Friday, January 30, 2009

500 Fewer Congregations of the Churches of Christ

A few weeks ago on a Saturday morning, I sat at the kitchen table scanning the obituaries in our local paper, the Amarillo Globe-News.

"I want to know what happened to them," I said.

"Who?" said my wife.

"All these people who just died. I mean, I don't want to be crass or voyeuristic or whatever. I just want to know how they died. Especially the young ones."

"I know what you mean," she said. "They never give the cause of death."

I had that same sort of feeling last week when I read for the second time that story in the Christian Chronicle, the one that reports the recent decline of Churches of Christ in America.

So many things come to mind. Most of them have been batted around the blogosphere over the last few weeks. Here's the part that I can't get out of my head: Apparently, over the last six years, Churches of Christ have lost over 500 congregations. Five hundred. That's more than one congregation a week closing its doors. I have a lot of questions about that. Don't you?

How did they die? Why did that happen? Where did the people who were still there go? Churches don't just disappear.

Of course, members of a now-closed congregation either became a part of another Church of Christ, or joined up with some other group, or dropped out altogether. That's something I wonder about too. What are the percentages for each category? Where did those people go?

Some of the churches that died had a lone preacher, presumably doing what he could to sow the seed of the kingdom and help others grow in the likeness of Christ. Where did he and his family go?

Some of the congregations that closed owned real estate and cash. What happened to that?

The more I thought about those questions, the more I remembered some of the stories from my past. During my years in New England, there were a handful of small, struggling churches that just couldn't hang on and eventually closed their doors.

One of them, a congregation in suburban Connecticut that had been around for several years, had come to depend heavily on one man. When he suddenly died, the church was at a loss. They closed up not long afterward. The church owned a building, which was sold. Over the next couple of years, the congregation where I preached received in the mail a few sizable, anonymous donations. I always figured that the money came from the proceeds from the sale of that building. But I wasn't sure.

Another church had been started by a group of young, bright, energetic Christians. They had worked for years, establishing an outpost for the kingdom of Christ. One of their leaders, a young man, tragically died. The group kept at it until many years later the congregation finally closed.

In the church closings I know of, the majority of the members went to one particular congregation of the Church of Christ because of convenience (it was the next nearest congregation), because of a studied consensus (that's where people from our group would fit in best), or because of some combination of those and other factors.

We should expect that congregations will die. One of the many things I learned from Evertt Huffard is that, unlike the kingdom of Christ, congregations are like people. They are born, they grow and reach a certain size and maturity. Sometimes they give birth to one or more congregations. But invariably, they get old, start to shrink, and finally die. I still wonder about the closing of more than 500 congregations in six years. Why did this Christian group I love so much lose so many churches in such a short time?

Turning to the future side of my question, if the cutting edge of the kingdom is the local congregation (a Phil Slate-ism), and if Churches of Christ want to do better than we have of late, wouldn't one of our main concerns be the planting of more new congregations?

Yes, as well as exciting, that sounds kind of scary. And it's got to be a lot of hard work. And, no, not every newly-planted church survives. But I believe that any emphasis designed to help us become more faithful and effective will include the intention to plant more, viable new congregations in places where there are lots of people.

That's what I'm thinking about today. What do you think?

1. Have you been a part of a congregation that made the decision to close? How did it come to that?

2. Have you been a part of a new church planting? What's that like? What are the ups and downs, the dos and don'ts of that process?

3. What are some of the church-planting bright spots among Churches of Christ today?

4. What does it take to adequately shape and train successful church planters? Who's doing an especially good job of that these days?


Adam Gonnerman said...

Excellent post. I also have wondered how people died, how congregations came to close and even whatever happened to the original congregations Paul and others planted.

In answer to your questions:

1. No, I've never been a member of a congregation when it chose to close. A small non-denominational community church I had been a part of in my late teens closed a few years after I started college, but I've heard it re-opened with a few older ladies attending. It closed for lack of members/lack of interest. An independent Christian Church that sent some mission support closed while I was in Brazil. I think the minister moved on and they had really low attendance.

