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First in a series of stories on growth and decline of the church. – (graphic by Kim Walden)

Church in America marked by decline

The church in America is shrinking.
The number of men, women and children in the pews has dipped to the lowest level since a comprehensive effort to count members began in 1980, according to the 2009 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States.
In the newly released directory, 21st Century Christian identifies 12,629 a cappella Churches of Christ with 1,578,281 adherents nationwide.
Those figures represent 526 fewer churches and 78,436 fewer people in the pews than just six years ago.
“While I do not want to say that the sky is falling — at least not yet — I do think this should be a concern for all Christians,” said Carl Royster, who compiled the data for the Nashville, Tenn.-based publisher.
Until now, Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark., has maintained that after decades of growth, Church of Christ membership in the U.S. actually plateaued about 1980, with insignificant annual increases or decreases since then.
“The decline since 2003, however, is statistically significant and, I believe, important,” Yeakley said.
Some of the decline can be explained by 21st Century Christian’s decision to remove from the directory churches that have added one or more instrumental worship services on Sunday morning. (Update: This decision was reversed for the 2012 directory.)
Among the excluded congregations: the 5,200-member Richland Hills church in Texas, which had been listed as the nation’s largest Church of Christ in 2006 and previous editions of the directory, published every three years.
But the removal of 21 congregations that offer instrumental services accounts for only 4 percent of the drop in number of churches and 23 percent of the decrease in adherents, Yeakley said. “The rest of the decline cannot be attributed to the instrumental music issue,” he said.
In Yeakley’s view, the most telling statistic is a 7 percent drop in the total number of children in Churches of Christ.
“The directory by 21st Century Christian does not report that figure,” Yeakley said. “It is simply the number of adherents minus the number of members. This decline reflects the ‘graying of the pew.’”
That finding does not surprise David Duncan, minister of the Memorial church in Houston.
“Over the past 20 years, I have visited congregations occasionally that only had a handful of children,” Duncan said. “Two or three congregations did not have any children.”
Such congregations will not survive past the present generation, he said. “Assuming the numbers are right, our lack of evangelism and the departure of many of our children are finally being revealed,” Duncan said. “This should be a wakeup call … to share our faith more actively.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, Churches of Christ were heralded as one of the — if not the — fastest-growing religious groups in America. Estimates in the mid-1960s put total membership at about 2.5 million.
But those figures were highly inflated. Mac Lynn, then a teacher of ministry and church growth at Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn., discovered that when he conducted a national membership survey in 1980.
Before prominent church leaders Batsell Barrett Baxter and Norvel Young died, Lynn said, he asked each about the figures they reported to the Yearbook of American Churches and Encyclopedia Britannica, respectively.
“Each indicated the figures they reported were estimates based on a common perception that Churches of Christ were growing rapidly,” Lynn told The Christian Chronicle in 2007. “The figures they submitted simply added a percentage like 10 percent each year. Others, including Reuel Lemmons, began to use these figures, and so the word spread that we were the fastest-growing church in America.”
Lynn’s own research concluded that Churches of Christ experienced a steady upward membership trend in the post-World War II era. But that growth fell below the “ballooned estimates,” he said.
The 1980 survey counted 12,762 congregations with 1,601,661 adherents. From 1990 through 2003, Lynn compiled updates of those statistics every three years before turning over the national survey to Royster.
Since 1980, the nation’s population has jumped 36.3 percent.
Not only have Churches of Christ failed to keep up with that growth, but also the number of people in the pews has dropped 1.5 percent since then.
“We all need to be asking, ‘Why?’” Royster said. “Does this have to do with generational differences, the political landscape, culture change, education, media? Are churches directing proper resources toward evangelism and good Christian teaching?
“Have the hearts of Americans become so apathetic and hardened towards religion in general that America is no longer fertile ground for the seed of God’s Word?” he added. “I think these figures are telling us that there are many questions that need to be addressed before the sky does start falling.”
In “Are We Growing?” — a yearlong series of reports in 2007 — the Chronicle tackled reasons behind the fast-growing population and the slow-growing, or declining, church.
Explanations offered by church leaders ran the gamut:
• Immigration of millions of Hispanics — most of them Roman Catholics — from Mexico and Central America have accounted for much of the population increase. At the same time, many immigrants have come from Muslim-dominated parts of the world.
• Birth rates have fallen as members have become more affluent.
• At the same time, U.S. society has moved from a rural culture to one that is primarily suburban and urban — taking members from the traditional base of Churches of Christ. Many, small rural congregations struggle to survive.
• Some blamed complacency.
• Others said churches have focused too much on institutional loyalty and not enough on the message of Christ.
• Still others suggested that the membership figures reflected a post-Christian era in the U.S. Many denominations — Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans among them — have posted steep declines in recent decades. After years of growth, Southern Baptists have reported drops in baptisms and membership the past few years.
“The commonalities between Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ would probably be the need to find ways to engage culture that we’ve forgotten,” said Southern Baptist statistician Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research in Nashville. “If the ’50s came back, most of your churches and most of my churches are ready to go. The reality is, we don’t live in the ’50s anymore.”

