Good News, Bad News About the Future of Churches of Christ

Which do you want first? The good news or the bad news? Most people I know want the bad first so we will start there.

The bad news is church as you know it is dying.

The good news is church as you know it is dying.

The institutional church is on borrowed time. That is horrifying if you are only married to the way your wife looks today. But if you are married to her for who she is, you are going to be fine. If you don’t marry her because you know she will die one day you are going to miss out on some great things. Some people dread aging but that also leads to some wonderful things as well.

Hang with me…

I am going to tell you why in a moment but first let me tell you about my doctor. He told me a while back that one of my numbers was bad. My HDL was too low. He recommended I tack Krill oil to raise the number. I took it off and on for a few months and retested. It was still low. Low is relative. By some standards my number is okay, in a normal range. But by some stricter measures my number needs to go up. The point is, it is important that you pay attention to the right numbers. Some numbers don’t matter like how many hairs are on your head. But your blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels are crucial. If they fall to certain numbers you die.

This is where we find ourselves in terms of understanding what is going on in Churches of Christ. Some of the numbers don’t look good. Does it mean we are dying? Will we go to sleep one day and never wake up? My contention is that the institutional church (church as a place where you show up on Sunday, check a box, and go home) is dying. It’s numbers are bad. It is just a matter of time. That actually isn’t a bad thing. It can be a scary thing if you are a minister like me, who makes a living the way things are but the kingdom is more important than me being stuck on a way of doing it that may not be the healthiest, more robust or even most biblical.

What is more, specific congregations are absolutely, 100%, going to die – pretty much every last one of them.

How many of the companies on the Fortune 500 in 1955 still exist, much less still make the list? In 2017 it was 60.

In Todd Wilson’s book “Multipliers” he writes this, “For over 2,000 years, the lifespan of greater than 99.9 percent of all local churches is less than 100 years (most are less than 50 years)!” p. 15.

This makes sense when you think about it. Where is the church in Ephesus or Corinth today? Can you imagine being the last person to shut the door on a church Paul planted or even just taught at? Those congregations all died but the kingdom continued to explode. The same will be true for us. Think of the most robust congregation you know – it won’t be there some day. The facility will be a parking lot or a mall or a field – but the kingdom moves on.

It is a myth for the vast majority of us to think the congregations we currently worship in will still have people worshiping in them in 50 years and definitely in 100 years.

Churches have lifespans about like a human being. This is very important for you to know and realize. Take the numbers from Todd above – most churches don’t make it past 50 and 99.9% live less than 100 years. Actually, congregational lifespan, averages less than human lifespan and somehow we all think the congregations we are a part of will be here forever.

Their end may come sooner than you think and here is why

Stan Granberg wrote an article in the Great Commission journal that gave numbers on several important metrics on Churches of Christ. The height of our church planting days (birth of a congregation, again think lifespan numbers above) was in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. We planted 1209 churches in the 40s, 1626 in the 50s and 1205 in the 60s. These churches are now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s (all getting closer and closer to 100 and all being past the 50 mark most don’t make). Every church I have been a part of had their 50th anniversary in the last couple years. I bet your experience has been similar. So many of our congregations are entering end of life years.

According to Stan in his latest article here at Wineskins (“Three Bold Challenges for Churches of Christ” – which I encourage you to read) we are closing the doors of 6 churches per month. That is 72/year and 720/10 years and the rate of closures is accelerating. Granberg and Tim Woodroof, in the article I just linked to, predict we will be below 3000 congregations by 2050. Does that take your breath away?

How many churches have we planted in the same time frame? In Stan’s article in 2018 in the Great Commission Journal he says we have planted 102 between 2010 and 2016 at that rate we would plant 170 this decade (while losing 720). That is a net loss of 550 this decade. Remember we only have 12,000 or so congregations! That is nearly a 5% loss this decade (and accelerating, according to Stan).

Now that we have mentioned church planting I want to mention another number from Todd Wilson’s book “Multipliers,” 4% of churches are reproducing, that is planting new churches (p.15). This is broad Christianity. Let’s see what that number is in Churches of Christ from Stan’s article. He has a chart on page 95 of that article that says between 2010 and 2016 we planted 102 churches and ended 2016 with 12,237 congregations. That means 0.008% of our churches plant churches. In fact the number is lower than that if any of those churches planted more than one (which is feasible). We are at less than 1% of our churches planting new churches! 8 in 1000!

Pair that with aging congregations (most 50-79 years old) and the 99.9% rule above and you can see we are in “trouble.” Along with that, 55% of our churches are under 60 members (again Granberg, Great Commission Journal, 99).

