About Me

The Great Decline

That was the finding in a recently published survey from 21st Century Christian. When I first got wind of the survey, I quickly retweeted it and moved on. The following day, the survey caught fire on my Facebook Newsfeed. Apparently, the issue was/is hot – at least for my friends and family.
I have some hunches about why Churches of Christ – the tribe of my youth – are in decline, but I have no empirical data to back them up. However, I know enough people who have left theses churches and heard their stories over nearly two decades of ministry that I think I can draw some fairly reliable conclusions as to why people are leaving. More importantly, I want to suggest some positive steps forward for these churches to be able to grow.
Let’s begin with what’s NOT contributing to large numerical decline.
  • Conservative Theology – When people see churches in decline an easy assessment is that these churches are no longer in step with the larger culture. That’s actually not a growth inhibiter. How can we tell? Churches that are much more conservative are booming! Overwhelmingly, the fastest growing congregations and the largest mega-churches have exclusively male leadership structures, do not affirm GLBT persons, and teach something on par with sola-scripture (or “sola-reforma,” which I made up to describe Driscoll, Piper and their mean-spirited gang). I’m not arguing the propriety or impropriety regarding these issues. They are just not growth issues. By the way, these fast-growing churches are overwhelmingly homogenous. I’m in drastic disagreement with homogenous churches, but that’s not a growth issue either.

Now, let’s visit some reasons why Churches of Christ are declining. Again, these are anecdotal (yet consistent) and in no particular order.

  1. Leadership. Most preachers and church leaders outside of Churches of Christ are quick to affirm that preaching in Churches of Christ, as a whole, is stronger than in any other group. When asked why we aren’t growing, leaders from some of the most innovative and well-known churches in America say, “Leadership.” They suggest that elder-led churches have a low ceiling. The reasons (again, this is what they say): (1) elders prefer peace over growth; (2) elders are volunteers doing what they can in their spare time; (3) the ministers who are trained and studied and professional can’t do anything without elders looking over their shoulders; and (4) elders don’t define what is and is not their job. This isn’t just a problem in churches of Christ, but it occurs in lots of non-profit boards. The outside assessment of leaders in growing churches isn’t that Churches of Christ have bad leadership; they say we have none. Where there is no vision the people perish. This is not to bash elders or ministers, but to highlight the fact that we exist in a flawed system. And yes there are other was to practice the design of New Testament leadership. You need look no farther than Christian Churches.
  2. Utilitarian. We are typically utilitarian to a fault. Remember when praise teams first came on the scene. “Why do we need 4 song leaders?,” people cried. There was not appreciation for enhancing our singing and making what was good into something powerful and moving. The same thing happened when churches introduced screens, PowerPoints, videos, skits, etc…. All something had to do was function. Think I’m wrong? Look around most of our church buildings. Beauty was not part of the planning!  My first office was an old unused classroom. And that has been the case for many people. The impulse behind many of our decisions has always been, “That’ll be good enough.” The problem is that this utilitarian impulse, from the planning of the worship service to class teaching, etc…communicates this to our friends and neighbors: “These folks don’t take this all that seriously.” My heart was wrecked in my first year of ministry when a parent who attended a different church said of our congregation, “Look how poorly you all take care of things.” These are theological failures as well. When given stewardship of something, the call on our lives is to do our best with it, not do “good enough.” What would happen to your church if your church leaders took seriously the idea that all people are made in the image of God and designed everything in your environment to treat them as such? God created us to be attracted to good and beautiful things. Read the Psalms for goodness sake. In beautiful things we see God.
  3. Stinginess. Churches of Christ largely don’t give and don’t encourage their members to give. Growing up in Churches of Christ I never heard a sermon on tithing. Never. The only sermons about money weren’t sermons at all. They were reports from the head of the finance team telling us about the “make up” Sunday that was coming up. As I’ve said before, why would God trust a church with what is most precious to Him (people), when we don’t trust Him with what is most important to us (our money). At this level, it’s a faith issue. On another level, it’s a practical issue. When the church doesn’t have as many resources as it needs, it can’t do the kind of ministry is should do to reach its community. I’ve been on the inside of ministry for a while now. Most churches are trying to proclaim the Kingdom with about 20% of the resources their congregations should be giving. Churches that are growing are not necessarily rich churches, but they are giving churches.
  4. Over Ask & Under Develop. My church experience has produced no experience wherein there was a clear path to spiritual formation and development for church members. Instead, we vomit programs and beg people to be a part of them. Serve here. Come to this. Work in that. Be here Sunday. Be here Wednesday. And when you’re not, feel guilty. I think that’s asking a lot of people who have jobs, homes, careers, etc….We pay the heaviest toll when we’ve sucked all the free time out of member’s lives, surrounded them with Christians, and run them to the point of exhaustion. Let me ask you, “When are they going to talk to their friends about Jesus?” What’s more, a lot of the time we’re sucking up in ineffective activities (Wednesday Bible class for one) aren’t about anything people care about. This is the great pitfall of believing programs are sacrosanct, rather than tools to use until they cease to be effective.
  5. Usefulness. OK, I’m going to say it. Much of the preaching and teaching in churches of Christ is not useful! I hate to say it, but we actually don’t need a preaching series on every book of the Bible. We don’t need sermons walking through every verse in Acts. We just don’t! Much of my life has been spent listening to preachers talk about Greek words and Biblical esoterica that didn’t touch the lives of the listeners. Many of those preachers thought good preaching was giving people information they didn’t have already. Turns out, people don’t care that much about novelty. They care about their lives, their family and their community.

