The headline in the latest on line edition of the Christian Chronicle is “Church in America in decline”. According to the article churches of Christ numbers are the lowest since 1980 when such stats began to be compiled. The Chronicle states:
“In the newly released directory, 21st Century Christian identifies 12,629 a Capella 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.”
I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this decline. One that I believe is at the heart of the problem is this. The time frame referenced in the article closely corresponds to the birth and expansion of the Internet, the “Information Age” if you will.
For most of it’s history, Restoration Movement congregations, especially churches of Christ, received their doctrine/theology almost completely from the guy in the pulpit, from elders, and both groups gathered most of their instruction in truth from “brotherhood”journals. The sphere of the church (coC) was relatively small. A few members visited lectureships, summer camps and work shops, but there too, they likely got a recycled version of what they had already heard. Most all of the information available was exclusively coC.
Suddenly, in the span of a few short years, almost every family had a PC connected to the world wide web. The information available was astounding! Now, those same folks who had lead sheltered lives religiously were now exposed to other views of Bible teaching and theology. The “brotherhood” journals which had been the principal source of instruction from outside the local community was in a very short time relegated to only fraction of what the family on the pew read.
As church members have been exposed to more views, more Bible teaching, they were challenged to rethink why they believed some of what they had been taught and began to think for themselves. The more isolated a group is the easier it is to keep them under the iron thumb of legalism and error.
The sectarianism of the past several decades is regularly being rejected and more and more coC members are embracing the ideals and passion of the RM founders like Alexander Campbell who coined the phrase “Christians only, but not the only Christians”. Tens of thousands of people have studied themselves out of sectarian bondage and legalism and are now grace filled and grace giving people. Some of them are in more “progressive” churches, some have gone to some other brand, and some are toughing it out where they are, but their children are long gone and aren’t coming back.
Another reason for the decline is the glaring foolishness of people like 21st Century Christian’s brilliant idea to purge churches like North Richland Hills from the directory because they have instruments “in one or more services”. They are evidently no longer considered a church of Christ because they don’t tow the party line. This is exactly the kind of narrow minded, shoddy Bible scholarship many people are running away from in large numbers.
Meanwhile the church fathers are wringing their hands trying to figure what the problem is. I have a news flash! Churches that are growing by winning new converts are making a big fuss about Jesus! So long as churches of Christ major on other topics and minor on Jesus they will continue to swirl down to extinction and they deserve to do so.
I have looked at sermon topics of dozens and dozens of churches on their websites and a Capella singing, the church of Christ, baptism, the church of Christ, the error of the denominations, the church of Christ, and many other topics take precedence over teaching about the Christ.
Will there be a revival of love for Jesus Christ and the desire to be in unity with believers of every stripe which was the plea and ideal of the early Receptionist’s? It isn’t looking good. The vast majority of those who fill the pews in churches of Christ on Sunday morning are like me. They have gray hair, are either retired or near retirement age, and they are not bothered very much by the sound of young children in the assembly. Two generations from today, perhaps three, and most of those folks will be buried. Who will replace them? I hope revival comes, but I am not hopeful.