The rate at which the Churches of Christ is shrinking, already quite high, accelerated to over 2400 people each month (net), on average, during the last 3 years, based on an analysis of data released by 21st Century Christian, a publisher that tracks Churches of Christ demographics.

This is more than triple the already high rate of decline for the Churches of Christ from 2000 to 2015.  It is a 15% steeper adherent fall than reported by Authentic Theology in November 2018 for 2015 to 2018.

The number of Church of Christ members shrank by over 5.6% from 2016 to 2019.  Effectively, 1 in every 18 members disappeared from its congregations nationwide in just 3 years.  That is more than 66,000 baptized, names-on-the-rolls members.  And those who had young kids took those kids with them.  This is a major acceleration in the decline of the Churches of Christ.

At this rate, the Churches of Christ will lose a quarter of its membership over the next 15 years, plus their kids.

Figure 1: Churches of Christ Members in the U.S. (1990 – 2019), Based on Data from 21st Century Christian

Shrinking Rapidly When Evangelical Christianity Did Not

It is not true that all denominations are shrinking.

While the Churches of Christ lost an astounding 1 in every 8 members since 1990, the Assemblies of God added 3 members for every 8.

Christianity Today earlier this year reports “evangelicals in the United States are holding steady” and “a surprising uptick for mainline Protestants.”

The Churches of Christ stands out within evangelical Christianity as a whole in that the Churches of Christ lost members — and then at an astounding rate — while evangelical Christianity as a whole stayed relatively steady and even grew at times and in places over the past 15-30 years at least.


Figure 2:  Type of affiliation over time, General Social Survey. Source: General Social Survey, 1989 to 2016.  (Figure from Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion: A Response to Recent Research,” Sociological Science, Vol. 4, 686-700 (November 2017)).

Churches of Christ:  Different

Evangelical Christianity includes what are traditionally thought of as “more conservative” denominations, such as Assemblies of God, Church of God, Churches of Christ, Presbyterian Church in America, Seventh Day Adventist, and Southern Baptist.  Southern Baptist and some others shrunk over the past decade while others, like Assemblies of God and the Church of God, grew, but when taking all evangelical denominations and groups as a whole, putting those who grew, stayed steady, and shrunk together, overall, evangelical Christianity as a whole stayed relatively steady.

Evangelical Christianity as a whole has in common a great deal of geographic concentration—southeastern and southwestern, for example—and theology.

Mainline denominations (e.g., United Methodist Church and Disciples of Christ) and the Roman Catholic Church shrank over that time.

The reason mainline denominations shrank is nearly all due to people in those denominations having lower birth rates during the relevant time period, per researchers.  Geographic concentrations and average ages were different than the evangelical denominations.

Despite evangelical Christianity as a whole staying steady or growing, the Churches of Christ shrank and continues to do so.

What Differentiates the Churches of Christ in Evangelical Christianity?

Perhaps determining how the Churches of Christ differs from evangelical Christianity as a whole — in particular, ways the Churches of Christ differ that are both noticeable to members and potential members and negatively impact a relatively large percentage of people — might reveal why the Churches of Christ is shrinking while evangelical Christianity as a whole did not.

They share far more than differentiates.  Truly impacting differences are few.

A factor that differentiates Churches of Christ from 85%+ of evangelical Christianity:  treatment of women and girls, with Churches of Christ completely prohibiting  women and girls from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the worship service, for example.

Nearly Alone in Completely Excluding Women and Girls in the Worship Service

The Churches of Christ is nearly alone in completely excluding women and girls from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the worship service.

Girls and women are prohibited from leading singing, leading prayer, preaching, helping with communion and offering, etc., in the vast majority of Churches of Christ.  They are restricted other ways, too.  Girls are barred from praying out loud in front of boys in Sunday School.  Women are barred from teaching men and boys over about age 10 and praying out loud with men present.  They are barred from serving as an elder or deacon.  And more.

