Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 1: A Left-Brained Fellowship in a Right-Brained World

Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 1: A Left-Brained Fellowship in a Right-Brained World

For followers of this blog, you know that most all of my posts deal with larger kingdom and cultural issues. The Missional Outreach Network has readers from all different denominational backgrounds, and I want to bring people together through Christ and his mission.

However, if my non-Church of Christ readers can indulge me, I want to post a series dealing with some issues in my fellowship (Churches of Christ). Specifically, I want to seek to address the issue as to why Churches of Christ are shrinking--seeking both your thoughts and to provide some analysis and insights. 

First, just an acknowledgment of the fact that we are shrinking is a huge step. For years, somehow we took solace in the fact that our numbers in the US were constant--despite the fact that, as a percentage of the US population, we were already in rapid decline. The US population was growing, and we were not. 

In more recent years, the Christian Chronicle (our non-official official newspaper for Churches of Christ) has woken us up to cold reality. Not only are we declining as a percentage of the US population; we are shrinking numerically as well. We are a fellowship in decline. Maybe not declining as quickly as the mainline denominations that we have pointed towards, but still, like them, declining.

As long as we were "holding our own," we could just keep doing what we had always been doing, "holding to our principals"--not changing anything--and waiting for the world to change and come around to our point of view. If you are staying about the same, well, that is not good, but it does not put you in a crisis mode that prompts organizations to change or die. But now, as we slowly, painfully, begin to acknowledge that we are dying, we now are perhaps more willing to look at the causes of our death, with the hope perhaps that a cure can be found.

There are numerous reasons for our fellowship's decline which I hope to discuss in this blog post series. But the reason that I want to put forward today is this: we are a left-brained fellowship in a right-brained world. 

Churches of Christ in their current, visible form were birthed in the 1800s during the height of the "modern" worldview. This was the age of Reason. We were skeptical of emotion, which could lead us astray. All that stuff at Cane Ridge, where people were looking for expressions of the Spirit as confirmation of their faith, which could include barking like dogs and the like, led nearly half of our fellowship to disbelieve that the Spirit of God worked at all outside of the written word and that there was no indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Shocking to deny, for without the Spirit, we have no eternal life.

But it was a print medium world, so this fit into the times. This print medium world allows one to take the word of God off on one's own to read and study outside of a community--which leads to individualism. It was a world that worshiped the scientific method, and we began to apply this method to Scripture, believing that if we just all used the same method (hermeneutic), we would all come to the same result every time. Reason and scientific study of the Bible and knowledge would lead us to all come to agreement and thus unity. (I was reminded recently by a preacher friend that our motto for decades was "Come, let us reason together.")

(Notice that unity was not based upon Christ and the Spirit or the seven "ones" of Eph. 4, but upon agreement on all of the issues. This is an impossible task, proven to be impossible for flawed humans by our history. But I digress.)

So our worship services and Bible classes were designed to give out information and prove points. We wanted to educate people--not shape them spiritually or transform them or disciple them. We did not have Spiritual Formation or Discipleship ministers. We had "Adult Education" ministers. We had preachers who dispensed information and proved their points. It was assumed that education equals transformation. 

Fast forward two hundred years to today. We are now in an Apple based, image and icon based world. A world of pictures and videos. A world of music and surround sound. A world of 75" plasma screens in homes and jumbo trons half the size of football fields. I live in Dallas and took the Cowboys stadium tour. There I found out that the owners of the Phoenix Suns came out to the stadium to play video games at $500/minute on the humongous video screen there. Apple is now the highest valued company in the world, beating out Microsoft. This is not just symbolism. It is reality. We are in an Apple based, image based, icon based, experienced based world. This is the world that those 35 and under in particular grew up in, though it extends up through Gen X (and even partially into the late Boomers).

And these younger generations come into our worship services looking for an experience. And what do they get? A lecture. Information. Someone trying to build a reasoned argument and make their points. And they just don't get it. It does not speak their language. We are speaking Mandarin Chinese to them. (Actually Mandarin Chinese is an image-based language. So with the growth of China, we will become even more image based and Eastern in our thinking. Think of a picture or image. By its nature, it evokes more emotion and feeling and passion. And when younger generations enter into this throwback, print based world, they feel that our worship services are empty, dead, and lifeless. It does not move them. They can't wait for the exit.)

Older generations showed up to hear a sermon. The rest was nice, but was almost viewed as filler for the main dish. And in growing churches that are reaching younger generations, they most all have great preachers. Preaching (that is culturally relevant) still transforms and moves people. 

