Three Bold Challenges for Churches of Christ

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Dr. Stanley E. Granberg

A disturbing prospect looms before us as the fact of our decline of Churches of Christ (CoC) has moved from unbelievable to undeniable. The question we must answer is no longer, “How are we doing;” our question is now, “What shall we do about it?”

Last year I published an article describing the decline of CoC in the Great Commission Research Journal (Fall 2018).[1] This year, Tim Woodroof and I wrote a paper that looks into the crystal ball of the possible future of CoC in 2050[2]. At the present, the best analysis is that each month six CoC congregations close their doors. Given the current trends, we expect that rate to double—or even triple—before we arrive at 2050. If this does occur, we could see the fellowship of CoC drop from just over 12,000 churches to under 3,000.

There are several responses leaders in our fellowship have made to our challenge of decline. Some say its time to leave and join forces in a broader, more ecumenical fellowship, advancing the unity plea of our heritage. Others are hanging onto the ways and traditions of the past for dear life, leaning into the restoration roots of our fellowship. The majority of church leaders are struggling to find some way forward that satisfies both the desire of their members for the safety of what we have been in the past and the need to present a relevant Christianity to our increasingly unbelieving world.

For the past fifteen years, as the executive director of Kairos Church Planting, I have worked extensively within Churches of Christ, promoting, calling and pleading with churches to engage the future through the planting of new congregations. From this perspective, I present here three hard challenges I believe we must address to set a foundation for our future and three bold strategies that could change the course of our future.

Hard Challenges

The following three challenges are hard because they are deeply embedded, DNA level aspects of CofC that seem to hold us back, even cripple us, from engaging 21st century America, confident that we can be useful ambassadors, harvesting new souls for the kingdom of God.

Challenge #1: reorient our hermeneutic from a closed to an open perspective. The CofC through the 20th century have practiced a case law hermeneutic described under the rubric: Command, Example, and Necessary Inference.[3] While “thus saith the Lord” is an appropriate operating principle, we have added a subtext that says, “what is not addressed is not allowed.” Our case law hermeneutic requires explicit permission to do something. Without explicit biblical command, example or necessary inference we are forbidden to do anything different, a situation that keeps us stuck within our own past.

To change our course of decline in the 21st century we must explore the other side of this hermeneutic coin, the side of freedom and openness. On this other side, unless something is expressly forbidden, we are free to explore it based upon biblical principles. This hermeneutic approach is based upon a narrative-historical interpretation of scripture, most readily expressed in our faith stream through the writings of John Mark Hicks. This is part of our faith heritage. Our cousins, the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, operate with this open hermeneutic. On the mission field of Kenya, I discovered that, at our best, CofC are a fellowship that deeply desires to obey the God of the Word, implicitly trusting the Word of God to guide us to creatively engage the world of God. We are at our best when we live out of this open hermeneutic perspective.

Challenge #2: restore apostolic leaders as part of our leadership system. For a non-centralized, non-denominational fellowship, CofC have a strongly held congregational leadership system. In our most traditional form, a congregation is led by a committee of elders with deacons and teachers as permanent workers. Pastoral staff are hired to work under the oversight of the elders, who can also fire on any pretense or personal discretion. This structure creates a maintenance orientation designed to keep the system stable. This maintenance, stability-oriented leadership system is not capable of creating or releasing the innovative, growth producing activity necessary to change our decline trajectory. We must adopt the Ephesians 4:11 understanding that restores the full circle of biblical leadership.[4] This will mean a recognition of the personal leadership giftedness God provides the church.

Challenge #3: enliven the experience of God among us. CofC have typically been a heady, intellectually oriented movement. Both our places and practices of worship are designed to strip out emotional content and symbolism. The rule of “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) has been used to emphasize hearing the word of God to the neglect of experiencing the presence of God. Creating a worship experience that recognizes the power of the human senses as vehicles through which God makes himself present challenges our rejection of anything that smacks of the danger of entertainment. If we expect “not-yet” believers to find anything of worth in the sacramental event of our gathering together, the experience of God must become our new scorecard of our worship. When God shows up, lives will never be the same.

