Churches of Christ in Decline?

Recently Bobby Ross, Jr. shared some alarming stats on his Christian Chronicle blog which indicate that Churches of Christ are in decline. Based upon data compiled by 21st Century Christian (the publisher of the Churches of Christ in the United States directory) there are now 102,000 fewer people worshiping in our churches then there were in 2003. Further, the data reveals that over these last nine years 708 of our congregations have shut their doors.

This information puts hard numbers on what many among us have suspected. I know that the majority of the congregations of which I am familiar are smaller than they were just a few years ago.

Based on this information here are a few personal observations:

  • Of this 102,000- my guess is that many of  them are in the 20 something age group. I have no hard evidence for this except what I see in churches where I minister and hear from other people.  A huge discussion can be undertaken about why this group is leaving us (post-modern thinking; not grounded enough; natural rebellion of the age, etc.), but there is no denying it. Recently a friend of mine who has a 20 something child (who grew up in a vibrant Church of Christ; involved in youth group activities; summer camp; foreign mission trips; and graduated from one of our universities) told me that she is now worshiping in a community church. She calls Churches of Christ, “old school.”  Whether we like to hear this or not- we must listen and prayerfully address why this group is leaving us. We are having this ongoing discussion at Levy. It remains a challenge.
  • Some among us have (in perhaps trying to address this challenge) left behind some of our traditional core values like A cappella singing and restrictions placed on women in public assemblies. These moves have not been without controversy, of course. What some see as simply an evolution of our restoration heritage, others view as an affront to clear biblical teaching. My mention of this is not to enter into a debate about this- just to recognize what has happened. And to ask these questions- have these congregations seen real, significant growth from among the truly unchurched? Has their move to a more ecumenical, contemporary approach to worship and beliefs attracted people- including the 20 somethings? It would be interesting to see if these churches among us are having any greater success.
  • Isn’t Jesus still the answer? The first church in Acts had very little of what we recognize as church- buildings, programs, staff, Sunday  morning worship emphasis, etc. yet they penetrated deeply into their culture with the message of Christ to the point of transforming entire cities. Their secret? They lived, breathed and taught Christ, him crucified and resurrected. The more our American culture moves into a post-Christian era, the more it resembles the culture of the first century in which the church then flourished.  Is Christ the center of our message in Churches of Christ? As disciples are we genuinely living out his values in our life in a way that stands in contrast to the world around us? Are we losing our life to find it? Are we proclaiming the Good News of Jesus outside of our church walls? The church grows in the marketplace- not in church buildings. The darker our culture becomes the more brightly the light of Jesus will shine. Our challenge is not to hide this light under a bushel that we keep inside our church buildings.

I love Churches of Christ. I am alarmed at these numbers. I am praying for wisdom and guidance from God on how to be more faithful in proclaiming Jesus as a member of the Church of Christ.

It just  hurts to see us in decline.

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13 Responses to Churches of Christ in Decline?

  1. Marube Obara Gideon says:

    This is so true, we experiencing the same decline rate here in Kenya! Brethren, we still have the task to ensure growth in our local congregations!

  2. dannydodd says:

    Nice to hear from Kenya, Marube. Not so nice to hear about you experiencing the same decline.

    Let’s double down on our prayers for each other!

  3. Darin says:

    Last year I suggested that the Christian Chronicle do a follow up on an article about Churches of Christ who had abandoned some distinctive behind to reach the lost. The article was a two part series done in 2001 that listed several churches. I thought it would be interesting to see how they did 10 years later.

    I tried to find several churches from the article. Some no longer existed, some were still small and others were different churches. My research was not exhaustive.

    The Churches of Christ are not the only ones losing youth.

  4. dannydodd says:

    It would be interesting to see that kind of follow-up done, Darin.

