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.
Royce, I have to agree with much of what you say, but I think everyone has been overly harsh on 21st Century. That directory is not intended to be a listing of all of God’s faithful. Their website states: “Beginning and continuing since 1973, this book represents an ongoing effort to provide a compilation of current information relative to those congregations aligned with the “Restoration Movement” which are known for their a cappella worship.”
Maybe we’d like the directory to be a different one. Maybe we’d like it to be something it’s not. It’s a listing of RM churches known for their a cappella worship. If a church is no longer known for that, they shouldn’t be in THIS directory.
Grace and peace,
With the utmost respect and love, you are missing a glaring inconsistency. They have themselves decided that a church with an instrumental worship service is not “aligned with the Restoration Movement” as if one issue alone defines a congregation who considers themselves Restoration Movement people. Thankfully, 21st Century Christain only speaks for themselves. They don’t speak for RH or any other church.
Isn’t there more distinctives that mark out Restoration Movement churches than their music preferences? This statement proves my point, “Beginning and continuing since 1973, this book represents an ongoing effort to provide a compilation of current information relative to those congregations aligned with the “Restoration Movement” which are known for their a cappella worship.”
They are saying the following: Congregations aligned with the Restoration Movement are known for their a cappella worship. Congregations that choose to have an instrument accompany singing in worship are not aligned with the Restoration Movement.
I disagree with their definition, that’s all.
Amen! We need more like you.
Good post Royce.
Unfortunately there are few growing churches of any stripe. From all the info I read there are only a couple of churches in America currently growing faster than the population.
We are all in this thing together.
Satan is winning the battle our minds and souls- and using “the internet age” to do it.
Uh, no… they are talking about churches within the Restoration Movement which are a cappella.
From the Chronicle article: “The directory’s original compiler, Mac Lynn, began gathering information from Churches of Christ three decades ago. At the time two other branches of the Restoration Movement — the Disciples of Christ and the Christian Church/Churches of Christ, both of which use instruments — had directories. But there was no comprehensive directory for the movement’s third branch — a cappella Churches of Christ.”
They’re not saying who is in the movement. They’re not saying who is a Christian. Let’s not be guilty of the same judgmental spirit we’re accusing them of.
Grace and peace,
If they mean what you think they mean they should have worded the statement differently in my view. It’s quite clear to me.
Of course the larger question is, why are church of Christ congregations going away total membership shrinking? I have other ideas about that but those can be for another time.
Thanks for your comments Tim as always. God bless you and your ministry.
Royce, you’re correct, the bigger question is why are cofC congregations fading? Such is the cycle, of wanting to be back in Egypt. The church has always fought these type of battles, which delights the evil one. Imagine his joy at our angst over kitchen sinks in a church building, clapping vs not in song, instruments in worship, etc. In the meantime, Rome burns. Elders who are at loss on how to help bad marriages or kids who abuse drugs and alcohol or domestic abuse, or teen pregancy. I apologize for sounding so cynical. I’m weary of church leaders who have such a skewed view of the priorities, and then expect the preacher/ministers to take care of the ‘messy’ problems. Jo Ann
Good post, Royce. Also, I appreciate Jo Ann’s comment. I think she sees the world’s problems a little more clearly than many others do.
Royce, thank you for this post. Great thoughts here.
What has broken up the old doctrinal consensus and the harsh attitude that once characterized the Churches of Christ? I would say that, as much as anything else, it has been our accredited institutions of higher learning, especially the graduate schools. Look at a list of the people who have gone through masters programs at Harding Graduate School, ACU, Pepperdine, et al, and you see the names of the intellectual-and-spiritual leaders of the Churches of Christ in this and the previous generation. These are the speakers and book authors who have made such a difference. (When traditionalists complain about the schools, they have correctly identified the source of what they regard as apostasy). As much as anyone else, Rubel Shelley (a product of Harding Grad) personifies the shift.
For a few decades now, the Churches of Christ have been determining what they don’t believe anymore. The new numbers suggest that introspection is no substitute for conviction.
…If it just weren’t for those change agents everything coC would be heavenly. 🙂
When I look at the religious groups who are growing, Mormons and Muslims, I see people who are extremely committed to spreading their uniqueness. They have strong messages with clearly defined “who is in” and “who is out”.
I believe the recognized “change agents” who have actually spearheaded the coC decline. Yes, we had feeble arguments on minor points in the past but they seldom disrupted the whole. However, the change agents who attacked the main message have split the mainstream right through the middle. This has caused us all to spend too much energy questioning everything we do rather than seeking to lead souls to heaven.
In my view your comment sums it up nicely. You said “the change agents who attacked the main message have split the mainstream right through the middle“. Then you said “This has caused us all to spend too much energy questioning everything we do rather than seeking to lead souls to heaven.”
If the “main message” had been the gospel of Jesus there would have been no problem. I know of no “change agent” (I carry a card..) who is against the good news about what Jesus has already done to set sinners right with himself. It was precisely because that was not the “main message” that “change agents” rebelled and thank God they have.
Get on message and preach Jesus instead of the chruch of Christ and there will be few problems. Thats my view and I only speak for myself.
Thanks for your quick response and giving us an opportunity to convey our thoughts on this subject.
We, the coC, do need to change many things. Our tendency to be harsh, to spend too much time focusing on minor issues, and not enough on a caring heart do name a few. We can also learn on teaching techniques. I have learned to use a completely different style with a group of 20 somethings than I would with 50+ somethings.
