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Churches of Christ in decline: U.S. culture to blame?

Changing society poses a challenge for Christians.

TULSA, Okla.In 21st century America, who might attract Jesus’ attention?
Muslims? Drug addicts? Religious “nones.”
The recent Tulsa Workshop — the free annual gathering started in 1976 and known for many years as the “International Soul Winning Workshop” — explored outreach to all three groups.
Related story: God at work in U.S.  (quotes from all 50 states) “When Jesus saw the crowds, he was moved with compassion for them,” said Shane Coffman, who works with Terry Rush to direct the four-day event, which drew roughly 3,000 attendees in its 40th year. “That’s how we ought to be as we serve our community and engage our culture.”
Barna Group President David KinnamanLike many denominational groups, Churches of Christ in the United States are losing members.
In a nation where an increasing number of Americans never go to church, engaging the culture poses a God-sized challenge.
Last year, 43 percent of U.S. adults said they had not attended church in at least six months, reported the Barna Group, which studies religious trends.

“There is a discernible rise of churchless Americans,” Barna President David Kinnaman told The Christian Chronicle“This consists of three trends converging: an increasing percentage of atheists, a growing number of nominal Christians disengaging completely from churches and more pressure on well-intentioned churchgoing families who don’t attend as many weekends per year as they would have 10 years ago.”

churchlessness in America

The graphic shows data from the 2014 book “Churchless,” edited by George Barna and David Kinnaman. (GRAPHIC BY BARNA.ORG/CHURCHLESS)
In Churches of Christ, the total number of men, women and children in the pews has dropped to 1,519,695, according to the 2015 edition of a national directory published by Nashville, Tenn.-based 21st Century Christian.
That number of adherents represents a decline of 165,177 souls — or 9.8 percent — in the last quarter-century.
Churches: 12,300
Members: 1,183,613
Adherents: 1,519,695


Churches: 12,447
Members: 1,209,136
Adherents: 1,554,231


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: 13,174
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.

In the same period, the U.S. population rose to an estimated 320 million — up 28 percent from 250 million in 1990.
“We will face the same challenges as others in a post-denominational world because we look, smell and act like a denomination, even though we lack the kind of denominational structures that characterize others,” said John Mark Hicks, a Restoration Movement scholar at Lipscomb University in Nashville. “Nevertheless, our congregational polity offers some opportunity for transcending this label and becoming a place where people can find Jesus without denominational baggage or hindrance.”
Struggling rural areas — a traditional stronghold of Churches of Christ — and falling birth rates probably account for some of the numerical drop, said Ed Stetzer, president of evangelical LifeWay Research
The changing culture is a factor, too, Stetzer said.
“Growing secularization, the decline of nominal Christian identification and a growing sense that tolerance means not evangelizing would all have a big impact,” he said.
Another factor that partly skews the data: The 1990 count included thousands of members of the International Churches of Christ — once known as the Boston Movement.
But starting with the 1994 directory, the ICOC congregations chose to identify as a separate body.
Inevitably, declining overall membership sparks debate over doctrinal differences, worship practices and other internal issues.
However, Carl Royster, data compiler for the “Churches of Christ in the United States” directory, points to a larger societal trend.
One-fifth of Americans — and one-third of adults under age 30 — have no religious affiliation, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study.
Researchers dub that group the “nones.”

As Harold Shank sees it, three realities strike at the heart of Christianity: creation, sin and redemption.
But modern-day America emphasizes evolution over creation, scoffs at the notion of sin and sees no need for redemption, said Shank, president of Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va.
“Numerous biblical books are written to people who existed in a culture that despised what they believed in,” he said. “And we have yet to make that transition of, ‘How do we minister to a culture that is so different and rejects who we are?’”
Here in Tulsa, the workshop’s breakout-session speakers included James Nored.
James NoredNored preaches for the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia. He highlighted that Washington, D.C.-area congregation’s outreach to Muslims — four of whom have been baptized in the last year.
“It is God who touches hearts, brings people into our path and causes evangelistic growth,” Nored told The Chronicle.
“There is a lot of doom and gloom out there about the decline of Christianity in the U.S.,” he added. “While this is certainly happening, there are still many opportunities all around us.”
Audio and video of the Tulsa Workshop — including Ebola survivor Dr. Kent Brantly’s keynote — can be purchased at www.workshopmultimedia.com. The sales help support the workshop.

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