Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 1: A Left-Brained Fellowship in a Right-Brained World

Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 1: A Left-Brained Fellowship in a Right-Brained World

For followers of this blog, you know that most all of my posts deal with larger kingdom and cultural issues. The Missional Outreach Network has readers from all different denominational backgrounds, and I want to bring people together through Christ and his mission.

However, if my non-Church of Christ readers can indulge me, I want to post a series dealing with some issues in my fellowship (Churches of Christ). Specifically, I want to seek to address the issue as to why Churches of Christ are shrinking--seeking both your thoughts and to provide some analysis and insights. 

First, just an acknowledgment of the fact that we are shrinking is a huge step. For years, somehow we took solace in the fact that our numbers in the US were constant--despite the fact that, as a percentage of the US population, we were already in rapid decline. The US population was growing, and we were not. 

In more recent years, the Christian Chronicle (our non-official official newspaper for Churches of Christ) has woken us up to cold reality. Not only are we declining as a percentage of the US population; we are shrinking numerically as well. We are a fellowship in decline. Maybe not declining as quickly as the mainline denominations that we have pointed towards, but still, like them, declining.

As long as we were "holding our own," we could just keep doing what we had always been doing, "holding to our principals"--not changing anything--and waiting for the world to change and come around to our point of view. If you are staying about the same, well, that is not good, but it does not put you in a crisis mode that prompts organizations to change or die. But now, as we slowly, painfully, begin to acknowledge that we are dying, we now are perhaps more willing to look at the causes of our death, with the hope perhaps that a cure can be found.

There are numerous reasons for our fellowship's decline which I hope to discuss in this blog post series. But the reason that I want to put forward today is this: we are a left-brained fellowship in a right-brained world. 

Churches of Christ in their current, visible form were birthed in the 1800s during the height of the "modern" worldview. This was the age of Reason. We were skeptical of emotion, which could lead us astray. All that stuff at Cane Ridge, where people were looking for expressions of the Spirit as confirmation of their faith, which could include barking like dogs and the like, led nearly half of our fellowship to disbelieve that the Spirit of God worked at all outside of the written word and that there was no indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Shocking to deny, for without the Spirit, we have no eternal life.

But it was a print medium world, so this fit into the times. This print medium world allows one to take the word of God off on one's own to read and study outside of a community--which leads to individualism. It was a world that worshiped the scientific method, and we began to apply this method to Scripture, believing that if we just all used the same method (hermeneutic), we would all come to the same result every time. Reason and scientific study of the Bible and knowledge would lead us to all come to agreement and thus unity. (I was reminded recently by a preacher friend that our motto for decades was "Come, let us reason together.")

(Notice that unity was not based upon Christ and the Spirit or the seven "ones" of Eph. 4, but upon agreement on all of the issues. This is an impossible task, proven to be impossible for flawed humans by our history. But I digress.)

So our worship services and Bible classes were designed to give out information and prove points. We wanted to educate people--not shape them spiritually or transform them or disciple them. We did not have Spiritual Formation or Discipleship ministers. We had "Adult Education" ministers. We had preachers who dispensed information and proved their points. It was assumed that education equals transformation. 

Fast forward two hundred years to today. We are now in an Apple based, image and icon based world. A world of pictures and videos. A world of music and surround sound. A world of 75" plasma screens in homes and jumbo trons half the size of football fields. I live in Dallas and took the Cowboys stadium tour. There I found out that the owners of the Phoenix Suns came out to the stadium to play video games at $500/minute on the humongous video screen there. Apple is now the highest valued company in the world, beating out Microsoft. This is not just symbolism. It is reality. We are in an Apple based, image based, icon based, experienced based world. This is the world that those 35 and under in particular grew up in, though it extends up through Gen X (and even partially into the late Boomers).

And these younger generations come into our worship services looking for an experience. And what do they get? A lecture. Information. Someone trying to build a reasoned argument and make their points. And they just don't get it. It does not speak their language. We are speaking Mandarin Chinese to them. (Actually Mandarin Chinese is an image-based language. So with the growth of China, we will become even more image based and Eastern in our thinking. Think of a picture or image. By its nature, it evokes more emotion and feeling and passion. And when younger generations enter into this throwback, print based world, they feel that our worship services are empty, dead, and lifeless. It does not move them. They can't wait for the exit.)

Older generations showed up to hear a sermon. The rest was nice, but was almost viewed as filler for the main dish. And in growing churches that are reaching younger generations, they most all have great preachers. Preaching (that is culturally relevant) still transforms and moves people. 