. . .

Churches: 12,629
Members: 1,224,404
Adherents: 1,578,281
Churches: 12,963
Members: 1,265,844
Adherents: 1,639,495
Churches: 13,155
Members: 1,276,621
Adherents: 1,656,717
Churches: 13,032
Members: 1,264,152
Adherents: 1,645,645
Churches: 13,080
Members: 1,255,834
Adherents: 1,647,078
Churches: 13,013
Members: 1,260,838
Adherents: 1,651,103
Churches: 13,174
Members: 1,284,056
Adherents: 1,684,872
Churches: 12,762
Members: 1,240,820
Adherents: 1,601,661
Churches: 10,089
Members: 682,172
Adherents: 886,824
Churches: 6,226
Members: 433,714
Adherents: 563,828
Churches: 5,598
Members: 319,211
Adherents: 414,974
Churches: 2,649
Members: 159,658
Adherents: 207,555
SOURCE: Churches of Christ in the United States, published by 21st Century Christian.

  • Feedback
    I love going to Church our New Pastor is amazing and he has given me and my wife a new thirst for the Lord. We have a physicist in the church and I love pop over and discuss science I also love and follow archeology. The more I hear the connections from the old to new testament, coupled with recent archeology and science the more it all comes together and complements each other each bit illuminates the other. We recently had a visit from our Missionary over from Africa where the Church is growing by leaps and bounds. I don’t know of others experience and I don’t know what to make of the statistics but from where I sit personally, the Church is growing.
    Even if statistics show churches arn’t growing I think Spirituality is on the rise.
    J Gray
    Christ the Saviour
    Alexandria, VA
    May, 21 2012

    The reason the church is shrinking across the board is because religion is not adaptable. With the knowledge growing in today’s society, people are put off by the ignorance of the churches and it’s members. What a wonderful thing! Hopefully this mean we are leaving the time of superstition and entering one of more enlightenment as we answer the questions of life. You flame was bright, but alas all flames flicker and die in darkness. RIP Christianity.
    Nelson Hernandez
    Orlando, FL
    February, 2 2012

    Thank you bretheren for publishing this article which should be alarming to every Christian not actively engaged in teaching the truth to our neighbors. I am encouraged and exhorted by the facts of the declining Body of Christ; I want to be more zealous about teaching
    and increasing my knowledge of the scriptures. To live eternaly with God is my ultimate goal.Jesus said, “They draw near with their mouth, but their heart is far from me. The Gospel hasn’t loss its power to save; Christians
    have loss the urgency to teach the Gospel, makingit the first (Mt. 6:33)priority in our lives.May God continue to bless us in this war we’re fighting.
    Addison Varner, Jr
    Hopkins Rd. Church of Christ
    Chester, Virginia
    November, 27 2010

    Like it or not, we are about to be run by the x-generation. A generation that needs to shake tradition and create their own identities by absorbing many more cultural experiences than the baby boomers were ever exposed to. Love the CofC, but we are slow to adapt to change and how to tell the story to our young, equipping them to go out into the world as it is now and tell it.
    Mary Flowers
    South MacArthur Church of Christ
    Irving, TX
    August, 30 2010

    Matthew 25:31-46 tells us how we will be judged. We could do worse than practice these virtues.
    Joe Lightle
    Muskogee coc
    Muskogee, OK
    June, 14 2010

    Having been born and raised in the churches of Christ, I woke up one day, surprised at how little evangelism we did, and how much emphasis we put on sound doctrine. To what end do we study doctrine? It’s a false dilemma to say we can’t do both, but we’ve historically done one and excluded the other. If we are going to make a mistake, it had better be on the sound doctrine side, not evangelism.
    Why is evangelism so hard? It is merely the sharing of one’s reasons for trusting God. It is not about the name of the church or the nature of worship (no instruments) or the correct hymnal. But what I’ve seen in churches of Christ is that their faith is harder to sell than Amw*y, there is simply too much baggage attached to it.
    Kenny Gilfilen
    A non-denominational community church
    Highlands Ranch, CO
    May, 18 2010

