16 November, 2021

Noninstrumental Churches of Christ Facing Uncertain Future

by | 13 October, 2021 | 16 comments

By Kent E. Fillinger

Jack R. Reese’s book At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge—which comes out Thursday—chronicles the rise and fall of the noninstrumental Churches of Christ. The book includes several startling facts and concerning predictions from leading researchers in the Church of Christ fellowship.

This article will share some of those statistics and predictions about the Churches of Christ from that group’s leaders, and I will use some of my research to draw statistical comparisons with the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

My intention is to illuminate (not denigrate), and my hope is to raise awareness and perhaps inspire action to ensure our independent Christian churches remain strong.

The Churches of Christ were first recognized as a separate religious body in 1906. At that time, there were 2,649 congregations with 159,658 members (an average of 60 people per church). Forty years later, their size had quadrupled to 10,089 congregations and 682,172 members (68 per church).

Attendance in Churches of Christ peaked in about 1985 and has been in decline since about 1990. As of 2010, Churches of Christ had 1.6 million adherents (the 13th-largest so-called “denomination” in the country) and 12,584 congregations (the 7th most).

In their report “Churches of Christ in 2050,” Tim Woodroof and Stan Granberg wrote that Churches of Christ have lost more than 2,000 people and nine congregations a month since 2015.

Interviewed for this article, Granberg said, “My personal expectation is that by 2050, we will be about one-third the number of churches and members that we were about 1985, our high point.” If that occurs, Churches of Christ would have about 4,000 congregations and 400,000 members by 2050.

Data this year from 21st Century Christian indicates there are 11,875 Church of Christ congregations in the United States; total attendance is 1,092,182; and total number of adherents (both baptized and unbaptized individuals) is 1,423,295.

By comparison, the 2018 Directory of the Ministry lists 4,921 independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ with a total membership of 1,228,573. (Note: the Directory of the Ministry relies on self-reporting, so the numbers are questionable; still, they serve as reasonable reference point for the purposes of this article.)

Research by Granberg in “A Case Study of Growth and Decline: The Churches of Christ, 2006–2016” found that 91 percent of all Church of Christ attendees belong to churches of less than 250 and that the smallest Church of Christ congregations (55 percent of them) have an average attendance of 34 people.

For the sake of comparison, attendance data from our 2019 annual Christian Standard church survey included 439 independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ reporting a total average worship attendance of 483,434. More than one-third (35 percent) of that total attendance was comprised by the 194 megachurches (averaging 2,000 or more weekly), emerging megachurches (1,000–1,999), and large churches (500–999).

That means the 245 congregations in the smaller categories—very small (1–99), small (100–249), and medium churches (250–499)—reported a total average attendance of 49,771, or 203 per church.

If you extrapolate these numbers and assume the nonreporting churches (4,482 of them) each averaged 203 for worship weekly, total attendance for them would equal 909,846. If we add that figure to the attendance average for the 439 churches that did report—483,434—it results in a total average attendance for independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ of 1,393,280.

So, with lots of guesswork and assumptions, we can conclude that attendance at independent Christian Churches likely exceeds that for noninstrumental Churches of Christ, 1,393,280 to 1,092,082.

A geographical comparison of these two related church groups will interest many.

Nearly half (46 percent) of all Church of Christ congregations are located in five states: Texas (1.901), Tennessee (1.406), Alabama (838), Arkansas (694), and Kentucky (570). By comparison, the 2018 Directory of the Ministry shows that 42 percent of independent Christian Churches are in these five states: Indiana (541), Illinois (449), Ohio (448), Kentucky (341), and Missouri (304).

Membership data indicates 54 percent of all Church of Christ attendees are located in Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. By comparison, 46 percent of independent Christian Church membership is concentrated in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and California.

So, we can conclude, the Churches of Christ have a more tightly concentrated congregational and membership base.

