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

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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.

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