Only about 2-4% (probably less) of U.S. Christianity completely prohibits women and girls in this way in the worship service and the lions share is the Churches of Christ.  Islam also does so, but not monolithically, as it is cultural.

Some other Christian denominations, like Southern Baptist, also prohibit women, but typically just from from preaching and ordained roles (e.g., pastor) and allow women to lead (e.g., lead singing), serve, and otherwise speak.  But a church where women teach adult and middle school Sunday School, lead singing, play the piano, and make announcements, etc., and where girls stand up in service to read scripture, sing a solo, etc., for example, typically has a much different feel than a Church of Christ.  (Many in the Churches of Christ think lots of other churches are like the Churches of Christ in this regard but they are not.)

And still other Christian denominations, about half of evangelical groups of size, like Assemblies of God, instead ordain women and do not prohibit women from preaching, speaking, leading prayer, teaching, etc.

Many, if Not Most, Female-Ordaining Evangelical Denominations Grew

Many, if not most, evangelical groups that ordain women — Assemblies of God and the Church of God, for example — grew, often significantly at times, in recent years.  They have female preachers and women serve in all roles and functions in the worship service.

Most Female-Restricting Evangelical Denominations Shrank

The Churches of Christ is not the only evangelical denomination that shrank.  While evangelical Christianity as a whole stayed relatively steady, most, if not nearly all, denominations of size that do not ordain women and who restrict them in the worship service shrank significantly, including Southern Baptist and Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.

Mainline Churches:  Not Shrinking Because of “Liberal Theology,” as Fundamentalists Like to Claim

People favoring exclusion of women often argue that since mainline denominations ordain women and those denominations have shrunk immensely, we ought not ordain women.

It is obvious, however, that ordaining women is not a reason for their decline, as shown, for example, by the evangelical churches, like Assemblies of God, that have women participate fully and have seen tremendous growth.

And researchers showed long ago that the reason for mainline denomination decline in membership was nearly all due to a difference in birth rates during the relevant time period (members started out older, geographic, economic, and other demographics were different, etc.).

Many mainline denominations, such as the Disciples of Christ, which parted from the Churches of Christ over 110 years ago, have their concentration in areas like the mid-west, the farm belt, or rust belt that have not seen the population and economic growth seen by areas in which evangelical denominations are often concentrated (e.g., parts of the southeast).

Moreover, most people are considering old information about mainline denominations.  Things may have changed recently for them, as mainline denominations as a whole saw an uptick recently, as reported by Christianity Today (as a group they saw an uptick in the past few years, indicating some shrank but others seemed to begin coming back).

The denominations most like the Churches of Christ — in geographical base, theology, etc. — are, of course, the evangelical denominations. The Churches of Christ stand out among them, though, for the extensive nature of its prohibition on women and girls speaking, leading, and actively serving in the worship service and for its decline in times and places that others grew or stayed steady.

Wide Negative Impact of Prohibiting Women and Girls From Speaking

A major mistake often made in considering the negative effect this prohibition has on church membership is to think only of people who were members of a Church of Christ congregation who then leave it because of this issue.  It goes way beyond that.

The effect of such prohibitions on women and girls is much wider and is both direct and indirect.

Complete prohibition of women and girls this way impacts not only people’s willingness stay at such a church, but also negatively impacts matters such as potential members’ willingness to consider visiting and joining it in the first place, members’ willingness to invite visitors to church, the church’s reputation and brand, and potential members’ interest in the church once they visit.

A significant reason many recent graduates of Church of Christ colleges, for example, decide not to join Churches of Christ after college is this issue.

Many people searching for a church home for their family consider the reputation and distinctive features of a denomination while considering which churches to visit.  There are only a handful of things that prominently distinguish Churches of Christ from most all other denominations and this complete prohibition on girls and women is one of them, along with a cappella music.

