Reruns: “Good News and Bad News” (mainly bad, as it turns out)

Churches of Christ in Decline? “Good News and Bad News” (revised)

Posted on April 25, 2008

Dr. Flavil Yeakley, long the unofficial chief statistician of the Churches of Christ, has just published a booklet called “Good News and Bad News: A Realistic Assessment of the Churches of Christ in the United States 2008.” It can be bought from the Gospel Advocate Bookstore for $3.75.

Having just reported that the Southern Baptist Churches are in decline, it seems only fair that we take a look at the Churches of Christ.

From 1980 to 2000, the Churches grew by 45,407, a 2.8% increase, in terms of adherents. From 1980 to 2006, the growth was 2.5%. Now, these aren’t annual rates of growth — they reflect total growth. Hence, the annual rate from 1980 to 2000 was 0.14% (2.8% / 20).

But notice this — the rate for the 26 years from 1980 to 2006 was lower — meaning we were in decline during those last 6 years. Indeed, we lost 0.3% of our adherents from 2000 to 2006, which is a 0.05% (0.3% / 6) per year decline! Now, it’s a slow decline, but there’s no interpretation of the data that makes a loss of adherents a good thing!

On the other hand, the membership numbers show a 0.1% increase during the same 6 years, with a 2.0% increase in membership from 1980 to 2000 versus a 2.1% increase from 1980 to 2006. Again, these are total increase figures, not annual.

Yeakley asserts, “Churches of Christ have not declined as many have claimed,” but the data aren’t quite so optimistic. In terms of adherents — “adherents” includes unbaptized family members as well as baptized members — the numbers are unquestionably in decline. In terms of membership, there’s been a very slight growth.

When we think of who is a part of our congregation, we are generally thinking in terms of adherents. If a young couple with two young children places membership, we think of the entire family as a part of our church. Hence, the adherent figure shows a very real decline — fewer people at church!

It’s interesting to ponder how membership can go up while adherents go down. The answer has to be that we have fewer families with unbaptized children, which is also a very bad sign no matter how you want to spin it. It means we are attracting and keeping fewer young couples than we need to even maintain our numbers. This bodes very badly.

To see how we can lose adherents while gaining members, consider a congregation of 100 people. Over the course of 6 years, 2 members die and four teenagers are baptized. No one places membership. The church membership grows by two (4 baptized minus 2 deceased) but the number of adherents declines by two. Even though the membership is up, the church is dying. And that’s the state of the Churches of Christ.

Worse yet, even during the 20 years of slight growth, our growth was much less than the rate of population growth in the U.S. And it was less than the rate of growth through the births of our own children! If you consider the fact that we did convert some people during this time, it’s clear that we’re losing many of our own children — and have been for at least 26 years. And these are net losses — not counting those who leave only to return later.

Yeakley puts the percentage of our children who leave never to return at around 33%. About 45% drop out of the Church of Christ, but about 12% later return, so we are keeping only about 67% of our own children (55% who never leave + 12% who leave but return).

Over a year ago, I analyzed the figures and came to a very similar figure. However, I concluded that the real retention rate is likely lower, because our overall rate of growth was 2/3rds the birthrate. If we were converting anyone other than our own children, then we would be retaining that many fewer of our own children — and we are.

I think the numbers can be reconciled by noting that Yeakley’s retention figures are limited to the 10 years after high school. I think we lose a lot of members later, for various reasons, such as looking for a better teen or youth program, unhappiness with the theology of the local Church of Christ, feeling rejected due to a divorce, etc. And people just aren’t as loyal to their denomination as they once were.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the highest drop out rates are from churches on the progressive and conservative extremes. The progressive drop outs tend to transfer to a church outside the Churches of Christ, while the drop outs from the most conservative church tend to leave Christianity altogether. Now, that’s a tragic statistic if ever there was one!

We’ve seen this from the progressive end. As our children grow up and leave town, if they can’t find a progressive Church of Christ, they’ll typically join a community church rather than a traditional Church of Christ. They have no taste for legalism.

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 members net and 11,011 adherents net. 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!

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.