I’m certain there are more factors and that I’ve over- or under-stated many of these. But I don’t want to call the Bride ugly without creating some means for a makeover. Here are few suggestions for moving forward.

  1. Engage Creatives & Innovators. The largest and fastest-growing churches access and use the gifts of creatives. They understand that people learn and grow through various mediums – art, music, spoken word, dance. Redeemer Lutheran has worship services that are classical and some that are jazz. Central Christian has created an arts community, wherein musicians and singers all over Las Vegas come there to use their gifts. The same is true of Ecclesia in Houston and services at Northpoint in Atlanta are designed to be fun. Andy Stanley says, “You know why some people don’t want to go to church? They’ve been to one.” What he means is that many churches have decided that their job is to complain about short-attention spans and entertainment instead of using these tools to reach people in a way they are used to being reached. We must lose our purity about forms and things that don’t matter.
  2. Evaluate Everything. The goal of your congregation is not simply to have church next week. You need to have an evaluative system. I have a two-point question system for evaluating my sermons. Question 1: Was it presented well? Question 2: Was it useful? I have written entire sermons, got to the end and began again because while it was interesting to me, it wasn’t useful to anyone. A good way to handle this is to think of two people. The first is the 30- or 40-something couple who struggled to wake, dress and bring their kids to church this morning. Will this sermon be something that will affect their lives today. I ask this same question about the person in the pew who has begged their friend or spouse to come to church and they finally do.
  3. Get Real. Teaching and Tools have to be rooted in the real life experience of people. What are their struggles and questions? If teaching takes a turn to focusing or real life issues and give practical, Biblical teaching, then things come together. We need to get away from only asking if something is Biblical and true and ask if it is useful.
  4. Set Your Staff Free. Your staff really does care about the church. And they are really trained to do ministry. Why not let them do it? If you feel as if they are stumbling through their work and have no vision, you’re right. That’s what happens when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder or watching your backside.

Certainly, I haven’t mentioned every step we need to take. And I’m less interested in diagnosis than I am cure – though we must know what’s wrong first.

What do you think? Help us out. Leave a comment telling us where we need to go from here.

P.S. I, for one, am much more concerned about the Kingdom than about one expression of it. I cannot escape, however, that Churches of Christ are my faith family of origin, and I can never really abandone her – regardless of the name on a building.

  • Sean –
    I didn’t see many sources for your data – and you clearly state these are just hunches on your part, but I have to disagree on at least a couple of points.

    First, there is a tacit/implied assumption that Churches of Christ are declining more rapidly that churches that don’t bear the habits/demarcations you note in your post. This is not supported by data.

    In fact, the fastest declining evangelical group are the Baptists – as documented by Barna, the SBC and others. Yet these churches (1) have a very conservative theology, (2) are staff-led (not elder-led), (3) tend to be extravagant (at least in the megachurch category) when it comes to facilities, programs and other spending.

