Back in February, I did a post about the marginal numeric growth of the Churches of Christ between the years 1980 and 2006. I was responding to figures given in a then-recent issue of The Christian Chronicle. You can see that post, which includes a couple of links, here.
I'm coming back to the numbers because I recently checked out the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches 2007. According to this source, between 1999 and about 2005 the Churches of Christ grew by 9.3%. The Yearbook also reports that the "inclusive membership" of this group in the United States is 1,639,495.
The Yearbook says that, until now, it has received no statistical report from the Churches of Christ since 1999. Of course, most denominations are highly centralized and report from their headquarters (when else?) every year. One can only wonder: Who delivered this most recent update for the Churches of Christ? Why was there a six-year break? And what's the basis for the numbers now being published?
Because of the radical autonomy of the congregations that make up the Churches of Christ, the group as a whole is one of the hardest to count. Its numbers will always be debatable. Either way, a 9.3% rate of growth since 1999 certainly looks and feels better than the numbers given in the Chronicle, 1.6% since 1980. However, my experience suggests that the lower rate of growth is closer to the truth.
Aside from the question of which set of numbers is more accurate, some would ask if it even matters. After all, the Lord knows who are His. When it comes to who's justified and who isn't, what people assume and what God says can sometimes run in opposite directions (Luke 18:9-14, for example). Besides, if current trends keep going--with religious brand identity and loyalty continuing to erode--then the future will be a place where fewer people know or even care about such things.
I guess I have to admit that I'm not merely a washed-in-the-blood Christian. I'm also a dyed-in-the-wool member of this group I'm talking about. I love and care about it. I want to know how it's doing, its successes and failures, challenges and opportunities.
It might be a relatively small section of the kingdom of Christ. But it's where I worship, where I work, where I belong. And, like a lot of other folks in this group, I think it has great potential for bringing honor to God; that it has something to say and gifts to give to others who also live under the banner of the Cross. So I hope and pray that it grows in spirit and, yes, in number too.
Years ago, Phil Slate told me that the late great Ira North, preacher for the huge Madison Church of Christ near Nashville, was onced questioned in public: "Don't you emphasize numbers a lot?"
"Yes, we do!" said North. "We emphasize numbers because every number represents a person for whom Christ died!"