Good news

But the kingdom isn’t at risk. What is at risk is our way of doing church (the form can be an idol). There are kingdom movements happening all over the world. We aren’t participating. The participation ribbon is not one Churches of Christ have won well over the years when it comes to even partnering with other Churches of Christ much less any other group we are further from doctrinally.

Don’t feel too bad – the church at Antioch and in Jerusalem and Rome closed their doors too one day. You can’t worship there anymore – but the kingdom keeps on growing!

My hope

We will get a sense of urgency to re-envision what church is all about and what church looks like. The way we are doing it isn’t reproducible, or else we would do it. Something in our DNA is keeping us from reproducing. Sectarianism doesn’t need reproducing. Maybe some of that is getting weeded out along with extreme liberalism (both ends of the spectrum don’t grow well or reproduce well) and maybe that is by God’s design for a healthier, more robust future for His, not our, churches.

We need a change in focus – from brick and mortar…dollars and cents…to souls, maturity and discipleship. We need a model that is reproducible and is reproducing – THIS IS KEY!

We must reinvigorate church planting movement. We must dedicate budget and people toward this effort. The generations before us did this – we stopped.

Imagine if all of our churches tithed people and money every year toward a new church – they could reproduce a one year funded congregation every ten years and train that ten percent in the meantime. I bet it would happen faster than ten years! This could result in a resurgence of growth in our fellowship. We just need to not replicate the bad DNA in order to ensure a healthier future (sectarianism, leaning toward works righteousness, combativeness, etc).

Do you have a plan? Does your church have a plan for the future? How will your legacy live on when your congregation goes away? What seeds are you planting now and plans you are making to ensure that what you leave behind can never be shaken. If you are caught up on budgets what you are building can and will be shaken and disappear.

The Third Miracle

By Milton Jones

When Christian Relief Fund drilled a new well in Barwessa Kaptorot, the people living there called it “the second miracle.” This area of Kenya is one of the most desperate in the world when it comes to the need for water. It hasn’t rained there in years. You can imagine how much the community rejoiced with this gift of clean water.

But obviously their response prompted the question from our drilling crew—“Then what’s the first miracle?” The townsfolk believed that they had witnessed two incredible events in the history of their village. The second was water. But the first involved a child named Vivian Jepkoech.

Because of the curiosity of Francis Bii, our CRF director there, and our drilling crew, Vivian was presented before them as the “first miracle.” And thus came the inconceivable story. A primary school girl in their village had been abused by her teacher. And the little girl became pregnant. After the young student gave birth, the teacher was fearful of being charged with a crime and being arrested. As a result, he stole the baby from the young mother. He took the little child to the edge of a three hundred foot cliff. He placed the baby in such a way where she would fall off of the cliff. And she did.

But unbelievably—the little baby landed in a tree on the way down.

As people walked around the community on this day, people kept hearing a noise. They said it sounded like a baby crying. But no one could find a baby. Finally, someone perceived the sound was coming from the cliff. The elders of Barwessa Kaptorot tied a rope around a person and lowered him over the cliff. On the way down, he spotted a baby in a tree. He took the child to the hospital where she survived. An old grandmother decided to raise her since her mother had disappeared and her father had fled (and later arrested).

And now this baby had grown up to be a teenager and was standing in front of Francis and our crew. Yes, the first miracle was Vivian Keptoech. She had been the baby in the tree. Vivian had done well in primary school and excelled on her exams. But because of her poverty, she didn’t have any hope to attend secondary school.

“Have you heard of Suzy Peacock High School?” Francis asked her. This is the exceptional high school of CRF in Eldoret. “You are going to be a student there!” And now she is.

Vivian

Vivian was recently sponsored by a Christian Relief Fund donor. I got to see her at her new high school. It’s understandable why the people of her village call her “the first miracle.”

You too can sponsor a child like Vivian. Or you could even drill a water well in a famine area where it hasn’t rained in eight years. You could be a part of a “third miracle.”

If you have a desire to help, visit www.christianrelieffund.org

Milton Jones is the president of Christian Relief Fund.


Prepare the Way of the Lord: Preparing for the Future in Churches of Christ

I had no idea when we selected this theme for July that we would be in the middle of a larger discussion of the big picture of what is going on in Churches of Christ. We have had updates on our numbers and we are in a slow, steady decline. We have had a better picture of our age demographics and we are an aging bunch. We have also had numbers on church planting and it too is in steady decline since the 1960s.

What will it take to move into a bright and vibrant tomorrow?

