About 10 Church of Christ congregations closed in the United States each month, on average (net), during the past 3 years, 2016 – 2019, based on an analysis of data released by 21st Century Christian, a publisher that tracks Churches of Christ demographics.

This rate of closings over the past 3 years is more than double the approximately 4.1 per month that closed from 2000 to 2015, a major acceleration.

The total number of Church of Christ congregations in the United States shrank by approximately 9.6% — over 1260 congregations  — in the last 29 years, from 1990 to 2019, and over a quarter of that number came in just the last 3 years, shrinking 2.8% from 2016 to 2019.

Figure_Congregations_110219
Figure 1:  Churches of Christ Congregations in the U.S. (1990 – 2019), Based on Data from 21st Century Christian

 

As reported in Authentic Theology last month, the Churches of Christ in the United States lost 1 in every 8 members since 1990, greatly accelerating recently to shrinking over 5.6% from just 2016 to 2019, according to an analysis of data from 21st Century Christian.  At this rate, the Churches of Christ will lose a quarter of its members over the next 15 years (plus their kids).

And it is not just that many Churches of Christ congregations lost members — though they did — it is also that large numbers of congregations closed for good.

Churches of Christ Stands Out By Shrinking When and Where it Has

It is not true that all denominations are shrinking.  Christianity Today, earlier this year, reported “evangelicals in the United States are holding steady” and “a surprising uptick for mainline Protestants” recently.

MainlineUptick

Fig. 2:  Religious Categories as % of U.S. Population (Figure from Ryan P. Burge, “Evangelicals Show No Decline, Despite Trump and Nones,” Christianity Today (March 21, 2019)) (Mainline Uptick arrow inserted).

 

The Churches of Christ stands out within its branch of Christianity.  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.

Evangelical_Steady_121019

Fig. 3:  Evangelical Christianity Steady, Data Source: GSS. (Figure from Landon Schnabel & Sean Bock, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion: A Response to Recent Research,” Sociological Science, Vol. 4, 686-700 (Nov. 2017)).

Some of the Likely Reasons the Churches of Christ Shrank

Why did the Churches of Christ shrink?  Some of the reasons likely include:

  • A general failure to plant churches, probably influenced by completely prohibiting women and girls from speaking in its worship services and other restrictions on them (e.g., planting such a church seems like a waste of time and effort, and not one that can generate excitement)
  • Poorly positioned to take advantage of growth opportunities — e.g., although about 1.5 million departed Southern Baptist (SBC) churches in the last 10 years (<10% of its membership, but more than the Churches of Christ), even though the SBC is in the Churches of Christ back yard, since many departed over the SBC’s refusal to ordain women, it was a lost opportunity for the Churches of Christ
  • People leaving the Churches of Christ because of its doctrine on women
  • The negative overall influence restrictions on women and girls has on members’ willingness to invite visitors, potential visitors’ interest in the first place, etc.

These are not the only factors, of course.

Something directly impacting half of those in the church at the fundamental level of sex discrimination propagates widely, though, and calls out for attention.

This article discusses these factors briefly and expresses some hope at the end.

A Threshold Issue:  Today is Not Like It Was Even 10 Years Ago

There are many factors that caused us to shrink, but if we do not change on this one issue soon then recovery will be impossible.

Things have changed rapidly, with awareness of the harmful impact of sex discrimination, Title IX, #MeToo, discovery of wide-spread sex-abuse in sports and churches, the ascent of women in business and education, etc.  It is a different world than even 10 years ago.  Awareness has grown and if people who are aware of it and its harmful impact can be done with sex discrimination or never expose themselves or their daughter to it, they are done with it.

The Churches of Christ could implement the best programs and invest enormous time, energy, and money, but if it does not change on this one issue, all that implementation and investment will not work and it will not survive.

Previously, there were enough people coming from Churches of Christ families and colleges who were used to the tradition of such restrictions on women and girls (some would say indoctrinated).  The number of them has shrank precipitously in a generation. The Christian Chronicle reports that freshmen in Churches of Christ colleges who identify as part of the Churches of Christ has dropped by more than half since 1990. People within the tradition are leaving it, and people generally are done with sex discrimination, for themselves and their daughters.

There is a trickle who will put up with it or who join unaware for a time, but the faucet of such discrimination-accepting or discrimination-unaware people is slowing.

What is the Opposite of Church Planting?

The Christian Chronicle reported that Heritage 21 compared the Churches of Christ to national benchmarks indicating a denomination should have at least 16% of their congregations as new launches or young congregations (2-10 years) for the denomination to be healthy but that the Churches of Christ has less than 4% in these categories, with a barely registrable number of church plants and new congregations.

