An article in a prominent magazine among institutional churches of Christ bemoans the fact that for the first time since records began to be kept in 1980, churches of Christ in the United States are declining in membership (Church in America Marked By Decline, Bobby Ross, The Christian Chronicle, February 2009, online edition).
The statistics, from a directory published by 21st Century Christian, show a loss of 526 churches and 78,436 adherents (members + children) in the past six years. The survey counted 12,629 churches with 1,578,281 ad- herents in 2009. Those numbers represent the lowest totals since 1980, despite an in- crease in the American population of 36.3 percent. In the article, many reasons are given for the decline:
<ul><li> <p>A decision by <em>21st Century Christian</em> to drop 21 churches that have at least one service including instrumental music. </p> </li> <li> <p>Much of the population increase is due to immigration from Hispanic (primarily Roman Catholic) countries and Muslim countries. </p> </li> <li> <p>Birth rates among members have fallen with a growth of affluence. </p> </li> <li> <p>The move away from rural to urban/ suburban society in the U.S. </p> </li> </ul><p>To be fair, some also cited complacency and a movement away from the authentic message of Christ as possible reasons, as well.</p>
Others pointed to similar declines among Baptists, Methodists and other denominations as proof that Americans are moving away from Christianity. And some blamed a refusal to embrace newer technologies in order to carry the gospel to others.
While all of those things might account for some decline, some of them sound suspiciously like excuses. Only the ideas of complacency and failure to preach the truth involve any kind of look in the mirror type examination. A better idea might be to avoid excuses with some honest soul-searching.
The truth is these numbers are not all that surprising. Mainstream churches of Christ have become the Church of Christ denomination. Not in the sense that they are controlled by a worldwide headquarters, but in the sense that they have grown more concerned with fitting into a larger quasi-Christian worldview. The problem is that they were unsatisfied to be married to God and seek also to be accepted by others. Marked by this desire to be like all the nations, they deserted Biblical authority for the things they practice. In time, most also deserted Jesus desire that His followers be unified based on His word (Jn. 17:17-21) in favor of a unity based more on a kind of I m okay, you’re okay philosophy. That is why the decision to drop the churches involved in instrumental music seems so arbitrary; those churches would be right to ask why they are excluded when churches involved in all sorts of scripturally unauthorized practices are not.
Two things happen when a church be- comes a denomination, and both inhibit growth. First, becoming a denomination causes a church to lose its identity to those in the world. Rather than being drawn to Christ, as seen in a group adhering to His word, people see only another example of division in organized religion. In that case, choosing a church becomes no different than shopping for groceries - I can buy groceries any number of places, so I will choose the place that best suits me (due to location, price, service, etc.). See how, when we move away from God’s will (as determined by His word), we move closer to self-worship? The focus is no longer on God, but on me, and on my needs.
The second thing that happens when a church becomes a denomination is even more insidious: church members grow unconcerned about evangelizing the world. Why? Because if I m a member of a denomination, so are most people of the world. There is nothing that compels us to try and make Church-of- Christers out of Baptists or Methodists if we are all exactly the same. That is one reason the numbers are so bemoaned; if we are all the same, our flavor is less attractive. People don’t like us!
<h2> A Three-Fold Solution </h2> <p>No one among the institutional churches has asked, but we offer a three-fold solution to the problem of growth. Here at Westside, we should not think ourselves immune to what has happened in those churches, and so it is important for us to consider this as well.</p> <h3> Return to the Bible. </h3> <p>If you listen to those who have drifted into denominational- ism, they are very concerned about their place in Restoration Movement history. Unfortunately, they seem to have abandoned a key element of the preaching of early restor- ers. Rather than creating another denomination, they were concerned with converting others to Christ, doing what the Bible says. The only growth that is important at all is that which comes from an adherence to God’s word.</p>
While there is some value in viewing the thoughts and practices of the past, that value ceases when those of history deviate from what is scriptural (2 Tim. 2:15, 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3-4). If we are to stand, if we are to be different from the denominations, it must be in our stance on scripture. Insisting on Biblical authority for all we do will help us to be Christians only, and not a denomination.
<h3> Evangelize. </h3> <p>Once we are drawn to the scriptures as our only guide, we will begin to see the need to evangelize those who are lost. Churches seeking to grow will take the message of Christ to others (1 Thess. 1:6-10).</p>
This does not mean we need be stuck in the 1950s. Here at Westside, we have endeavored to provide our members with opportunities to bring the gospel to their friends, neighbors and co-workers. We have done that in sometimes unique ways, from Youth Lectures (what parent isn’t concerned about the growth and development of their children?), to printed invitations to special sermons on topics people of the world are talking about (The Da Vinci Code, The Shack, etc.). We must be willing to put people in position to succeed at talking to others about their faith.
In addition to providing opportunities, we must also provide teaching and encourage- ment. In other words, we need to recognize our obligation to the lost.
<h3> Forget about numbers. </h3> <p>This article began with a discussion of numbers, but that’s really not what church growth is about. In fact, focusing on numbers is a decidedly denominational concept. It is precisely this focus on numbers which led to this point. The movement toward denominationalism began with the desire for big programs and big churches in the 1950s (again, we see the desire to be like all the nations).</p>
Real growth is characterized by living for God (2 Pet. 1:5-15). It is not measured in numbers, but in careful, studied adherence to His word.
In the end, it will not matter whether our numbers match those of the denominations if we are lost because of our refusal to be con- formed to His word. Numbers are an earthly pursuit. We should seek souls.
In the final analysis, if the church of Christ is simply to be another denomination, we pray that the decline in membership continues until there are none left. On the other hand, if we seek to be Christians, following God’s word and striving to bring others to Him, we pray for His blessings on our continued growth.