But what our fellowship fails to realize is that if you were to take that same great speaker--let's say, Andy Stanley, or if you prefer, Mark Driscoll, or whoever of that generation that floats your boat, and you were to plop them down into most of our churches, that church would not explode. The younger people would not, by and large, come. Why is this? Because they are not looking for a sermon--though they want to hear a moving one when they hear one. They are looking for an experience--an experience that matches their world. And we are by and large offering an experience of what life in the 1800s is like. Bible classes that educate, and sermons that give knowledge and prove points. In a world in which knowledge is ubiquitous (ever heard of the Internet or Wikipedia?) and everyone is sick of people arguing about who is right. 

Let's face it. By and large, we view the thousands of dollars that are spent on lights, video screens, and cameras in other fellowships as a waste of money. As seeking to "entertain."  We look down on those churches as being superficial. (Part of this is that during the split with the Christian church, they got all of the buildings and all of the money. So our people are inherently suspicious of these kind of expenditures as being "liberal" or superficial. But like so much of our heritage, most people don't realize why they think these things.)

And yet, churches that are doing this are growing--not only reaching lost people, but retaining their own kids. They actually come, want to come, enjoy the experience, and bring their friends. Young adults will camp out and plan their year around the Passion worship experience, but would not ever show up at a lectureship. Look around at the lectureships in our fellowship. There are a lot of older people, and almost no one under 30, despite there being incredible speakers there. 

I recently toured a church in our fellowship that just redid their auditorium. They had an incredible set up. Three huge screens, incredible lighting, stadium seating. I immediately thought two things: 1) this must have cost a lot of money--we could never afford this; and 2) I would love to preach in this atmosphere, because it would be incredible. It would be experiential. It would resonate with younger generations--and a lot of right-brained people in Boomer and above generations, who have never felt that we have spoken their language.

So, what does this mean we should do in Churches of Christ? Well, if we want the same results, I would advise us to do nothing. If we want to see our kids continue to leave in droves--and recently, Randy Harris said at Elderlink that he was afraid that we were going to lose all of our 18-35 year olds--then don't change a thing. When someone tries to dim the lights or show a video or have a praise team or give a testimonial and people complain and threaten to leave or stop giving, then give in. That is what has happened in congregation after congregation in our fellowship. And the Millenials don't complain. They don't make a fuss and stomp off mad. They are very polite. They just leave and say (to themselves), this is not for me. 

And the sad thing is, not only are we choosing to not reach lost people because of our refusal to not give an inch on these issues, but we are choosing to send our kids and grandkids away to at best another fellowship, at worst, the world. When push comes to shove, we would rather keep church the way that it has always been than to make changes that would help us reach or retain these generations. As one of my preacher friend says, "In almost every case in all of our churches, tradition trumps mission."

What if, instead of viewing these things as a waste of money and a threat to our church tradition, we viewed them as "speaking the language" of the people in our mission field? Is that not what missionaries do? We would fire a missionary who went overseas and never learned to speak the language of the people that he was trying to reach and who did not work through their cultural norms and cultural values. But somehow, we forget that we must do the same thing here in the US. 

So here are a few things that could be considered to create a more experienced based worship service.

1. Use video throughout. It is a Youtube world. Video has picture and music and tells a story. It is the language of today. Use background music in these videos. It is the least that we can do to be culturally resonant.

2. Use a three projection screen setup. The standard setup for an experience based event is a three screen setup. The main, center screen projects the speaker/worship leader--and people will usually look at this screen more than the actual person. The other two screens project pictures, moving images and the like. And if you really want to create an experience, then add additional screens on the sides. 

3. Dim the lights in the audience and brighten the stage. This can create the experience atmosphere that many are used to and looking for.

4. Use testimonials. Interview people and have them tell their stories. It is an Oprah world. Millions recently watched Lance Armstrong sit on the couch and talk to Oprah. People will line up to hear other people's stories.

5. Make preaching biblical, culturally relevant, and applicable. Remember, people are not going to be wowed by our exegesis. They can find this online or on their own study Bible. What they will be wowed by is a person who models a godly life, who speaks their language, and who can tell them how to live this biblical truth out in their daily lives at work, in their homes, with their family.

6. Use "pre-worship" music and "post-worship music." Music is ubiquitous in young people' lives. Playing this before and after helps them have a more memorable experience.

7. Engage the body, mind, and heart in worship. This is imminently biblical. Remember The Greatest Commands song? We do not just worship God with our mind. We worship him with our body and with our heart and emotion. Be joyful. Clap. Shout for joy. (We sing about shouting, but don't ever do it.) Have a praise team or worship leader that models this, for passionate worship is contagious. And give people permission to really engage their whole being in worship for God.

8. Emphasize community. Facebook and Youtube have created a world of sharing, a world that longs for community. It is a basic part of our humanity. Remember, in the creation account, everything that God created was good. There was only one thing that was not good. It was not good to be alone. Community can be emphasized in our assemblies not just by having coffee, though great coffee is expected in a Starbucks world. Community is emphasize by sharing stories of God's work amongst his people throughout the week. By displaying Twitter feeds with a church's hashtag, or by asking questions and letting people share through their Iphones. Community can be put in one's tagline, on the website, in one's language in worship. More on community later.