In 2018, the most recent year data is available, the Churches of Christ had 30 congregations with an average attendance of more than 1,000. Of their four megachurches (averaging 2,000 or more) the largest was The Hills Church in North Richland Hills, Texas, which averaged 4,658. All combined, these 30 congregations averaged 44,224, or 1,474 per church.

The independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ had more than 125 churches that averaged 1,000 or more in 2018, based on our Christian Standard survey. The 30 largest Christian Churches average 230,682 weekly, or 7,689 per church.

The 30 largest Churches of Christ were in 6 different states, while the 30 largest independent Christian Churches were in 13 different states.

One-third (33 percent) of the largest Church of Christ congregations used a multisite model in 2018 compared with 73 percent of the largest independent Christian Churches.

A review of the websites for the 30 largest Churches of Christ indicates 10 of these congregations (33 percent) use musical instruments in some or all their worship services today. The others appear to offer only a cappella worship services. 

Years ago, church growth guru Lyle Schaller said a movement must plant 1 percent of its total number of congregations each year to maintain itself. Logic would indicate a higher percentage would be necessary to spur growth.

The Churches of Christ have only two small church-planting organizations, both started in about 2004. One of them, Mission Alive, has planted an average of 2.5 new churches per year. The independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ have at least 20 church-planting organizations. So, we can conclude, Churches of Christ likely are struggling to plant enough new churches to offset those that are closing.       

“The Churches of Christ almost have no vision for the mission of God in North America,” Mission Alive director Tod Vogt told me. He noted the churches have a “radically autonomous mindset” and that there is “virtually no collaboration or coordination” between the congregations in the fellowship.

“With rare exceptions,” Woodroof and Granberg wrote, “we have given up reaching new audiences and vehemently resisted adaptations which might make us more evangelistically effective.”

Granberg predicted, “Churches of Christ will be almost nonexistent along the West Coast by 2050 (California used to be our fifth most populous state). The Midwest and Northeast will be fewer in number but still holding on (they are used to surviving). The South, from Texas east, will have pockets of strength but probably half the current number of churches.

“I truly hope and pray that my expectations are badly underestimated,” Granberg said. “Yet my experiences since 2005 . . . have not made me optimistic for our fellowship for any great turnaround as a whole. Individually, I expect to see congregations and pockets that are wonderful bright spots.”

Several Church of Christ leaders like Granberg are trying to sound the alarm and motivate their congregations to action. And books like At the Blue Hole are intended to help spur people to new ways of thought and practice. My hope is they can stem the tide and revive the evangelistic spirit they displayed in the past.

Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.

<a href="https://christianstandard.com/author/admin/" target="_self">Christian Standard</a>

Christian Standard

Contact us at cs@christianstandardmedia.com


  1. Dwight Webster

    I am intrigued with the line, “. . . adaptations which might make us more evangelistically effective.” As long as they are clearly adaptations that God approves, I am all for them. I fear, however, the adaptations are judged primarily on how well they work in getting people into the church with insufficient thought given to the consequences if God does not approve of one or more of the adaptations.

    As a believer in the validity of the six days, six thousand years, I have been struck by the time between the creation of Adam and Eve and the giving of the promise to Abraham (almost exactly 2,000 years according to Bible dating which, if Bible scholars who believe Abraham may have received the promise initially while still in Ur are correct, it is possible the promise was first given to Abraham 2,000 years to the day from the creation of Adam and Eve). So what? That means the promise could have been given 2,000 years after creation, fulfilled 2,000 years after Abraham first received the promise somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 A.D., and presage the last days which may not be that far off. If so, now as always, our first emphasis must be to accurately identify the “narrow way” which Jesus said only “few” would find.
    Numbers are great as long as the numbers are all part of the few.

  2. Fred Sigle

    I grew up in the non-instrumental church of Christ in Oklahoma, and served as preaching minister in that fellowship for 21 years before leaving and started preaching for an instrumental church of Christ and now an independent Christian Church.

