Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 2: Failure to Understand that it is an Increasingly Unchurched, Post-Christian World

Here is the second in a series of blog posts on why Churches of Christ are shrinking. The first post,"A Left-Brained Fellowship in a Right-Brained World," has gone viral. While not everyone agrees with everything in the post, from the new members that joined the network, it would appear that a high percentage of these new members are people who agree, who are dealing with this issue, or who are ex-Church of Christ members. I don't have all the answers, but I am always glad to stimulate thought and discussion. 


(It is perhaps ironic that the previous post, which focused primarily on our assemblies, went viral, as I write about outreach and mission. But of course, if the church is truly missional to its core, then we are always thinking about every aspect of the church and how we can collectively and individually reach people for Christ.)

In this post, I want to put forward a second reason why Churches of Christ are shrinking, which is, we have failed to understand or adjust to the fact that we are living in an increasingly unchurched, post-Christian world. While we have issues that are particular to us and other modern era churches, the fact is that no Christian fellowship in the United States is growing. "Community churches" are the only "group" that is growing, and this is not a fellowship, but a collection of different churches (though they have some elements that they tend to have in common, including cultural relevance and experiential factors). 


What proof? Read Thomas Olson's work The American Church in Crisis. Olson's research shows that weekly church attendance in the US is 19-21 percent and shrinking. And this number is only held up by the older generations. A recent study showed that the percentage of "nones"--those that claim absolutely no religious affiliation in the US is now 20 percent--and among 18-30 year olds, this is an astounding 30 percent. So almost 1 out of 3 young adults are rejecting not just Christianity, but ALL religion. Part of this is due to the bad press of religion in general, events like 9/11 (which was motivated by religious extremists), parents who dropped out of church and did not raise their kids with a religious foundation, and the pushing out of religion and spirituality from the public square.


Furthermore, what religious strength remains in the US comes in part from non-Christian religions. Wicca is the fastest growing religion in the US. Second is Islam (immigration factors in this), despite all the bad press from 9/11. Third is Mormonism.


So, not only has the culture changed on our fellowship (first blog post), but even if the same things worked today that worked in the 1800s (and they don't), there is vastly reduced pool of people who are interested in Christianity. And yet, while the evidence and stats for this is widely available, somehow, our people do not seem to know or understand this.


Want evidence? As recently as 12 years ago I went to a conservative lectureship and I heard time and time again that the greatest threat to the church was denominationalism. Really? I used to go on Let's Start Talking trips for years to Europe. I love Europe. Wouldn't mind living over there for a few years. But it is a terribly post-Christian culture. Over there, if you find someone who believes in God and Jesus, you cling to them like white on rice. You appreciate them and thank God for them. Even the Catholics. (Ironically, the recent public disputes between our government and the Catholic church and the growing endorsement of immoral lifestyles and practices has made people gain a new appreciation for the Catholic church and their strong stands against abortion and homosexuality.)


I imagine this was much like it was in the early church. If you were being persecuted by the Romans and in danger of being eaten by lions, if you found someone who believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God who lived, died, was buried, and resurrected, you thanked God for that person.


More evidence? Look at our "evangelism" training classes and Bible study material. Most of it is STILL geared entirely towards a highly churched, Bible-knowing audience who knows all that stuff about Jesus and that just needs to be taught better about baptism--and of course, the right church with the right name, structure, etc. As if these are the questions that people are still asking. Trust me, most are not.


The reason that I wrote the Story of Redemption, which is an 8 part evangelistic Bible study, is that I could not find anything written for an unchurched, postmodern culture. The primary teacher of evangelism at my Christian college taught people primarily how to explain Church of Christ doctrine about church issues. The studies that were out there jumped all over the place, assumed a basic knowledge of the Bible, assumed a basic knowledge of Christ, and were totally off in form. Instead of being primarily narrative, they were fill in the blank proof texts. Instead of being visually attractive, they were printed on the worst paper with no pictures, only texts. Instead of starting at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis, which explains who God is and why the world is the way that it is, they started in Romans--usually Romans 6! (Well, almost). Instead of going through Jesus' life and ministry, death, burial, and resurrection, and actually telling the story--which is powerful and moving--this story was reduced down to three points and a response demanded.


