Population outpaces church
The nation’s nearly 13,000 Churches of Christ — as a group — are not.
In a nutshell, that’s the challenge facing a fellowship whose membership has increased only about 1.6 percent since the beginning of the Reagan era.
In the same quarter-century, America as a whole grew at a rate 20 times that.
“In my experience … the church is growing in relatively few places,” said Mike Rhodes, minister of the Pine Street church in Vivian, La. “With few exceptions, congregations are doing well just to keep attendance stable. Even more are losing members rapidly.”
David Young, teaching minister at the North Boulevard church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., says he can’t name a single congregation in the U.S. experiencing significant growth through evangelism.
Like many of those interviewed, Bruce Wadzeck, a minister and elder with the Princeton, N.J., church, lamented that churches have added members mainly through “suburban swelling with very little evangelism beyond our own children and outsiders they marry.”
In the last quarter-century, the United States as a whole grew at a rate about 20 times faster than Church of Christ membership, an analysis by the Chronicle has found.
“In my experience … the church is growing in relatively few places,”said Mike Rhodes, minister of the Pine Street church in Vivian, La.“With few exceptions, congregations are doing well just to keepattendance stable. Even more are losing members rapidly.”
Wadzeck and many other leaders point to an “identity crisis” as the nation’s nearly 13,000 a cappella congregations endeavor to grow the church in the 21st century.
“Neither the conservatives, who are trying the same old meeting approach with messages relevant to the 1940s, nor the more liberal brethren, who discovered grace and follow the latest evangelical fads, are succeeding,” Wadzeck said. “We must overcome our pride and repent and seek God’s forgiveness. Then maybe we will be open to some answers to our challenge.”
MEMBERSHIP PLATEAUED ABOUT 1980, EXPERT SAYS
Overall membership has jumped about 1.6 percent since 1980, hitting 1,265,844, according to the 2006 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, a directory published by 21st Century Christian and compiled by statistician Carl Royster in consultation with Mac Lynn.
In the same period, the total U.S. population leaped more than 32 percent, approaching 300 million last year, according to census estimates.
“After decades of growth, church membership in the U.S. actually plateaued about 1980, and since then there has been no statistically significant growth or decline,” said Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark. In a report last year titled “Growth and Decline Among the Churches of Christ in the United States,,” Yeakley said churches seem to be declining in states with larger-than-average concentrations of members.
In that period, total membership fell in Church of Christ strongholds such as Oklahoma (down 13.4 percent), Tennessee (down 3.1 percent) and Arkansas (down 1.5 percent). In Texas, which accounts for nearly one-fourth of all U.S. members, total membership rose 2 percent from 1980 to 2006. But the Lone Star State’s total population soared 65 percent in that time.
While churches still send missionaries to “mission field states,” where outreach to the lost is emphasized, Yeakley said, evangelism has waned in the Bible Belt.
“In the Bible Belt states, we are seeing more church mergers, little church planting and far less emphasis on local evangelism,” Yeakley wrote in his report.
While agreeing with the need to evangelize, some church leaders cautioned against putting too much emphasis on membership numbers alone.
“When Churches of Christ were the fastest growing of all religious groups in America, the emphasis was on leading souls to Christ for salvation,” said Mack Lyon of In Search of the Lord’s Way, a media ministry based in Edmond, Okla. “Nowadays, it is on ‘church growth.’”
John Ellas directs the Center for Church Growth in Houston and publishes the quarterly Church Growth magazine. He said the focus by certain megachurches on “incredible assemblies” and “performance-type presentations” has given church growth a bad name.
To Ellas, “church growth” means a concerted effort to “actually share the gospel” while doing good works such as feeding and clothing the poor. “It’s really the Great Commission, both making and maturing disciples,” he said. “There’s a multitude of passages that teach you that being concerned with numbers is certainly biblical. For example, Jesus employed numbers in his teaching, such as a lost sheep and a lost coin.”
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
As Lyon pointed out, Churches of Christ were heralded in the 1950s and 1960s 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. 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 separately 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 said. “The figures they submitted simply added a percentage like 10 percent per 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 far below the “ballooned estimates,” he said.
WHY AREN’T WE KEEPING PACE?
Fast-forward to 2007, and the question is: Why the wide gap between population and membership growth in the U.S.?
Explanations offered by church leaders to the Chronicle run the gamut:
• Immigration of millions of Hispanics — most of them Roman Catholics — from Mexico and Central America have accounted for much of the nation’s population increase. At the same time, many immigrants have come from Muslim-dominated parts of the world.