But what our fellowship fails to realize is that if you were to take that same great speaker--let's say, Andy Stanley, or if you prefer, Mark Driscoll, or whoever of that generation that floats your boat, and you were to plop them down into most of our churches, that church would not explode. The younger people would not, by and large, come. Why is this? Because they are not looking for a sermon--though they want to hear a moving one when they hear one. They are looking for an experience--an experience that matches their world. And we are by and large offering an experience of what life in the 1800s is like. Bible classes that educate, and sermons that give knowledge and prove points. In a world in which knowledge is ubiquitous (ever heard of the Internet or Wikipedia?) and everyone is sick of people arguing about who is right. 

Let's face it. By and large, we view the thousands of dollars that are spent on lights, video screens, and cameras in other fellowships as a waste of money. As seeking to "entertain."  We look down on those churches as being superficial. (Part of this is that during the split with the Christian church, they got all of the buildings and all of the money. So our people are inherently suspicious of these kind of expenditures as being "liberal" or superficial. But like so much of our heritage, most people don't realize why they think these things.)

And yet, churches that are doing this are growing--not only reaching lost people, but retaining their own kids. They actually come, want to come, enjoy the experience, and bring their friends. Young adults will camp out and plan their year around the Passion worship experience, but would not ever show up at a lectureship. Look around at the lectureships in our fellowship. There are a lot of older people, and almost no one under 30, despite there being incredible speakers there. 

I recently toured a church in our fellowship that just redid their auditorium. They had an incredible set up. Three huge screens, incredible lighting, stadium seating. I immediately thought two things: 1) this must have cost a lot of money--we could never afford this; and 2) I would love to preach in this atmosphere, because it would be incredible. It would be experiential. It would resonate with younger generations--and a lot of right-brained people in Boomer and above generations, who have never felt that we have spoken their language.

So, what does this mean we should do in Churches of Christ? Well, if we want the same results, I would advise us to do nothing. If we want to see our kids continue to leave in droves--and recently, Randy Harris said at Elderlink that he was afraid that we were going to lose all of our 18-35 year olds--then don't change a thing. When someone tries to dim the lights or show a video or have a praise team or give a testimonial and people complain and threaten to leave or stop giving, then give in. That is what has happened in congregation after congregation in our fellowship. And the Millenials don't complain. They don't make a fuss and stomp off mad. They are very polite. They just leave and say (to themselves), this is not for me. 

And the sad thing is, not only are we choosing to not reach lost people because of our refusal to not give an inch on these issues, but we are choosing to send our kids and grandkids away to at best another fellowship, at worst, the world. When push comes to shove, we would rather keep church the way that it has always been than to make changes that would help us reach or retain these generations. As one of my preacher friend says, "In almost every case in all of our churches, tradition trumps mission."

What if, instead of viewing these things as a waste of money and a threat to our church tradition, we viewed them as "speaking the language" of the people in our mission field? Is that not what missionaries do? We would fire a missionary who went overseas and never learned to speak the language of the people that he was trying to reach and who did not work through their cultural norms and cultural values. But somehow, we forget that we must do the same thing here in the US. 

So here are a few things that could be considered to create a more experienced based worship service.

1. Use video throughout. It is a Youtube world. Video has picture and music and tells a story. It is the language of today. Use background music in these videos. It is the least that we can do to be culturally resonant.

2. Use a three projection screen setup. The standard setup for an experience based event is a three screen setup. The main, center screen projects the speaker/worship leader--and people will usually look at this screen more than the actual person. The other two screens project pictures, moving images and the like. And if you really want to create an experience, then add additional screens on the sides. 

3. Dim the lights in the audience and brighten the stage. This can create the experience atmosphere that many are used to and looking for.

4. Use testimonials. Interview people and have them tell their stories. It is an Oprah world. Millions recently watched Lance Armstrong sit on the couch and talk to Oprah. People will line up to hear other people's stories.

5. Make preaching biblical, culturally relevant, and applicable. Remember, people are not going to be wowed by our exegesis. They can find this online or on their own study Bible. What they will be wowed by is a person who models a godly life, who speaks their language, and who can tell them how to live this biblical truth out in their daily lives at work, in their homes, with their family.

6. Use "pre-worship" music and "post-worship music." Music is ubiquitous in young people' lives. Playing this before and after helps them have a more memorable experience.

7. Engage the body, mind, and heart in worship. This is imminently biblical. Remember The Greatest Commands song? We do not just worship God with our mind. We worship him with our body and with our heart and emotion. Be joyful. Clap. Shout for joy. (We sing about shouting, but don't ever do it.) Have a praise team or worship leader that models this, for passionate worship is contagious. And give people permission to really engage their whole being in worship for God.