Imagine instead of telling the story of Cinderella to your kids, you instead gave three points: 1) Cinderella was a poor maiden (according to the Scriptures); 2) she was turned into a princess by a fairy godmother and met a prince at a ball (according to the Scriptures); 3) he found her and married her after she left a shoe at the ball (according to the Scriptures). Would it be true? Yes. Would it move people to laughter, tears, and joy? Probably not. Now, the Christ story is the best story ever told. Can people be moved by just a summary? Yes, they can. But for people who are far away from God, they need to hear the story. And this story is incredible. And powerful. And though I have gone through this story with people hundreds of times, I am always impacted by it. Have we gotten tired of the story? Romans 6:1-4 is an incredible passage. I include it in the last lesson of the Story of Redemption. But remember, Paul was summarizing this story for people who knew it intimately. He did not share Christ with non-Christians by giving them three verses and calling for them to respond.


The Story of Redemption has had a tremendous response rate, because it is God's story, told as he tells it, designed for today's unchurched, postmodern culture (watch the conversion story video below). If you don't have this type of study, you might be interested in it. But this is not about the Story of Redemption. It is about our failure to realize that we live in an unchurched, post-Christian culture--even in one of our self-viewed greatest areas of emphasis, the sharing of the gospel. We never even updated the Jewel Miller filmstrip, which was great for its time. We just transferred those 1960s filmstrip pictures onto video, showing the same pictures in still form. In 50 years we could not come up with something current? (I am in the midst of filming the Story of Redemption, even planning on filming some on location in Israel, to try to offer a humble replacement for this).


I talk with a lot of churches about outreach. And many of them want to reach out, but do not have a clue of how to do this. And just the most basic explanation of where our culture is spiritually seems to be very eye-opening. 


So, what can we do to respond to our increasingly unchurched, post-Christian culture? Here are some practical suggestions.

1. Continually educate and remind people about the (non) religious state of our nation.

2. Adopt a missional theology and understanding. The writers of Missional Church were missiologists who asked the question, how do we apply mission principles to North America--which is the 5th largest mission field in the world. Missional theology says that mission is not one of several things that the church does. The church is by nature missional. So all that the church does must be done through this lens and understanding. It is just like a mission team that is sent overseas on mission. Yes, they do many things. But everything that they do is done to help them reach the lost in their area.

3. Begin to think like missionaries. That is, ask, what are the areas of brokenness in this culture? And,  what would be good news for this culture? How can I share this good news? There are huge areas of brokenness for the gospel to break into in our culture. Abuse. Lack of community. Loneliness. Emptiness from materialism. Addiction. Poverty. There are biblical deeds and words that address all of these issues, and ministries can be begun to address these needs.

4. Budget like missionaries. The vast majority of churches in the US budget budget almost nothing for outreach. And with so many churches struggling financially due to the shrinking Christian population, this problem is exacerbated even more. And there was virtually nothing in local outreach at High Pointe when I came (both money and ministry wise). But they had a heart for growing in this. So we said that we would have our Harvest Sunday, which had gone almost entirely to foreign, go 50 percent to local and 50 percent to foreign outreach. The result? The congregation almost doubled their Harvest Sunday giving, and we have had between $75,000-$90,000 available for local outreach. Which has allowed us to do some really wonderful works in the community.

5. Train people to be missionaries. "Work as Worship" studies and training are huge right now. Raise people's awareness of God in their daily lives, and help them look for opportunities to serve, bless, and invite their non-Christian/unchurches family, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. Teach small groups not only how to nurture, but how to reach out. Currently we are training people to just be Bible students. Jesus said "teach people to obey" (Mt. 28:20). Training involves not just knowledge, though that is important, but hands on teaching. How do you start conversations with non-Christians? (Serve and bless them, and they will ask) What are culturally appropriate things to invite people to? Who can people start praying for to share the gospel with/bless?

6. Find a way to share the gospel and lead people to faith in Jesus Christ. This includes personal sharing, but it also includes things like seeker small groups and studies like the Story of Redemption. Most churches have no study that they use, and thus don't even convert the visitors that they have. I may have saved you some time in the Story of Redemption, or you may be able to adapt it and use your own. But please, find a way to share the gospel in a way that impacts an unchurched, non-Christian culture.