    The non-use of an instrument was not the reason I left, but for the legalism of the eldership that prohibited my preaching on certain topics and the stifling of worship expressions. Most of my siblings and their families have also left the church of Christ for the same reasons.

    Overall I find the teachings identical within the church of Christ and independent Christian church except for the use of an instrument in worship and just a slight variation in how the communion is served. I am also referred to as “pastor,” which was not the case in the church of Christ.

    There are a lot of great people within the church of Christ fellowship, but many are leaving for the reasons as I left. So, nothing in the article surprises me.

  3. Mike Gillespie, Minister (semi-retired)

    I will say I had quite an interesting experience serving what was, at the time (1984–1992), the largest “instrumental” Christian Church in West Tennessee, an area quite amply served by “non-instrumental” churches of Christ. First Christian Church of Jackson (with average attendance at the time of 250–275) was the only independent Christian church in Madison County, and one of just 22 in the whole region stretching eastward from the Mississippi River to Kentucky Lake/Tennessee River, and including Memphis. In contrast, there were nine substantial churches of Christ in and around Jackson, all of which with similar or greater average attendances. As might be expected, “their” views of “us” were varied: many were cordial while others were “stand-offish.” Further observation revealed that some of them did not fellowship very well with each other either. Even given their multiple congregations, First Christian Church and a small Disciples congregation (Bethany Christian Church), the number of Restoration Movement congregations paled in comparison to the Southern Baptist and Methodist hordes.

    Interestingly, the gap was bridged somewhat when First Christian allowed me to lead in the establishment of the Madison County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1985. When a young nurse on her way to work — a member of one of the noninstrumental congregations — was killed by an intoxicated driver, many CofC folks became interested in MADD (the Baptists and Methodists had already become involved) and in her memory joined the cause. It was truly an amazing thing, and commendable, to see all those of various fellowships come together because of the spilt blood of a lovely young lady. Likewise, it is also more than a little disconcerting to ponder the fact that we can’t or won’t come together over the broken body and shed blood of our Savior, because of “matters of opinion.”

    It is painful to observe that First Christian of Jackson and Bethany, the Disciples congregation, have passed from the scene; it’s also worthy to note that those churches of Christ around town are still active. Some of “them” even experienced a growth spurt with an influx of some First Christian members. It’s also heartening to note that the vacuum left by First Christian is being admirably filled by some of her former members in Journey Church in Jackson’s northern suburbs, with an average attendance of about 600 each Sunday morning! As for the Baptists and Methodists, “they” still greatly outnumber “us.”

    The story of the Restoration Movement in West Tennessee is a fascinating one, for sure!

  4. Sonny Reeves

    No doubt there are other issues as the C of C is divided on many issues, cups, missions, schools, etc. The ICC are divided over little issues in many opinions, understanding diversity in cultures does not have to mean every new “tradition” is evil or bad, nor is every old tradition bad, if the local shepherds & congregation are in agreement who can argue with the way they worship, it is their opinion. Luke 9:54 comes to mind as does Romans 14, in my opinion.

  5. Ron Fraser

    Several questions from a Canadian (outside the “pockets” of both Churches of Christ and independents).

    First, this is a very strange article. The author says he writes not to “denigrate.” On the other hand, is he writing to “congratulate”?
    Second, and more importantly, statistics related to both groups seem to be clearly tied to areas where definable political sentiments prevail. Isn’t this a self-imposed limit to growth?

    A good friend recently reported how a neighbor in Ohio had befriended and ultimately baptized a neighbor. The following week they were in an argument over politics. The neighbour told the new convert, “If I had known you leaned toward a Democrat way of thinking, I would not have baptized you.” This was, apparently, not an attempt at humour. When will the RM detach itself from certain political imaginaries, so that the Good News can truly be the Good News?

  6. Marti Baldwin

    I would be interested in seeing a similar study between the Disciples of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches.

