Churches of Christ are in Decline

There is an article on the Christian Chronicle website (here is the link) detailing the declining status of Churches of Christ.  For those who attend a Church of Christ, I hope this news does not come as any surprise.  I believe the reasons are many and I will just try to lay out some of the possible reasons I see.

First, there are far too many Christians among us who occupy a place in a pew or chair during worship but have never matured into a fruit-bearing disciple of Jesus.  Whatever the reason(s), scripture seems vividly clear that every Christian has been gifted for ministry in the church.  The failure of a local church to exercise the variety of spiritual gifts God has given surely has a direct impact on that local church to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Second, there still seems to be this idea that bigger and better programs will attract “them” to us, meaning to one of our assemblies at our buildings.  Even if we were called to be competitors for the best program marketing, the truth is that most Churches of Christ have neither the financial resources nor the other sufficient resources necessary to operate these programs (at least not on par with the large mega-church that just moved into town). 

Third, and related to the second, we have not learned how to be a missionally “sent” people who go to the community rather than hoping the community comes to us.  We have a building/facilities centered mind-set.  We love worshiping in the building.  We love having potlucks in the building.  We are a benevolent people (that is a great thing too) who invite people in need to the building to sift through our pantry.  And on and on it goes.  How about going to a park, taking lots (and I mean a lot) of food with us, go through the neighborhood and invite everyone to come and join us for a meal and worship.  Give the left-over’s to those who seem to have the most need for some extra-food.   This does not mean there would be no use for a building, I am just trying to point out how our buildings should be nothing more than a building but have become a means to an end (and this means is no longer producing the end result we desire).

Fourth, many members (though not all) of Churches of Christ no longer believe that we are the only Christians and the only ones who will be in heaven.  Evangelism used to be simple.  Alls it required was having a gospel meeting where we would invite other “denominational” Christians come and hear a logical presentation that exposed the errors of their beliefs in hopes that they would convert.   Well, now that we believe some, perhaps many, of those other professing Christians are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ and that like them, we too have less than a perfect doctrinal understanding of the Bible, that approach to evangelism has been nullified.  But how do we reach the unchurched, whether they be the youth hanging out at the local skate-board park, the poor living in public housing, the young post-modern grad student who socializes in coffee-shops and night-clubs, those new families that migrated from another country and neither speak English well nor have a Judeo-Christian worldview, etc…?  The answer to this question lies in the next problem.

Fifth, part of our church DNA is a view of scripture that treats the New Testament as though it is a blue-print form to tell us how the church should look in every culture and place rather than seeing the New Testament as a collection of occasional writing addressing specific situations from which we can learn from as we seek to follow Jesus (not the first century church) and live out the gospel in culturally relevant ways.  Specifically, we thought our duty was to be a first-century church form rather than being a 19th, 2oth, and now a 21st century church living out the gospel in 19th, 20th, and 21st century ways.  While many of the leaders in our local churches no longer believe this is our calling, that mind-set still looms large.  I believe it inhibits us from seriously taking an incarnational approach to the many diverse sub-cultures of non-Christians I listed in the last paragraph.  For example, in most Churches of Christ, women have no role in reading scripture, offering prayer, sharing testimonies, etc… in the assembly.  Yet this is a barrier to non-Christians in some cultures within North America.  I know because it was in Ithaca, NY where I lived for nearly two years.  I have not lived long enough in Willmar, MN to determine if this is the case here as well.  Will we allow an issue like this to stand between the gospel and the lost?[1]

To conclude, I believe there are many Christians among Churches of Christ who are still very passionate about Jesus and the gospel he preached and lived out.  In addition to the problems I see us struggling with that I list above, we lack for a vision and missional purpose.  What we need first is a bold new vision that is outside of the box we are not only comfortable in but find difficult to see beyond.  We need a vision that would conceptualize what it looks like to be a missional body of Christ among our culture.  Since every local culture is unique, this vision must be developed by courageous local leaders.  We also need a new missional purpose that calls us to bear witness to the kingdom reign of God (the gospel Jesus preached) rather than restoring a particular historical period of the church. 


[1] I am not suggesting that allowing women to pray would solve all of our evangelistic problems.  However, if it is a barrier then it is part of the problem and needs to be addressed.

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26 responses to “Churches of Christ are in Decline

  1. Excellent post.

    You have given us all much to think about.

