The rate at which people are leaving the Churches of Christ denomination accelerated markedly over the past 3-4 years.

The denomination was already losing members and congregations at an astounding rate.

The Churches of Christ shrunk by an average of over 930 adherents a month every single month over the past 18 years.

And about 5 Church of Christ congregations dissolved every month, on average, during that time frame.

CoC_Congregations
Fig. 1: U.S. Church of Christ Congregations, 1990-2017 (Data Source: 21st Century Christian)

 

New Bad News

The news gets worse: Data released earlier this year by 21st Century Christian, a publisher that tracks Church of Christ demographics, indicates the rate of decrease greatly accelerated over the last 3 years. In that time, the number of Church Christ adherents decreased approximately 5% — by far the largest decrease in Church of Christ history that I could find.  That is over 2000 people departing and over 9 congregations dissolving each and every month, on average, for the last 3 years.

CoC_Members
Fig. 2: U.S. Church of Christ Members, 1990 – 2017 (Data Source: 21st Century Christian) (see note re error in 2000 membership number in Notes)

 

Not in the Same Boat or Even the Same Pond

It is not true that all Christian denominations are shrinking and that the Churches of Christ are simply going through the same thing as others. A great deal of decline in Christian numbers in the United States is due to the decline of the Catholic Church in the wake of sex-abuse and other scandals and of several mainline denominations.

Christianity Today reports that evangelical church numbers, on average, have stayed steady recently.  Some have grown long term.  The US Assemblies of God (Evangelical), for example, has experienced over 27 consecutive years of growth in adherents.

Good News if You Like Bad News

The news gets even worse: The Christian Chronicle, in an August 2018 article titled “Can Churches of Christ be saved?,” reports that Heritage 21, a foundation established by members of Churches of Christ to help dying congregations achieve renewal or secure a legacy, compared the Churches of Christ to national benchmarks that a denomination should have at least 16% of their congregations as new launches or young congregations (2-10 years) in order for the denomination to be healthy. The Churches of Christ has less than 4% in these categories, with a barely registrable number of church plants and new congregations.

And worse: The number of unbaptized children and youth in the church has likely shrunk by more than 20% since 1990, even more than the overall decline. This means even fewer young people growing up in the church to replace those members who pass away.

Still worse: A traditional source for new Church of Christ members is the colleges affiliated with the Churches of Christ. The Christian Chronicle reports that freshmen in those colleges who identify as part of the Churches of Christ has dropped by over 50% since 1990.

Conclusion

Congregations thus cannot depend on children “born into” the church or on people from Church of Christ colleges to maintain their congregation’s size, much less grow it.

Inviting and recruiting people from outside the Church of Christ tradition is necessary if Church of Christ congregations are going to survive.

What is holding them back?

I am relatively confident that people will join a church that does not have a piano or an organ.  We are one of only a tiny number of denominations that completely prohibit women from speaking in the worship assembly — more than 90% of U.S. Christianity does not completely restrict women from speaking in the assembly.

In the 21st century, will people from outside (or even inside) the Church of Christ tradition want to join a church that prohibits women from speaking in the assembly?

No.

Will they want to join a church that discriminates against women based on their sex, prohibiting them from teaching Sunday School to adults and high schoolers?

No.

Will they want their daughters to sit there Sunday after Sunday after Sunday watching and being trained to accept discrimination?

No.

 


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Postscript

Departing from this tradition of completely prohibiting women from speaking in the worship service, a growing number of Church of Christ congregations, after closely studying scripture in which God asks women to speak to, teach, lead, and have authority over men, in an assembly and elsewhere, no longer completely prohibit women from speaking—from reading scripture, from leading singing, from leading prayer, from helping at the communion table, some from preaching, etc.  Most of the colleges affiliated with the Churches of Christ relatively recently lifted their prohibition on women speaking in their chapel worship services, too, and have women preach, etc., there.

An article introduced 10 of those Church of Christ congregations and their published resources.  Another article introduce 10 more (there are many more).  These congregations saw that it was relatively straightforward to see after studying the Bible that the 2-3 sentences that many rely on to demand women not speak do not, in fact, mean that women are not to ever speak in the worship service.

 

 


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Sources and Notes

For a discussion about the relevant scripture, see Steve Gardner, “20 Scripture Passages Telling Women to Speak, Teach, Lead, and Have Authority Over Men in the Assembly and Elsewhere,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 3, 2018).

21st Century Christian:  https://www.21stcc.com.

21st Century Christian publishes “Churches of Christ in the United States” approximately every three years.  It publishes data sheets at other times, too.

Most all of the data mentioned comes from 21st Century Christian, some directly and some indirectly (see source cites below).