Ed Stetzer on Reversing Our Decline: Infighting


A second issue is the infighting which defines so much of the SBC—its meetings, its churches, and its blogs. It is public knowledge that we do not always settle our differences amicably. The national caricature once again colors many local scenes where First, Second, and even Third Baptist Churches exist in one town because of past infighting. Satan has used our incessant bickering over non-essentials to promote his last great mission on earth—to keep lost people lost.

The communities in which we live simply do not want to hear what we have to say when we can[‘t] speak kindly to one another. If the focus of every SBC meeting is a new controversy to be debated, new parameters to be narrowed, and new issues to be fought, the trend toward decline will only accelerate.

Oh, wow. Now, be very careful here. If the SBC has this problem, we have this problem times 100. What’s the solution? Well, we need to stop fighting. And how does that happen?

* Fighting in the Churches of Christ is largely driven by minute doctrinal differences that we perceiving as damning. Until we learn grace, we’ll keep fighting.

* As long as the schools of preaching and some of our more legalistic colleges turn out preachers trained in legalism rather than the Bible, well, it’s not going to get much better — until that element of the Churches dies out as it fails to keep its children in Jesus.

You see, Flavil Yeakley reports that the children of our more conservative congregations are leaving not only the Churches of Christ, they are leaving Christianity. Some among the progressives figure the conservative element will die out on its own, and so they should spend their efforts in other places — but the price of ignoring other conservative brothers is the salvation of their children.

In other words, one of the richest mission fields within our reach is the children of the conservative churches. Therefore, campus ministries are desperately needed, as are efforts to show the theological bankruptcy of the conservative position.

* The second source of fighting is competition. We get upset when a church in town becomes too successful. It’s all too common to hear, “They are growing too fast; they must be doing something wrong.” Jealousy and resentment when a local church gets more than its fair share of members moving into town is pretty typical. You see, we are often far more concerned about ourselves than the gospel.

Mergers and cooperation should be second nature to people formed in the image of Christ. It’s not, and so we’re not.

If we don’t have enough members to be effective for Jesus, we should merge. Of course, we can’t merge because that other Church of Christ down the road has the wrong position on some issue no one has cared about for 50 years.

It’s long past time to put our fights behind us so we can get busy doing the work we were called to do.

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 Ed Stetzer on Reversing Our Decline: Infighting

  1. Alan says:

    You see, Flavil Yeakley reports that the children of our more conservative congregations are leaving not only the Churches of Christ, they are leaving Christianity.

    I'd be interested in seeing some of those statistics. I wonder if the churches are "self-reporting" that they are conservative or progressive, or if there is an objective criterion. It would be particularly interesting to study outliers — for example, if conservatives are losing most of their children five years after leaving the home, then it would be really interesting to identify and study conservative congregations where the children are being effectively reached.

    Maybe that's a masters's thesis topic for someone.

  2. Bob Brandon says:

    It takes a bit of "enlightened" grace to see through the division to perceive the opportunity. With all the chronic conflict, it's too easy to see "the other side" as losers instead of fellow brothers and sisters. All it takes is to visit our congregations – across the country and across the spectrum of sentiment – to realize how much we all share in common.

    Good diary, Jay. Perhaps we begin where we always should begin: with evangelism.

  3. Joe Baggett says:

    I can take you to traditional congregations where the majority of the children who grew up there left Christianity all together. Flavil is right on this one. One of the main reasons that many very good people no longer attend is the infighting. Sadly this is one the American churches greatest legacies. For many this infighting can become an addition where winning the battle and being right is everything. That is why they go ahead and do things even when they themselves admit they are wrong. To me when well respected people such as Phil Sanders tell people things like “division is mostly a human weakness and not a flawed doctrinal system”, that gives fuel to the fire. The decline itself has caused churches to abandon the true great commissions of making disciples and go get members (sheep stealing/Swapping) any way they can to keep the contribution up and the building open. Most churches will not stop their infighting until the church completely dies out only a few are willing to rethink themselves.

  4. Jay,

    Actually to be correct, Dr. Yeakley’s finding was that “there appears to be a relationship between the kind of congregation and its retention (or dropout) rate. The highest retention rates were in congregations where church leaders said they were ‘about in the middle-of-the road.” The lowest retention rates were in congregations where leaders said ‘they were much more conservative, or liberal, or progressive.’” “Retention rates seem to be higher in congregations that are seen to be relatively similar to other churches of Christ,” Yeakley said.

    So, according to Yeakley congregations within the middle are doing the best job of keeping the young people in the fellowship. I count myself and the congregation I preach at (Central, Shawnee), to be among that number.

    Now, there are plenty of problems and serious error, poor, unChrist like attitudes and practices by those on the hard right, and we in the midle, more moderate, certainly are not without fault and needing to grow.

