Over the last few weeks, I wrote a series of posts on replanting a church, the idea being to consider how a church might work to change itself to be more nearly the church Jesus wants it to be. Reader Bill Perkins pointed me to some material on how a church can change from being plateaued to growing, and I thought it would be interesting to consider that material in denominational terms, rather than congregational terms. And so, the materials we’ll be considering apply very well to congregations, too.
Now, consider the following graphic in terms of the Churches of Christ as a denomination —
It’s easy to think of examples. Consider, for example, me. The downhill slope isn’t that far away. Physically, I’ve been there for a while.
Consider most nations — the Roman Empire, England, France … some believe the United States is on the downhill slope. Be that as it may, the fact is that human organizations struggle to maintain their vitality and growth forever. Few do.
Denominations are the same way. The Churches of Christ grew rapidly from 1906 until about 1970. The rate of growth slowed to nearly zero over the next few decades (less than the biological growth rate), and since 2000, the Churches of Christ have been in numerical decline.
We are not alone. Nearly all Protestant denominations are in decline in the U.S., with the most significant exceptions being the independent Christian Churches and some of the Pentecostal denominations. Even the Southern Baptists are in numerical decline, even though they grew rapidly during the years we were plateaued.
Before we consider how to reverse the decline, we should pause and ask what happened around 1970 to change things? Why did our steady growth for 70 or so years come to halt? What changed?
Growth in the 19th Century
The Churches of Christ are a product of the 19th Century Restoration Movement or Stone-Campbell Movement. Growth was the natural result of the vision of the leaders: to bring unity of all Christians by treated as brothers all penitent believers in Jesus.
Sometime later, the Movement began teaching that baptism should be believer baptism by immersion and that baptism is for the remission of sins. However, in the early years, baptism was not made a test of fellowship.
Alexander Campbell wrote a series of articles in his periodical called the “Search for the Ancient Order” in which he argued for a return to the order of worship and form of church organization found in the New Testament. However, he explicitly stated that these teachings should be tests of fellowship.
Over time, however, the original vision — to join all penitent believers into a single community of faith — was replaced with a new vision: to teach the correct doctrines of baptism, worship, and church organization, and to unite all people by persuading them of these doctrines. Indeed, after the Civil War, many churches split over the use of instrumental music in worship.
But the original vision allow a Movement to grow from nothing to a million or more believers by the turn of the century. However, the seeds of the Movement’s collapse had already been sown. In 1889 Daniel Sommer had led a small group to separate themselves from the larger Movement, considering most of the Restoration Movement heretics for hiring located preachers, raising money through bake sales and other means other than free will offerings, supporting missionary societies, and permitting the use of instrumental music in worship.