Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Demographic Change in Clay County Arkansas and Numerical Decline in the South Thornton Church of Christ, Piggott

Back in June and July of 2014, I put up a couple of posts that tell just a bit about the history of the South Thornton Church of Christ in Piggott, Arkansas. I was blessed to be the preacher at South Thornton from October 1988 until August 1993, and will always be grateful for that opportunity and challenge. (I was a mere 25 years old when we first came to Piggott). To say the least, I will always be thankful for the good people of that congregation and what they have meant to me and my family.

Here, I want to establish and discuss some of the local contextual factors that have contributed to the numerical decline of the congregation during the second half of the twentieth century. But first, just a bit about what this means.

Anytime a church increases or decreases numerically, there are a number of contributing factors. In other words, church growth and decline are complex. To quote Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and his colleague in No County for Old Men, it's never just the one thing. To understand change over time, it's important to look at what are called "local contextual factors." That phrase simply refers to changes in a community that impact the church.

For example, let's say that a small town gets absorbed by a nearby growing metropolis, as McKinney, Texas has recently been absorbed by the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. New homes and stores pop up quickly. The local population soars from 5,000 to 50,000 in a matter of a few years. Given that local contextual factor, it would not be surprising to find that several churches in the one-time small town started to see a large number of visitors. Those churches would likely attract several new members. That would be a case of numerical church growth strongly tied to a local contextual factor: a rapid growth in population. My question is, How did such factors impact the history of the South Thornton Church of Christ during the twentieth century?

Available census and demographic figures indicate that Clay County, including the town of Piggott, became smaller and older beginning around 1950. For example, in 1990, the population of the county stood at 18,107. That was down from 20,188 in 1980. At the time (the early 90s), some residents of Piggott were encouraged to see that, according to the 1990 census, the town was one of two communities in Clay County that grew in population between 1980 and 1990. But those figures were misleading since, during the 1980s, Piggott annexed one or more surrounding communities. Thus, the town's small increase in population during the decade of the 80s resembled swelling more than growing. Also during the 1980s, the population grew older, with the median age of the town at over 42 years old in 1990. To add a bit of perspective, consider that in 1990, out of 3777 residents of Piggott, nearly 1000 were at least 65 years old.

As the population grew smaller and residents of the town grew older, predictably, the congregation also grew smaller and older. In other words, the demographics of the church mirrored those of the community. To get a feel for the numeric decline of the South Thornton Church, I put together the following table. Having spent countless hours compiling these numbers, I can assure you that they are reliable. The first column in the table gives the year. The second column is the average Sunday-morning Bible class attendance for that year. The third is the Sunday-morning worship attendance average. Finally, the fourth column gives the average of the two averages. This is called the "composite" number. I figured and posted the composite because church analysts tell us that it is actually a better number to look at if you want to gauge the numeric strength of a church over time. Thus, if anything, the figure at the extreme right is the most significant:

Year       Sun Class Avg        AM Worship Avg        Composite        

1963                328                             376                           352
1964                304                             371                           338
1965                305                             370                           338
1966                302                             372                           337
1967                305                             371                           338
1968                290                             368                           329
1969                273                             345                           309

1970                261                             338                           300
1971                265                             341                           303
1972                260                             342                           301
1973                252                             338                           295
1974                255                             329                           292
1975                271                             323                           297
1976                274                             342                           308
1977                281                             349                           315
1978                283                             360                           322
1979                268                             336                           302

1980                282                             348                           315
1981                273                             343                           308
1982                266                             338                           302
1983                252                             323                           288
1984                247                             301                           274
1985                250                             304                           277
1986                246                             304                           275
1987                227                             282                           255
1988                223                             276                           250
1989                225                             281                           253

1990                226                             285                           256
1991                213                             265                           239
1992                215                             281                           248

A few observations about the numbers in the foregoing table. Notice that from 1963 to 1992 the composite number drops from 352 to 248. Occasionally, the numbers remain stable or increase moderately over several years. Nonetheless, the basic trajectory is downward. Significant to our investigation is that, if you were to draw a line graph of the population of Clay County during these years, and then drew another line representing the composite numbers given in the table above, you would see two lines that were basically parallel to each other. Most people would assume that the numerical decline of the congregation and the increasing age of its members were directly related to the same phenomenon in the local context. They would be right to come to that conclusion.

Not long after I began my work with the South Thornton congregation in 1988, one thing became absolutely clear to me: long-time members of the congregation were dismayed by the church's obvious numerical decline over the years. Most of them had one or more theories about why the church was not so large and vibrant as it had been in decades gone by. One thing that was especially remarkable about all of this is I don't recall one person ever suggesting to me that the numerical decline of the congregation might be related to the numerical decline and the rising age in the local population. This was true in spite of the fact that many of those I talked to had actually lived through that decline and understood it first-hand.

Those who study church dynamics agree that anytime a church grows smaller it also grows older. (Conversely, as churches grow in number they tend to grow younger as well). Smaller and older was the trend in Piggott, and in that part of Arkansas for that matter. But most members of the South Thornton congregation had theories about congregational decline that did not include these demographic facts. Instead, when it came to the long, slow decline of the congregation, most of the reasons that were offered had something to do with leadership: the preacher and the elders.

The foregoing is offered not as an excuse or full explanation for anything. I put this out there because I have compiled these facts and have thought about these matters for many years now, and also because the South Thornton Church in Piggott is not alone. Similar stories, thousands of them, have unfolded in many parts of the U.S over the past 75 years or more. We should think and talk about those stories.


Richard Akins said...

Frank, just found and read your post. Couldn't agree more! I arrived in Piggott in 2002 with average Sun AM attendance about 235 and left in 2007, a full 5 1/4 years later with average SUN AM attendance at about 227, despite baptisms and folks moving in, and wonderfully loving people in this good congregation. Problem was, of course, folks moved out in cars to college (never to return because nothing to return to economically), moving vans to here and there, and hearses to the cemetery. Hard to keep up!!!

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, Richard! Thanks so much for your comment here. Very informative. I can still remember how glad I was to hear that you would be moving to Piggott to work with the South Thornton congregation. I appreciate the good you did there. Best wishes for all of your efforts in the kingdom.