in the food and service industry with low pay for high school grads. My heart breaks for these people, and somehow the solution is not just more of the same. It’s not just more wealth redistribution. They have never learned what being responsible means because it’s never been taught them or modeled for them. What do you do with folks who never got their high school education, who barely read, and there are very precious few jobs of any sort to be found in a small town? I’ll tell you what you do. You try not to judge, you try to feed and clothe them and you help them get by another day.

  10. Robert Whitehead says:

    The reason that Churches of Christ are losing ground, as I see it, is that their focus, in most congregations, is not on Christ so much as it’s on the church. I left the Baptist Church and joined a Church of Christ because I came to believe that baptism was God’s way for a person to receive the. Free gift of eternal life and God’s forgiveness of our sins. What I heard at this church was sermons about instrumental music, what’s included in a worship service and that evangelism was to get convert folks from other denominations to join their church and accept all of their doctrine. I was told by one member that being a member of a Church of Christ was the way to heaven. He compared this to a person, in order to get to a certain city on a bus must choose the right bus.
    Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Anyone that believes the gospel of God’s grace in sending Jesus to die on the cross as full payment for our sins and follows him in baptism is a Christian. God will wash away his sin as He did for the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road. Philip preached to him from the old testament where it says “All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned, everyone, to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
    That is the true gospel of grace. The gospel of the church is a false gospel. When the Church of Christ changes it’s focus back to Jesus and His grace, then it will grow again. I left this church and found a Church of Christ that taught the wonderfully grace of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. It was later blackballed by a number of “conservative” churches for being too liberal. A lot of members left the church because “they were too much like the baptist”, but the church started to grow back to the size it was before because it focused on what the early church focused on; JESUS and HIS GRACE.

  11. Mark says:

    “Anyone that believes the gospel of God’s grace in sending Jesus to die on the cross as full payment for our sins and follows him in baptism is a Christian.” This comment or agreeing with it has resulted in more than one preacher being fired. Sadly, Jesus was not mentioned very often but more often than grace in the cofC. This was the tragedy.

  12. Robert Whitehead says:

    In a Church of Christ Bible study I explained to them the gospel of grace. That Romans 3:23 says that we are all sinners, and Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. By our works we cannot earn forgiveness because we have already earned eternal death and hell. God is a just and righteous God, but He is also a loving God. He hates our sin, but He loves us. In His wisdom he sent His Son, Jesus to be born of a virgin and live a perfect life so that He could pay the penalty for our sins (2 Cor.5:21) (Isaiah 53:6). He purchased our pardon and we can receive His forgiveness by trusting only in Him. Our righteousness is ” filthy rags” according to God’s word. But we can receive God’s righteousness (Clothed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before God’s thrown” (2:Corinthians 5:21). “for the wages of sin is death, but the GIFT of God is Eternal Life. (Romans 6:23). We receive this free gift by trusting in Jesus by repenting and being baptized. Baptism is not a work because it does nothing. A work accomplishes a result in and of itself by it’s own effort. Baptism is nothing more than an act of faith, and the perfect act of faith in that it pictures the object of our faith; the death burial and resurrection of Jesus, and our death to our old life, our burial in Jesus’ blood and our resurrection to a new life in Christ. When I explained this to the Bible class a lady told me she had never heard anything like what said before. I saw a big change in this Church of Christ. The preacher preached about God’s grace and was mobbed by members wanting to hear more, so he preached a follow-up sermon on grace the next Sunday. I praise the Lord for all that He is doing in that church now. HIS GRACE IS SUFFICIENT.

  13. Dwight says:

    Robert, I would argue that baptism is a response in faith and not really an act of faith. Once we start getting into this area, then we start the whole faith vs works debate.
    Faith is actually called a work, but baptsim or immersion is never called a work. Why? Because all we do is present our bodies and then we are immersed by another. It requires placing ourselves in the hands of another to bury us and raise us. This is perhaps the most poingant part of being immersed…placing our lives in the hands of another and allowing us to be taken by another and raised by another. Jesus was buried by others and raised by God. We are buried with Him and raised by God. So it is much more than just “an act of faith”, as Christ death, burial and ressurection was. Christ laid down His life for us and we are laying down our life for Him.

  14. Dwight says:

    But you are right. We need to preach grace more and even mercy ore and I have been seeing it done more. It is somewhat dissappointing that we will preach grace and then we give the invitation where we focus on baptism and doing it “now”. Some habits are hard to break.We need to preach God’s grace is active all of the time and salvation is open all of the time as well. I would stop a church service in mid stride to baptize another into Christ.

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