As another example, some Church of Christ members are hesitant to — or will not —- invite their friends to the church because they know that this issue is a deal-breaker or they do not want to expose their female friends or their daughters to such discrimination.

More Wide Negative Impact of Restricting Women and Girls

Members’ enthusiasm and attitude towards the church and their interest in volunteering and investing time and energy in the church are negatively impacted by this prohibition, too.  This impacts many aspects of the church relative to membership, such as evangelism.

Churches of Christ are near the bottom—fourth lowest—in attendance rate and percentage of members who say religion is very important to them among evangelical groups of size.  In the ones with higher such rates and percentages, women much more freely take part in public worship.


(Fig. 3:  Percentage of members who said they attend services at least once a week, by denomination/category, by Pew Research Center)

Joining the Churches of Christ in the bottom four are denominations that are most restrictive relative to women’s roles in worship.  The two denominations at the top, in terms of attendance and members who say religion is very important, both have female preachers.

A study found that of Churches of Christ loosening this prohibition, 68% saw increased participation by its members (with 28% reporting no change).  Only 6% saw a decrease in participation by men and more than twice that (15%) saw an increase in participation by men.  Visitors had already increased at 51% of the churches making the change, with 45% seeing no change in visitors at the time they reported and only 4% had seen a decrease at the time.

The prohibition also has a negative effect on membership by impacting such things as the availability of women’s gifts to serve, inspiration for young girls, and many other aspects of the church beyond being able to speak or not in that hour.  It promotes a sense of hypocrisy when church leaders speak of love for one another.  It impacts the congregation’s ability to grow, connect with young people, connect with girls and women, witness to the world, and speak of justice, mercy, and love.

Harmful to Young Girls

Sex discrimination, done with malice or not, like race discrimination, is harmful.

It seems obvious that having young girls watch themselves and their moms and their female friends be discriminated against every Sunday for years and years would have a long-term, negative impact on many of those girls, harming them spiritually, psychologically, and physically.

And the church displaying an example for boys and for men of sex discrimination against young girls and women would, of course, impact how girls and women are treated in the workforce and in society by many of those boys and men.

A recent study published by Oxford University Press found that adult women who had only male congregational-leaders growing up had, as an effect, (1) lower self-esteem (associated with more depression and anxiety), (2) less education, (3) higher unemployment, and (4) more of an authoritarian and judgmental view of God (associated with negative psychological health), on average, than men and than women who had influential female congregational-leaders growing up.

In another recent study, an alarmingly high percentage of women in the Churches of Christ reported symptoms of trauma.

Suggests Significant Reason for Decline: Treatment of Girls and Women

A major point:  The factors outlined here, including that evangelical Christianity as a whole stayed approximately steady while the Churches of Christ shrank rapidly, suggests that the Churches of Christ treatment of women and girls — one of its few differentiating factors — plays a significant role in its decline.  Anecdotal evidence (e.g., comments from potential, former, and current members) suggests treatment of girls and women plays such a role in the group’s decline, too.

The Churches of Christ treatment of women and girls departs from nearly all the rest of Christianity by completely excluding them from speaking, teaching, and actively serving in the worship service.  It is a very public exclusion.

And then it often goes on to exclude them outside of the worship service in many other ways that have a material impact on girls and women (e.g., keeping girls from praying out loud in Sunday School as boys are normally present, prohibiting women from serving as deacon and elder, prohibiting women from teaching combined girls and boys classes once the boys reach a certain age).

That sex-discrimination on display and in effect at this extreme level might cause people never to step foot in the church building or cause college-age women in the 21st century to not identify with the Churches of Christ should not be surprising.

And it should not come as a surprise that sex-discrimination might cause grown women and men to decide that they have had enough, for themselves and for their daughters.

As the practice is normalized within the denomination, most people simply do not think about it.  It is not that harm is intended, usually.  It is just that, for most, it has not come to their attention and they have made no or little effort to consider it.  It is what the good people that came before did and what the good people around them do.  And for a long time.

