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Declining numbers, but signs of hope?

New directory for Churches of Christ in the U.S. shows a loss of members and congregations. At the same time, interest in non-denominational Christianity soars.
Young Christians long for the restoration of the church they read about in the Bible, says Caitlyn Brick.
They want to be part of a community of believers similar to the one in the second chapter of Acts — a church that helps the poor and breaks bread together “with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.”
They just don’t see why it must have the words “Church of Christ” on its building — or why they need a building at all.
“Our generation wants more Jesus and not more tradition,” says Brick, a 22-year-old dietetics student at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.
“We’re all about the relationship,” adds Sydney Hale, 19, a nursing student at Lipscomb.
An increasing number of Americans seek a relationship with the divine outside Churches of Christ, according to the latest numbers released by Nashville-based publisher 21st Century Christian.
The 2012 edition of “Churches of Christ in the United States” counts 1,554,231 adherents, a number that includes church members and their children, among the country’s 12,447 Churches of Christ. That’s a drop of more than 23,000 souls since the directory’s previous edition in 2009. Since the directory’s 2003 edition, Churches of Christ have lost more than 102,000 adherents — more people than attended this year’s Super Bowl.
The 2012 directory also counts 708 fewer Churches of Christ than it did nine years ago.
Deciding which churches to count is an increasingly difficult task. For example, many Lipscomb students attend Ethos Church, a congregation started by a former campus minister for the university.
The church meets in the Cannery Ballroom, a downtown Nashville bar and music venue, and has multiple worship services, all with instruments. The Harpeth Hills Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tenn., helped fund the church as it began.
Ethos Church is listed in the 2012 edition of “Churches of Christ in the United States,” which includes some instrumental congregations associated with the historically a cappella fellowship.
Though its adherents number between 300 and 400, Ethos Church’s attendance is closer to 1,500. Most are young adults — many visitors — who have not yet become members.
Young Christians don’t look for the name “Church of Christ” when choosing a place to worship, said Lindsay Hartselle, a 20-year-old student at Lipscomb — a university associated with Churches of Christ — who attends Ethos.
“And we’re not looking for instrumental music,” she added. “We’re looking for how we can connect with God.”
Colin Sherfield, a 21-year-old ministry student at Lipscomb, also attends Ethos. He sees his generation’s lack of “brand loyalty” harkening back to the Restoration Movement, the 19th century religious awakening to which Churches of Christ trace roots.
“We used to say, ‘We are Christians only but not the only Christians,’” Sherfield said, quoting a Restoration Movement slogan. “What happened to that?”
Declining numbers among Churches of Christ are part of a larger trend among religious groups in the U.S., said Carl Royster, data compiler for the directory.
Across denominational lines, Christian groups in America face stagnating growth or declining membership.
Another group with roots in the Restoration Movement, the instrumental Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, also experienced a decline in number of congregations in the past 10 years and a growth rate of less than 1 percent, Royster said.
A third group, the Disciples of Christ, grew in total congregations while experiencing a steep decline in membership.
“One aspect that should truly be of concern for all Christians in America is the growth in the numbers of those that have no religious affiliation whatsoever,” Royster said. He cited a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that shows 16 percent of Americans claim no religious group as their own.
“What is worse, for the Mosaic generation, ages 18-29, this figure was one in four,” Royster said. “This increasing number of ‘unchurched’ really concerns me.”
The country’s “post-Christian” drift also concerns Kaitlyn Longo and Kayla Krontz, both 17-year-old members of the Spring Road Church of Christ in Westerville, Ohio. They shed tears as they  remember close friends who have left their congregation of about 250 souls for other faith groups. Some have dropped out of church entirely.
At the same time, they’re reminded of Bible verses that predict many will fall away from the faith in the earth’s final days.
“I think people view Churches of Christ as strict and unchanging, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Longo said. “I think they should stick to their guns. I think the Church of Christ follows the Bible pretty literally.”
Though an increasing number of Americans claim no religious affiliation, the country has experienced exponential growth in churches that statisticians categorize as “independent/non-denominational,” Royster said.
The forthcoming Religious Congregations & Membership Study, a survey of the country’s faith landscape, reveals that these churches, often called community churches, have more than 12 million members spread across 35,000 congregations. Among Protestant groups, they are second in number only to the Southern Baptist Convention.   
“These congregations have widely varying backgrounds,” Royster said, “but much of their membership has come at the expense of the other Christian bodies, including the Churches of Christ.”
Renewed interest in non-denominational Christianity should encourage Churches of Christ, said Alan Henderson, chairman of the Bible department at Greater Atlanta Christian School, a school associated with Churches of Christ with 1,850 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Churches of Christ should be at the forefront of welcoming this trend toward non-denominational following of Jesus,” Henderson said. “After all, isn’t that what we have worked — and prayed for — for generations?”
Henderson has visited churches in multiple faith groups and said he has seen a renewed emphasis on Bible teaching, baptism, meaningful worship and community service.
“I can’t help but applaud, endorse and affirm all of those things,” he said.
After he graduates from Lipscomb, Sherfield plans to work with the Renovo Church, a young congregation in Puyallup, Wash., launched with support from Kairos, a church-planting ministry that works with Churches of Christ.
“Renovo” is a Latin word meaning “renew, revive” and “repeat.” Renewing lost souls, reviving relationships and repeating God’s mission are the congregation’s goals. Attendance is about 200 to 250 — no small feat in the secular Northwest, Sherfield said.
“I feel like there’s a restoration of the Restoration Movement” among young Christians, he said. “I have hope for it — a noble cause, a movement toward unity. I can never be opposed to that.”

