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.
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE & STATUS TODAY
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.)
AN ATTENDANCE COMPARISON
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.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
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.
COMPARING THE LARGEST CONGREGATIONS
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.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
“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.