Real Question

A real question is:  what happens when the issue comes to their attention?

Largely ignore it and neglect girls?  Ignore the harm done to girls and women?   Silence?  Intentionally continue doing it?

Continue to have young girls bear this burden and this harm out of fear some members will leave for another congregation or out of fear of losing a position?

Those options have serious moral import, an adult having little girls — the daughters and granddaughters, the daughters of friends — bear the negative consequences in order to keep adults comfortable.

Examine it carefully as a congregation, and not just with resources designed to defend and affirm the prohibition of women and girls, engaging instead in deep study with resources and people that have different views?

“It is not THE reason, so I can do nothing”

One common response in attempting to downplay the discrimination against girls and women is something along the lines of “it is not THE reason the Churches of Christ is in decline.”  This is an attempt to deflect, as the claim above is not that it is THE reason.

Essentially, they are attempting to use other perceived problems within the church as an excuse and distraction from doing anything about this one, one that is hurtful to a lot of people and is significant.

The claim in this article is not that it is “THE reason” has declined.  There are other factors that have also caused decline.

The claim here is that it “plays a significant role” in the decline — there can be other things that also play a role.  But folks who want to deflect or who are in denial will set up a scarecrow by declaring it is not THE reason and by then trying not to take any action relative to their own continued contributions to the oppression of girls and women.

A Significant, Negative Factor in the Decline of the Churches of Christ

Is it that the discrimination is not significant relative to membership?  Ask your friends with daughters who aren’t members of a Church of Christ whether it would be significant or not that their church would completely prohibit little girls and all females from praying out loud, speaking, reading scripture, etc., to their interest in joining the congregation.

Is it that the discrimination is neutral or positive relative to membership?  You think potential members do not care one way or another or would consider it a positive?

If it is not insignificant and it is not positive or neutral, then it is significant and negative.

It is straightforward to see that it is significant and negative relative to the membership of the Churches of Christ.

In the past, such prohibitions on girls and women have been a significant reason in the decline of the Churches of Christ.  It might have even have been the main reason in the past, but that is not the claim of this article.

Now and Future:  If Not Going to Change = Not Going to Survive

Moving on from the past, though, now and in the future, if such prohibitions are not lifted, then it will be THE reason Churches of Christ cannot reverse or recover from its decline.

My view is it will be impossible for the Churches of Christ to recover if it does not change its practice regarding women and girls very soon.

It is difficult to pinpoint the precise magnitude of its contribution to the decline so far, but things have changed rapidly, with awareness of the harmful impact of sex discrimination, Title IX, #MeToo, sex abuse in sports, sex abuse in churches, the ascent of women in business and education, and other factors.  It is a different world than even 10 years ago.

Awareness has grown and if people can be done with sex discrimination or never expose themselves or their daughter to it, they are done with it.

That is, the Churches of Christ could now implement the best programs, the best evangelism, etc., but if the Churches of Christ does not change on this one issue, it will not be able to recover and it will not survive.

Previously, there were enough people coming from Church of Christ families and colleges who were indoctrinated into the tradition of discrimination.  The number of such families has shrunk, the number of Church of Christ college graduates who identify as Church of Christ has dropped by half, the number of people going to church generally has decreased, people within the tradition are leaving it, and people generally are done with sex discrimination.

Limited Churches of Christ Experience

Some Churches of Christ have removed all or many of their restrictions on women.  A study found that about half who make this change stay the same or gain members and about half lose members.  And of those that lose members, the average is about 20%.

Keep in mind that the congregations who lose members lose them to another Churches of Christ if complete prohibition on girls and women is the issue —- virtually no one else does this except Muslims at the mosque.

And the study’s report regarding loss of members does not take into account such matters as the average decline rate of Churches of Christ, e.g., since Churches of Christ are, on average, losing members at a significant rate without changing, the Churches of Christ congregations that changed and showed a loss of 10%, for example, after making this change might be a better result or the same result for those congregations as if they had not changed.