  • Feedback
    Thank God for the Chronicle, bringing people together in God’s kingdom, we need christians not church o christers, praise God for men like those who strive for unity in the body of Christ and not division!
    John Jansen
    Broadway, Galveston
    Texas City, Texas
    July, 17 2012

    With many embracing non-denominational Christianity, it is my prayer that we the churches of Christ will accept and appreciate what the Spirit of God is doing. The tendency has been to strain at finding some fault, something different on which to major and rationalise sectarianism. Praise God that what we have advocated for years is being understood and appreciated by believers the world over. The church of Christ is growing but organised religion -denominationalism and sectarianism may have to diminish.
    Charles Ngoje
    Winyo Church of Christ
    Nairobi, Kenya
    April, 13 2012

    I think this is an awesome post! It’s about relationship, not religion and we gotta be ready to go where God leads us and do what God wants us to do. He has blessed all of us so much. We have failed him but he never gives up on us, he loved us enough to die for us. I think that there is a restoration coming also. God is going to keep pouring out his spirit upon all flesh. God is so good and I just thank him. You guys are awesome for standing up for him, he is good.
    Kristin, 19
    Oceana, WV
    April, 7 2012

    Some of the comments are about what the kids are doing that is wrong. How about what their denomination is doing that is wrong? Here’s an example in this quote from the article: “An increasing number of Americans seek a relationship with the divine outside Churches of Christ”. That is laughable. It’s like saying an increasing number of ants are making hills outside of my yard. When was the COC *ever* the center of the universe?? That kind of absurd pretense sends many youth running for the door.
    Kenny Gilfilen
    Denver, CO
    April, 7 2012

    Interesting article. I was raised to believe the mindset for worship is set in Acts 2 (the establishment of the church) and the following books of the New Testament. The mindset for worship is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I spent years ‘playing church’ as have many of you. Now it’s time to get serious about our relationship and share Jesus with others..just as these young people are doing. May God bless all of them! We are CHRISTIANS..NOT CHURCH OF CHRISTERS.
    Tim D. Hall
    Mayfair (member) not staff
    Huntsville, Alabama
    March, 29 2012

    Can’t agree more with David Riley’s comments! There is a sound reason for churches to be led by elders – generally older heads are wiser heads – and youthful enthusiasm is sometimes dangerous if not carefully and lovingly guided by those who have already ‘been there, done that’. It’s all about quality, not quantity – Jesus desires followers who follow Him, not do their own thing – and sometimes it takes many years for people to learn this (I now, trust me on this one!) Still, great to see young people hungry for Christ – although as an older young man in Christ, I still prefer meals at home to takeaways 🙂
    Andrew McGill
    St. Margaret’s, Seria
    Kuala Belait, Belait
    Brunei Darussalam
    March, 29 2012

    Regardless of what we think of these kids expression of Christianity, we should rejoice that they are engaged in praising God rather than running wild as so many kids do in a secular world. Keep it up kids, do more of what you are doing regardless of what anyone says.
    John Paul Hundley
    John Paul Hundley
    Bruxelles Eglise du Christ
    Brussels, Brabant
    March, 28 2012

    Great story, so often we do not ask the questions from the people we affect most with our traditions. Holding to doctrine that which has nothing to do with doctrine but tradition. Once women could not clean the baptistery cause it was a man’s job. I just thought it was dirty. So many areas are under staff and new approaches ignored from traditions of authority that close out the gifts of
    Women,Children, Young Adults, Good story
    Andrea Lorick
    East Baltimore COC
    baltimore, Md
    March, 27 2012

    The mindset described in the article above is so much hash and rehash.
    None of the churches of Christ will experience any significant growth until they discover God’s truth for the stations of the fathers and mothers in the family. Egalitarianism has destroyed both the conservative wing with their no Remarriage policies and the progressive wing with their Women leading men notions.
    Perry Pierce
    Chelmsford church of Christ
    Lowell, MA
    March, 27 2012

    What’s in a name? Well, as Christians we are to wear the name of Christ as a bride wears the name of her groom. I believe as a Christian I do this, but who are Ethos and Renovo? Did they die for my sins? Why are we afraid to put Christ in how we represent ourselves to the public? When a coffee bar is listed in what to expect when visiting alongside reviving worship, something is wrong. And “Baptism Sunday?” Really?
    Gary Rice
    Lemoore church of Christ
    Hanford, California
    March, 19 2012

