-102,138: On Decline in Churches of Christ

Last last week, the Christian Chronicle reported a loss of 102,138 members of Churches of Christ since 2003. They report:

“The total number of adherents — which includes members and their children — in the nation’s historically a cappella congregations stands at 1,554,579, according to 21st Century Christian’s new statistical data sheet. That’s down 6.2 percent from the 1,656,717 adherents reported in 2003 — less than a decade ago. Another striking number: 708 fewer Churches of Christ in the U.S. in the last nine years. The nation’s 12,447 congregations represent a 5.4 percent decline since 2003.”

This helpful information simply adds weight to what many have noticed over the last several years. As striking as the numbers are, what I’ve found more striking is the response of many since. Some have an appropriate response–serious reflection on what the numbers mean and why they exist. Others have been ambivalent, or worse–smug about them. The approach seems to be, “Well good riddance to them anyway. Jesus said some would fall away. And remember what Paul said about “itching ears” in the last days, don’t you?”

I will admit having a hard time respecting that way of thinking. Churches of Christ have blamed others for their problems for too long, and until we are ready to look in the mirror and ask hard questions, I don’t expect much to change. Until the pain of change is preferable to the pain of non-change, status quo is, sadly, likely to continue.

It isn’t that all of sudden within the last decade, hundreds of churches (despite a renewed emphasis on church planting) and more than a hundred thousand Christians just decided to have their ears itched, seek out “entertainment,” or became “disloyal.” 6.3% in less than a decade. Let that sink in… 6.3% in less than a decade. These numbers are self-reported by churches, meaning these numbers likely paint a rosier picture than really exists.

Now that we’re all depressed 🙂 are we willing to consider the idea that we have something to do with our problems? What if it’s not culture–other Christian tribes seem to reach people and “culture” has always been pagan. Why is ours so different? It’s also unlikely that we are being “pruned.” We are under no persecution.

Our primary enemy is us.

This doesn’t mean it’s all our fault or that hope is lost. It means we need to own this.

One thing is common to renewal movements: Humility. Until we can humble ourselves enough to acknowledge and repent of what ails us, we need not hold our breath waiting for renewal. One piece of good news is–the whole Movement need not change for you or your congregation to change.

So, let’s start with us. God will take it from there.

Question: Why aren’t some in Churches of Christ willing to own the decline?

Note: They are a bit dated now, but you can read the Turnaround Fellowship posts (10 parts), beginning with this one from January 3, 2010. Here are the links to the others:

There are also a set of Turnaround Church posts you can access by searching for “Turnaround Churches” in the search bar above.

May God bless you and your congregation.


Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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12 thoughts on “-102,138: On Decline in Churches of Christ

  1. One of the reasons for the decline in the numbers of churches of Christ is because there are many who are falling into the practice of a more secular form of worship. Worship teams were never commanded by Christ or the Apostles and many congregations today are beginning to use them. As a result, many eventually leave those congregations because they are a direct violation of how worship is to be conducted. We need to acknowledge this sin and stand up for Christ and his commandments. Even if it means offending those who are in favor of those sins. Worship is not about show; its about the edification of each other.

  2. I think the biggest indictment of churches of Christ reflected in these numbers is not in how the numbers have moved, but in how they haven’t.

    When you’re taking a survey that encompasses the size and scope of the one 21st Century Christian is taking, you’ll never get an exact total. The best you can do is get close, in this case + or – 4 percent.

    Of the surveys conducted since 1990, none has deviated more than 4% off of the average (1,255,126). The current survey is on the “low side of normal,” but even it falls well within the margin of error.

    In essence, we are what we are, and it’s what we’ve been for the last 22 years. The number simply has not moved to a statistically significant degree in over 2 decades.

    And that makes me sad.

    Even as the populations of the five “Church of Christ” stronghold states has increased dramatically — I’m especially looking at you, Texas, adding 4 congressional districts worth of people between 2000 and 2010 — our membership numbers stay basically flat.

    I don’t know why this happens, or what the solution is (though I, like so many others, have a pet theory I could espouse). But as long as we’re content with the numbers staying what they are now, no much is going to change.

  3. We are bred to never want to be wrong or admit that we have ever or are ever wrong. Change implies someone was wrong. So we don’t like change. We have been brought up to believe that on every single issue there is only one right and perfect way for it to be done. Therefore, any change or deviation from it either means that we were wrong in the past or are now wrong since we have changed approaches. It really all boils down to the fear of being wrong.

    If we can get past that we can move on to a healthier approach. Often we even know what the solution is but we are so afraid to implement it because we know how brother or sister so and so are going to respond. Fear, fear, fear. We cannot let our approach to faith and congregational life be dominated by fear. We also cannot let it be dominated by complete freedom to do whatever, whenever, however to the neglect of scripture.

    • Matt, I can understand how someone could take this study personally. I wish they wouldn’t. To me, change is a healthy part of life in general. It need not be received as an indictment of anyone. In fact, it might be wrong not to change at this point–for Churches of Christ.

  4. Tim,

    I think much of what you say and the questions you are asking is right on. As you hopefully know, I recently laid down some thoughts on the subject myslef: http://www.thepalmerperspective.com/2012/02/10/the-great-decline/

    As a true Restorationist, I think appropriate to ask what our role (churches ) is in all this. Those who say, “faithfulness” or “itching ears,” are choosing a cop out. They don’t want to deal with the simple fact that there are factors we’re in control of that contribute to people opting out of our churches.

  5. Your post asks the right questions.

    One response I have seen is “Well, the Baptists are in decline too..”. That is hardly a start to a solution. Another I read opined that churches of Christ should focus more on coc distinctives. Really?

    Only a clear focus on making Christ known in word and deed changes hearts. When Christ is preeminent in our message and our methods things will change.

    The biggest problem at our church recently is parking. Our church is growing. Christ centered, grace oriented, love saturated ministry works.

    • Great stuff, Royce. I think churches are always better off focusing more on the weightier matters. One problem we have is intrinsic difficulty making shifts we know we need to make–once we need to make them.