The State of the Churches of Christ: A Case Study

Photo taken at a small Church of Christ in rural Arkansas.

Photo taken at a small Church of Christ in rural Arkansas.

The 2015 Directory of Churches of Christ in the USA has recently been published with the first copies releasing any time now. As is typical, it is often an opportunity for reflection on "the state of the church". In 2008 the Christian Chronicle had a year long series about this question: "Are We Growing?" They again returned to the question in 2012: "By the Numbers: Growth & Decline of the Church". 

Too often the conversation about the "current" situation (whether that is 1945, 1980, 2008, or now) breaks down in one of two ways:

Response from the "Conservatives": (A caricature to make a point)
If people would simply stick to the "old paths" and stop going after all the new and unscriptural innovations we wouldn't be in this mess. We used to be (in the glory days of the 1940's and 1950's) the fastest growing group in America (which by the way, this has been debunked by one of the most thorough and theologically conservative members of our tribe, Flavil Yeakley in his book "Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ".) Short answer: Blame it on the liberals and the heretics. Diagnosis: Our decline is empirical proof that faithfulness = the faithful remnant. Remember, "narrow is the way!" 

Response from the "Liberals": (A caricature to make a point)
If people in the Churches of Christ weren't so dogmatic, legalistic, and fundamentalist our children wouldn't be leaving and our churches shrinking. If we could get past our oppression of women, lack of talk about grace, and fascination with living in Mayberry we wouldn't be in this mess. Short answer: Blame it on the conservatives and hypocrites. Diagnosis: Our decline is empirical proof that the "conservatives" are killing the church. That decline = vindication. Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees!

If you disagree with my analysis just go follow the comments section on this article posted yesterday at the Christian Chronicle: "165,000 fewer souls in the pews: Five questions to consider".  

Perhaps though there is a third response that has begun to more regularly emerge. One that isn't necessarily alarmist or that points the finger at those on the opposite side of the relatively small theological spectrum within Churches of Christ. 

It goes something like this:

We are living in a post-modern, post-Christian society in which all "churches" (meaning denominations other than the Churches of Christ) are shrinking. 

So we look for numbers that are "worse" than ours, or show that we are weathering just as well as other traditions who are not growing. We attempt to be dismissive by saying, "Times are tough. That's life. It is unavoidable." Ultimately, these people, perhaps attempting to be peacemakers, or in varying degrees of denial are trying to tell us: It's bad, but it's not that bad.

The 2015 directory this year contains information on all the known Churches of Christ in the United States. It is the best attempt to give a comprehensive and accurate assessment of the Churches of Christ in America. 

The Christian Chronicle reports it this way:

In the last quarter-century, total membership has fallen to 1,183,613, according to the 2015 edition of "Churches of Christ in the United States," published by Nashville, Tenn.-based 21st Century Christian. 

That's down 100,443 souls - or 7.8 percent - from a total membership of 1,284,056 in 1990...

Add in unbaptized children and spouses of members, and the numbers are even more stark: The "adherents" figure stood at 1,684,872 in 1990. That number has dropped to 1,519,695, a decline of 165,177 souls — or 9.8 percent — the 2015 directory reveals.

Meanwhile, the total number of U.S. congregations has slipped to 12,300, down from 13,174 in 1990. That means a net loss of 874 churches in the last quarter-century — an average of 35 per year. 

In the same 25-year period, the nation's total population rose to an estimated 320 million, up from 250 million in 1990. That's an increase of 70 million — or 28 percent.

So while the US population is soaring (70 million in the last 25 years) we are caught in the midst of a marked decline. But a quick glance at the numbers still causes many within our tradition to not feel a great sense of alarm. 

This is where this case study comes in...

Churches of Christ in the United States 2015 has posted the overall numbers by state from their most recent addition.

The statistics for Oklahoma are a helpful test case...