8. Emphasize community. Facebook and Youtube have created a world of sharing, a world that longs for community. It is a basic part of our humanity. Remember, in the creation account, everything that God created was good. There was only one thing that was not good. It was not good to be alone. Community can be emphasized in our assemblies not just by having coffee, though great coffee is expected in a Starbucks world. Community is emphasize by sharing stories of God's work amongst his people throughout the week. By displaying Twitter feeds with a church's hashtag, or by asking questions and letting people share through their Iphones. Community can be put in one's tagline, on the website, in one's language in worship. More on community later.

The churches that get this will do far better at reaching the lost and retaining their own children and grandchildren. The "lectureships" that get this will do far better. (Why come hundreds of miles today to just hear a speaker when you can listen to them online?) Create an experience and they will come. And they will invite their friends. Of course, this is not the only thing that has to happen. I am a "missional outreach" guy. I believe in going out and serving and reaching people to my core. But I am more and more convinced that unless we wake up to this experience culture and speak the language of our mission audience, then we will continue to shrink. And I love our fellowship and I love Christ, and I don't want to see this happen. I want our churches to grow. I want my three girls to not have to leave our fellowship to have an experience that touches their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. I want them to have experiences so powerful, that they come back time and time again.

NOTE - This DOES NOT mean that we have to throw away truth or that these are the only things that we need to do. Hardly. But it may mean that if we speak the language of our culture, they may actually listen to our message. I am not at all for watered down messages or fluff. Telling powerful stories of how God is at work--a conversion story, a story of service, a story of living holy lives, a story of spiritual formation in the home, a story of a marriage coming back together--is not fluffy entertainment. These are powerful stories told well and powerfully. And that should impact everyone. And maybe it will help people to listen and "take in" important truths about Christ, baptism, and the Christian walk.

I am sure that at some point flannel graph was considered a new fangled technology. And Power Point. And microphones. And air conditioning and padded pews. (Go back and read early Restoration history--there are tons of railings against padded pews and the like.) Every generation is comfortable with whatever technology/communication medium they grew up with, and uncomfortable with ones that they did not. It is the responsibility of those most mature in Christ to be the most generous in their personal preferences to those who are most in danger of being lost or missed. That is what being incarnational means.

Here is part 2 in this blog post series: Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? Part 2: Failure to Recognize ...

Here is part 3 in this blog post series: Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 3: A Misplaced Identit...

Here is part 1 in a parallel blog post series: Why Do Churches of Christ Have Hope and a Future? - Part 1: A Reawa...

If you are interested in me giving a Missional Outreach Seminar or Spiritual Gifts Seminar in your church, please let me know. I can adjust the schedule or topics to cover the topics that are needed in your church. I am filling out my 2013 calendar right now. Also, you might be interested in the evangelistic Bible study that I have written, the Story of Redemption. www.StoryofRedemption.com. To discover your top five Spiritual gifts, check out my Spiritual gifts website, www.YourSpiritualGifts.com

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Comment by Sarah on January 27, 2013 at 2:31pm
While all of what you suggest is nice and attractive, I don't think those are the things that will retain our youth or bring folks into a Church of Christ. As a fifth generation CoC member, I know for a fact that very few of us ever venture into the worship service of another group. We learn very little of what other churches outside our brotherhood are doing...what we do know about is the music, lights, big videop screens, etc.

I happen to enjoy going outside the CoC to get a well needed shot of encouragement. Aa a lifelong CoC member, i oftentimes feel as if i am dying of thirst in a desert. I visit other churches to attain a feeling that I've found almost impossible to get in a CoC atmosphere.

1- the sermons in other churches tend to be more encouraging and pointed. I leave feeling convicted. In almost every service, this is what I hear: God really, really loves me and wants to bless me, the Holy Spirit lives in me and is moving and active, that Jesus is my savior, that being a Christian is awesome. The simple gospel is preached and presented every Sunday to those who may not have a clue. Yes, those things are touched upon in the CoC...there's always the obligatory Holy Spirit sermon once a year. But these things aren't spoken with enthusiasm and joy. Most CoC sermons are very cerebral and assume that all of us have our act together and are longtime believers.

2- the worship is much less cerebral and more emotional. Worshippers are allowed to smile, lift hands, shout amen, cry, sway while they sing and enjoy themselves in their worship. This excitement carries over into their everyday lives. It is contagious...you want to be there, you want to invite others, it's FUN.

3- women are not excluded in other churches. I think most first time CoC visitors are IMMEDIATELY struck by the passive role of the women in our worship. (okay....NO role!) if i were in their shoes, i would never visit again. It doesnt seem strange, offensive or weird to CoC members....we're used to it, and most of us have never been exposed to anything else. However, in most other churches, the minister's wife will join her husband on stage to greet everyone and add an encouraging thought either before or after the sermon. Woken give their testamonies. Female missionaries share their experiences from the pulpit. Many ushers and greeters are women. Some women pass the collection or communion. Most importantly, women are available during the invitation to speak to or pray with other women. Women want and need the spritual support of other women...not just old dudes in suits (No offense to our awesome old dudes in suits!) All of this can be done without women preaching or holding authority over a man. The CoC is so afraid of the slippery slope, they've gone too far the other way. Our young women don't want to be passive onlookers. And they know they don't deserve to be treated like lepers in the "corporate worship".