  7. Larry E Whittington

    Opinions are mentioned but not consciences. Habits may be built on opinions and these habits (like where to attend) can vary with time and personal experiences where they may attend. When attendance is determined by conscience, attendance can vary but probably not to a great degree. A person should not change where they attend if certain changed conflict with the person’s conscience. A person who has a conscience against instrumental music in a church assembly should only associate with those groups who do not use an instrument with their assembly. When people go against their conscience, they sin in the eyes of God. Some of these may be able to sing and play at home and it is not against their conscience. They don’t count this as “worship.” If it is radio music, a church song with instruments is OK because in their thinking it is not worship. They have not be taught to think that if it is something done both at home and at an assembly, they are both worship. If they say they are against musical instruments at the assembly to keep their conscience clean, they have to say what they are doing at home is the same thing. I don’t think this is what is taught.

  8. Steve Schuler

    To put this in a wider context, do you know Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone? According to Putnam (a Harvard sociologist), it’s not just noninstrumental churches. Active church membership has declined all across denominations in the past few decades. And it’s not just churches, either. Nearly all organizations that thrive on in-person association have declined–clubs, civic organizations, Boy Scouts, local political parties, bowling leagues, you name it. We Americans just don’t get together nearly as much as we used to.

    In other words, the decline of CofC congregations might be just one small part of a larger story of the decline of civic life in America. Putnam’s book is long and heavy on data, but I think it’s well worth reading.

  9. Ben Wiles

    We don’t know what the future holds, but when it comes to making projections it’s pretty clear that the present holds some questionable math.

    For starters, Granberg’s projection of 400,000 attending Churches of Christ in 2050 is preposterous. If you look at 20 years of good data (which I have, and am happy to share with those interested) instead of cherry-picking three years of noisy and more-than-a-little-unreliable numbers you get projections for Churches of Christ in 2050 that are closer to 950,000, and nowhere near the regional extinctions Granberg warns about. Less than now, and for good reason, but nothing resembling the Chicken Little narrative Granberg and Woodruff and others seem so enthusiastic to advance.

    Additionally, the “203 in attendance per un-reporting church” estimate is equally preposterous. For one, regardless of faith group the smaller the church is, the less likely it is to prioritize data collection and reporting, so you have to assume that churches on the smaller end of your cohort significantly outnumber churches on the larger end. For another, it is highly unlikely that the churches who do report their data are in any way representative of churches that don’t.

    I also wonder about including data on instrumental Churches of Christ in an article about the non-instrumental group. Is this really an apples-to-apples comparison? If the author is trying to understand non-instrumental churches, why not limit data collection to that specific subset?

    My larger point is this — If we’re going to try to use analytics to explain what is truly happening in our churches, we do a disservice to our readers when the math we cite as “evidence” is so fundamentally flawed.

  10. Lance

    I remember reading about declining numbers of the church of Christ as a boy in 1982 in the Chicagoland area. I think the book I read was written by Flavel Yakely. If I recall, he projected there would be few if any traditional/non-instrumental C o C remaining by the year 2000 “if current growth trends continued.” I doubt the grim projections of the article since there have been ongoing projections of decline over the past 40-50 years by church growth experts. I also believe Covid has had a negative impact on church attendance across the board, which will last for the foreseeable future. There again, I wouldn’t consider myself a church growth expert!