Yeakley’s theology colors his reporting, and so we have no comparison of the growth of conservative churches versus the more progressive churches (“ultra-liberal,” he says). But I’ve been told by those who’ve been involved in these studies that the conservative congregations are in decline while the progressive Churches, despite their drop out rates, are growing. Again, this is no surprise.

We’ll consider Dr. Yeakley’s research further in future posts. But for the time being, as some have already commented, it’s significant that our brothers have reacted to this news much as the Baptists have reacted to their own bad news — with denial.

The Gospel Advocate has just run a story on these data and did not mentioned the fact that we’ve been in a net decline in adherents for the last 6 years. Indeed, the tone of the story, much like the tone of the booklet, is to emphasize the good news and how much better we’re doing than “other religious bodies.” Well, that’s the road to failure.

I mean, it actually appears that our more conservative brothers believe that reporting the decline as a decline would give too much comfort to the “change agents” as it would argue for change. As a result, there will be reports in the church media arguing that we are doing just fine, such as this one, but we aren’t. And while we may disagree among ourselves as to the changes required, change is undeniably required.

If we are to consider the data as disciples, rather than sectarians, the only statistics that matter are those that measure how well we’re doing as servants of Jesus — not how much worse others are doing! “Yes, Master, we don’t have enough oil for our lamps, but the guys over there have even less!” just won’t do, will it? (Mat 25:1-13).

If we want to spend our time and money damning each other over methods rather than making the changes required to be faithful servants, we’ll suffer the appropriate fate. The parable that should speak to us is the Parable of the Talents. The Master rewarded those who invested their talents (literally, bars of silver) and received a large return on their efforts. The one who was scared to take a risk, who wouldn’t even put his silver in a bank to earn interest, was damned.

The lesson is not just that Jesus expects a return on his investment, but that we aren’t supposed to be afraid to take a risk. In the First Century, giving silver to money lenders was a very risky investment. There was no FDIC and no government regulation. Banks often failed. And yet the Master said,

(Mat 25:27) “Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.”

You see, the damning sin was refusal to take a risk for fear of making a mistake.

(Mat 25:25) “’I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’”

Well, Jesus isn’t getting his investment back from the Churches of Christ. He wants a return of 100% — double his money (Mat 25:20,22). He’ll accept a modest rate of interest. But merely returning to him what he gave us will damn us. If merely getting his investment back damns, imagine the fate of those who invest at a loss out of fear of the consequences of doing what it takes to succeed.

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19 Responses

  1. One Cup Man here. The numbers do not lie the CofCs are in decline. The One Cup, no class group in the US has been on the decline for several years. Poor leadership, poor Bible teaching and a lazy membership have contributed to the decline. Perhaps the greatest reason for the decline is a suffocating leaglism promoted by many of the One Cup congregations. Unity in the One Cup group is based on conformity rather than in Jesus. I’m sure this is true of other CoC groups as well.

    I thank God for those in the One Cup group who are stepping away from leagalism to a Grace centered approach. Many of them have been called everything from a digressive to a change agent. I call them brethren and I’m proud of them. Perhaps the time is coming when “all” segments of the American Restoration Movement will be united in Christ. The world will be “won” when we are “one”.

  2. Brad Stanford posted an article in response on his blog and send me the link: http://dublinstory.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/panic-or-participate/

    Questions:

    1. Is it wrong to suggest the applicability of the Parable of the Talents and the fate of the unprofitable servant?

    (Mat 25:30) And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

    2. Must the solution for the lack of growth in the Churches of Christ come from outside?

  3. I know the denomination called the churches of Christ is shrinking I am not so convince the church that Jesus Christ established is in danger. I would say the same for the Baptist. But even so what could we really do? In one sense I see this like the global warming issue. Can we really change the weather? Likewise in the universal church can change it pattern of growth and decline?

  4. I think that one thing we haven’t considered is the rest of the world. How is the COC doing in other countries where they aren’t so saturated with different denominations. How are they doing in countries where missionaries have planted churches?

    Now, I don’t know how many of these are COCs but it was just reported that 6,000,000 muslims are converting to Christianity every year. See this link.

    This is a video of Al-Jazeerah speaking of Muslims converting to Christianity.

    We’re growing somewhere.

