Several months ago, Flavil Yeakley, the unofficial statistician for the Churches of Christ, released a report called “Good News and Bad News for the Churches of Christ.” Although the numbers showed the Churches to be in decline (as reported first in this blog), the text of the report did not mention this fact, and many articles and blogs emphasized just the good news.
In the newly released directory, 21st Century Christian identifies 12,629 a cappella Churches of Christ with 1,578,281 adherents nationwide.
Those figures represent 526 fewer churches and 78,436 fewer people in the pews than just six years ago.
“While I do not want to say that the sky is falling — at least not yet — I do think this should be a concern for all Christians,” said Carl Royster, who compiled the data for the Nashville, Tenn.-based publisher.
Until now, Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark., has maintained that after decades of growth, Church of Christ membership in the U.S. actually plateaued about 1980, with insignificant annual increases or decreases since then.
“The decline since 2003, however, is statistically significant and, I believe, important,” Yeakley said.
Now, I don’t astonish all that easily, but I was astonished to learn that the publication, which lists all Churches of Christ in the US, decided to declare Richland Hills and other churches with both a cappella and instrumental services to not be Churches of Christ. I mean, are you kidding?? This is the same publishing house that published I Just Want to be a Christian by Rubel Shelly. It’s published many important progressive books. It’s perceived as a progressive publishing house. And now it decides Richland Hills isn’t a Church of Christ? And just who give them that right??
However, this (incredibly bad) decision did not create the decline in numbers.
Some of the decline can be explained by 21st Century Christian’s decision to remove from the directory churches that have added one or more instrumental worship services on Sunday morning.
Among the excluded congregations: the 5,200-member Richland Hills church in Texas, which had been listed as the nation’s largest Church of Christ in 2006 and previous editions of the directory, published every three years.
But the removal of 21 congregations that offer instrumental services accounts for only 4 percent of the drop in number of churches and 23 percent of the decrease in adherents, Yeakley said. “The rest of the decline cannot be attributed to the instrumental music issue,” he said.
The really telling statistic is the drop in number of children.
In Yeakley’s view, the most telling statistic is a 7 percent drop in the total number of children in Churches of Christ.
You see, if you’re losing children even faster than you’re losing members, well, the future looks pretty bleak.
The Richland Hills congregation is none too happy about being excluded —
But Richland Hills’ elders have not broken ties with Churches of Christ, nor did they ask to be excluded from the 2009 directory, Washburn said.
“From a church standpoint, we’re saddened and disappointed,” Washburn said of Richland Hills’ removal from the book. “We strongly feel like we are a part of Churches of Christ and continue a strong love for — and commitment to — excellent a cappella worship.
Meanwhile, several other partly instrumental congregations, such as Quail Springs Church of Christ, remain in the book. The editors explain that they meant to purge all instrumental churches from the unofficial listing but overlooked a few.
Including churches with instruments is problematic because “the directory has always been a list of a cappella congregations,” Lynn said. “The exclusion of instrumental churches has not been on theological grounds.”
When a cappella churches add instruments, they resemble the instrumental churches of the Restoration Movement, which have separate directories.
“What’s happened is you’ve got a few churches in no man’s land,” Lynn said.
“No man’s land”? And so it appears to be the policy of 21st Century Christian that if a church adds an instrumental music service, it’s a part of the Christian Churches. There are those who’d agree, but they’re all wrong.
In practical terms, Richland Hills remains involved with Church of Christ institutions, colleges, missions, and such. So do many other churches have been been purged. And without a doubt, those who attend those congregations think of themselves as part of the Churches of Christ.
To suggest, as Mac Lynn does, that this is not a theological decision is, I think, suspect. I don’t buy it.
I mean, Lynn has decided that if you use an instrument, you are not a part of the Churches of Christ even if your preacher speaks at the Abilene and Lipscomb lectureships, your children attend Harding and Abilene, your elders attend ElderLink, and you support only Church of Christ missionaries.
Well, that’s not a sociological conclusion. Nor does it reflect the way real churches work together. It’s a theological conclusion. And a very bad one — one that’s unworthy of a publishing house like 21st Century Christian.
And we wonder why we aren’t growing? Well, bayoneting our own is one reason. Forcing division down the throats of those who don’t want division is another.
I am appalled.