Bold Plans

History and research have proven true C. Peter Wagner’s assertion, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”[5] Timothy Keller further expands Wagner’s view about church planting,

The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else—not crusades, outreach programs, parachurch ministries, growing megachurches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes—will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting.[6]

If CofC expect to make a reversal from decline to growth, church planting must be our core strategic activity. Given this fact, the following three bold strategies would, from my perspective, provide the most immediate leverage to accomplishing kingdom expansion through our fellowship and congregational renewal within our churches.

Strategy #1: deliberately close older, declining churches to repurpose the resources from their lands and buildings for the planting of new churches. CofC can expect to see as many as 8,000 congregations, two-thirds of our total number, close in the next thirty years. If the average real estate revenue were just $350,000 per church (a very conservative amount), these closings would produce $2.8 billion. Investing half of that into new churches, supporting each new church with $250,000, would result in 5,600 new churches. God has already provided us the financial endowment we need to reinvest into our future! Most Christian fellowships and denominations already fund much of their church planting through such repurposing efforts.[7] As a step to accomplish this strategy, the Heritage 21 Foundation ( was founded in 2016, “To partner with declining churches to help them faithfully preserve and repurpose their resources for new kingdom work.”[8]

Strategy #2: develop an apprentice leadership system to train next generation leaders to plant new churches and missionally lead existing churches. Experience in healthy, growing churches is the most predictive factor for successful church planters. We need to create a pipeline for missional leaders through apprenticeships in our healthiest churches. If our top one hundred churches would keep four apprentices in training on a two-year rotating basis, graduating two apprentices each year, in twenty-five years we would produce five thousand experienced, missional leaders. The Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Arkansas has trained apprentices within the church and its associated campus ministry which have resulted in those apprentices moving to Boston, Phoenix and Seattle to start new churches and campus ministries. A backbone of resources for apprentices called Emerging Leader Training has already been developed by Kairos Church Planting.[9]

Strategy #3: work together in regional network relationships to plant new churches. The Christian Churches and Churches of Christ effectively practice this network strategy through over fifty evangelistic associations across the United States. If CofC would work together in networks of four to six congregations, these networks could pool resources, provide a new church nucleus from members, and receive the benefits of learning how a new church engages its community. Such networks would create pockets of regional church planting.

The fact is we are at a crossroads between decline and advancement. Our generation, those of us who currently sit as elders within our churches or stand as preachers in our pulpits, have one, vital question to answer: What will we do with the inheritance which God has given us? We have been gifted with a valid spiritual heritage, a storehouse of financial resources and spiritually endowed leaders to use for His great purposes. While we could debate the need of God’s kingdom for a continuation of the entity we know as Churches of Christ, I believe God has invested Himself deeply in us. I would rather stand before God’s judgment throne having used well these talents God has given us rather than burying them in extinction.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

[1] Stanley E. Granberg, “A Case Study of Growth and Decline: The Churches of Christ, 2006-2016,” Great Commission Research Journal, vol. 10, no. 1 (Fall 2018), 88-111.

[2] Tim Woodroof and Stanley E. Granberg. “Churches of Christ: Losing Our Hope, Seeking a Future”. Available to read at, 2019.

[3] Williams, Stone-Campbell Movement, 159.

[4] This idea of APEST leadership from Ephesians 4:11 is thoughtfully engaged by Alan Hirsch, A circle model of leadership that has strong research support is described by Stanley E. Granberg, “Circle of biblical leadership,” Kairos Church Planting, August 31, 2011, accessed May 29, 2017, 2011/08/circle-of-biblical-leadership.html.

[5] C. Peter Wagner, Strategies for Growth: Tools for Effective Missions and Evangelism (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1987), 168.

[6] Timothy Keller, “Why plant churches?”, 2009, accessed May 29, 2017, http://download.

[7] Olsen, American Church, 126.

[8] Heritage 21,

[9] Stanley E. Granberg, Spiritual Formation (CreateSpace, 2015) and Sharing Faith (CreateSpace, 2015).

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