The Christian Chronicle recently released an article detailing the specifics about losses both in membership and congregations among Churches of Christ from 2003-Present. Their conclusion? In the last ten years we have lost one out of every sixteen members are have closed three congregations every two weeks for the last ten years. These numbers should be sobering. In the time that I have been at the Central Church of Christ I am personally aware of four congregations that have closed their doors, and know of a number of congregations that are barely hanging on numerically (not to mention other churches that are teetering on the edge of fracture and collapse).
The comments section on the Chronicle article are fascinating. Allow me to summarize some of what I heard from those who have responded publicly on the Chronicle website.
- Good! God is finally cleaning house in his church! This is the purge we have needed to keep the church pure and the false teachers away.
- If we were more evangelistic then we would experience growth like we used to (hear here the 40's and 50's).
- Well if we weren't so legalistic and addicted to patternism and John Locke we wouldn't have this problem.
- This is just terrible. What can we do?
It is interesting that the Churches of Christ are in a nation-wide decline both in membership and congregations much like the rest of the denominational world (don't hear "denomination" as a derogatory term here). However, we see the opposite trend in "non-denominational" Christianity.
"If the unaffiliated congregations were all in one denomination, they would constitute the second-largest in number of participants (behind only the Roman Catholic Church) and the largest number of congregations... Although most Protestant churches are denominational, a noticeable and growing minority are not formally affiliated with any denomination." (From his book, American Religion, Contemporary Trends)
So what are we as members of Churches of Christ supposed to think not only about own decline, but about the tangible surge in the growth of churches that would label themselves very similarly to our movement as "non-denominational"?
First, I know that some people reading this will simply say, "Well it's because they offer entertainment and cotton candy theology that doesn't really take seriously either Scripture or the Gospel." Or some other similarly dismissive comment about their inferiority (whether in theology, worship style, morals, hermeneutics, or whatever). May I remind us here that only God knows the hearts of people. Any judgment from our position must be (1) humble, (2) relational, (3) and after significant self-reflection and an attempt to actually engage with "those people".
But for those of you who are willing to consider the reasons for such a dramatic shift within our fellowship I want to throw in my two cents about what may be going on. Some of these things we can change, some things we must, and some are simply the way that it is.
POSSIBLE Reasons for the Marked Decline Among Churches of Christ...
- Churches of Christ are especially rooted in southern and rural contexts.
This is neither negative nor positive, but it is reality. With the majority of the world moving to urban population centers this is an unavoidable reality that shapes all of rural life, not simply its religious dynamics.
- Churches of Christ have struggled with "creating space" for theological diversity.
The dust up a few years ago about not including Churches of Christ who use instrumental music in the national directory is symptomatic of a larger unwillingness or inability to tolerate or allow diversity of understanding and interpretation.
- Churches of Christ have made significant theological shifts in the last 70 years that have obscured both the richness and diversity of our theological tradition.
It is ironic to me that a lot of the work and theology of early leaders in the Restoration Movement would be considered false and destructive in many churches today. I find it interesting that the Gospel Advocate takes positions on fellowship, baptism, and other theological issues that are almost completely opposite of one of its longest running and most beloved editors, David Lipscomb.
So what are we to do?
Well this is where you come in... How can Churches of Christ find themselves more faithful and better equipped to be flourishing fellowship of believers in the 21st century?