How many people are showing up to worship services in Europe? We are not Europe yet, and we have a spiritual vibrancy that may last, but we are headed down that path. If your church is not growing, that is not surprising. The vast majority are not, and those that are are often culturally relevant. Even fewer churches are growing evangelistically. And those that are, may still be losing younger generations on the cultural relevance issue. But if we take the above steps, this will go a long ways towards reversing or at least slowing the trend in our fellowship.


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...


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Comment by Lynn S. Nored on February 7, 2013 at 9:28pm

It seems to me that there may be some misconceptions about the use of "culturally revelant" approaches in the worship. In my view this has little to do with substituting "fluff" or "entertainment" for the message of Christ and the gospel. Certainly, the gospel is the "heart" of any message presented. I would like to use the examples of Paul and Peter to illustrate this. Read Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost. It has great cultural revelance and appeal to his Jewish audience. What kind of appeal do you think this sermon would have had to the Athenians? Read Paul's sermon to the Athenians? Paul's had cultural revalence to these Gentiles. Paul approach this audience differently becuase they had an entirely different world-view than the Jews. Similarly the "enviroment" of the presentation of the gospel as well as its form of presentation should be presented in such a way it can be processed with the world-view of the audience. One of our challenges in the CoC is we have a very mixed audience: the modern world-view represented e.g. by the baby boomers and older, and the increasingly post-modern world-view of the younger generations.

Comment by Charles B. Stephenson on February 4, 2013 at 5:17pm

These two posts have started a good conversation at the church I attend. These are issues we have been discussing in some ways for a long time. Reading these blogs, and the accompanying comments, is encouraging.

Comment by Joy Rousseau on February 4, 2013 at 11:49am

I have worked in missions most of my life and followed my father in missions at an very early life...this experience helps me as well as you all to recognize the pitfalls of the American culture which has led most believers into lukewarmness and pew-sitting... About 35 years ago, a woman came to me and said these words, "I have been praying for the Holy Spirit to wake up this congregation". Although I loved this woman dearly, I thought she was "way out there" at the time. Now, 35 years later, my prayer is for the Holy Spirit to wake up His people and move them to transformation and joyful proclaimation of the good news. Mere obedience through legalism does not represent the transforming spirit of joy, peace, love, patience, kindness, accompanied by acknowledging Him in all our ways among the nations. Church attendance unfortunately does not qualify as fulfilling the great commission. I have taken groups into many mission fields and once there was an elder among the group. I ask him what the elders were doing to prepare the person sitting in the pew for sharing their faith and expressing their thankfulness among their neighbors for all their spiritual blessings in Christ. He look stunned and responded, "We have never even thought on that."  If we do not exist as a fellowship for  Christ's express purpose, then we have no right to grow and the removal of God's Spirit and His blessings will be a certainty. (Book of Ezekiel)

Comment by Paul Coffman on February 4, 2013 at 11:28am

Both part I and part 2 present valid reasons as to the question posed by the title. However, there could also be part 3, 4, and so on. So, please forgive if I stumble upon a planned future article, Mr. Nored.

I grew up in the church of Christ - baptized while in high school. I identified with that congregation until I moved at age 18. I soon found another congregation and stayed there for 10+ years until I moved again. I considered this my "home" congregation.

I've moved around quite a bit. However, during my move previous to the last one, I found that although there were several congregations near my home, they were all "in competition" with each other. We would visit one congregation, then another, trying to decide which to identify with. One member in one congregation would know another member in another congregation, and somehow they'd find out we'd visited and the phone calls would ensue. "You don't want to worship there! Did you know that ____?" It happened a lot to the point it was disheartening. We quit going for a while and actually ended up at a SBC. Similarly, our last move (currently) put us in a less populous area and the few churches of Christ around here are so close to dying with such a small membership, it's scary. We traveled to our "home" congregation which is 50+ miles from us, and found that the worship format now includes more preaching! There are two segments - one of about 15 minutes prior to the Lord's Supper and then the "regular" sermon.

The church is getting quite a reputation of being old fashioned, stoic and dull. However, that doesn't bother me as much as some of the other things I've noticed over the years (I'm now mid-40's).

My key issue is the anti-denominational-ism that prevails within the church. It seems the focus is to say "we are the only ones worshiping according to the Bible, so we are the only ones going to Heaven." This stance, and this fight has been a major element in all the teaching I've received (and been guilty of teaching myself) within the church.