    Thanks.

  2. Danny,

    Thanks for stoping by. My only hope is that we will learn to be/become a vibrant witness of Jesus Christ to the growing number of people in our communities that do not believe in Jesus.

  3. I might add one thing as a note about a “new” purpose. I suggested that our purpose needs to become a fellowship that bears witness to the kingdom reign of God rather than restoring a particular historical form of the church. If we would just learn to live (speak, think, and act) as Jesus did, we would bear an authentic witness to the kingdom of God and by default we would be the church Jesus intended his church to be. I know learning to live as Jesus did is a tall order and no group of Christians has ever or ever will perfectly embody that call but we should remember that God has always accomplished his will through clay jars.

  4. Thanks for the post. God bless.

  5. Matt,

    Thanks for stopping by this blog.

    I am not a statistics person or anything like that and so I do not know how one measure church growth in local congregations. However, this report seems to suggest what I, and others as well, have preceived for some time. There are other church fellowships who are facing the same trouble with decline as well.

    I must say though, I am less and less interested in numbers (church growth) and more interested in knowing how well our members are being transformed into the likeness of Christ (discipleship).

    Grace and Peae,

    Rex

  6. Rex,

    Nice to see your post hasn’t drawn the sort of rancorous comments Danny Dodd’s has suffered.

    One thing your post brought to mind was the reality all Christian churches face in our times, but that the Church of Christ perhaps has the most difficulty in addressing. Neighbors are no longer varieties of Christians to be won over to the Church of Christ, but more and more often are non-religious people a generation or more away from ancestors who were familiar with the basics of the Christian faith. Where I live (the NYC metro-area) the situation is made more complex by the varieties of faith and non-faith and diverse cultural backgrounds brought here by immigrants. I work with Brazilians who at least have some familiarity with Christian ideas to begin with (via nominal Catholic contacts), but there are also many from India, Asia and the Middle East who have virtually no understanding of Christian “first principles.”

    We find ourselves in the situation that missionaries have long experienced in “non-Christian” lands. We have to learn to speak the cultural language of those we want to reach, and in all cases never assume that those we are trying to bring into a walk with Christ make the same assumptions or have even the most basic religious understanding in common with us.

    Sorry if I ramble….

  7. Adam,

    Ramble on! What you are saying about finding ourselves in the same situation as missionaries in those “non-Christian” lands, is exactly what I keep trying to get us to see. It will take more than just having a “friend’s day.” I am not knocking churches that do this but I just don’t see this as working. Fewer and fewer non-Christians are interested in coming to us to seek out God and the point of life, we must learn to go to them with the gospel in ways that make sense to them.

    Thanks for stopping by the blog.

    -Rex

  8. Hey Rex, good to see your blog man. Hope everything is going well for you. About this article…I think that your fifth point is spot on. Of the several different philosophies that were going about during the restoration movements inception this one became the one that stuck the most. Which is sad because the Restoration movement had a ton of potential as a unity movement among other things. Thanks for the post Rex.

  9. Jonathan,

    Thanks for stopping by the blog! About the last point, I believe this is also the most difficult to overcome – even for the so-labled “progressive” congregations.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  10. Here’s the latest chapter in my saga of who in the Church of Christ: http://tinyurl.com/dxjbm3

  11. That was supposed to be “saga of woe.”

    Trying to smile here.

  12. Rex, thanks for your thoughts, I think think you made some valid points. I struggle with developing an expectation of how the world should respond to me, the Gospel, and other Christians.

    In John 15:19 Jesus said,
    “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

    Yet, on the other hand, many people have responded joyfully to the Good News. On the one hand I want to remove barriers to the Gospel, on the other I expect people to find the Gospel offensive. How I differentiate these two seems to be an ongoing subjective struggle.

  13. Outstanding!

    Of course we’ve never been culturally first century in the churches of Christ. Our practices were heavily shaped by the familar. The Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic influence shaped the church greatly. Long narrow building with rows of pews, the elements of communion placed on a table up front between the preacher and the audience.

    One designated teacher/preacher, a designated song leader / selector, designated prayers, preachers that tend to handle the elder/shepherd role of ministering to and visiting the sick, elders that tend to fill the deacon role of taking care of the distracting business matters, and deacons who tend to fill the elder role of teaching smaller groups.