However, the attack on the basic tenets of entry into Christiandom (repentance and baptism) and how we may worship God together (a cappela music for one) is nothing more than an attempt to tear us apart. That attack is focused on the wrong thing. That attack just results in us looking like everyone else with nothing special to offer.
The growing religious groups have a strong, unique, more than just-follow-Jesus message. For example, the Eastern Orthodox church with its thousand + year old rituals is growing well.
If we truly want to grow, then the watered down ‘Jesus Only’ message is in reality copying the wrong people.
We need to keep our unique (and Biblical) message. We need to learn how to share it with love.
The “watered down Jesus only message” is the one Paul preached.
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13) The gospel is the good news about Jesus.
Paul said “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17)
Over 80 times the “gospel” is mentioned from Acts to the end of the book and every time the word refers to the good news about what Jesus has done for sinners. Never does the “gospel” refer to the chruch of Christ, baptism, or a cappella singing, or the Restoration Movement, or how often and in what manner we take communion. It is always focused on Jesus and what he has done.
Paul again said “1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:1-4)
Going to church, eating the Lord’s Supper, singing, praying, and baptizing those who believe the gospel are important but the gospel is more important. The good news that Jesus has made it possible for wicked sinners to be set right with God is of first importance.
Before any of the books of the New Testament had been written, before any instruction about singing, before there was a local church of Christ, thousands were saved by hearing and believing the good news about Jesus. They had no Bible, no church building, they spoke different languages, and before they got saved they didn’t like each other. All they had was the story of Jesus and they knew this one who claimed to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews had been raised from the dead. It was Him they preached and taught every where and by the thousands they were saved.
“Change agents” believe what the Bible clearly teaches. For the most part it seems that those who decry them believes the gospel includes the church of Christ, baptism, communion, singing a cappella, and what ever else they decide is gospel.
Baptism in water is not gospel it is one observable response to the gospel. Worshiping with other believers is not gospel it is a result of believing the gospel. The Lord’s Supper is not gospel it remembers the gospel and looks for Christ’s return. Singing is not gospel it celebrates and reminds us of the gospel.
Maybe, just maybe, our churches are loosing members and going out of business because many of our coC people don’t keep the main thing (the good news about Jesus) the main thing.
Great post Royce. I’m sorry, but I’m not buying the 21st century response…acting like they had no idea that this would matter to anyone. It mattered enough to them to act upon it. RHcoC also has acappella services. This was pure judgmentalism. If they had been included, 21st Century would have been scalped by the more conservative bunch. Too much scalpin’ goin’ on!
You are right on the money! I posted a pithy comment on 21st Century Christian’s site after Royster posted his defense. If you should read it, my point is that according to our more “conservative” friends, NRH is no longer a boat.
I agree with Danny that there are few growing churches, but that doesn’t equal only a couple (as in there less than 5 total) There are growing churches all over the place. Not just growing by stealing sheep either. In my experience the number one problem with CofC’s is their unwillingness to change/ their deep desire to keep things the same.
Thanks for being a bold warrior for Christ Royce..
This may be a little off the topic..My mother, who was a good Christian woman, was still worried after many years of membership in the coC that she could still lose her Salvation..That to me is the biggest problem and the ultimate problem with any church that professes to preach the Word of Christ..The idea that you can lose something that is a gift from God and therefore can’t be earned by works is an untruth..This reason alone is enough for myself to believe that the coC is more about church rules than spreading the Gospel..
Tim’s mother was a very good woman who was devoted to Jesus. She was my deceased wife’s mom. I will never forget reading in a church bulliten a note from the preacher saying that if you didn’t attend every service you would “loose your soul”.
When Carol’s mom was only about 80 and her stepdad about 82 or 83 I sat with them and we discussed the Bible, salvation, and heaven. Her husband was a coC preacher for many years, he had been an elder in two churches, a deacon, and both had been attending coC churches for over 70 years and neither of them had a shred of confidence they would make it to heaven.
The best I could I tried to convince them of the promises out of Christ’s own mouth but too many years of false doctrine would not allow them the rest that is in Jesus. Thank God his grace is bigger than our doubts and fears.
Thanks Tim. I loved your mom and think of her and your dad often. They are at home.
As someone who left the Church of Christ ten years ago, instrumental music and worship style had nothing to do with it. It was the hopeless feeling that I had do DO all these things to ensure my salvation that made me leave. I had no concept of grace or justification whatsoever. For 26 years I was led to believe that if somehow my good deeds outweighed the bad and everytime I sinned I immediately prayed I, might be saved. What kind of good news is that? I have spoken to many who have left the COC and almost all of them left because of the hopeless, legalistic message. I am now a member of a Southern Baptist church, and though I don’t agree with them 100% of the time, I feel a peace that I could have never felt in the COC. Preach the true gospel and you won’t have to worry about declining numbers.
There is something else to be considered when looking at this book. I have traveled all over the US since was a child. I can tell you that there are hundreds if not thousands of churches of Christ that are closing down but they are still counted in the book. I can’t tell you how many tomes we ahve stopped to go to church somewhere only to find that they had disbanded and closed down. I think if someone was to physically locate the churches listed in the directory and count the decline would be dramatic.
I don’t have the newest edition but when I saw your comment and quickly checked the 2006 edition and found that you are very likely correct. One listed in an Alabama town, est 1945, 25 members, has been dead for many years. I would think many of those with no church phone, no email, might have closed a decade ago and no one noticed.
Thiis is a great post