2. Yes, in Brazil. Helped to plant an a cappella Church of Christ. The low spots were dealing with someone in leadership who didn't like me (to say the least) and seeing people return to their sins (not go to a different church, but actually revert to a sinful lifestyle). The high points were the baptisms and changed lives. Amazing.

3. No clue.

4. Not sure, but it is best learned by example in the local church. Involving people in mission projects and taking them on Bible studies.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Adam, I am so thankful for your work in Brazil, and what you are now doing among Brazilians here in the US. Fantastic!

Anonymous said...

yeah, they kinda left us hanging, with insufficient data, data that might actually help us instead of discourage us....


Royce Ogle said...

In my view, we have focused too much on "church" and not on making Christ known. Local churches are the byproduct of sharing the good news about Jesus.

When people do come to Christ as a result of having heard the good news, we want credit for them don't we? I'm afraid that ego trumps mission in many cases.

A question we must grapple with is this one. Are most of the members of my congregation more committed to the "church" or to Christ? Discipleship is not teaching people how to "act" like Christians but how to "be" Chistians. Our focus is far too often to start right away teaching the importance of "church", and other good things that are not "best" things.

Our relationship with God through Jesus Christ and his life in us is far more important than what is observable to others. Only when our vertical relationship is right will our horizontal relationships be right and meaningful.


Arlene Kasselman said...

I think Mission Alive (Gailyn and Becky van Rheenen & Tod and Candace Vogt) are showing us what it take to plant Christ formed communities. Check them out. I have taken a church planting and development class with Gailyn while in Grad School and it was transformational.

I think Stadia are doing a good job for Christian churches also.

As to the struggles and the joys, check out two friends of mine and their work at: (this young church planter is Chris Chappotin and he is in Burleson, TX). The other is Les McDaniel also in the Metroplex


Carl H Royster said...

As the Data Compiler for Churches of Christ in the United States, which is where the Chronicle got its information, perhaps I can "shed some light" on what is behind some of the statistics.

Probably the first thing I should mention is the fact that not all of the declines/closings occur during the 6-year time span of 2003-2009. Many times, they were only discovered during that time period. Unfortunately, not every congregation responds to the surveys each time. Some congregations have not been heard from in years. For some, the only information on record is an incomplete account from a long time ago. Some have no address, contact name, phone, etc.

Thanks to better resources available to us today, we have been able to get in touch with someone either in or close to a congregation (or former congregation). In doing so, we sometimes find they are still there -- sometimes larger, sometimes smaller. Sometimes we find that they moved to a new location or they merged with another congregation. Sometimes we simply find out that the congregation closed, usually due to the passing of most everyone in the congregation. Many factors can be involved, including changes outside the church in population, demographics, culture, etc. It is not rare that we find a church closed, moved, merged, etc. 10, 15, even 20 years ago. And most often than not, these were quite small congregations.

Not necessarily do all congregations own property, as a number are simply small groups that meet in someone's home, a business office, a hotel conference room, a denomination's building (at different times, of course), etc.

One thing is for sure, the rate of church plants is nowhere near what it used to be. Much on this and other stats can be found in the 2009 book. The Churches of Christ, along with the majority of other major religious bodies in the U.S., are not able to even keep up with the simplest change in the nation's population -- the net change in births/deaths. Perhaps there are a lot of questions that all of us need to be asking.

I am glad to see such discussion.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I appreciate your stopping by, adding to, correcting, etc. the post.

Anonymous said...

Carl answered many of the things I was wondering as I read that article in the Chronicle. We are talking about a six year period here. Then you have to rely on those congregations to actually get you data. You have to hope you have adequate contact information or can track people down. This is no small task and I am sure out of that 500 there is a fairly significant chunk of them still out there in some way, shape, or form.

Based on what I have observed in recent years I would also guess that many of the churches that are closing their doors have a fairly high average age of their membership. That means some members have passed on but others have merged with other area congregations.

That being said, I really doubt we have lost 500. There is a difference between a congregation closing its doors and a congregation showing up in a book. It is possible for the book to have 500 fewer listings and that not accurately reflect what actually happened.