How can we move forward giving our current state and our resistance to change. Obviously, not all change is good but not all change is bad and some things will need to change or else we will keep doing the same things over and over and expect a different results – we know what that is called and that is how many feel these days.

That is what we will be discussing this month at Wineskins. I hope you will tune in and resource yourself and your congregation and prayerfully consider what we need to be doing today in order to have a better tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

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The Rhythm of the Great Commission Dance

This is *not* me!

I really dislike dancing. I have no rhythm and I feel like everyone is looking at me. Why do I feel like people are looking? Refer to the first two points.

I assure you, if I ever danced around you, you would watch…more like a train wreck fascination than a thing of beauty.

At the end of Matthew Jesus teaches us a rhythm. He teaches us a dance…not just going through the motions…but feeling the music of his words and acting them out on life’s stage in real time.

Here is the song…we need to re-familiarize ourselves with the beat.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

Go and make disciples.

How?

Baptizing them…and teaching them to obey everything I commanded.

Jesus commanded his disciples to make disciples. When they do what Jesus said to do in the Great Commission they are going to teach the disciples they make to obey the great commission, for that next iteration, to also make disciples of others because Jesus commanded it and commanded the next group obey his teachings.

This is the rhythm of the Commission. It has a cycle. It goes around and around and around…

Until it doesn’t.

Somewhere along the way the song stopped playing. It came to a screeching halt. Instead of making disciples we started converting people. That is a completely different dance with a completely different, 5 step, rhythm.

Conversion doesn’t often require discipling. The beginning of discipling is conversion. We have confused the start of the race for the race itself and hung many people out to dry.

Our default discipling process is hope they attend Bible class. As long as they attend they must be okay. But that is not okay.

What do you say to a newly baptized person? Have you ever showed them next steps? If so, I imagine you are exceptional. Or do you, like me far too often, tell them you love them, support them and are here for them. How many of them ever took you up on that offer of support later?

Is this working?

We stopped singing the same song Jesus was singing. We lost the rhythm of the song and the discipleship dance that went along with it was lost as well. We could still remember a few notes of the song – baptizing – but lost much of the rest of it. It has plagued us ever since.

Let’s get back to the full song of Matthew 28:18-20 and make some disciples! It is a dance we all must learn and you will have the time of your life doing it, even if it feels a little weird at first.

From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley – The Odd History of the Holy Spirit Among Churches of Christ (Part 3)

From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley

The Odd History of the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ

Part 3, Bible Deism Valley

By Leonard Allen

Bible Deism Valley

An important force in the triumph of the “Word only” view was a book published in 1919, The Spirit and the Word, by a preacher named Z. T. Sweeney. The book went through many printings in the twentieth century. Sweeney argued that the Holy Spirit was a “private and peculiar” gift to the twelve for their one-time work of establishing the foundations of the church and producing inspired writings. Once this work of the Spirit was completed through the original apostles, “no man has been guided, shown and directed personally by him since.” “God does no unnecessary work, and the work of the Paraclete is not necessary now. His work remains [only] in the teachings and lives of the apostles.”

            This assumption led Sweeney to conclude that scores of New Testament’s statements and admonitions regarding the Spirit simply no longer apply to Christians. Here are a few examples he listed:

You were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance. (Eph. 1:13, 14)

[B]e filled with the Spirit . . . (Eph. 5:18)

He saved us through the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit . . . (Titus 3:5)

He has given us of his Spirit. (1 John 4:13)

All of these verses and a long list of others apply only to first-century believers in whom God was “manifesting his presence by supernatural demonstrations”; but now that God works only through the words of Scripture, all these texts “lack meaning” for Christians since that era.[i]

Two other powerful voices in the early twentieth century advocating Bible deism were R. L. Whiteside and Foy Wallace Jr. Whiteside has been called the “systematic theologian of Churches of Christ” and was likely the one most responsible for the doctrinal consensus that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s.[ii] Whiteside asserted, “Peter affirmed that we have in the Bible everything that pertains to life and godliness,” so “to pray for a power or means of godliness or spiritual life separate or apart from the Bible” was to charge God’s Word with insufficiency. Whiteside could speak interchangeably of the “fruit of the Word” and the “fruit of the Spirit” which he viewed as one and the same.[iii] Foy Wallace Jr., who was appointed editor of the Gospel Advocate in 1930, looked to Whiteside as his “mentor and model.”