    But even though we are not as united or as evangelistic focused as the Lord would have us be, we are not being accurately described I believe by those who criticize us so frequently. In fact, because our lowest retention rate is among those who think themselves as "more liberal or progressive," clearly that very group constitutes our biggest growth/decline problem.

    It’s not surprisingly or news to us more conservative/middle of the road members that many who want to change almost everything in Churches of Christ have said that we are the most fragmented group and that we are rapidly declining. Yeakley's results deny such claims. Most fragments are Baptists: 146 named denominations!!

    Now, while we certainly have room for improvement, these statistics prove that we’re doing some things right. While we need to be warned and sometimes criticized, we also need to be encouraged, strengthened, and patted on the back.

    In my experience from congregations I have worked at in both Arkansas and Oklahoma, more moderate/conservative/middle of the road congregations are growing at some levels. It's certainly true where I'm at now at Central in Shawnee.

    And its true of the young people I've seen as well. And for the past 6 years years I've directed a week of church camp (Burnt Cabin) in Oklahoma with about 130 young people (been assoicated with the camp for 12 years), we have kids represented from about 6-8 congregations (and most of them are middle of road) and that's been my experience and what I've observed in their faithfulness to Christ and the church.

    By the way, the reason I believe that many progressive/liberal churches lose so many more young people than middle of the road (moderate conservative churches) is that you cannot, as a congregation/church, for an extended period of time, do nothing but criticize it. Tell it how it is no good. Tell it how other “churches” are better than it. Tell it that it is irrelevant, legalistic, and graceless. And then turn around and expect those young people to stay in it.

    I also would say (from my conservative perspective albeit) that the problem in many of our more progressive churches, is that they have muddied the lines for so long they re not even sure what they believe in, in regards to doctrine, truth and the simple, undenominational church church you read about in the N.T.

    Robert Prater

  5. Alan says:

    The more a progressive congregation becomes like contemporary culture, or the more like common ecumenical churches, the less compelling will be the reasons to remain a part of that congregation. When a church becomes too much like the world, the less relevant it is to be a member of the church. The result will be an inevitable decline.

    Historically, churches that grow are the ones that preach a high cost as well as a high reward for its members… and that preach a "vivid other-worldliness". That's the dynamic behind the decline of many mainline denominations. But meanwhile other groups spring up to fill the vacuum, preaching a stronger message.

    That pattern has been repeated by numerous religious groups in the past 200 years. That's the thesis of a great book titled The Churching of America (1776-2005). A very worthwhile read…

  6. Joe Baggett says:

    It is important to make the distinction between the liberal mainline denominations such as the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal etcetera who openly embrace things such as homosexuality and those congregations that are orthodox conservative evangelical like the SBC, cofC, and Independent Christian church but have re-thought their hermeneutic. There is a huge difference. This is what Ed Stetzer is talking about. In the book “The reason for God, belief in age of Skepticism”, the author Timothy Keller reveals some important issues about the conservative evangelical churches and why so many of their youth are abandoning them. First he states that most of these churches are unwilling to rethink or question their only theology. This is the single greatest contributing factor.

  7. Joe Baggett says:


    The young from the so called progressive leave and go to other churches. The young from the middle of road and conservative leave faith all together. If you don't believe me here is a website just for those who have left the churches of Christ. It is a support group.
    Read their stories and you will see what they are talking about.

  8. Alan says:


    The data is more complex than that. Children are leaving lots of congregations at different points along the liberal-conservative spectrum. There are multiple causes. My point is that the solution cannot be to become more like the surrounding culture.

    Rethinking CENI doesn't necessarily mean that we redefine sin according to modern cultural values. And it doesn't mean we have to rationalize away selected commands in scripture as no longer culturally relevant. If the values of the church are not different from those of the non-Christian culture, then the church becomes irrelevant and will waste away.

  9. Joe Baggett says:

    I agree Alan. I have read extensively on this subject. I do not advocate the redefinition of Christianity based on pop culture. But to the original post here on the infighting is what I am speaking of. The emerging generations in the church are leaving the traditional conservative churches because of the infighting. They see it as a sin. I would suggest that you read “After the baby boomers, how twenty ands thirty something’s are shaping the future of Christianity in America” by Dr. Robert Wuthnow. Ti outlines this point well.

  10. Alan says:

    I also agree on the issue of infighting. I've been blogging for a stop to the fighting for years.

    Robert Prater wrote (referring to Yeakley's explanation)

    The highest retention rates were in congregations where church leaders said they were ‘about in the middle-of-the road.”

    Discussing this as a one-dimensional "road" oversimplifies, and may lead to the wrong corrective measures. We don't need to become middle-of-the-road on topics like inspiration of the scriptures, sin, righteousness, and judgment.

  11. JdB says:

    Thank you gentlemen. That was probably one of the more enlightening discussions on this subject I've seen in the past 30 years, and certainly one of the most brotherly.