  5. Marcia Morrison says:

    Forty years ago, when we didn’t always have the right attitudes, we were the fastest growing church in the country. Those changes in attitudes were a good thing. But in the meantime it seems that we have “thrown away the baby with the bath water”. It seems that we have lost our identity, and that breaks my heart. It may be time to have some convictions again and to not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ. As for following the trends of the religeous world and the experts, how is that working for us? We are losing our children because we are taking the path of the world and blending in. It may be
    time to seek wisdom from above. If we as mature Christians are ashamed to have convictions and earn the respect of those coming up, we will have a lot to answer for. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but He does. The answers may not be as difficult as they are unpopular.

  6. Ken Laney says:

    Danny, we have indeed seen with our eyes for years what the data presents. It is both alarming and extremely sad. I beleive your link to the disappearing 20ish dynamic is so true, if not all at least the vast majority of congregations. We are a “graying” group both in the pew and pulpit. I agree, preaching Christ is the ultimate answer, as it is apparent everything else seems to have failed in the end. God bless you in your current work and your lifelong effort for the cross.

  7. Danny, most if not all of the the religious groups in the U.S. that are growing have placed a strong emphasis on church planting. Part of this strategy includes the closing of congregations that have no obvious and strong sense of mission. Those groups typically have the “blessing” of a denominational structure of some sort. In some cases, directions come in the form of recommendations and suggestions. In other cases, the directives are issued with some muscle behind them.

    At any rate, with our radical congregational autonomy, Churches of Christ do not have that “advantage.” We used to be able to overcome this problem because of strong sources of denominational leadership (100,000 subscribers to the Gospel Advocate magazine, for example) and a strong fellowship-wide consensus. Those sources of leadership, and that consensus, no longer exist. Who in the Churches of Christ has the authority to spark an emphasis on new church planting? As it is, our “healthy” congregations have chosen to ignore their plateaued status and the fact that, when they grow, it’s hardly ever the result of evangelism. It’s merely because they’re healthier and more attractive that other churches in the area. Our dying congregations (and their name is Legion, for they are many) have decided to stay alive at all costs, an unChristian motivation. The handwriting is on the wall. Unless the Churches of Christ are given a special gift (that is, barring a miracle) the last of our people will be taught by the Lord of history that, despite the illusions of some of our people, the Churches of Christ are not exclusively synonymous with the kingdom of Christ. Not even close. Then, once again, the first will become last, and the last, first.

    That’s, at least, the way I see it this afternoon. 🙂

    Frank B.

  8. dannydodd says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Frank. Much wisdom there.

  9. preacherman says:

    Are Churches of Christ willing to change and be relevant? I think that is key. Jared Looney and others are starting house churches with different structured leadership. The way we reach the un-churched is key. Being relevant is key. Community is key. Your thoughts?

  10. preacherman says:

    Let me clarify by what I mean with relevant. We need relevant preaching. Preaching where people are at and making it relevant. Our worship needs to be with the time as well. Not gimmicky but applicable (In Search of Wonder books stresses it), Our view towards how women are treated. How the Church of Christ looks at other denominations (getting rid of the cult-like image of we are the “only ones” saved and everyone else is lost). How we do evangelism (house churches, pubs, homeless shelters, etc). Are we willing to adapt to post-modern culture?

  11. dannydodd says:

    Thanks for your input on the conversation Kinney. Excellent questions we all seriously need to consider.

  12. HuskerFan says:

    Just now finding your blog. The church of Christ’s decline is all about the music in my opinion. If you look at the differences in our church culture between now and the 1950s, Contemporary Christian music is THE difference.

    And when you look at society as a whole, you see that the younger generations (Y, X, and younger) are “wired for sound,” carrying their iPods around everywhere they go.

    Add to the mix the great artistry of Contemporary Christian music, and you’ve got full-fledged disaster in the making for those churches (church of Christ or otherwise) that are not bringing the modern sound into churches.

    Folks that listen to K-Love every day expect to worship with it. It’s what they know and are familiar with. When you give them something foreign, they aren’t comfortable and move elsewhere.

    I don’t know why this is so hard for the church of Christ to get. If accapella is a salvation issue, then continue on as you have been and let all these younger generations go straight to hell. But your choice is on the brink of extinction.

  13. HuskerFan says:

    oops, meant your CHURCH is on the brink of extinction. sorry.

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