    I became a Christian 13 years ago and try as I may I just don’t fit into American Churches. I found if you have ideas that differ,and, question how things are run your out. So I left.I think this is a good number of people not joining in to the Sunday church concept. I think its God’s plan for American Churches.
    Conneautville, Pa
    February, 12 2010

    i was baptized today in the church . i love the lord for taking my sins away and i will live for thelord each day. god bless ever one…………………barbara
    curry church of christ
    west plains, missouri
    January, 14 2010

    My family and I left the Church of Christ for fairly fundamental reasons in 2006. We realized that the history we were taught as youngsters was incorrect and found that the Church already existed elsewhere long before Campbell and Stone thought to “restore” it. For the sake of unity we returned to the oldest Christian group in existence and have found unimaginable riches in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
    Jessica Olson
    St. Anthony Orthodox Mission
    Bozeman, MT
    United States
    December, 31 2009

    Discussions of the issue miss the mark. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation Rom 1:16. “Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the oracles of God…” 1 Pet 4:11ff. Paul could not speak to the Corinthians as mature spiritual men but as to infants in Christ. Feeding them with milk not solid food 1 Cor 3:1ff. Some deserted Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel Gal 1:6ff. What then is the problem? “My people die for lack of knowledge” Hos 4:6; Prov 10:21. What are we to do? Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the whole duty of man Eccl 12:12ff.
    Aaron K Miller
    Bellingham, WA
    March, 1 2009

    All interesting and insightful comments and I applaud all of you for stepping fourth and putting into words what many see and do not want to talk all about. I remember hearing several sermons when I was young about drawing circles around us. Each time we draw the circle we exclude those who do not agree with us. Eventfully we end up being the only one left inside the circle.
    Paul attacked the problem from a different direction. In 1 Corinthians 1 our Lord through Paul challenged us to be called Christians only. How many of you look at those in the religious world around you? I�m impressed with the number of people who I have come into contact with on the street who �belong� to different �denominations� who, except for the name over their door, we would be tempted to welcome into our buildings just as they are. I wonder what God sees when he looks into the hearts of those who he created. Are we all Christians or church of Christ�ers?
    Please, Holy Father, open our eyes and help us to see the world around us through your eyes. Help us to put petty differences behind us and get on with what you would have us to do.
    February, 26 2009

    So, “the church in America is shrinking” ?Determining which congregation is officially a church of Christ solely based on the use or non-use of instrumental music is laughable. I assert that the church is dramatically growing! Many groups do not wear the denominational moniker “Church of Christ”; however, their teachings of salvation, global evangelical efforts, and demonstrations of agape love proclaim them to be churches of Christ!
    I prefer to rejoice in knowing that thousands have come to Christ, rather than bemoan the shrinking numbers of a denomination, based on arbitrary criteria.
    February, 25 2009

    If we want to grow, the bible tells us the formula to use in Acts 2:42-47:
    “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number DAILY those who were being saved.”
    These christians:
    1.) devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching -God’s plan of salvation i.e. Acts 2:38
    2.) to the fellowship – the local congregation
    3.) to the breaking of bread – relationships
    4.) and to prayer – devoted- regular personal prayer to God
    Churches that do these things tend to grow. Those that don’t — generally don’t!
    February, 6 2009

    Chicken Little can relax. The latest head count by 21st Century is much ado about nothing.
    Yes, the numbers are smaller than they were 29 years ago. And yes, there are fewer “adherents” than there used to be.
    But consider this:
    Most congregations reporting numbers “round off” to the nearest 5, 10, 25, or 100, depending on the size. This introduces error to the counting process. Granted, this error is probably small, and it is equally likely that a total is rounded down as it is that the total is rounded up. But when the overall total changes by 0.0475% per year (roughly 1 person in 2100), it might be enough to explain the change in numbers, up or down.
    Also consider that families are smaller than they used to be. In the 30-year span when our totals declined 1.5%, the average family size dropped 5% and the average number of children per family dropped 15%.
    In short, there is no statistically significant difference between the current totals and the numbers from 1980.
    These are not the droids you’re looking for. Move along.
    -Ben Wiles
    Todd County, KY
    January, 31 2009

    As a non-american who lives outside of USA I read with interest the comments made here. I believe in the pattern of the NT for the church and I agree that we have fought over it too long. But the need for change does not justify every type of change. I believe that the major problem we face is that we have left the preacher preach, elders oversee the preacher and have forgot that God has made us ALL “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” in order that we “may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.”
    Until we understand and apply that simple principle we will shrink and look for solutions in other churches. The power is not on the changes, but in the gospel (Rom 1:16). The question is “Will we preach it?”
    Bledi, Tirana, ALBANIA.
    January, 28 2009