    I, also, am a "middle-of-the-roader". I love our history while at the same time seeing the great dangers inherent in continuing the same attitudes of our past. However, one of the problems we run into is our definition. I think if you were to ask, the majority of our folks would define themselves as middle of the road. I think our definition begins with where we are standing…or our congregation has taken it's stand. If you are to our left, then you are a progressive (or change agent), if you are to our right then you are a conservative (or ultra-conservative). Maybe the answer is to go back to what we have always believed…congregational autonomy with a good dose of Romans 14-15 thrown in.

    Anyway, just wanted to say that I have enjoyed this discussion.

  12. Jay Guin says:

    Yeakley wrote (P. 24),

    There was also a pattern in regard to what happened to church members who dropped out. In congregations where church leaders selected response "A," "Much more liberal or progressive," or response "B," "A little more liberal or progressive," members who dropped out tended to join other religious groups. In congregations where church leaders selected response "D," "A little more conservative or traditional," or response "E," Much more conservative or traditional," most members who dropped out have no current religious affiliation.

    Yeakley notes that congregations have the highest retention rates (retaining children in the Churches of Christ) in those congregations that consider themselves C "About middle-of-the-road" and B and D — a little more conservative or progressive, with "middle of the road" being the highest.

    Yeakley does not grace us with actual statistics, but the conclusions are clear enough. The more a church tends toward the conservative end of the spectrum, the more likely it is that their children leave Jesus altogether. The more the congregation tends toward the progressive end of the spectrum, the more likely it is that their children will attend a church in a different denomination. He doesn't give enough information to judge which group does the best at keeping their children true to Jesus — unless one were to equate "true to the Churches of Christ" with "true to Jesus," which some would, but I would not.

    If your view is that children should be raised to remain in the Churches of Christ, then being middle of the road would seem to be the ticket — but in my experience, there are fewer and fewer middle of the road churches each year, as they eventually go one direction or the other — or split.

    I'm not surprised that the children of progressive Churches often leave the denomination but stay in Jesus. Having tasted freedom and grace, they aren't willing to surrender them for the name on a building. Nor am I surprised that the most conservative Churches drive their children away from Jesus altogether. I'm not concerned that the children of "middle of the road" Churches remain true to the Church of Christ. I'm just not willing to concede that this is the proper measure of effectiveness.

    I would be very interested to know which category of Churches does the best job of keeping their children true to Jesus. That would speak volumes, but Yeakley does not share that data.

  13. Joe Baggett says:

    Thanks Jay. sorry if this went off post. It just seems that we make too little of these things some times.

  14. Jay Guin says:

    This is from an earlier post at /2008/04/25/churches-of-chr

    From 1980 to 2007, Oklahoma (home of the Quail Springs Church of Christ and their critics) lost more members than any other state — 9,406 net and 11,011 adherents.

    According to Yeakley, Oklahoma Churches of Christ are is precipitous decline. Oklahoma lost 7.1% of its congregations from 1980 to 2007 — and 13.1% of its members (12.0% of adherents). There's no positive spin possible on figures like these.

    Now compare that figure to what nothing but biogical growth would have produced — about 7.35% (5.2% from 1980 to 2002. Add 0.43% per year for another 5 years. http://jayguin.files.wordpress.com/2007/02/this-m… This means that, ignoring convert growth, the churches lost nearly 20% of their adherents (12% + 7.35% = 19.35%) — mainly their own children — after taking into account those who left and returned. Just as an example, if the churches gained 6% from conversions, then they lost over 25% (19.35% + 6%) of their children during this time — net.

    During the same term, Oklahoma grew from 3 million to 3.45 million, about 15% growth, which is much higher than the biologic growth rate of non-Hispanic whites, so this difference likely reflects immigration from other states and countries.

    Had the Churches merely kept up with the growth of their communities, they'd have grown 15%. Had they just kept their children, they'd have grown 7.35%. Had they kept enough children to replace their dying members (and death rates are in decline due to better health care), they'd have had 0% growth.

    But they actually lost 20% of their members.

    I'm glad some conservative churches are managing to grow in that environment — but they are the very rare exception.

    I find it more than a little ironic that you'd accuse progressive churches of doing nothing but criticizing. It's not the progressive churches in Oklahoma that publish full page ads in the Daily Oklahoman damning a preacher in another congregation. And progressive churches do not criticize sister congregations from their pulpits and in their bulletins. Yes, you hear criticism from progressive churches, but it's not how we to talk to one another or to our children. Rather, what you hear as criticism is simply the progressives trying to teach the conservatives a better, truer understanding of the scriptures — which will hopefully lead to growth of the Kingdom.

    I know of no one who celebrates the loss of our children from Jesus. It weighs heavily on my conscience, seeing preachers spouting unbiblical division and condemnation — and thereby costing the souls of their church's children. And I wonder what I might do or say to bring a halt to this evil — evil that is honored as "gospel" and "faith" — when it's not even close to the real thing.

    And so I teach — and hope someone is listening.

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