I understand the logic, and the Biblical teaching that can lead to this "foundation". However, I've seen it present itself in some ugly ways to the point it becomes and "attitude". I've even heard it reasoned that because they (denominations) don't worship God the way the Bible says He is to be worshiped, then they are actually worshiping a different god, or teaching a different Christ. It's judgmental. I can't think of any other word for it.

When the focus of the body is to condemn others in divisive, deriding and negative ways, how can you expect growth?

I've been inside denominations. I've seen the worship, listened to the sermons. Do they add to the Bible in some ways? Yes. Do they omit from the Bible in some ways? Yes. Do they preach Jesus Christ as the only pathway to the Father through His obedience on the cross and shed blood? Yes.

The church of Christ has long focused on the differences between it and denominations, while failing to seek common ground upon which to have a basis for discussion. "Your mission field is your neighbors in denominations!" Yes, I've heard that too.

I'm not seeking to defend all denominations. Just trying to make a point. I know the call of Paul to "let there be no divisions among you". In the effort to continually separate further and further from denominations, the church falls backward instead of progressing. You see a denomination with a video screen and then seek some Biblical reason to not have one. You see a denomination with a thriving youth group and denounce it as "entertaining". So you remain locked in means and methods that don't allow growth. It can be done without compromising, it just has to be done carefully. What of "being all things to all people?" Instead of blaming society for the need to engage people, why not figure ways of engaging them? We're still trying to teach math using an abacus, when calculators have been around for forty years.

When you talk to a layman and tell them you're a church of Christ member, you usually get the old "you guys don't use instruments." However, when you talk to a deacon or pastor of a denomination, you get the "you guys are the ones who think you're the only ones going to Heaven."

Anti-denominational-ism has been something that I think has hindered the growth within the church, especially since Christ taught love and obedience. The church has always gotten the "obedience" part correct, but when you are so over the top in judging denominations, it almost comes off as the opposite of love and starts to feel a little cult-like.

Just food for thought. Not trying to offend anyone, this is just my opinion after having been in the church for almost 30 years.

Comment by Jared Berryman on February 4, 2013 at 11:21am

I would like to make some comments here, that might sound drastic.  I am a missionary in a foreign country, so perhaps this has tinted my views on this.  The Church of Christ is declining like all the other denominations and churches in the United States.  My response to this is, so what?  What does that matter?  It does not matter that a particular denomination is declining, but it does matter that there are less and less disciples of Jesus.  The whole idea of the restoration movement and the church of christ originally is that we learn to obey Jesus and God's word.  All that other junk is useless.  We can have great worship services and fancy testimonies and great preaching and blah blah blah, but until we reject our culture and take Jesus' way, there will be no revival or restoration.  We keep trying to improve on God's word with our own stuff.  It doesn't work.  We need to go back to allowing God's word, the Bible, transform us, and teach people of peace that are open to receiving God's word to obey God's word. 

God is waiting for us to do what he asks, even when it's drastic.  Jesus once told someone to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, and then come follow him.  What if we started acting like this?  How would it transform our culture?  God's word is so drastic, and we are so pathetically weak.  Our brothers and sisters in Asia and other places put us to shame.  The Western church is in a funk and on the decline because we have bought the myth that the American dream is God's plan for us.  It is not.  

God doesn't need money to save the American church from decline.  Why are we so interested in all the superfluous stuff, and not the stuff that matters?  Who cares about the Sermon?  We just forget about it after lunch 90% of the time.  God's word, though, we'll never forget the lessons learned from that.  It's time to go back to basics and prayer, and ask God to forgive us for not obeying his word. 

We have all the resources in the US in our churches.  We need to quit trusting in resources, and start trusting in God to provide what we need.  We need to look around and realize that we are incredibly rich, and that there is unbelievable poverty everywhere in the world right now.  And we need to turn off the TV, and start reading God's word and praying.  

I don't mean to offend anyone by this post, and please understand that I include myself in all of this.  But we need to quit looking for the quick fixes and solutions to our problems that our culture always seems to provide, and instead trust in God for the solution.  That solution may not look like what we wanted, but I can promise that in the end we will love Jesus all the more for it.

Comment by James T Wood on February 3, 2013 at 11:17am

I might reframe your thesis here. I don't think it's a failure to understand that we live in an increasingly non-Christian, un-churched world. I think it's a refusal to admit the ramifications of that reality. I see a willful rejection of the overarching culture and a move toward a sub-culture that attempts to insulate and reject the dominant culture. 