    The reason the Church is shrinking is that we have walked outside the authority of God. We are no longer a Church that is focused on doing His Will. His will is spelled out in Matt 28:18-20.
    And we are fighting about the use of instruments. All the instrument issue has ever done is cause division and it’s causing a big one now. The sad thing is: It is simply Satan getting our attention off the ball.
    When your engaged in the battle for someones soul, you don’t have time for these petty fights.
    January, 27 2009

    Why do we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot? Why do we wonder about lack of growth and of more importance a decreased membership.
    We have been active over 180 years as a denomination(yes we are).
    We don’t understand the difference between doctrine and tradition. I think we discovered grace about 1970 and that was a significant revelation.
    As long as we are concerned about having an instrument in worship the lack of which is only tradition and we fail to make our children and youth desire to know God with having a children’s
    Church, etc. We won’t grow or keep members close to God.
    Yes, we are going to see a split if we aren’t careful probably along the fault of rural and metropolitan. God loves us all and his disappointment of our differences must be sad to him.
    January, 25 2009

    From the comments, this report looks like a Rorschach test: everyone sees exactly what they want to see. Coincidentally, the cause of the alleged problem is exactly that person’s pet issue, gripe, whatever.
    January, 25 2009

    It used to be when people said the churches of Christ are known as “people of the book,” they referred to the Word of God – not “Churches of Christ in the United States.”
    When first released it was somewhere between a novelty and practical resource. Somehow it seems it has risen in the minds of some to be a definitive authority on who’s in and who’s out.
    It’s just a book. I’m glad the CC has devoted fair coverage to it, but IT’S JUST A BOOK. The short-sightedness of its editors and publishers is really no different than others cut from the same cloth. (I’d bet Buff Scott’s home church didn’t make the cut, either.)
    The ultimate reality here is our acknowledgment that we really are a denomination – not just in the denominated (“named”) sense of the term (since we go by the name “Church of Christ”) but that we have bestowed some degree of authority in determining who belongs to our fellowship at a congregational level.
    Well, the novelty is gone and the resourcefulness of the book is lost on me. A good resource is useful, but this book is now neither “good” nor a “resource,” really. It’s become a statement, and I’ll not be party to it.
    January, 24 2009

    It seems that members of the Church of Christ are realizing that shrinking numbers can be attributed to more than a lack of evangelism. With the stroke of a pen thousands of Church of Christ members are dropped from the “role” of the faithful. It seems that the “restoration movement” has come full circle. The Campbell’s and others sought unity in the body of Christ and were kicked out of the Prebysterian Church for including those of other religious groups in their communion. The Church of Christ, in most communities, is also an exclusive fellowship and will, without hesitation, disfellowship whole congregations for including others in their communion. Those coming up behind us see the contradiction of our lives and message and are leaving the Church of Christ by the hundreds to join independent fellowships that are more consistent with the message of the Cross. God help us!
    January, 24 2009

    Is it only a coincidence that in the same issue that includes an article on our shrinking numbers is another article that informs that our largest congragtion has been excluded from the most well-known Churches of Christ directory? Perhaps it is decisions to exclude such as this that are one of the reasons we are declining and losing our youth.
    January, 23 2009

    Perhaps we must draw back and look at a wider context of considerations for our decline than the proverbial “belly-button” view of only gazing inward. Consider the presence and influence in this society of non-Christian beliefs that have accompanied the immigrants into our land from all the world’s religions. Consider the generation of 35 and under are exactly who we made them–those want quick gratification with little effort and great reward for any want or desire and that includes how they respond to a “worship service”. Consider the brokeness of the family structure that existed in the 60’s and prior and today hangs on by a thread OR is a blended family structure that constantly strives for harmony. Consider the gay communities influence in our society and that we have chosen to be their judge, jury and deliverer of a sentence that is not ours to judge, only God is the judge.
    With all of the variables in our society and the Church of Christ heritage as one that has not grown dynamically with the changes of society, is it any wonder people are walking away or ignoring us?
    The greatest document ever written is the Bible. The greatest value of the Bible is it’s eternal ability to dyanmically meet the need of every living being. The greatest failure we’ve had in the Church of Christ is our unwillingness to change in the context of our world with the greatest words ever recorded.
    Carol Copeland
    January, 23 2009