It quotes Stan Granberg explaining that for Churches of Christ in the United States, “the new church-planting rate is so low … that it does not register a significant percentage.”

Church planting is almost always in the top 3 of solutions proposed to turn around the descent and demise of the Churches of Christ.

First, Build a Time Machine

A church planting strategy might work for us if we could build a time machine and set it for 1874, a time in which planting churches in which women are barred from speaking might work.

Church plants involve generating excitement and interest.  Excited about joining a church in which women are forbidden to speak in the worship service?  We know you’ve been waiting for this!

Wouldn’t a complete prohibition on women and girls speaking sap energy and interest, causing the concept of church planting in many places to be a non-starter?

I would expect potentially successful church-plant strategies to involve not barring women from speaking.  Some people — many preachers who depend on their income and reputation — are concerned about being perceived as liberal and would likely not suggest it out of fear.  But investing in church planting otherwise makes little sense.  And thus few church plants to speak of.

Completely Prohibiting Women and Girls from Speaking and Leading Likely Plays a Significant Role

The Churches of Christ practice of completely prohibiting women and girls from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the worship service — which only about 3-4% of Christianity in the United States does, the lions share of which is the Churches of Christ —, combined with its other restrictive treatment of women and girls, likely plays a significant role in the denomination’s decline and now rapidly accelerating decline, as described at Authentic Theology last month.

Such other treatment includes prohibiting women from serving as elder or deacon, banning women from teaching men in Sunday School, and, often, prohibiting girls from praying out loud in Sunday School in front of boys.  This is in addition to the mentioned practice of complete prohibition in the worship service, including no leading singing, reading scripture, leading prayer, preaching, or helping with communion (this is the practice of the vast majority of the Churches of Christ).

To put it in plainer terms, sex discrimination at such an extreme, public, and highly unusual level likely plays a significant role in the Churches of Christ’s decline and now rapid decline.

What are some other indicators of the significant role and the effect such practice and sex discrimination likely has had and continues to have in the decline?

Women Say They Leave the Churches of Christ Over This

In a non-random survey of people who left the Churches of Christ described by Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., in Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ (2012), a meaningful number of women (it appears to be at least around 4%-8%, but this is speculative as the specifics are not revealed) said their “main objection” was the denomination’s “doctrine concerning the role of women.”

The report did not say how many more women said the doctrine was “one of” their main objections.  It is reasonable to infer that if it was the “main” objection for at least around 4-8%, it would have played a significant role for five or six times that number, 20% – 48%, at least.  The report did not say how many men mentioned it.  So these are all just speculative estimates.   

Such estimates are in line with the experience of other Christian groups and issues, though.  Approximately 4 in 10 former Catholics who are now unaffiliated named “unhappiness with Catholicism’s treatment of women” as a reason they departed the church.

40% of Women and Young People Who Left Their Childhood Religion Selected Negative Treatment of Gay People as “an Important Reason” Why They Left —  Suggests Negative Treatment of Women Likely a Significant Factor When Present? 

A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that 29% of people who left their childhood religion said an important reason was its negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people, increasing to 40% of women and 39% of those 29 and younger.  The survey did not ask whether treatment of women was an important reason.

If around 40% (!) of women and young people who left their childhood religion consider negative treatment of gay people as an important reason to leave their religion, then what percentage of women and young  people who left the Churches of Christ are likely to consider negative treatment of women and girls as an important reason they left?

And would many of those 40% consider joining a church that completely excludes women and girls from speaking in the worship service even if it was not harsh on gay people?  We have to ask ourselves these questions, as I know of no scientific survey of those who left Churches of Christ.  All this negatively influences our decline.

But Don’t Focus Only on Those Who Left Because …

Indeed, one can readily find women and men who left the Churches of Christ because of its doctrines relative to women and girls, as their “main objection” or one of them.  There are even Facebook groups in which related discussions are seen, such as Deconstructing Church of Christ.

And one should avoid focusing solely on those who leave—though it is important—because such focus causes people to miss some other permeating ways this issue negatively influences membership and related, crucial points, up next.

It’s Not Just People Who Left Because of This Issue That Impacts Decline

Complete prohibition of women and girls and related treatment of women and girls also negatively impacts potential visitors’ interest in considering the church in the first place, members’ willingness to invite visitors to church, the church’s reputation and brand, and members’ enthusiasm and attitude towards the church and their interest in volunteering and investing time and energy in it.

