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Closing Churches
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Church closing trend began before COVID-19

MANCHESTER, Tenn. — When the Ragsdale Church of Christ closed its doors on March 6, it joined hundreds of other congregations nationwide that have ceased to exist.

Churches of Christ reached their peak in about 1990 with 1,684,872 adherents and 13,174 churches, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian.

“A trend of decline set in at that point, which has now become a significant loss,” church growth scholar Stan Granberg reported in his 2018 case study on the fellowship’s growth and decline.

In the past three decades, the number of adherents has declined to 1,447,271 — down 237,601, or 14 percent. The number of congregations has fallen to 11,965 — down 1,209, or 9 percent.

Those figures are based on the 2018 edition of “Churches of Christ in the United States,” and anecdotal evidence suggests further decline. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has hurt church attendance at many congregations, also has delayed the latest edition of the directory.

“Where have all the churches gone?” is a Christian Chronicle project that will share the stories of some of the congregations that have closed in recent years.

Related: A final song, a familiar end

Beyond that, this special series will consider where the people go, what becomes of the property and resources and what common denominators exist among the churches that shut their doors.

Although Churches of Christ are found in all 50 states, five Southern states contain more than half of the total number of adherents: Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Indeed, Texas and Tennessee combine for more than a third of the total. Of the roughly 200 congregations that have closed just since 2014, at least 30 each were in Tennessee and Texas. And each week, emails arrive telling about others.

So, appropriately, the Chronicle project’s journey begins in rural Tennessee — at a tiny church that for 70 years met in a white block building off a two-lane road, adjacent to the fields once farmed by the family that provided the land.

It will not end there because churches in cities are also closing.

Whether urban or rural, the overwhelming majority of Churches of Christ — 85 percent — are under 200 in attendance, the 2018 directory notes. More than half, even before the pandemic, had an average attendance of just 34 people, according to Granberg’s study. So it’s not the pandemic’s fault.

Churches of Christ possess “hidden, forgotten, and often rich resources that could serve us well — if we knew about them, if we knew something of our own story,” Jack Reese wrote in his recent book, “At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge.” Reese is a longtime minister and former dean of the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University in Texas.

Related: Jack Reese offers church a hopeful elegy

Organizations such as the Heritage 21 Foundation have formed to help Churches of Christ reinvent themselves, or close in a fashion that preserves their legacy and supports the planting of new, viable, even vibrant churches.

Looking to our history, and to the road ahead, will be part of the story as well. In the words of that old hymn belted out by Christians at Ragsdale’s final service, “Living by faith in Jesus above, trusting, confiding in his great love, from all harm safe in his sheltering arms. I’m living by faith and feel no alarm.”

The future will be different. But it remains in his arms.

CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. In retirement, she is enjoying freelance writing and consulting, especially with churches. Contact her at [email protected].

Filed under: 21st Century Christian church closures Church decline Closing Churches COVID-19 National Opinion pandemic Perspective Top Stories

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