    First- So much of our “growth” in the 20th century was through the “conversion” of Baptist, Methodist, etc… Now, we are reaping what we sowed. Is it surprising that a movement which convinced others that things like accapella singing, not letting women participate in worship, and having the Lord Supper in the exact same fashion every week were a core part of salvation would be struggling now? Think about it. We’ve had several generations of growth built on the little things, not necessarily teaching the power of Jesus. So, now that the world is changing around us, our churches aren’t dynamic, creative, or focused on the power of Christ to be relevant. Think about some of the things that we’ve argued about and even split churches over:
    -Small Groups vs “Sunday Night Worship”.
    -Clapping in church
    -Is it OK to listen the Christian music
    -Powerpoint versus hymnals
    -“camp fire” songs in Sunday worship
    -Eating in the church building
    -the list could go on and on.
    Do you really think the hurting people around us give a rip about any of these insignificant issues. Plus, why would “church” remain important to our young people if this is what they think it’s all about. WE MUST WAKE UP!! God can not be happy with the name we’re giving to his body.

    Second- why do we just allow 21st Century Publishers to decide who is and isn’t part of our movement? Quite frankly, I think that more of our churches need to look like the Richland Hill’s of the world. Not because they have instrumental music, but because they are involving themselves in the community around them, loving folks, and bringing people to Christ.
    I laugh (between tears) at reading an article like this and then hear people from our movement try to convince others that “we’re not a denomination”.
    January, 23 2009

    Amen and Amen to John Jenkins’ comments. I love the church of Christ dearly. I’ve had the privilege of serving as an elder in two very fine congregations. However, churches of Christ, in general, have majored in tradition-keeping without trying to understand that traditions are valid but often not really based on scripture. Thus, we’ve found that many in our own brotherhood have no hesitation in leaving the church of Christ in favor of worship in community churches. I do not believe that this phenomenon is confined to a particular generation. Rather, it speaks to a failure on the part of local church leadership to prayerfully study the scriptures for guidance rather than studying to confirm their pet peeves or misguided views. In many cases, church leaders have been blind and deaf to the pleas of their members to practice the Christian virtues extolled throughout scripture. We live in an American society in which churches of Christ have not redeemed the time and appear to many to be totally out of touch with the need to share the simple gospel with a world that is starving for Christ’s message. (Signed) Raymond S. Stewart
    January, 23 2009

    The report is on the church in America. We are living in a truth resistent nation now. The church is doing fine among people searching for truth. Let us evangelize the winnable while they are winnable. God bless World Bible School
    January, 23 2009

    As the article mentions various reasons are attributed to the reduction in congregations and members. We may be reaping what we have sown during 50 years of uninvolved parents, unsupervised Youth Ministers, Youth Rallies with mixed messages, preachers riding roughshod over local leadership unqualified and Bible-illiterate Elders. Congregations setting up rules such as no smoking, no long hair, no earrings, and no casual dress any of which disqualifies one from serving Communion or leading prayers. Being confident we have the Sunday “worship” correct while what the Bible says about loving, serving, evangelizing does not mean us, congregations relying more on the “Restoration Fathers” than the Bible. Trying and failing to explain how “women being silent in the church” does not include singing and commenting in classes. Trying and failing to explain how women serving communion is usurping leadership roles designed for men. Claiming we are commanded to worship although we cannot find support for that assertion in the New Testament. Trying and failing to explain that listening to announcements is worship; singing to each other is worship; praying for ourselves is worship; contributing primarily to our own comfort is worship; listening to a preacher is worship. The writer of Hebrews said we meet to encourage each other to love and good works. Paul said everything should be done for the building up of the congregation. Tradition says “No! We meet to worship!”
    Considering we say we rely on commands, examples, and “necessary inferences” it is fascinating how much we do is without any of those.
    The problem to be addressed is the “Traditional” is not working. We read comments about the lack of young men wanting to “fill the pulpit.” Can we find the concept, in the Bible, of contracting with a man to preach to the congregation twice on Sunday, to teach one or two classes each week, publish a bulletin, visit the sick, preach funerals, marry our members, all while being on call 24×7? Has anyone considered these young men do not want to run a local congregation? Maybe they want to preach the Gospel to the unsaved. Why would anyone want to preach to a congregation week after week year after year when research shows that within 2 hours no one remembers what the sermon was about? These are the same people who want to fire the preacher if he is not entertaining or preaches too long.
    We must be willing to admit the church must try something different than what has failed the past 50 years. Sesame Street changed the way schools teach: still teaching the same reading, writing, and arithmetic but in a different way. The Gospel is the same we must take it to people in ways different than they did it during the Restoration Movement or even in New Testament times. Of course “traditional” congregations will not like it but as we know, generally they do not evangelize now.
    January, 23 2009

Filed under: By The Numbers

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