  5. Snap,

    That’s a really interesting question. Although our domestic failures wouldn’t be excused by success in the mission field, I’d be very interested to see some stats on how well our missions are doing. I’ve not seen any.

    Christianity in general is doing quite well outside of Europe and North America. The center of Christianity seems to be moving to Latin America, Africa, India and China.

    But I’m not aware of anyone tracking the Church of Christ mission efforts as a whole.

  6. Mark,

    I think we can unquestionably do something about our decline. It will require radical change, but some are already having evangelistic success where radical change has taken place.

    Yes, it’s inevitable that 20th Century Church of Christ-ianity decline. No, it’s not inevitable that the Churches of Christ decline.

    Worldwide, Christianity is thriving. In the U.S., it’s on the decline. We’re already receiving missionaries from other countries here!

  7. Why track the CoC at all? Why not just track what God is doing through all His congregations regardless of name? What’s so important about this particular franchise (Church Of Christ™)?

  8. Brad,

    You’re right that the CoC tribe is not the only tribe that matters. But even if Christianity as a whole were doing well in the US (it isn’t), the CoC tribe would do well to notice their own failings and try to do better.

  9. But why? Why does the CoC tribe need to do anything about itself? Why is it so important for it to exist? Is there some special part of the gospel that the CoC has the corner on, and without it the world is doomed? It would be better to spread out into house churches and lose the name, the politics, and the baggage. All three of those get between people and God.

    The better question is: if the death of the CoC tribe brings many more followers to Christ, what’s the right thing to do?

  10. Brad,

    I’m not arguing for anything other than whatever change is required to become effective in the Kingdom. We must die to ourselves so we can live for Jesus. But that requires becoming aware of what it means to live for Jesus at an individual and congregational level.

    Should we die? Absolutely. But die to become what?

    (I’m working up a series on that very question, so I’m quite serious in asking the question.)

  11. Just a thought…

    Is it at least theoretically possible that the numbers are shrinking not because we haven’t (and need to) change but because we have changed so much already? I mean, is it possible that the more we seek to (and actually do) become “like the nations,” the more our people will join them.

    I’m only suggesting that if we are no different than the community churches around us and if our desire is to become one of them ourselves (if we envy them), why wouldn’t our people leave us to join them? Which they have.

    By the way, I just moved out of state from a church in Indiana that has grown over the past six years. I also know that nobody has our statistics because we have never given them. We deliberately chose to keep ourselves “off of the radar” and we called ourselves the Crown Point Church Of Christ. I wonder if we were the only ones in the country to do that?

    Jay, I do know that a lot of churches have made a lot of mistakes (while never doing a lot of good in terms of feeding, clothing, visiting, etc.), but there is just way to much involved (IMHO), to say that “Chrurches of Christ” need to make major changes in order to reverse the numbers? Again, mabye (just maybe), the numbers went south as changes were being made simultaneously?

    Hank

  12. Too, I know that there are many who attend churches of Christ who at the same time despise any and all types of distinctiveness. Who refuse to take any doctrinal stands whatsover when to do so would put them att odds with the Christian world around them. Who actually laugh at and make fun of the idea of maintaining “sound doctrine.” I had one family member actually tell me that at his church, they “don’t teach no doctrine at all.” I think a lot of people simply are uncomfortable in ever saying that “this is right and that is wrong” when it comes to interpreting the Bible.

    Again, I should have made a lot of changes myself over the years (maybe in 2010 I will be better), but there are a lot of things that have been stood up for and defended within the Churches of Christ that I am glad some still refuse to change.

    Lastly, is it true that while we were growing the most, which ever decade that was, that as a whole — we were doing a lot more teaching in terms of the distinctiveness of the Church of Christ?

    The very thing of which so many today not only refuse to defend…but actually take shame in. Maybe as we have quit contending for the things we did back then, our numbers have decreased proportionately?

    Just a thought.

  13. I don’t normally blog, but as one who left the CofC upon adulthood, I thought I would add a little to the discussion. My personal experience was one of having grown up in a “lukewarm” church with legalistic beliefs. By that I mean that the legalistic beliefs were there, but no one seemed to care enough to really make a huge big deal out of it. I grew up hating church and thinking that I must really be awful to hate it.

