Churches of Christ: What, Me Worry?

On August 18, 2009, Phil Sanders published these statistics at his In “Search of the Lord’s Way” blog —

Some Encouraging Statistics

According to Flavil Yeakley, who presented this material at FHU a few years ago, one can say these things about churches of Christ:

* 12th largest religious group in America
* 6th fastest growing church in America
* 4th in the nation in the total number of congregations
* 5th in the nation in number of counties in which there is a congregation
* 1st in the nation in distribution of congregations
* 1st in the nation in weekly attendance

According to a survey by Barna about five years ago, churches of Christ were first in donations among religious groups (for our size).

Each year there are about 1250 new church plantings and about 3750 church closings in the United States. This is a loss of 2500 religious congregations per year.

When you consider that we lost only 69 churches of Christ (2000-2006) out of a total of 15,000 and yet have the fourth most congregations throughout the US, this is rather remarkable! Even the loss of 350 in the last three years (2006-2009) out of 7,500 is rather small.

Let’s not be discouraged. We are not pitiful and not dying. Many of our losses were actually mergers.


The call for changing doctrine or die is premature…

The statistic that Phil doesn’t mention, although it also comes from Flavil Yeakley, is that we’re in numerical decline. And if the decline continues long enough, we’ll die. It is a tad misleading to refer to us as “6th fastest growing” when our growth is negative.

From 1980 to 2007, Oklahoma (home of the Quail Springs Church of Christ and their critics, as well as the Edmond Church of Christ that sponsor’s Phil’s ministry) lost more members than any other state — 9,406 net and 11,011 adherents (“Adherents” includes members and their children). Tennessee lost 5,479 members and 10,187 adherents, meaning they lost LOTS of families with young children! Imagine losing over 10,000 adherents, half of whom are children. That’s just unimaginably bad news!

According to Yeakley, the states where we’re the strongest tend to be the states where we lose the most members. Our growth tends to be in areas where churches are being planted, whereas established areas are in decline, often in severe decline.

So what motivates this whistling-past-the-graveyard, deep-denial behavior among our conservative brothers? Why not honestly face up to the facts and deal with them? Why pretend that everything’s okay? What agenda is furthered?

Well, plainly, Phil’s “PS” at the end tells the tale. The conservatives would rather pretend that we are healthy and growing than take a serious look at their doctrine. And that’s so even though for decades we’ve been losing at least 1/3 of our own children, and it’s getting worse. And yet Phil assures us, “Let’s not be discouraged. We are not pitiful and not dying.” Yes, we are.

It’s a Mad world.


25 Responses

  1. I agree completely. However, I dont think the reason for the decline can be attributed to our not using an instrument in worship, because in a recent article, our brothers in the Baptist church are crying out that they are losing a great deal of their young people out of high school – just like the C of C has cried!!!

    This underscores the infiltration of the world into our lives and into the church, and it’s effect.

    We need to stop with the conflicts such as instrumental music etc. because they only serve as a cover up to the real issues we have – we need to concentrate on service, relationships with each other and with Christ. We need to be the light in the world that people need, will see and come toward.

    It is ironic that some say we are just fine, and settle for less than what Christ told us to be. Go ye – really does mean “go me” and applies to all of us……………..

  2. The decline is real just as you say. And, the decline is largely happening in more “conservative” congregations. It isn’t because of music preference, or poor programs, it is because of poor teaching.

    Churches grow where Christ is the center of attention, where the message of God’s grace is taught and appreciated. Where the church, singing styles, pattern of worship, etc. is the center of attention and teaching, numbers are dwindling, and that is not really a bad thing.

    A large number of coC total losses are that older members are dying. Others are leaving for places where people understand what God has done in Christ on our behalf.

    Is there a solution? Forsake legalism and preach Jesus. Far too many coC people do not even know what the good news is all about.


  3. Royce and Jay,
    From my reading and study, I think the loss of children from adult membership is closer to the 80% loss of the broad evangelical church.

    Since I left he COC in 1971, I have met droves of people who once were members in the COC, and it was legalism which drove them out. Many of these people were preachers, children of preachers or elders, or just general members. They got fed up with legalism, bad music and bad theology.

  4. I’ve personally been involved with a lot of “deny the Campbells and Stone – We were founded in 33 AD” types. Because it is untenable to say that the “one true church” disappeared from the earth for 1800 years, they will often assert that Church of Christ style Christianity survived as an underground remnant.

    I do not know Phil’s position on the remnant theory, but I do know that it is still a big part of conservative Church of Christ thought. I cannot help but wonder if this concept is contributing to the conservative churches’ indifference toward our decline. If a church teaches and truly believes that it is a descendent of a clandestine group of Christians that met in secret throughout the dark ages and the reformation only to become a visible presence again in 19th century America, then it stands to reason that it would be quite comfortable with being small – miniscule even. If that is the case, the assumption could easily become: “the Church has been always been small.” It undoubtedly would be buffered with an abuse of Jesus’ “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” It’s a recipe that predisposes people to sticking their heads in the sand.

