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Big Questions
Graphic by Chellie Ison via wordclouds.com

What is a Church of Christ?

As numbers decline in the U.S., Christians ponder a fellowship’s identity

‘It should be love.”

That was Jeff Cash’s answer to the question, “What would you say defines a Church of Christ?”

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Cash, an American missionary serving in Fort Portal, Uganda, was one of more than 640 respondents to a Christian Chronicle survey titled “A closer look at Churches of Christ in the U.S.”

Most of the respondents, when asked to define the fellowship, cited the goal of restoring the church described in the New Testament book of Acts and the epistles written to first century churches. Many mentioned strict adherence to Scripture, male leadership, baptism by immersion and a cappella worship.

But in 2018, a clear definition of those who strive to be simply Christian is anything but simple.

Survey respondents noted a widening variety of practices taking place in buildings that bear the name “Church of Christ.” 

Some divisions have existed for decades. Non-institutional Churches of Christ oppose support for para-church organizations and mission ministries. Some Churches of Christ hold fast to the belief that the Lord’s Supper should be shared from a single cup and an undivided loaf.

In recent years, other Churches of Christ have added instrumental worship services, ministered alongside denominational groups and changed their name, though they still identify with the fellowship of autonomous congregations.

Count thy many members: Carl Royster of 21st Century Christian discusses the complex task of compiling accurate data from a fellowship of autonomous churches.

The word “autonomy” itself eludes definition, survey respondents said. Young believers challenge the claim that Churches of Christ are non-denominational — especially as growing movements of community churches make the same claim.

So what is a Church of Christ in 2018? Bewildered, several respondents answered, “I don’t even know anymore.”

Chronicle readers in all 50 states responded to the survey, along with missionaries in Canada, China, Peru and Uganda.

The survey coincided with the latest edition of “Churches of Christ in the United States,” published by Nashville, Tenn.-based 21st Century Christian and compiled by Carl Royster. The directory, updated every three years, lists 11,965 congregations nationwide with combined adherents (baptized members and their families) of 1,447,271 — a drop of more than 72,000 since the 2015 edition of the directory. Since 2012, the average known size of a Church of Christ has dropped 3.2 percent to 121 adherents, Royster said.

Jeff Cash

Instead of love, “poor hermeneutics have resulted in a rigid form of legalism in many places,” said Cash, echoing the views of many respondents when asked about possible reasons for the decline. Spirituality seems to be lacking in some congregations, he added, which turns away those seeking God.

Others pointed to a nationwide decline in church attendance, across religious groups.

Still others said that Churches of Christ are declining because many are attempting to mimic denominational groups or community churches.

“Too many (churches) are compromising what is found in Scripture to get numbers,” said Sandra Pruitt, a member of the Forest Park Church of Christ in Crowley, La. “We need to follow all Scripture and not just part of it.”

NEXT: Some believers under age 30 question fellowship’s nondenominational claim

Christian Chronicle readers respond to the question, “What would you say defines a Church of Christ?” The most frequently used phrases appear in the word cloud. The larger the word, the more often it appeared among the 640-plus responses.

Filed under: Big Questions National Top Stories Big Questions Survey What is a Church of Christ

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