Given that the Churches of Christ brand has such practices associated with it, the concept that one congregation changing and not showing a massive inflow of people does allow much of an inference.  Most congregations cannot overcome that association in a short time frame.  It will take a large number of Churches of Christ making this change for it to impact the brand known to the public.

But one church has an impact on the girls and women and boys and men in its congregation and on its witness.

It’s a Sin to Prohibit Girls and Women From Speaking

Blocking a woman from actively serving in the worship service is blocking her from worshiping God with all her heart, mind, and soul and from serving her neighbor.  Jesus asks women and men to love (worship) God with all their heart, mind, and soul and to love (serve) their neighbor.  This is the Greatest Commandment.   (Mark 12:28-31)  Blocking her from doing what Jesus asks is a sin.

And blocking a woman from doing what God asks is a sin.

God asks women over and over again in the Bible to speak to, lead, teach, and exercise authority over men, in an assembly and elsewhere (click on this article link for 20+ scripture passages).

Only 3-4 Sentences Used to Completely Exclude, Apparent Don’t Mean That

There are only 3-4 sentences to which people point to claim women and girls must be completely barred from speaking and leading in the worship assembly.  Reading them for 2 minutes confirms the practice of exclusion.

Reading them for 3 minutes causes questions to arise that allows one to see that they do not mean what their plain reading and quick read means.  For example:

  • What?! “Let your women keep silence in the churches”?! But women sing, so the plain meaning can’t be it.
  • What?! If women want to “learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home”?!  But they ask questions in Sunday School and in the hall, so the plain meaning can’t be it.
  • What?! I permit “not a woman to teach”?! But women teach by singing, they teach high school, they teach by their presence and actions, … so the plain meaning can’t be it.

Yet, some people just quote two passages out of context and say “that’s that,” ignoring that no one credible argues for their “plain meaning” and that much scripture contradicts the interpretation that women and girls are not to speak and lead.

Studying the 3-4 sentences a bit longer and in context with resources besides just those designed to confirm the practice shows they do not preclude women and girls from speaking, leading, or actively serving.  The same article introduces why (and articles linked at the end of the Sources section below provides more discussion on the scripture).

This is why a growing number of Churches of Christ, after studying scripture, have changed and lifted their prohibition.

Conclusion — Christ’s Example to Follow

Christ is the Word, sent into the world.  (John 1) Christ asks us to follow his example.

The first people to which the Word revealed the good news of the resurrection were women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”  (John 20:16-17; Matt 28:9)

On that first Easter morning, the Word revealed the resurrection to them, spoke Mary’s name, said “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father,” and told them “Do not be afraid.”  (John 20:16-17; Matthew 28:10).  

Christ, the Word, said to the women:  “’Go … to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”‘ (John 20:17)  “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee ….” (Matt 28:10)

Mary Magdalene went to the assembled disciples and proclaimed to them and taught them: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ … she told them that he had said these things to her.”  (John 20:17-18; see also Luke 24:9, 33; John 20:10, 19))

Christ thus tells women to go tell assembled men what the Word revealed to the women and to go tell assembled men what the Word wants the men to do.

But the Churches of Christ says the opposite — telling women not to go tell assembled men what the Word revealed to them and not to go tell assembled men what the Word wants the men to do.

It is way past time for the practice of precluding women and girls end.

Time is running out, for the young girls around us and for the Churches of Christ as a whole.

As Christians, we have heightened duties of care and action to both, given to us by Christ.  (See, e.g., John 13:15, 34-35; Galatians 6:2; Mark 12:28-34).  Not to act now is negligence, towards those girls and the whole body, and a failure to meet those duties.




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See the second article in this series:  Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Closing Monthly, Doubling Rate, Treatment of Girls and Women Factor,” Authentic Theology (December 11, 2019).

Sources & Notes