18 Church Trends (and More!): Trends 7 & 8

Continuing my highly derivative series on church trends, the next 10 are from an article by church growth consultant and author Thom Rainer:

Trend 7: An acceleration of church closures.

The death rate of churches is sadly increasing in America. I do not see that trend abating.

Trend 8. Church acquisitions becoming normative.

I am surprised how quickly churches and denominational entities have become strategic about acquiring churches that are declining and dying. While the trend of church closures is not encouraging, it is encouraging that more churches are becoming intentional about saving these churches from total extinction.

Here’s the pattern I see arising:

  1. Ancient church founded many years ago begins to lose membership, especially young couples with children. The young couples love the old church, but the older members refuse to give up their style of music, their style of preaching, their style of doing church.
    1. They insist on an annual “gospel meeting” with seven nights of preaching by a preacher from out of town. They refuse to allow small groups, because small groups would interfere with Sunday night church — which is attended by hardly anyone.
    2. The church dies, the building falls into disrepair, and there are no members left to attend anywhere else because the members have all either died or transferred to another church.
  2. Ancient church founded many years ago begins to lose membership, especially young couples with children. The young couples love the old church, but the older members refuse to give up their style of music, their style of preaching, their style of doing church.
    1. The church leaders decide to retain their denominational distinctives — a cappella singing and denominational name in the case of Churches of Christ — but the worship and preacher are less legalistic and more gracious, Sunday night services are canceled and replaced by small groups, the gospel meeting is canceled.
    2. The church grows, but almost entirely by transfers from other churches of the same denomination in town. They are a better Church of Christ and so they draw most of the Church of Christ members moving into town. There are very few baptisms, except of their own children.
    3. Eventually, they’ve drawn all they can draw from the other churches in town. Some other churches adopt similar reforms to more effectively compete. The church plateaus. The children of the members often move to other towns to get jobs, and when they do, they join community churches that aren’t tied to the Church of Christ denomination. Just so, when the children of members in other progressive churches move to town, they often prefer the larger non-denominational church with a great band and more vital preaching.
    4. It takes longer, but the church dies because its roots only run as deep as the denomination goes — and the denomination itself is dying. So they delay death and serve their membership well for as long as there is a demand for a better Church of Christ. But it’s a single-generation strategy.
  3.  Ancient church founded many years ago begins to lose membership, especially young couples with children. The young couples love the old church, but the older members refuse to give up their style of music, their style of preaching, their style of doing church.
    1. This church goes through the same changes as churches 1 and 2, but it also adopts one of these three choices:
      1. It learns how to be evangelistic despite wearing the name “Church of Christ” and being exclusively a cappella. Now, by “evangelistic,” I mean they learn to convert the lost to Jesus, not Baptists to the Church of Christ view of baptism. And very few churches have made this transition effectively, although it has certainly happened.
      2. It gives up its denominational identity and becomes a non-denominational church. This is more common than i., in my experience.
      3. It becomes a local campus of a larger, multi-site church. This is a new option, but studies show it’s the one most likely to succeed.
    2. The key to each choice is for the membership to give up control and place the mission above all else. In fact, one advantage of merging with a multi-site church is that it forces the leadership and membership to surrender control — and the insistence on control is often the biggest barrier to the changes needed to become evangelistic.
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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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One Response to 18 Church Trends (and More!): Trends 7 & 8

  1. Gary says:

    Having spent a quarter century as a congregational leader in Churches of Christ I no longer believe that American Churches of Christ as a whole will ever grow numerically again. It just doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Even somewhat progressive Churches of Christ continue to lose members over issues involving change. Children who grow up in progressive Churches of Christ seem to migrate to other denominations as young adults. Conservative Churches of Christ increasingly become religious anachronisms in the 21st century that would only gain new members from the occasional person who marries into a conservative CoC family.

    But even the relatively few Churches of Christ which successfully negotiate change and draw new members from the community seem to be transforming into generic (White) Evangelicalism. To be successful they almost cease having any significant continuity with the Stone-Campbell tradition. That’s not the end of the world but these Churches of Christ may be joining Evangelicalism just as Evangelicalism is peaking. American Evangelicalism has, in my opinion, sold its soul for a mess of pottage of secular power and influence. The result is likely to be a long decline into irrelevance.

    Perhaps Churches of Christ or Evangelicals in other countries will take up the torch and thrive. But I would be amazed to see either thrive or grow in this country as this century progresses. Churches of Christ especially are likely to go the way of the old Christian Connection of the early 19th century and slowly fade away as an identifiable denomination or movement. What will be left are the Church of Christ universities.

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