  5. Ah, Weldon, but it does have a kind of Dan-Brown-secret-society appeal, doesn’t it?

  6. What can I say, people have itching ears. They’ll set up teachers for themselves, or more likely in the American context, teachers will set up shop to appeal to the greatest audience (like Joel Olsteen). Most CoCs just don’t do that.

    Perhaps the “restoration plea” of the frontier days was the message that appealed to the most and that was why the RM was successful for a period of time. But now that zietgist has passed by.

    A Methodist church in town actually sent out surveys asking exactly what people wanted from church and that’s what they did. Coffee during services, casual clothing, lots of youth activities to take care of the kids, praise bands to rock the house down for worship were what people wanted. That’s what they do now. Sure enough they started from scratch in a school cafeteria to thousands of members.

    Other churches in town (two Baptist churches in particular, which seem to compete with each other) have decided the best way to grow was to have super big multi-purpose family life centers. I’m talking state of the art workout centers with tracks and everything else under the sun. We actually had a couple of Baptist “missionaries” come by our house from one of the churches (they were going door to door) and ask us what we wanted in church and try to sell us on the great activities they have.

  7. I believe that there have always been Christians on this Earth ever since Jesus went to sit at God’s right hand. This includes the one’s saved by faith within the Catholic church. The RC church existed from about AD 600, and until the Reformation the main church in the West. Then of course the Orthodox Churches existed alongside the RC church since the Great Schism. I am sure there were and are people saved by faith in that community of churches as well. During this time, there have been Montanists, Donatists, Cathars, Anabaptists and many other dissident groups outside of the RC/Orthodox fold. I am convinced that these various groups did not constitute the only “real churches” during these times, and that there certainly were (and are now) genuine Christians in the RC/Orthodox fold.

    The “little true flock” theory is nonsense and is not historically verifiable. Also, the COC of the 2Oth century was based on a hi-jacking of the original 19th century Restoration Movement. The Stone Campbell Movement in the 19th century was RM 1.0, the 20th century COC was RM 2.0, and now it looks like a COC Progressive movement is rapidly becoming RM 3.0 (which is a good thing!). The 2.0 movement is dying out and I praise God for that-they are just a bunch of legalistic spiritual abusers with extremely BAD theology.

  8. I always love how we use statistics that are already several years old. If the stats that Phil used from Dr. Yeakley were from “several years ago” think of how much worse it has gotten since then. It’s a major problem and it is only going to get worse before it gets better.

  9. The problem exists. For anyone who is interested, I came up with a few ways to respond as an individual to the problem of a declining membership at I hope it helps.

  10. If the link does not work, you may need to type the address.

  11. “The RC church existed from about AD 600, and until the Reformation the main church in the West.”

    Do you guys realize that the RC church dominated Christianity for a THOUSAND years ?

    Revelation of John 20:3 “and cast him into the abyss, and shut it , and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years should be finished: after this he must be loosed for a little time.”

    Could the thousand year reign of the anti-christ refer to the thousand year reign of the Roman Catholic church over christianity? Hmmmmmm….

  12. I doubt the RC Church is the Antichrist, though Luther really thought the Pope was. Theologically , Luther’s pope was, but not in the eschatological sense.
    The millennium is the 1,000 year reign of Christ on Earth in His Kingdom, not the reign of Satan or the Antichrist.

  13. Our own autonomy makes it extremely difficult to obtain accurate statistics.

    I can only speak to personal experiences. The conservative congregation of which I was a member the last 9 years (until moving out of state three weeks ago) gained membership every time another congregation in the county hired a progressive preacher.

    Just this last summer, four families (all under 35 ish) placed membership for this reason. The congregation grew 20 percent during a time when the county population dropped 5 percent. We had organic growth as well.

  14. Gary,

    We are probably comparing apples and oranges. I expect that the 80% figure doesn’t take into account children who leave and come back later — typically when they’ve married and have children. My figures are after taking into account our children who return after leaving.

    Either way — we have WAY too many leaving. Yeakley says that the most conservative churches lose their kids because their kids leave Jesus altogether. Progressive kids often place membership with non-Church of Christ congregations. Jesus doesn’t lose these kids, but the Churches of Christ do.

  15. Weldon,

    I think you’re right that many among us see things that way.

    It’s ironic that the “remnant” theory began with the Baptists in the 19th Century, and we borrowed it via the Landmark movement. Meanwhile, the mainstream Baptists came to reject it. So it’s a theory taken from “a denomination.”

    I’ve seen efforts to prove it in great detail, but the groups often cited as part of the remnant often taught and practiced things we’d never accept as “sound doctrine” today. has a good article.

  16. Ken,

    I grant that our teaching should not be market-driven. That being true, we shouldn’t try to fool our members and pretend that everything is okay. That may be what they want to hear, but it’s not true.