A good example of the deep entrenchment of this symbolic view of the Spirit occurred in 1966 when several speakers at the annual Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures began to call for a renewed emphasis on the dynamic (though “non-miraculous”) influence of the Spirit in the Christian life. One said that “our lack of spiritual emphasis has dried up for many the spring of living water provided by the Holy Spirit, and people are thirsty.” “One of the greatest weaknesses in our fellowship,” said another, “has been our lack of understanding of the Holy Spirit.”[iv]

            This raising of the “Spirit question” quickly touched a nerve, provoking an outburst of reaction that continued for a couple of years.

            After a wave of critical attack and defense of the “Word only” doctrine, J. D. Thomas, of the ACC Bible faculty, noted the unacceptable world view implied in such a doctrine of the Spirit: “We must discount the idea of ‘biblical Deism,’ which assumes that God started the Christian system and left the Bible down here to do what it could, but meanwhile, He, Christ, and the Spirit have all retired to heaven and have nothing to do with the world until the end, when they will come back and check up to see how it all worked out.”[v] Thomas proceeded to lay out a very cautious treatment of the Spirit in the life of the Christian, affirming the Spirit’s personal, actual indwelling and firmly rejecting any “miraculous” activity of the Spirit.

            Yet even so cautious an exposition provoked alarmed response from prominent leaders. One writer insisted that the Spirit works only in “an indirect, mediate, natural, understandable manner,” and set forth the remarkable conclusion that both the Spirit and Satan no longer affect us supernaturally but are both “restricted to the use of ‘natural means.’” Foy Wallace Jr., long a leading defender of the “Word alone” theory, entered the fray and starkly restated Campbell’s (and Fanning’s and Sweeney’s) position: “Apart from the inspiration of the apostles and prophets, it is impossible for spirit to communicate with spirit except through words. God and Christ never personally occupied anyone; and for the same reason the Holy Spirit does not personally occupy anyone.”[vi]

            The fact that in 1966 an extremely cautious treatment of the Spirit’s indwelling could call forth such alarmed refutation provides a telling sign of the road taken by Churches of Christ—a road that began shortly after Cane Ridge and ended up in Bible deism valley. Certainly a modest lineage of leaders had affirmed a personal, immediate indwelling of the Spirit—twentieth-century leaders like James A. Harding, David Lipscomb, R. H. Boll, J. N. Armstrong, G. C. Brewer, K. C. Moser, Gus Nichols, and J. D. Thomas. That too is part of this odd history, but for much of the twentieth century it was not the dominant or consensus view among Churches of Christ.

Conclusion

In my typology of five major Spirit traditions in Christian history, I placed Churches of Christ in the Modernist tradition.[vii] That of course is deeply ironic for a movement claiming to be nothing more or less than “New Testament Christians.” Modernist views of the Spirit arose in response to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the sharp strictures it began to impose on how one determines what is real. Stress fell more and more upon the “reasonableness of Christianity” (John Locke)  as measured by the new scientific empiricism. Campbell partook of this spirit and wove it into the fabric of the Restoration movement. It is the garment in which we were clothed. But after modernity it doesn’t wear so well.

            For a good many years now this dominant view of the Spirit has been playing itself out as more and more believers have restlessly renewed the search for a more personal and immediate relationship with God. To recover a biblical “grammar” of the Holy Spirit is to recover the language enabling us to talk properly about life in the Spirit.

Leonard Allen serves as dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University in Nashville. He taught theology, ethics, and philosophy for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary and Abilene Christian University. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God (2018).


[i] Z. T. Sweeney, The Spirit and the Word: A Treatise on the Holy Spirit in Light of a Rational Interpretation of the Word of Truth (1919; reprint ed., Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1950), 67–79, 95–97, 99.

[ii] Robert P. Valentine Jr., “Robertson Lafayette Whiteside: Systematic Theologian for the Churches of Christ” (Guided Research Paper, Harding University Graduate School of Religion, 2001).

[iii] C. R. Nichol and R. L. Whiteside, Sound Doctrine (Clifton, TX: Nichol Publishing, 1924), 4:107-108; Whiteside, “Doctrinal Discourses: The Uses of Scripture,” Gospel Advocate 74 (February 4, 1932), 138. Cited by Hicks and Valentine, Kingdom Come, 72.

[iv]Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures, 1966 (Abilene, TX: ACC Bookstore, 1966), 175-76, 185.

[v] J. D. Thomas, The Spirit and Spirituality (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press), 19.

[vi]Reuel Lemmons, Firm Foundation 83, 722; ibid., 757; Foy Wallace, Jr., The Mission and Medium of the Holy Spirit (Nashville, TN: Wallace Publications, 1967), 7.

[vii] Leonard Allen, Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2018), 35-54.