It likely influences interest in starting and investment in church plants and the possibilities of people joining a church should it be planted, as mentioned above.

The prohibition also has a negative effect on 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 those hours.  It impacts the congregation’s ability to connect with girls and women, witness to the world, and speak of justice, mercy, and love.  The prohibition has a negative influence well beyond just members who leave because of it.

What’s That Sound?  Cars Driving Past Our Church …

Over 1.5 million members departed Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches in the last 10 years (less than 10% of its membership but more than the total Churches of Christ membership).

Even though the two denominations have tremendous overlap geographically and theologically, relatively few of the departing joined the Churches of Christ.  Attracting just 20% of that 1.5 million would have put the Churches of Christ membership higher than it has been in 40 years.

The SBC lost many members and potential future members due to its discrimination against women and girls.  Indeed, two-thirds of Southern Baptists say women should be allowed to serve as preachers, but Southern Baptist leadership continues to forbid it, a point of enormous contention.  Former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Roslyn severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention due to this issue, and entire congregations departed the SBC over it, moving to other denominations, such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

… Another Example of What This Prohibition Does …

But the Churches of Christ discriminates against women and girls to a much greater extent than even SBC churches, completely prohibiting them from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the worship service, for example, while the SBC prohibits women from preaching and serving as pastor there. 

Any of those 1.5 million Baptists interested in a less discriminatory place for themselves or their daughter would not have been interested in joining the Churches of Christ.

What’s That Smell?  It’s a Practice That Stinks …

And it is much more than that.  The practice—complete and total prohibition of girls and women from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the worship service, etc.—is

  • sex discrimination on display, in a worship service to a loving God no less
  • done despite some people recognizing that sex discrimination can be harmful to girls
  • impairing to the witness of the church
  • a scourge on the church
  • contrary to scripture
  • like racial discrimination
  • like insisting black people not speak in the assembly or teach when white people are present

It is odoriferous.  It stinks.  It reeks.  The smell gets into the clothing.  It gets into the furniture.  It’s in our hair.  It hangs in the air.

But Churches of Christ Folks Have Gotten Used to the Smell

We’ve just gotten used to the smell.

The good people before us and around us did it and do it, so it has become normalized.  It’s simply a tradition, referenced back to a few sentences in the Bible out of context, largely without thought.

It is time to clear our heads, take a deep breath, and see what the air smells like.  And then do something about it.

Is it Moral to Attend a Church Where Black People Are Prohibited From Speaking in its Services When White People Are Present Due to Their Race?

Discriminating based on sex is like discriminating based on race.

Imagine participating in a worship service in which black people have been forbidden to speak or teach white people because of their race.

Imagine participating in a worship service in which black people have been forbidden to serve as an elder or as a preacher because of their race.

Is it moral to participate in such a service?  What message does that send?  Is it a sin to participate?

There are a few sentences of scripture, Genesis 9:20-27, that some call the Curse of Ham, to which a small percentage of people point (used to be more) to claim that black people are not to have authority over white people.  The Curse of Ham was used to justify slavery and other things.

There is probably a small percentage of Christianity that still believes in the Curse of Ham.  I wonder if it approaches 1-2%.  I hope not.

Is it Moral to Attend a Church Where Females Are Prohibited From Speaking in its Services When Men Are Present Due to Their Sex?

There is a small percentage of Christianity, probably around 2-3%, that still believes in completely excluding women and girls from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the worship service.  (The Churches of Christ denomination is virtually alone in doing this among Christian groups of any size, and some of them are changing.)

There are a few sentences of scripture, 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:12, also, to which a small percentage of people point (used to be more) to claim that women are not to have authority over men by speaking, leading, or actively serving in the assembly before men.

Now imagine participating in a worship service in which women have been forbidden to serve as an elder or as a preacher because of their sex.

Now imagine participating in a worship service in which women and girls have been forbidden to speak because of their sex.

Is it moral to participate in such a service?  What message does that send?  Is it a sin to participate?

What is the difference in participating in such a service involving sex discrimination and a service involving race discrimination?

Is it moral to participate in either one?  Is it a sin to do so?

Scare Tactic of Citing Mainline Denomination Shrinking After Ordaining Women

People favoring exclusion of women sometimes say that mainline denominations—such as Methodists—ordain women and those denominations shrank immensely, implying that it Churches of Christ open opportunities to women, then Churches of Christ will shrink more.

This is like pointing out that Methodists have electricity and shrank immensely, and reasoning this means Churches of Christ getting electricity will cause greater decline.  Mainline denominations, because of their geographic concentrations and economics often had electricity before the Churches of Christ, but that does not tell you anything about cause and effect.