    Retrospectively, I think that I never really met Jesus there. I learned about Him, but no personal relationship was ever taught or encouraged. It all just seemed dead, and quite frankly, pointless. I had enough teaching that I didn’t want to go to hell, but wasn’t sure that I could do what it took to get to heaven (as grace was not emphasized as much as works were). My experience was that the CofC majored on the minors, and would completely fight to the death about things that really have very little importance.

    While in graduate school, I figured out that God was not really as interested on what the sign over the door read, as much as He was interested in the content of our hearts. I learned that prayer was not just a perfunctory spiritual discipline, but could actually be answered in very profound ways. I also discovered, quite by accident, that the Holy Spirit is very powerful and so very willing to help us with our walk. I learned none of these things in the CofC.

    In the 20+ years that I have been out of the CofC, I have experienced tremendous spiritual growth, I happen to believe that God loves variety in all things (in creation, in nature, in His people, and in the ways that we approach Him in worship). I have been a member of a few different denominations, and think that all of them have some valuable aspects to contribute to the fabric of Christianity.

    I think if the Cof C could focus on Christ, and His command to be “known by your love for one another,” and to really think about what love is and how it looks on a daily basis (“does not demand its own way”), it might be able to have a more positive growth trend. But if the branch is not fruitful, the Lord will most certainly try pruning it. Perhaps this is the process in which you are now involved.

  14. I came accross this little tidbit of news on the Christian online newscenter I access. It tells of a study done this last year concerning the state of Christianity in America.

    http://www.onenewsnow.com/Culture/Default.aspx?id=833174

  15. Thank you for that link Snap. I am not surprised that George Barna’s conclusion is that — “Americans are more interested in faith and spirituality than they are in Christianity. ”
    Just think about what else Barna discovered — he states on his website, “we are creating the ultimate ecumenical movement, where nothing is deemed right or wrong, and all ideas, beliefs, and practices are assigned equal validity.”
    Finally Barna believes that, “Biblical literacy is neither a current reality nor a goal in the United States, and effective and periodic measurement of spirituality is not common right now — and is not likely to become common in the near future.”

    Based upon the above study, it seems that the most effective way for Christian churches to improve their numbers/popularity today would be to de-emphasize the Scriptures and create a movement where (as Barna put’s it) “nothing is deemed right or wrong, and all ideas, beliefs, and practices are assigned equal validity.”

    Thank you again Snap….that year end study by Barna speaks volumes to the issue at hand.

  16. We have to get out of the mindset that many still have that says the C of C is the only true body of Christ. This implies that we have to work on “converting” the other denomations when I know God sees all of us as one. Until this mindset changes (or dies off because it seems many have their minds made up about it and do little research into theirs or others faith to see God working elsewhere), I believe we are going to continue to have internal strife that will drive away more and more Christ followers who “get it” and are tired of the politics. I think the pruning metaphor is a great way to describe all of this.
    I think God has in mind the greater sense of unity among all Christians as he reveals things to those who are truly searching for the truth. Jesus said seek and you shall find. I am finding that out in my own faith journey as I feel him guide me. I think the key is to get more people to truly search into these disputable matters that really aren’t what we were taught they were and have an outward focus to save the lost. The outward focus should really begin to put a lot of things in perspective as we experience God working through other denomations and realize we’re all on the same side. The shame is that many of us born and raised Church of Christers have never stepped outside our comfort zone because we’ve been taught other worship practices are wrong to see God working (if not more so) in the fellowships of OUR fellow brothers and sisters. God desires mercy over sacrifice. The spirit over legalism (that is based on faulty evidence and conclusions anyway).

  17. The Old Order Amish lose less than 10% of their children. They have of divorce rate of about 0.5% and 7-8 children per family. They double about every thirty years. They have no television. They have a teaching of strict separation from the word. They pracice church discipline. They are opposed to any form of change. They sing hymns that were composed in the dungeons of 16th century Europe. They have practically zero outreach to the “English” world around them. (That’s the other side of the coin).

    Church of Christ loses over 30% of their children, has a divorce rate equal to that ofthe society around them. They are totally conformed to the life style of the US-society; quite absorbed by sports, entertainment and television; send their kids to the army and are not very much less patriotic than the typical US-citizen.