The churches that get this will do far better at reaching the lost and retaining their own children and grandchildren. The "lectureships" that get this will do far better. (Why come hundreds of miles today to just hear a speaker when you can listen to them online?) Create an experience and they will come. And they will invite their friends. Of course, this is not the only thing that has to happen. I am a "missional outreach" guy. I believe in going out and serving and reaching people to my core. But I am more and more convinced that unless we wake up to this experience culture and speak the language of our mission audience, then we will continue to shrink. And I love our fellowship and I love Christ, and I don't want to see this happen. I want our churches to grow. I want my three girls to not have to leave our fellowship to have an experience that touches their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. I want them to have experiences so powerful, that they come back time and time again.

NOTE - This DOES NOT mean that we have to throw away truth or that these are the only things that we need to do. Hardly. But it may mean that if we speak the language of our culture, they may actually listen to our message. I am not at all for watered down messages or fluff. Telling powerful stories of how God is at work--a conversion story, a story of service, a story of living holy lives, a story of spiritual formation in the home, a story of a marriage coming back together--is not fluffy entertainment. These are powerful stories told well and powerfully. And that should impact everyone. And maybe it will help people to listen and "take in" important truths about Christ, baptism, and the Christian walk.

I am sure that at some point flannel graph was considered a new fangled technology. And Power Point. And microphones. And air conditioning and padded pews. (Go back and read early Restoration history--there are tons of railings against padded pews and the like.) Every generation is comfortable with whatever technology/communication medium they grew up with, and uncomfortable with ones that they did not. It is the responsibility of those most mature in Christ to be the most generous in their personal preferences to those who are most in danger of being lost or missed. That is what being incarnational means.

Here is part 2 in this blog post series: Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? Part 2: Failure to Recognize ...

Here is part 3 in this blog post series: Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 3: A Misplaced Identit...

Here is part 1 in a parallel blog post series: Why Do Churches of Christ Have Hope and a Future? - Part 1: A Reawa...

If you are interested in me giving a Missional Outreach Seminar or Spiritual Gifts Seminar in your church, please let me know. I can adjust the schedule or topics to cover the topics that are needed in your church. I am filling out my 2013 calendar right now. Also, you might be interested in the evangelistic Bible study that I have written, the Story of Redemption. www.StoryofRedemption.com. To discover your top five Spiritual gifts, check out my Spiritual gifts website, www.YourSpiritualGifts.com

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Comment by James Nored on February 2, 2013 at 10:59pm

Thanks for the thoughts, Peter. Well, yes, there is a lot of irony in this. Like the fact that I am the Missional Outreach guy, writing on this subject, and that this post has gone viral. I guess if only Nixon could go to China, maybe it takes the Missional Outreach guy to talk about the disconnect in our assemblies and church life. I don't think anyone can accuse me of not calling the church to go out. I still absolutely believe in the importance of this. But I can no longer ignore what is happening and pretend that this does not matter. It does, and the reality of the mass exodus of our younger people and failure to connect with others is beginning to sink in to all of us.

Hey, I did include a picture up there. And I posted some videos below. Man, I have been working on videos all week. But I suppose if I am going to stay true to the spirit of the article and speak to our tribe, prose and lists are what we understand, right? :)

Another irony--tomorrow is our Harvest Sunday, the day in which we give towards all of our outreach efforts.Always good to hear from you, Peter.

Comment by Peter Horne on February 2, 2013 at 10:55pm

James, thanks for the article. If we don't meet (attract) people we can't share the Gospel with them. I know you don't believe the worship service is the only way of doing this. And I agree, it's a good place to start.

None of my 6 brothers and sisters attend CoC/CC despite being raised in a conservative CC. In some cases there isn't one accessible to them. In other cases the local ones are unhealthy. In other cases they went to churches who were more active in the community. I don't think any of them have looked for the church with the best worship services. Of course, since they were raised in the church their priorities may be different from those with no/little church background.

Lastly, you do realise the irony of writing about this and even including an 8 point list without any icons, graphics or videos, right?  ;-)

Comment by Kinney Mabry on February 2, 2013 at 5:01pm

Are elders going to listen and act? Are elders willing to do what ministers suggest that will cause growth? My experience is no.  Most elderships are too scared of loosing even more members for the sake of things that will cause growth.  Sad.  It is time for Elders to get on board with their ministers.  Allow their ministers to do the things necessary to cause growth within the churches. Set your ministers free!!!!!!!!