It is obvious that ordaining women is not the reason for decline, as shown by evangelical groups in which women participate fully that have seen tremendous growth.  Many, if not most, evangelical denominations that ordain women — Assemblies of God and the Church of God, for example — grew, often significantly at times, in recent years.  Women preach and serve in all roles in the worship service.

In contrast,  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, Churches of Christ, and Lutheran — Missouri Synod.

Turn on the Lights

It’s like we are sitting around in the dark, and people keep saying “don’t turn on the lights because because the Methodists turned on the lights and they shrank.”

And researchers showed long ago that the decline of the mainline denominations (e.g., United Methodist) 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.).  Among other things, they concluded, evangelical denominations’ recent growth “has little or no ideological content; its source is the greater number of young people raised in their tradition.”

Many mainline denominations, such as the Disciples of Christ, 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 other areas, which has young people moving from those areas to places in which evangelical denominations are often concentrated (e.g., parts of the southeast and Texas) that has seen population and economic growth of late.

But people opposed to women serving still point to mainline denomination’s having ordained women and shrinking  — without evidence of causation and when research shows it was not the cause — often as a scare tactic.

Scripture:  It’s a Sin to Prohibit Girls and Women

Blocking a woman from actively serving in the worship service is blocking her from loving (worshiping) God with all her heart, mind, and soul and from loving (serving) her neighbor, as Jesus asks, as the Greatest Commandment.   (Mark 12:28-31)

And it is blocking her from doing what God asks of women: God asks women over and over again in the Bible to speak to, lead, teach, and exercise authority over men, in service of God, in an assembly and elsewhere (click on this article link for 20+ scripture passages in which women speak to, lead, teach, and exercise authority over men, in an assembly and elsewhere).

Blocking women and girls from what Jesus and God asks is a sin.

People point to only a handful of sentences, as few as 3-4, in the Bible to claim women and girls ought not speak in the assembly and the same article and this one introduces why they do not mean they are not to speak and lead (and articles at the end of the Sources & Notes section below provides more discussion on the scripture).

Conclusion: Now is the Time to Revisit the Scripture in a Meaningful Way  

God’s Word, including consideration of some of the passages outlined above, is why a growing number of Churches of Christ congregation, after studying scripture, have changed and lifted prohibitions on women and girls.

Will the fellowship’s rapid decline be enough of a wake-up call, finally, for people to open their Bibles and study scripture on this issue?  Of course, membership ups and downs is not the reason for changing.  It is, however, a reason to take the time to open up your Bible and study the Word.  There are many reasons to do this, including care for girls and women.

It is past time to do this, to ask the elders to engage on the issue and to have the congregation study the issue as a congregation, including engaging with resources and people that look at the issue from all sides, and not just resources designed to affirm what the congregation is already doing.  Declining fellowship membership is just one more motivation to finally take the time to spend substantial time, as a congregation, studying the issue together in a deep, real, meaningful way.

So, there is hope, as demonstrated by Churches of Christ congregations that have made changes and become egalitarian or inclusive and continue to seek more inclusiveness.

But the Churches of Christ is running  out of time, as a point of no return — a time at which enough people with the interest and energy to study and support and make such a change have given up and departed that such a change becomes impossible — cannot be far off.

It’s way past time to ask elders to reconsider and for churches to get rid of all prohibitions on women and girls.

 


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For more on the scripture relating to this issue, see:

Start here for a discussion regarding scripture on this issue:  Steve Gardner, “20 Passages Asking Women to Speak, Teach, Lead, and Have Authority Over Men, In the Assembly  and Elsewhere,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 3, 2018).

For a discussion regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: … 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 22, 2018).

For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:12, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: 1 Timothy 2:12, “Teach or Usurp Authority” (Part 3),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 9, 2019).

For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:11-15, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services:  … 1 Timothy 2:12 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 30, 2018).

For a discussion regarding female elders, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Female Elders (Part 2),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 3, 2019).

For a discussion regarding Christ’s example, see Steve Gardner, “One of Largest Churches of Christ Opens Preaching Role to Women — And Some Questions,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 17, 2019).

For scriptural discussions from various Churches of Christ, see these three articles: Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: List and Links (Part 1),” AuthenticTheology.com (March 26, 2019); Steve Gardner, “Another 10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Their Reasons & a Quiz,” AuthenticTheology.com (April 24, 2019); and Steve Gardner, “4 More Churches of Christ Open Speaking Roles to Women,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 26, 2019).

 

Sources and Notes