17 April, 2024

Understanding the Disciples’ Decline

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by | 1 March, 2024 | 2 comments

By James Hansee 

The men and women who aligned with the Restoration Movement in its early years chose to be identified as Christians only, without ties to any sect or denomination. The movement as a whole held that commitment for the next 150 years or so. Then in 1968, one stream of the movement, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), began functioning structurally as a denomination. Since that time, the Disciples have experienced significant decline. In addition to moving to a full denominational structure, several other factors have contributed to that decline, specifically the priority of unity and theological flexibility. 

Membership among the Disciples peaked in 1958 at just under 2 million. The Christian Post reported membership dropped below 1 million in 1993 and has been in steady decline since then. By 2017, membership dipped below 500,000, the Post’s Michael Gryboski reported, and by 2022 total membership was down to 278,000.  

 Robert Cornwall, an ordained Disciples minister and board chair for the denomination’s Christian Unity and Interfaith Ministries, acknowledged in an article/blog post following the 2023 General Assembly of the Disciples that structural issues of the denomination may be contributing to the decline.  

“Many of our structures were developed back in the 1960s when our membership stood above a million members,” Cornwall wrote in August 2023 at the Word & Way website (wordandway.org). “It’s interesting that while we are flexible in our theology and spiritual practices, we discovered that our structures were less flexible.”  

Some structural changes were made at the recent General Assembly, but he admitted, “Implementation . . . will be challenging.” Cornwell quoted a friend who said, “Change is hard, stagnation is fatal.” Cornwall added, “As we navigate as a denomination in these very challenging times, we cannot afford stagnation.”  

UNITY FOCUS 

Ironically, another factor contributing to the decline of the Disciples is their priority on unity.  

“As a denomination that claims Christian unity as our Polar Star, we will need to ponder what that means for us in this age,” Cornwall wrote. “What kinds of new configurations will emerge? Will we see more merger of congregations? Will denominations become less parochial and embrace anew Jesus’ call for unity (John 17)?”  

The Disciples have indeed sought to keep unity as their “polar star,” a line coined by early reformer Barton W. Stone, but at what cost? Since the founding of the Disciples denomination, they have sought to enter into full communion partnership agreements with other denominations and organizations seeking unity. In 1989, the Disciples entered into an “ecumenical partnership” with the United Church of Christ, a denomination formed from a union of other denominations in 1957. Additionally, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have partnerships with the World Council of Churches and the United Church of Canada, among others.  

The unity focus of the Restoration Movement’s founders was rooted in a common commitment to the guidance and authority of Scripture. Yet, the Disciples partnered with denominations that expound liberal interpretations of Scripture influenced by the Modernist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These theological positions were departures from the orthodox scriptural interpretations, based on the authoritative nature of the Word, held by their Restoration Movement brothers, the noninstrumental Churches and Christ and the Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. 

Commenting on this, Jeffrey Walton wrote at Juicy Ecumenism (juicyecumenism.com) that the Disciples “share many of the demographic problems faced by mainline Protestants: overwhelmingly white congregations, declining birth rates, and an exodus of members that adhere to theologically orthodox teaching.” He notes, aside from demographic challenges, that some members of the Disciples have left the denomination to return to churches and/or denominations that hold to traditional orthodoxy.  

The Disciples have worked to be diverse at the denominational level, even if that goal is elusive at the congregational level. At the national level, the Disciples have “three racial/ethnic general ministries that provide resources to congregations” and have intentionally sought diversity among their denominational leadership, according to disciples.org. In 2005 the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) elected the Rev. Sharon Watkins as the first woman to lead a mainline denomination, and in 2017 they elected the Rev. Terri Hord Owens as the first African American woman to lead a mainline denomination.  

The quest for diversity while maintaining unity is a reflection of God’s heart for his church as we see pictured in Revelation 7:9-10. We would all acknowledge that diversity and unity are vital components of life in the kingdom. What may have been lacking in this process, however, is a focus on diversity and unity that runs deeper than the organizational structure and is rooted in other biblical principles as well. 

THEOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY 

In his blog post, Cornwall used the phrase “flexible in our theology,” which has been a characteristic of the Disciples since the formation of the denomination and a key influencing factor in their membership decline. Several recent examples demonstrate the theological flexibility of Disciples.  

Jeffrey Walton, communications manager and Anglican program director for the Institute on Religion & Democracy, noted at Juicy Ecumenism, “Disciples have firmly moved in a theologically revisionist direction on matters of human sexuality, gender expression, and radical individual moral autonomy. The 2023 General Assembly meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, emphasized the ‘kin-dom of God’ rather than the Kingdom of God.” That theme served to highlight their unity emphasis while diminishing the Kingdom of God focus that was so often a focal point in Jesus’ teaching. One could also surmise that the focal point was identity based on individual autonomy rather than identity based on the characteristics of the Kingdom of God.  

 At the 2023 General Assembly, anti-transgender legislation was one of the key issues discussed. The Assembly passed a resolution titled, “Oppose anti-trans legislation and affirm the dignity of Transgender and Gender-diverse people,” Cornwall reported at Word & Way. While affirming the worth of each individual is vitally important, the passage of this resolution within the Disciples denomination was seen as illustrative of their embrace of a divergent position away from historic orthodox theology.  

A final example from a 2019 interview with Jeffrey Walton in The Christian Post highlighted another theological issue of concern among the Disciples, “A universalist theology appears to be sapping the evangelistic vigor of clergy [among the Disciples].” He noted anecdotally, “I’m hearing from Disciples members who are tired of political lectures in general from their clergy during Sunday worship services. . . . They’d like to hear the gospel preached, but their clergy are more focused upon social witness.” Flexing theologically toward universalism would indeed diminish the evangelistic fervor of leaders and churches.  

The Restoration Movement Plea is for the unity of Christians based on the truth of God’s Word for the evangelization of the world. When the dual focal points of unity and truth are not held in a healthy tension—when one is emphasized over and against the other—the result typically is not growth. The Disciples’ emphasis on unity, influenced by their theological flexibility along with their commitment to a denominational structure, has contributed to a decline in membership over the last 55 years. This is a loss not just for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but for the Kingdom of God. Let’s pray for one another, especially those within the heritage of the Restoration and Stone-Campbell Movement, and let’s seek to be united on the truth of God’s Word for the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world.  

James Hansee is a minister in Cincinnati, Ohio, and former adjunct professor of history at Cincinnati Christian University.  

2 Comments

  1. Jon Weatherly

    Excellent piece, James. Thank you.

    Recently I have seen migration from the ICC/CoC to Disciples congregations among people seeking theological and ethical flexibility, specifically about sexual behavior. I suspect the migrants will not be satisfied to remain, but I fear they will exit the faith altogether, not return to historic orthodoxy.

  2. Revival Praygroup

    We need bible study materials like monthly magazines and booklets

    For our praygroup to grow spiritually

    Jeremiah

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