“There are many areas in our country where people speak languages other than English,” said Dennis K. Billingsley, a former minister who is a member of the Walnut Street church in Cary, N.C. “Is the church willing to meet the need and respond to this?”
Patrick Odum is minister of the Northwest church in Chicago, which offers services in English, Spanish and Korean. He said the numbers suggest churches aren’t reaching immigrants. “Perhaps this is a function of what I perceive as the still-dominant conservative politics of Churches of Christ,” he said.
• Birth rates have fallen as members have become much more affluent.
“We mirrored the birth rates of the wider culture in the Baby Boom era,” said Shaun Casey, a member of the Fairfax, Va., church and a Christian ethics professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. “Today, we do not since we are much more affluent than the median household levels in America.”
Casey added: “Three other factors are important: We spend the vast majority of our funds on servicing the status quo, the old sectarian impulse is dying, and the evangelistic methods from the ’60s and ’70s have no cultural relevance today, so you get slow growth rates.”
• At the same time, U.S. society has moved from a rural culture to one that is primarily suburban and urban — taking members away from the traditional base of Churches of Christ. Many small, rural congregations struggle to survive.
“The questions we ask, the assumptions we make, and the traditions and styles we prefer are mostly Southern and still derive from our rural perspectives,” said Young, the Tennessee minister. “Much of the population growth in America has been anything but rural and Southern.”
• Some blame complacency.
“There has been a disconnect between the doctrine of evangelism and the practice of evangelism,” said Rich Little, a minister in Naperville, Ill. “While we passionately believe we should reach the lost, we are not passionately seeking them.”
Charles Cook, an instructor at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas, shared that concern: “We primarily convert only our offspring, and only a small percentage of these are remaining active in the church as grownups. Not until the whole church again catches the evangelistic spirit … will we experience growth and retain our young people.”
• Others say churches have focused too much on institutional loyalty and not enough on the message of Christ.
“Being Christian for many means being a certain sort of Christian,” said Robert M. Randolph, a minister in Brookline, Mass. “As loyalty to that institutional identity has waned, so has our attraction to non-Christians. … We have confused conversion with fine-tuning Christian beliefs until you look and act like us.”
• Still others suggest that the membership figures reflect a post-Christian era in the U.S. While Church of Christ membership has grown slightly, many denominations — Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans among them — have posted steep declines in the same period. Others, such as the Southern Baptists, have begun voicing concerns about falling baptism rates.
“For the most part, Americans are rather apathetic toward religion,” said Monnie McGee Harper, a member of the Preston Road church in Dallas. “Some see it as a refuge for those who have nothing else. Some see it as a belief system that is sexist, anti-intellectual and racist. This applies particularly to Christianity, and more so to Churches of Christ, since we are seen as a hard-line, fundamentalist denomination.”
• Finally, a number of leaders point to a culture change in the church that — for good or bad — has made many members less exclusivist and more willing to accept those in Christian denominations. “There are cultural factors and social factors to be taken into account,” said Lynn, the statistician. “For one, strict advocacy of doctrinal positions is no longer as strong with any church as in the ’50s. The U.S. society’s emphasis on tolerance has caused great shifts in thinking, and that thinking has touched the Churches of Christ.”
FeedbackI spent 6 years attending a Church of Christ. I believe that the reason they suffer with low numbers is that the practice and structure of these churches is limited to a very carnal, and regimented understanding of what is ‘approved’ by God. This extends their understanding concerning water baptism as obedience of the Gospel message and appropriate forms of worship. When we allow the spirit of God to move people will come to Christ. If we quench the moving of the Holy Spirit how can we expect to reach anyone for Christ.ShaneEvangelistic Tabernaclenanaimo , b.c
CanadaOctober, 10 2011The Oil Trough,Arkansas congregation is experiencing all of the things mentioned in the article “Population Outpaces Church,” by Bobby Ross, Jr. We are a small rural congregation made up primarily of older members. Our congregation has gone from around 150 in 1970 to approximately 50 in 2011. The young people grow up and move to larger cities to find work, and many leave the Church once they make the move. Sad to say but in the next 10-15 years, the congregation will probably have to merger with another congregation. The congregation is not growing at all, we are just gradually losing members, primarily to death of older members.Garland HankinsOil TroughOil Trough, Arkansas
USAJune, 13 2011I am trying to research whatwere some of the strategies that evangelists, preachers, and members did in the 50s and 60s to grow the membership in the Church of Christ.Rosetta GlasperFarriss Drive Church of ChristHuntsville, AL
U.S.January, 13 2010