    The hymn books tend to be filled with songs that feature the beats and rhythms of the popular music of a different era. The subject matter of those songs speak to the concerns of a different day. They sang of mansions of gold in the Great Depression (watch for that theme to return as we are just wading into a 3 to 8 year downturn according to economic experts I trust). The black churches sang of freedom and rescue. Today in our mobile and broken family society the popular songs in the greater Christian community focus on relationship and family with God.

    Understand what is worrying people, understand the cadence and delivery of their communication and you understand how to take the Gospel to them.

  14. Your 4th point especially caught my attention. My good friend Ken Bolden correctly pointed out to me that for much of our history the churches of Christ were in mission “Corrective” at the expense of “Redemptive). He and you are exactly right.

    Royce

  15. ….at the expense of being Redemptive..

    sorry

  16. Something about a house divided against itself…hum?

    Zach

  17. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    I really enjoyed this post and I especially agree with the third point. The hard truth is that when you point this out to leadership they look at you like you have sprouted horns…..”why would we want to leave the building? We need to draw people to us” Until we defeat this type of thinking we will continue to decline.

  18. I am glad I found your blog and believe your observations are on target. I would say that our obsession with our buildings is because of our fear of contact with those different from us. At least if we “draw” them to us we have the advantage of being on familiar ground and if they don’t stick around then at least we have done our job. Excellent post.

  19. Mark,

    Thanks for stopping by the blog. I think you add an interesting observation regarding the use of buildings. Buildings to require the non-churched to assimilate into our church culture and become somewhat like us from the start.

    -Rex

  20. Rex,

    Good thoughts. One scripture I have read recently that has jumped out at me that I think is pertaining to this topic is Romans 15:1: “we who are strong outh to bear the weakness of those without strength and not just please ourselves. ” I think within the churches of christ we have been too worried about “pleasing ourselves” with traditions and regulations that we have neglected the weaker brothers and sisters.

  21. Phil,

    Thanks for stopping by this slice of the blogosphere.

    I am all for the stronger bearing with the weaker. In the context, the weaker are those who not only do not know they are weak (they do not understand that there is actually nothing wrong with the practices of the strong) but also are those who, by participating in the practices of the stronger, would jeopordize their salvation because such practices is a violation of their conscience.

    One problem that I see, is too many Christians misusing the teaching on the strong and weak to protect their preferences when it comes to tradition. I am not against traditions per se. But when tradition gets in the way of the mission, there is a problem. In some cases, perhaps many but not all, Christians have allowed tradition, personal preferences and expectations, etc… to hijack the mission.

    This always makes me think of how the cross went against Peter’s personal expectations of what Jesus’ messianic mission should be. When Peter raised an objection and tried to prevent Jesus from embracing the cross, Jesus more or less told Peter to either get on board with his mission or get left behind but that the mission of God would not be sacrificed for Peter’s, the disciples, or any of the Jews traditions and expectations of how and when God should work.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  22. Rex,

    I want you to know that I appreciate your comments on this and other blogs. I respect your insights and wish you well in your srvice to God.

  23. Thanks Eddy. The feeling is mutual. I understand that with subjects like this we all will not think alike which leads to occasional disagreements and that is alright as far as I am concerned. We need to be able to speak our thoughts and when there is disagreement, understand why the other person has a different view point.

    Any ways, thanks for stopping by this blog.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  24. Interesting discussion. Thanks!

  25. Rex:

    I am glad that more are realizing these realities. Jesus is being compared to other claims to truth like never before. So much of our approach to “evangelism was based on people already having some belief in God and at least some belief in the credibility of the Bible. We are unprepared to have a dialogue with someone who is comparing Jesus to Buddha or some other claim to truth because we don’t know the theology of Buddha or even why someone would believe in him. This scenario can be replicated with Islam, Baha’i, Jumave, Secular Humanism, and so on. We in the broader scope of conservative orthodox evangelical churches don’t understand the secularization of post modern America. We don’t understand why people have stopped going to church. We don’t understand why Pot Modernism has become the dominant movement of thought in our culture. I Would suggest that the “bubble” we put ourselves in censoring ourselves from everything even refraining from reading books written by Christian authors outside of the churches of Christ has severely crippled our ability to understand our broader culture and thereby hindered our ability to answer their theological questions and defend the faith of Jesus not our own personal brand of religious dogma.

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