We take comfort in not being "of the world" and pursue that so much that we are no longer "in the world." 

I recently tried to help revitalize a church by giving them skills and opportunities to reach out. They were largely unable to due to one fact: they don't know anyone outside the church. As long as this continues to be a trend among our people, we won't have any hope of growing.

We need to learn how to be friends with lost people - just for the sake of being friends and not to try to convert them. That, in my view, is the best way to develop a missional attitude. 

Comment by Ed Dodds on February 2, 2013 at 5:32pm

I think about less noble realities like back in the day (1800s) if you lived in a small town and you didn't go to church with the local miller (or in his fellowship) you paid a higher rate to grind your grain. We have "sunk cost syndrome" regarding our Sunday event real estate (cathedrals - I grew up Catholic - I call 'em like I see 'em) so any evangelistic solution must not abandon building-centric outreach, and our taxonomy is pretty much pig latin - why bible for book, scripture for writings important to God, baptism for water burial, Lord's Supper/Communion/Eucharist for memorial meal, etc. We know it is about mobilizing the folks in the pews to care for their families and those in their neighborhoods but it is oh so much more convenient to lay by in store the preacher's salary at the building than to do relational tithing. Also, I'm grouchy. THE NT PATTERN is have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus -- I stretch this from context to say that "what would Jesus do or more "what would Jesus  have us do" in this situation is the primary question. Also, persecution is generally a church maturing thing. Now, has anybody got a mirror so I can get this log out of my eye?
I should also add this is obviously happening to many/most "older" Campbell-Stone movement fellowships internationally as well. Julia Keith [World Convention/Global Women Connecting] were IMing about the great pullback earlier this week. Many "national manifestations" have reached out in the past via mechanisms like world convention are now looking more inwardly [navel gazing - my words]. Remarkably, while more illiterate women will have access globally to information via feature|smart phones, we continue to insist on publishing theological tomes in hard back instead of SMS and audiocasts, even whie the global educational folks are flipping their classrooms, adopting project-based learning, "Khan Academies" and MOOCs. Oh, Lord, give us eyes to see what is directly in front of us!

Comment by Craig Young on February 2, 2013 at 4:55pm


Really appreciate your missional thoughts, especially resonating with your comments about Europe, as I have served here as a missionary for 23 years. One reality of our context in postmodern Europe is that bringing people to church is not the beginning of evangelism, but the end. That is, there are (sometimes years) of evangelism through relationship before a person gets up the courage to walk through the church door. In our context, thinking missionally, core evangelism therefore must take place outside of Sunday mornings, and we devote our creative energies to finding all kinds of ways to share the message 'out there". It appears through your statistics that the US is sadly heading in that direction. Again, thanks for stimulating the conversation.  

Comment by Joy Rousseau on February 2, 2013 at 10:14am

I just attended a cowboy church to watch my secretary be "baptized into Christ" (in a horse trough)..the sermon was one of the best I have heard on how the Holy Spirit transforms a willing heart. And the response for prayers was about 50 people huddled and kneeling together to ask the Lord to humble them for His service. I would agree. They are finding the truth and acting AND excited about it! Without being under a CofC sign. The Lord is working in the world because of the availability of His Word ...he is bringing what we use to call "denominations" closer to His intended Gospel. Half my institution attends the cowboy church and their conversations all day long at work are about what they learned in worship and Bible study. They come from all backgrounds and faiths and are being united by Biblical principles. They are excited with they learn that baptism puts them into Christ and that the Holy Spirit indwells the believer. What I see happening is our fellowship has grown lukewarm to these truths while parts of Christendom are excitedly sharing in this new knowledge. I think the Lord is actively separating the "sheep from the goats". ..so there won't be any "greyness" when He returns.

By the way...this was happening in East Texas.


Comment by James M. Whitefield on February 1, 2013 at 10:47pm

Organized religions, especially mainstream churches professing Christianity, have alienated the unchurched and many of their own members by turning the focus from worshipping and glorifying God to attempts to maintain the authority of their own congregations. More and more often, I find myself asking whether the next new program is about God or about the elders who are presenting it. I'm afraid the situation  is more easily identified from outside than from inside our churches. In West Texas, the fellowships that actually seem to be growing are the "cowboy churches". Their lack of pomp and circumstance and legalism is their greatest attraction.

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