4- generations of tradition have taught CoC members that if they are present at every church class or event (3 X a week), that they are good to go. We've mistaken church attendance with genuine spirituality. We've traded Bible knowledge for an emotional connection with God.....

THAT is ultimately what is missing...an emotional connection with God, during worship, toward others, and one that includes everyone, not just the men. unchurched people don't want intellectual sermons, songs from 75 years ago, and stoic patterns of worship. They want a cold drink of water...unfortunately we offer old wine.
Comment by Joe Palmer on January 26, 2013 at 11:27am

James,  I am not trying to be sarcastic to be be mean spirited about this but my response is to ask if Noah had built a cruise ship instead of an Ark would he have gotten better results? 

My answer is Yes.  But that doesn't mean he would have gotten people searching for the truth.  Recently we had a gospel meeting and I asked for input on how to promote it among preachers. My first response was, "Don't call it a Gospel Meeting."  Now maybe that is good advice but it also speak of how we have lost faith in the gospel and replaced it with men's inventions.  

We have to face the reality that our culture is on a wholesale basis rejecting God.  We aren't the first culture to do this and we probably won't be the last.  Some people like the people of Athens are looking for some "New Thing" (Acts 17:21)  new isn't bad but I think what people are really missing in church is the "Real Thing."  

Give me a church where people care about people. They are helping the needy. They get to know new people. They are in each others homes.

Give me a church that teaches the Word. They preach it all love, judgment, heaven, hell, forgiveness and sin. They don't let tradition bind them but they don't follow the world.

Give me a church that actually makes the gospel the main thing.

Give me a church where people come to worship God.  They love God and teach that is the essence of what our worship is.

I think if you have this it won't matter what kind of sound and lighting you have that church will grow at the level that the world or culture will permit. Noah Got eight but he was faithful.  I am not giving up. I am not discouraged I am committed to teaching Jesus.  I just think this article misses the mark.  I have no problem with implementing some of the suggestions but this is like worrying about what kind of salad dressing your going to put on a salad when you have run out of steaks.

Comment by sgranberg on January 26, 2013 at 10:44am

James is on target here. The right brain-left brain does make a difference, yet I see the difference rooted in our theology. Our theology, rooted in high reason, appeals to a narrow band of people who are high reasoners. The appeal is also a learned appeal. Our heritage typically expects to attract people who are already oriented to our fellowship, who already have exposure, or who have been raised among us.

Our theological approach is a "closed" approach, i.e., we feel comfortable arguing from silence, using a logical approach of A=B and B=C so A must = C, and approaching the biblical text as case law.

21st century people are no longer asking the truth question which our heritage approach has answered. The new questions are those of relationship, principles, and actions that change the world. James hits these when he speaks of the desire for an experience (which presents the idea of "truth" more clearly to this generation than logic).

Relationship and experience are now the "coin of the realm." If we are to be the incarnation of Jesus today these two items must become our language as well.

Comment by Lynn S. Nored on January 25, 2013 at 11:59am

Not only do we need to rethink how worship services are done, but that is especially true of how typical "bible study" classes are done.  There is normally no "experience" or actually applied action ( not just list of possible actions) at all.  It is all just more "head knowledge" of information. 

Comment by Lynn S. Nored on January 25, 2013 at 11:30am

James, this is your Dad who grew up in the modern world you speak of.  However, for most of my life I have been engaged with the under 35 set, professionally as well at church.  As you know you grew up using computers.  What you have profiled is so right.  There are other factors ( see Flavil Yeakley, "Why They Left" (2012).  But, I believe most of them are related to the difference in world views between modern and postmodern attitudes.

Comment by James Nored on January 25, 2013 at 10:33am

Earl, thank you for your thoughts. We do struggle with serving different masters. I wonder, how do you think that this relates to the current discussion? Thank you for sharing.

Comment by Earl Norah Jr. on January 25, 2013 at 10:11am

I'm often reminded of a piece of what our Lord, and savior said: You can't serve two masters, you will learn to hate one, and Love the other. I've also heard it said that a friend of the world, and an enemy of God. Yet we as Christians, have to chose between living Godly lives, or living worldly. For some, it's a hard choice. We all have been raised with an idea of what's right, and what's wrong, yet as life goes on, the lines get crossed. That's the reason the bible say, we should study, and show ourselves  approved a workman not to be afraid, rightly dividing the word of truth.

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