    In essence the fastest declining evangelical group (over the past 10 years) does all the things you say the Churches of Christ *don’t* do that is causing C of C decline.

    I think the answer lies much deeper than these external structural issues. *All* evangelical groups (*especially* those with megachurch manifestations) are in dramatic decline. In anything, the decline among C of C is flatter and less precipitous than the average.

    The question is, for the entirety of Christendom as the population steadily, unrelentingly and clearly moves away from institutional religion, what will Christianity look like when we stop building large buildings, stop paying large staffs, stop bankrolling large programs/mission work? How will we build a theology that grows disciples without these trappings of the Modern era?

  • Jeff, there are a few things at play here. For one, Baptists churches are growing, just not the ones that call themselves, Baptists – in the way of Saddleback, Northpoint, etc….The same is true for Churches of Christ- Also, perhaps you know more than I do, but I don’t know a baptist church that is elder-led. They have elders, but the Senior Pastor is the leader of the organization. He can be fired, yes. But he typically sets the direction. And, as I said, this anecdotal, but it is representative of whatpeople who have left have told me. That doesn’t speak to growth, but it can give us information about decline. Thanks.

    • Have to disagree here. No churches other than Catholics (and maybe, fractionally, Pentecostals/COGIC/AoGs) are growing as a % of US population.

      My point was that the baptists don’t have several of the “flaws” you note for the C of C (like being elder-led), yet the baptists are shrinking, too – and more precipitously than the C of C.

      The apparent growth of “stealth” baptist churches like Saddleback, Willow Creek, and Mars Hill and others is the closing down and cannibalization of smaller baptist churches into mega churches – its not coming from overall net growth into the non-churched population (despite what is sometimes advertised). Barna and Gallop and Pew have abundant data on these trends.

      Peace.

  • I could go on all day about how much I agree with every point in this post. You’ve hit the nail on the head here. I’m also glad that someone else understands the Utilitarian issue we have. I worked at a church that was flat out ugly, and the entrance, the first thing a guest saw when they walked in was a poorly painted room, with stacks of junk in every corner. If we don’t care about those small things, how are we expected to care about the big things. This is why I don’t accept couch donations for youth rooms. Nothing says you’re not important like leftover mismatched couches. If you really mean well, donate something new.

    As for the fixes, I have to stand up and applaud ‘Engage the Creatives and Innovators’. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve worked with that have hopped the fence to another church because I wasn’t allowed to give them an outlet for their creativity. And that’s just for the guys. I don’t even know where to begin on the message we send our creative and innovative young ladies.

    Once again, great post! I’ll be blasting this out all day.

  • Trey

    Keys to better church marketing: overcoming #2 in the challenges department and living by #1 and #2 in moving forward. Marketing is nothing more or less than the story you tell about yourself. If it’s utilitarian, unartistic, and you’re not measuring it’s effectiveness, then to quote the author, your “church marketing sucks.”

    Also, our tribe is notorious for being down on itself, especially in the last 20 years or so. Another no-no if you’re going to tell a compelling story about your church’s story of following Jesus.

  • I now attend a church that may not allow women in all leadership roles, but at least doesn’t think I lost 50 IQ points when I walk in the door. Thanks for putting so much of what I’ve felt about this into such clear words.

  • Reason those are leaving the Church: Not enough preaching/emphasis on faithfulness to God. In all things. Morality, doctrine, evangelism, etc.
    -“To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.”

    Reason the Church is not growing: Evangelism. Don’t believe me? How many door-knocking campaigns have your church done or participated in? There is a reason the Jehovah’s Witnesses are the fastest growing religion.

    • Chris

      I don’t believe your facts are correct on the fastest growing religion. The Pew Forum on Religion lists it as “unaffiliated”. At least it was in 2008.

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/02/26/whats-the-fastest-growing_n_88540.html

      If you preach at visual learners or creatives without engaging the way they learn best, they will find answers somewhere that does. If you harbor an environment of dust and despair, they will draw conclusions that may not be true about how you handle the money you are asking for. c of c traditionalism has become too important to too many folks. The stoic black and white notes in the four part songbooks, the boring and tired Power Point and incessant need to ask for money by passing a plate are all things that make creatives and seekers nervous, anxious and uncomfortable. If being a Christian is about community why do the men of the c of c expect their wives to behave differently at church. It’s ok to serve a meal at home but don’t dare touch a plate during communion?! We all know the Sacred Cows we live with every week but when do we start melting them down and helping the lost? It’s not during a Wednesday night video series or listening to a book on tape.