Comment by James Nored on February 2, 2013 at 2:42pm
Comment by James Nored on February 1, 2013 at 11:28am

Here is a second testimonial video I love. It is the story of Sandy Detherage, who is a great friend of mine who has journeyed with us in helping to bring a lot of younger Christians to faith. In this story--which was also picked up and produced by Bluefish.tv (and my good friend, Clint Loveness)--Sandy talks about sharing his faith at work and viewing his workplace as worship and a mission field. We have to help our people have this awareness of God and others in their lives all the time, and avoid the sacred/secular divide. But that is the subject for another post. :)

Comment by James Nored on February 1, 2013 at 11:21am

Hi guys. I am going to try to respond to each of your comments. This post has been bouncing around so fast that I have not been able to keep up with it! I wanted to post here a few of the really powerful testimonials that I love from our church. This first one is about a man who is baptized with his three sons and is now teaching them and praying with them in his home each day, and who is also reaching out to others through being a kid's basketball coach. This story was picked up by Bluefish.tv, one of the two major Christian video production companies in the US.

Comment by Darin Hamm on February 1, 2013 at 9:49am

I have several random thoughts that will echo some of your other feedback. I agree in some ways and not in others. Yes, the us vs. them mentality must go, false teaching always should. Teaching about stuff that doesn't matter to real world living, agree 100%.


Lights etc.? Lived the lights etc. world for seven years. Feed me feed me feed me. Just changing masters from the don't sing during communion to we need better lighting, a bigger band, a better drummer.


Don't get me wrong, if God calls you to a big band I am not going to go against God, but as the answer I would. I love Acts 12 because in the first part James goes to prison and is killed with a sword (vs. 2) while later Peter is miraculously released from prison. What did Peter do right and James do wrong that led to such drastically different outcomes?


If my memory is correct the average Church of Christ is 100 members, I'm trying to visualize a three screen set-up. I'm guessing some of those have no screen at all.


Something else that strikes me and hits close to home, I hear it all of the time, I appreciate my great Biblical foundation from the Church of Christ but.... Don't misunderstand me, I'm not bashing, but I would say when you go away and find they don't have this foundation and you have kids, you are cheating them out of the same great foundation. Been there done that.


I will be honest, I have three and I don't expect any of them to stay "Church of Christ" but of course I don't care if they are following where Jesus leads.


In the end our fellowship has almost doubled in size over the past year and I'd like to think it is because we love people, no matter who they are or where they have been. But hey tonight we are off to a retreat put on by a Pastor friend of mine from the Bible church in town going with a new follower of Jesus and his son with an assorted past so I clearly don’t fit the logic old school mode.


God bless you James, we go way back and I know you are seeking to do God's will so keep following the Spirits lead and say what needs to be said.

Comment by theophilus.dr on January 31, 2013 at 10:09pm

Matthew is certainly correct in saying the Lord's church is worldwide, and boundaries undoubtedly cut through any group or doctrine or "church directory."  The CoC is beginning to accept that maybe other products of the restoration movement might also actually be of the "church," but the negative momentum created by years of active isolationism still exists, and many (most?) in the CoC still do not understand that God saves and we fellowship (a verb).  God alone determines who has been added to the number in the church; our doctrine does not.  Individuals impact individuals and groups; groups impact groups and larger groups; denominations (or equivalent) - Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, whatever, impact a larger group of people.  The world is impacted by a unified church, not be pieces of the body of Christ spread around like a battlefield.  How's that been working for us?  To the extent that the CoC continues to contribute to the division in the body of Christ is the extent to which it will continue to decline.

Individuals cannot be transformed into the likeness of Christ working alone.  We, alone, are individually transformed when we work together, as the body is collectively transformed into the fullness of Christ.  By dividing the body of Christ, we cut away our own transformation.  Referencing Eph 4 is correct.

As a neuroscientist, I certainly agree that the right brain-left brain notion has no anatomical or electrophysiological basis.  The notion was created about 30 years ago by psychologists and some physicists looking for something to do to stay employed, and the terms are often used by preachers as if that was cutting edge science.  Even so, if one understands that caveat, the concept can have some value in identifying some patterns of thought that seem to be dominant in different people. I try to look at it that way and understand what the person meant to say.  So, that frees me to agree with the concept of what James was trying to say about people in today's culture seeking different things.

Comment by Rick Krug on January 31, 2013 at 9:18pm
Hmmmm, not sure the lack of appeal is in the methods, but in the message. While clearly the COC is shifting and actually merging into mainstream Christianity, it may be that the message is unclear. In many COC, they are answering questions that few are asking.

But here is a more pointed question: does it matter if the COC is shrinking? In truth, Christianity is not growing in America. Maybe there is a bigger question to be asked: why are followers of Jesus not making a greater impact in the first place?
Comment by Matthew Henry on January 31, 2013 at 6:45pm
By the way, brother, I would encourage you to do your research, the left-brain, right brain is a myth:


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