    Being conservative, brothers simply is not enough! I would not endorse everything the Older Order Amish (and likeminded groups) practice, but without a clear stand against the culture in which we live, without seperation, we won’t make it. Of course, we need love and outreach: But if we reduce our hope for growth to these aspects, we will end up in a worldly flesh-entertaining mainstream church, that grows numerically but not spiritually. It is easy to attract people with an easy-to-believe gospel.

    To be a little clearer: Many churches of Christ are conservative, but still they are worldly. Don’t be mistaken about that.

    Alexander Basnar, Vienna/Austria
    (a distant observer)

  18. Alexander,

    Wie geht es Ihnen. Wilkommen. (That’s all the German I remember after 2 years of high school study, other than eins, zwei, drei.)

    Yes, we are thoroughly enculturated. The acts of worship are not really the kind of counter-culture Jesus had in mind (and the five acts were only slight modifications on the dominant American culture of the early 19th Century). It’s just hard to see what counter-culture looks like when you live in the US Deep South.

  19. Well, that’s at least an essential phrase to start a polite and friendly conversation in German, and then you can simply apologize for not being fluent enough and the other one will be glad to try out his broken English 😉

    I don’t know the deep south, my wife is from Minnesota, and this state I know quite well. But the better we come to know the Kingdom of God (which is NOT the church – since it is also to come – but should be REPRESENTED BY the church in a faithful way), the clearer it will become what the differences are between the Kingdom and the culture in which we live. We should meditate on verses like Rom 12:1-2 or 2Cor 6:14-7:1 or 1John 2:15-17 or James 4:4 that all echo the words of our Lord that we are not from this world.

    Here is a text, I like very much. It is from a disiple to a certain Diognetus, written around 150 AD (also called letter of Mathetes (gr. for disciple); chapter 5):

    “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring (= abortion and killing kids after birth). They have a common table (= the common meals of the church / Agape), but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor (= a life style of benevolent simplicity), yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. (= blameless lives)”

    For me it starts with a deep, deep conviction of being a stranger in this world, a passer-by. I am not called to do politics or to in any way improve the society around me, but to “call out” souls from amongst them. I think, separation from this world should be confessed at baptism, because it is the flipside of confessing Christ as our Lord. That’s why Peter added at pentecost: “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Acts 2:40)

    Maybe many of us have been baptized at an age where they were too young to really understand this. If baptism were only about forgiveness of sins that would be sufficient, but when it is also about separation from this world, then – at least! – the younger converts should be trained to live different lives and develop a deep understanding of our home in the Kingdom.

    I think, no I am convinced, that our youth needs something to identify with and to die for. Something that gives them identity and a purpose, a determination to go at it by all means. If church is nothing but singing old hymns a-capella and hearing standardized sermons about being “right” and the denominations being “wrong”; maybe that won’t produce this zeal and love for the Kingdom Christ is seeking in us. Changing the sermons to make them m,ore appeasing doesn’t seem reight either (when all is about being accepted by God and aboput grace, I feel, the Kingdom is still missing). But if the sermons help us to find our place in the Kingdom, and if a-capella singing is a true expression of our separation from this world (as it was understood in the early centuries – e.g. Clement of Alexandria), then worship suddenly becomes meaningful, and goes beyond our phrase “where the scriptures are silent, we are silent as well”. Changing the worshipstyle towards the more successful community churches therefore won’t bring the results we long for; the numbers will increase (that’s a given), but for the price of even less separation.

    The key to growth, therefore, is probably not to adopt worship styles from the world in order to attract young people or to make them stay, but to show them their home in the Kingdom. We do not belong here, we should not be defiled by what we see around us; our participation in the affairs of this world should be kept at a minimum. We don’t pledge our allegiance to any flag, and we won’t fight in the armies of any country of this world, because we are already soldiers of God’s Kingdom, engaged in a real but spiritual battle (sounds like David Lipscomb …).

    Boy, that was a bit long (oops) – just as my sermons … But I hope, you got the point. We could really stand out as God’s people in this world. Being separated from denominationalism is good, but it is not all. Being conservative is good, but it is not enough. We are to be really different.

    in Christ Jesus
    Alexander

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