    This article was a GREAT article, however we cannot be ALARMED by things such as this.
    1) We must ALWAYS return to the Scriptures. First and foremost – our YOUNG do not LEAD in GOD’S CHURCH (Elders – Older Men do). However, in America today, a lot of children don’t have fathers – therefore they don’t know how to “FOLLOW.”
    2) Another thing is that Matthew 7:13-14 states that there will be “Few” – NOT MANY who will find the path to Life. We are not lead by Youth, the YOUTH IS LEAD BY ELDERS (Men who lead). JESUS compared the path to LIFE as a narrow street and the path to destruction as a LARGE FIELD or a COUNTRY.
    3) We get captivated by numbers and big churches and big movements, FORGETTING 8 people were saved in Noah’s Ark. WE do have a GLARING weakness in the LORD’s CHRUCH. We are big on doctrine but I would give us a farely low rating on “The Spirit of LOVE!” VERY MANY people are hurting and what they are “probably” saying is “GIVE ME JESUS – GIVE ME A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD!” – You can talk about (doctrinal matters – no music, praise dancing, etc.. later) give me a RELATIONSHIP WITH the Alpha & Omega. We preach a lotta one church stuff, and people are HURTING from (Divorce, Depression, Low Self-Esteem, etc…) We need to meet people where they are – INTRODUCE TO JESUS – and then the rest will come
    David Riley
    Duarte Church of Christ
    Duarte, CA
    March, 19 2012

    I wish I could say that I see a “restoration of the Restoration Movement” in our young people. Instead, what I see is an attitude of “anything goes,” not trying to restore NT Christianity. Every generation has left the church of their parents, claiming to have found a “better way” (in my generation it was the “Jesus Movement”); in reality an excuse for rejecting authority of older men and women – it only lasts until that generation becomes the next or becomes another denomination. Just like Israel of the OT, each generation is getting further and further from Christ and the church HE built. We read too many books by men, listening to their ideas, instead of truly studying God’s Word,creating a sad deficit in knowledge of His Word.
    Linda Hoeck
    Aberdeen Church of Christ, Aberdeen, MD
    Bel Air, MD
    March, 19 2012

    Somewhere these young people have not been taught about the church being the bride of Christ. You can’t have Christ without His church! Sure hope and pray our Christian college teaches tell them the truth on the matter so they know there is only one bride and she wears the name of Christ.
    Ash Street church of Christ
    Mayo, Florida
    March, 17 2012

    In contemporary American word usage, “non-denominational” refers to “multi-denominational.” That is what the non-Christian hears today. In reality, the church of Christ is UN-denominational. Jesus promised to build ONE church and 1 church only – Matthew 16.18 – 20. The Lord adds us to only 1 church, no more and no less – Acts 2.41, 47. Only those who have repented & have been baptized in the Name of Jesus for remission of sins are ever added. Also, the phrase “We are Christians only but not the only Christians” is currently being misapplied out of it’s original context. It never meant that there were Christians outside the church of Christ. It referred only to the geographic dispersion of the American restoration.
    Russ McCullough
    Archdale church of Christ
    Charlotte, NC
    March, 16 2012

    Why there’s a lot of division of the Lord’s church in America (e.g. using instrument plus a capella, one cup, etc.) that’s a direct disgrace to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Did He actually hide the truth? NO!! Why other Christians still insist their own teachings where in fact the Bible is all-sufficient. And why American Christians seems considering and taking for granted the truth about the “music of the church”. Work it out brethren.. I’ll pray for you.
    Michael Cortez
    Matayumtayum COC
    N/A, N/A
    March, 15 2012

    I’m encouraged by those who think “outside the box” and follow the example of the Acts 2 church. The trouble is; the churches of Christ today tend to think the activities of the Acts 2 church are too far out of the box. I’m afraid we find our identity in the CoC rather than in our kinship to the King. He’s whom I serve, not the organization that we’ve become.
    Tim McCloskey
    Pleasant Valley Church of Christ
    Altoona, Pennsylvania
    March, 15 2012

    Please explain what is meant when someone says they want to “connect with God” – how, what, or who teaches a person how to connect with God?
    Paul McCollum
    Alisal church of Christ
    Aromas, CA
    March, 14 2012

    Great article. Our congregation has seen skyrocketing growth because very little emphasis is placed on the forms/patterns for “assembly” – great emphasis placed on serving one another and reaching souls every day of the week. That was the intent and spirit of Christ’s life and message – echoed by the apostles. That is what we are trying to be about. All of that other noise is simply a distraction from our mission (Matt. 28:19-20).
    Todd Atnip
    Church at Bowling Green
    Bowling Green, KY
    March, 14 2012

    It is encouraging to see their enthusiasm. The early church did suffer persecution for their beliefs and not the favor of the people as stated. My prayer is that they not only meet the physical needs, but also their spiritual needs. The name, Church of Christ usually ensures one that worshipers have the same reverence of Scripture as us. Name alone will not save. When someone says that we think we are the only ones going to Heaven, I say that I believe that anyone who obeys Christ will be saved. That is scriptural. I believe that we can still display love, caring and a reverence for the Word. I’m afraid there is a move toward ecumenicalism and an acceptance of those who would change the Gospel and ignore the instructions of our Lord.
    Kenneth Morvant
    Climax Church of Christ
    Anna, TX
    March, 13 2012

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