    How we should respond is — as always — as instructed by the scriptures. And it’s always appropriate to consider whether we’ve gotten our doctrine right.

    We deny that God is as gracious as he is, and so we fail to be as gracious as we should be. And so we lose members by the thousands — including our own children.

  17. Kent,

    The trends definitely look to be getting worse. And the leadership of the more conservative churches are working hard to make sure things don’t get better — by denying that there’s a problem, by denying the need to make changes, even in practice, by refusing to reconsider their theology, and even by defending their divisiveness.

    At least this means newly planted churches will be able to buy old church buildings cheap.

  18. Rich,

    It’s hard to track many of the newly planted house churches. They don’t have yellow pages listings! And they don’t subscribe to church periodicals. But it’s easy to track conservative, moderate, and conventionally organized progressive churches.

    Flavil Yeakley is clearly most sympathetic to the conservative churches, and yet even he has announced that we are in decline —doing so very reluctantly, well after his own statistics showed that result.

    Phil Sanders gets his favorable spin numbers from Yeakley himself. If there’s any bias in the numbers, it’s against the progressive viewpoint.

  19. The church is shrinking that is the denominations of the churches of Christ. The church universal however is growing and always will. But this does not mean we can relieve ourselves from the responsibilities of keeping Christ front and center in our families and congregations. Christian faith when lived out is far different from our dream world expectations. Our kids and restless new members of the church need more than just a insulated view of middle America. We need to stand strong for the values Christ stood for. If need be we should forsake the our para church rhetoric and over programmed church agendas for genuine true life experience. Our over priced Christian schools and sugar coated teen programs are teaching theological dualism. And this dualism is a precarious journey through deep spiritual struggle. The ex church of Christ website should open our eyes to our guilty pleasures and vacillating opinions of faith.

  20. I was at Harding in July for a Campus Ministries United conference and received an quick and unofficial update on the statistics. I was told a report would be coming “soon.” and the new numbers were shocking – very much worse than the trend established by Yeakley’s report a couple of years ago. What is worse is the drop out rate of young ministers. But again, we will have a new report “soon.”

  21. Todd Collie
    One thing though I keep thinking about what does it matter if the church of Christ is no longer the one true church? I mean if this is nothing more than religious competitiveness between name brands a coke church verses a Pepsi church. Why do we care?

  22. Actually Mark I guess it only matters because I was born, raised and born again into this very peculiar non-denominational denomination and though my disagreement with much of her man made “teaching” is strong, so is my love for the ideals that birthed her and saw her grow strong. She is not (and never was) the sum total of Christianity, but I would see her take her place and fulfill her role as a unifier, a role a century of bad hermeneutics, skewed logic and aggressive arrogance has made much more difficult.

  23. Todd and Mark,
    The Churches of Christ have been THE true church. I am sure there have been individuals and groups of individuals within it have been A true church at various times or perhaps through its history. The Restoration plea was flawed from the start, as devout believers have and can see various facts which they deem important to restore. It makes no difference which church people belong to as long as they are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and seek Him with an open heart and mind.
    The RM 2.0, initiated by Daniel Sommer and codified by Lipscomb, has been characterized by “bad hermeneutics,skewed logic and aggressive arrogance”
    I tend to see a RM 3.0 arising out of the ashes of a fallen religious group, which has a humble heart toward God. This might be a chance to continue on as part of the church universal in faith, hope, and love.

  24. Todd and Mark,
    The Churches of Christ have never been THE true church. I am sure there have been individuals and groups of individuals within it have been A true church at various times or perhaps through its history. The Restoration plea was flawed from the start, as devout believers have and can see various facts which they deem important to restore. It makes no difference which church people belong to as long as they are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and seek Him with an open heart and mind.
    The RM 2.0, initiated by Daniel Sommer and codified by Lipscomb, has been characterized by “bad hermeneutics,skewed logic and aggressive arrogance”
    I tend to see a RM 3.0 arising out of the ashes of a fallen religious group, which has a humble heart toward God. This might be a chance to continue on as part of the church universal in faith, hope, and love.

  25. Actually Gary I am a subscriber to the view that all (or most) of the denominations have some speciality that they were supposed to contribute to the overall Church in doctrine, theology or practice. I feel the CoC’s (or RM’s as a whole) peculiar contribution was the unity card. I like the RM, RM2 and RM3 descriptors as to our denominational history and quite agree with your assessment of the nature and potential of RM3.

    My word of advice to all “progressives” and “change agents” is: Make what is happening in our movement about where God is taking us, not where we have been.

    As Gary says, reach out and become a part of the Church universal, the whole Body of Christ. Make Heaven, the Kingdom and the City of God places here on Earth and see how that makes their greater eventual realities even more precious and full. Tell everybody Who you know and live your life in such a way you seldom even have to sit down and explain why He is so good.

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