  • Great post. Thanks to DJ for sending out a tweet about this post earlier. There are so many points that I wanted to say “preach on.” Sometimes when I have made the same or similar case to others it often seems like I am speaking another language. I could not agree more about our singing. As one who loves our tribe and our heritage I believe the best days are to come because of who He is.

  • bruce w

    If I had written an article on the subject, it would have looked like this. I come from the christian church side of things, but a very conservative, narrow, sub group that resembles c of c in many ways. I was a leader/teacher/youth minister, and consider myself a “recovered legalist”. The same things apply to those groups. Every point is accurate in my experience. And I knew at least one person would feel compelled to reply how our were wrong on some of your points or info. You probably did too, huh? We always want to defend/protect our selves instead of change. Fortunately, most understand what you are communicating, and needs saying. We like to “keep doing the things we’re doing so we can keep getting what we’re getting.” I’ve been a member of a number of congregations that operate this way. One thing you didn’t explore, though, is the existence of the small but infuential minority (usually with money) who can’t be called “change agents” but are certainly “cause agents”. One or more are always in a position of power (preacher or eldership usually) and maintain control of a church by making sure the church looks the way they want it to. And as we all know, that church doesn’t grow. The last two I have been a member of are breathing their last breaths. thanks for the blog– well worth sharing!

    • bruce w

      PS– I once was one of those “defensive” speakers/writers myself. We spend to much time not actually listening, but looking for a “what’s wrong with this message that I can now rebut so I look right” answer. Like the person who just fixated on my misspelling of “to”.
      We’re to busy being right instead of allowing Jesus to make us righteous. THEN we resemble what He calls us to be and are about His work of sharing the good news with others. But you can’t give someone something you don’t have, now can you?

  • Dr. Skip Frazie

    I agree with you when you said that we need make preaching/teaching more relavant, (I call it being practical).
    Why do we need to know everything everyone in the bible did?
    The bible, especially new teatament, is very realavant/practical.
    I am presently working on a book. The thesis of it that there
    are fundamentally only two types of religion, Self-oriented and God oriented. I believe one of the reasons church attendance is down is the attitude of people. I agree that the church needs to change but the fault is NOT all the church. The self-orientations of the people is to blame also. This comes from 44years in education. I was not raised in the Church and the item that the church has that no one else has is we do attempt, emphasis on the word attempt, to follow the bible and the bible only. People must be humble to follow God. I was in a congregation that paid one elder and the problem of attendance wasn’t great. To me the biggest problem in the church is we do not show God’s Love as we should. After all, what is the only trait of God that we can show? Thank you for your comment. I better get to class. In Love
    Skip Frazier

  • Thank you all for your great conversation. There are lots of issues at play here. And I’m excited there are people like you all who love both God and the church.

    1. Bruce, No need to think yourself defensive. The church is not something outside ourselves. We are it. We are both in it and it is in us. We cannot be emotionless about it.

    2. Skip, I like your two-kinds of religion. I am formulating a theory like that. I think you may be on to something.

    3. Trey, Great insights, as always.

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  • WOW.

    “Over-ask and Under-develop.” Best point in the whole piece. EXCELLENT.

    I’m not as sold on the “engaging creatives” idea yet, because while most of the people we *want* to reach are entertained by creatives, I don’t see those same people being spurred by creatives to deny themselves, etc.

    Plus, you run the very real danger of becoming (or continuing as) a niche organization, depending on which creatives you get.

    Lots of food for thought here.

  • What can I say? You nailed it. Some will always deny there’s a problem. Those with eyes to see can’t deny it, and your explanations are solid.

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  • robert dozier

    Seems to me that since the COC used to be the fastest growing church in America, we don’t need to theorize about what to do. We just need to find it again. Of course, we don’t have to worry about that happening. The COC has experienced too much “progress” to go back to what works, even if we become extinct in the process. I was raised Catholic, appreciate much about what the COC was but think the decline in the COC is way over the tipping point. In 20 years, it will rapidly fall apart.
    The money will be passing away, the youth will be untaught, and the staff will find other work.

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