  11. Sonny J Reeves

    We have not been able to kill this goliath of division in my 50 years of observing and serving in the RM. We have retreated to the tents, many times, we are still divided. We know we are supposed to be one, in Ephesians 4, you know it by heart. There is room for our opinions but not when we make them into God’s law in the place of His “Perfect Law of Liberty.” Causing division, bad rotten fruit, over opinions. We have like many as we traveled around, found the strict CoC non instruments as “Forted Up” and not friendly, especially the “shepherds.” We approached many and were told unless we renounced instruments in “worship” we were lost and not allowed to fellowship. The major problem is Worship is total life submission, not just showing up for the sip & chip, the sage on the stage or keeping rules and rituals founded on good intentions maybe or not. Worship is more than membership in a group, assembly, family or nation. Much less is it going to matter where we worship, or when we worship if we don’t worship everywhere we are. Recent list of Things we are divided over from the attached pdf link

  12. Wendell Willis

    I pick up on Steve Schuler’s post about the general decline of “joining” in the U. S. This is true for all churches, including churches of Christ, but it is also true of service organization like the Rotary, PTA, scouts, etc. But specifically with relation to religion, one ought to read a later book by Robert Putnam (with David Campbell), American Grace, and one learns the most stable groups are more traditional. This larger problem is also impacted by the increasing secularism of the nation. The political discourse illustrates that we lack the ability to have civil discourse and do not agree on what constitutes facts.

  13. Everett Brewer

    Thank you, Kent. Interesting analysis.

  14. Kenneth Sublett

    I did a check of the “worship words” in our still-holy Scriptures.
    I found no DAY of Worship: Sabbath means rest which restricts travel.
    I found that the various worship words mean to “bow low with your face toward the ground. Most often in actual Scripture the people “fell on their face” in reverence and godly fear.
    I found no one said to “worship” by preaching, listening, singing, playing an instrument or Pay to Play. Mount Sinai “worship” was mostly beyond redemption.

    On the other hand when the church gathers, assembles or comes together Paul uses a form of Synagogue.

    Acts 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

    Acts 13:27 For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their RULERS,
    because they knew him not,
    nor yet the voices of the prophets
    which are read every sabbath day,
    they have fulfilled them in condemning him

    Maybe God declares a pox on almost all houses because focus has been almost removed from the Word of God which is defined as God’s Regulative Principle. Among the Greeks, because the nasty Hermes or Mercury was the LOGOS, they used the word to SILENCE almost everything we call “worship.” At 91 I remember that church was primarily educational.

    John 8:29 And he that sent me is with me:
    the Father hath not left me alone;
    for I DO always those things that PLEASE him.
    John 8:30 As he spake these WORDS, many believed on him.
    John 8:31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him,
    IF ye continue in my WORD, THEN are ye my disciples indeed;

    The WORD of God is always communicated by “God put His WORD into the MOUTH” of Moses, Elijah and Jesus made “lord and christ” over 30 years after He came in the flesh. Many or most new claim that A spirit speaks to them especially if you walk the Labyrinth which is really a spirit leading to the serpent head “at the center”. There may be close to NO faith when Jesus comes:a Today, if possible.

    I knew Stan Granberg as a child: his approach is more like sorcery which has taken over many universities as spiritual formation. Maybe everyone should buy some sackcloth and Let God speak for Himself withing any comment.

  15. Jim D

    I think it’s important to look at Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 and the people in our different churches to practice them. Then both churches will be restored to heathy growing bodies.

  16. charles dillon

    i came across this article as i am searching for a CofC to worship in Texas. My wife and i are members of the body of CHRIST for the last 52 years, we both were baptized in a revival.
    We have worshiped in congregations across Texas from Amarillo to the Rio Grand Valley. To our sorrow we have seen first-hand the many problems in the groups on either side of “anti and liberal.” In almost every case trouble caused by the “antichrist” who wanted to rule with opinion, and not “a thus saith the LORD.” We are weary of begging members to seek answers from GOD’s WORD and not their opinion. And please search the scriptures and find the context of what is written in inspiration, and not just quote chapters and verses.
    GOD’s love must be shared by all who wish to share HIS kingdom. What pains us most is we are striving to find what the apostle Paul instructed fellow workers to establish, with requirements, elders.
    When we find a church with qualified elders and we will know in comparison to what is lived and taught, we will gladly serve until we are called home.
    Knowing this is now an almost impossible task, the china virus has shown we can worship house to house and this is acceptable.

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