State of Oklahoma

Population: 3,878,051
Congregations: 569
Members: 56,528 (Defined in the directory as baptized individuals)
Adherents: 74,208 (Defined as both baptized and unbaptized individuals)
Attendance: 56.027 (Defined as average Sunday morning attendance)

Here are a few important and initial observations:

  • Churches of Christ in Oklahoma are common, particularly in rural areas. With congregations in all 77 counties there is significant "presence" throughout the state. 
  • On any given Sunday, 1.44% of Oklahomans are attending a Church of Christ. 
    • As context the ratio is the following in these surrounding states: Arkansas (2.21%), Tennessee (2.52%), and Texas (0.88%). 
  • The gap between membership (56,528) and adherents (74,208) is 17,680 or 23.82% of all adherents. Presumably, many of this number are children.
    • (From another source but still relevant) The average age of people in the Churches of Christ is approximately 54 with slightly more than 25% being college graduates. This means that the rate by which our tradition will grow merely by the growth of families will continue to rapidly decline. 
  • The general average size congregation in Oklahoma is just over 98 people. (Attendance divided by the number of congregations.)

This last number, that the average size of a congregation is approximately 98, would cause many to breathe a sigh of relief. A congregation of nearly 100 should be economically sustainable, large enough to have some form of eldership/leadership, and able to have a meaningful presence in their community. 

But the reality should be much more sobering...

I want to demonstrate this by looking at the size of four congregations located in the two primary metro areas in Oklahoma and their attendance. This radically reshapes the way we think about the "State of the Church" in Oklahoma. It is my hunch that these same kinds of results will be more or less true across the country where the Church of Christ has any real presence. 

Here are the four churches: Memorial Road Church of Christ (OKC, OK), Edmond Church of Christ (Edmond, OK), North MacArthur Church of Christ (OKC, OK), and Park Plaza Church of Christ (Tulsa, OK).

According to the most recent weekly bulletins posted on their website their attendance for the last Sunday or February was as follows:

  • Memorial Road Church of Christ - 2,175
  • Edmond Church of Christ - 1,182
  • North MacArthur Church of Christ - 511
  • Park Plaza Church of Christ - 1,395
  • Total Attendance: 5,263

These numbers are important for a number of reasons:

  1. These four congregations comprise 9.25% of all church attendance in the State of Oklahoma while making up 0.7% of the congregations in the state. 
  2. The average size of these four congregations is 1,316, which is more than thirteen times the size of the average congregation, each. 
  3. Simply removing these four congregations from the list produces the following results:
    1. Attendance: 50,764
    2. Number of Congregations: 565
    3. General Average Size: 89.84 (down form 98,5)

When all the data is processed (which will have to be a project for another time) my hunch is that we will discover the following results:

  • That less than 25% of the congregations in Oklahoma more than 50% of the attendants. 
  • That the average size of a congregation in a rural community (let's define this as a community with a population of less than 10,000 people) is closer to 40. 
  • That the number of congregations that are one (or two) funerals, fights, or withheld contributions from folding would be troubling. 

The implications of this are enormous for a lot of reasons. Here are few worth discussing...

How should our schools that train ministers react to the reality that many of the established congregations in Churches of Christ will struggle to financial support a paid minister? (This might be particularly of interest to people training for "extra" ministries like youth, college, and family ministry which typically require that person to be additional ministry staff.)

How might larger, more established churches aid and support these struggling congregations, and when necessary, help them to close their doors with dignity and thanksgiving for what God has done?

What kind of church do we anticipate leaving for our children and for our communities?

Might this kind of perspective on the gravity of our situation embolden us to make important and sometimes painful decisions for the sake of our local congregations?

There are so many other questions to be explored, but I believe that it is time to recognize that in some ways, the Churches of Christ are not sick with the flu, but possibly considering hospice care. 

But take heart, the Kingdom of God cannot be overcome. And as people who once knew what it meant to be "Christians only, not the only Christians" that is not a bad place to be.