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 Darryl Willis on December 7, 2014 at 6:09am

One last point to Jim Lovell:

You state,

 The methods prescribed to reach the lost and keep them are unscriptural.  What commands and examples do we have of people obeying the gospel in the New Testament.  Bold and forceful preaching that made people understand their lost condition, from John the Baptist to Jesus to the Apostles the same message was preached.  Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, believe and be baptized for remission of sins.  Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:3, Acts 2:36-39; 9; 14.Look at the response to bold preaching of the gospel.  Show me a response like that today with fluffy preaching and entertainment.

The passages you mention have little to do with the methodology of evangelism and everything to do with the message. It is not "bold preaching" (method) that saves but the message that was proclaimed (Romans 1:16--not bold preaching, but the message of the good news is God's power for salvation...1 Corinthians 1:21--literally not "preaching" but the message preached). Again, even the bold preaching you mentioned was not done during a "worship assembly". It was more in line with street evangelism. So by your own count it would be unbiblical to have quiet evangelistic conversations in coffee shops because their is no example or command of anyone meeting in a Starbucks to evangelize.

Furthermore, there is no command, example or inference for church owned property, song books, announcements, projection of any kind for any event (e.g., Bible classes, seminars, retreats), sound systems--there is no command, example, or inference for speaking English, computers, use of videos outside of the assembly for evangelism, or meeting anywhere for  taking the Lord's Supper other than in an upper room, etc.

There is an example for dialogical preaching (conversational where the audience  interacts in the assembly). In fact, I think it may be only example we have of a Sunday morning assembly sermon in Acts.20:7--the word for "preach" in "Paul preached until midnight" is the Greek word not for lecture or "proclamation" but for dialogue (in fact it is where the English word "dialogue" comes from). But there is no example I know of in a worship assembly for a lecture-style sermon.

You are right, Christianity is never about self. It is about serving others. Philippians 2: "Do not look out after your own interests but after the interests of others..."

Comment by Darryl Willis on December 6, 2014 at 11:56pm

Jonathan Granger: I appreciate your perspective on this. And I especially agree with this statement you made:

What may be surprising is some younger folks are actually seeking out traditional forms of worship and for good reason. They see the commercialization of the church, the highly scripted performances, and the sparse reading of scripture. This is what I love about the Church of Christ we attend – lot's of scripture gets covered each Sunday with little fanfare or worldly marketing ploy.

That is my observation, too. Except I see many are seeking out traditional forms by way of "high church" with very structured liturgy (a la Anglican, Orthodox, & Catholic). Some want to see "mystery" brought back to worship. They see an over-commercialization that seems to diminish our view of God. This is not a recommendation or condemnation: just an observation.

I also agree that what makes more of an impact is the hospitality and relationships that are part of a church community. This is what people are looking for: all ages of people. They want authentic friendships and relationships. They want to know they matter to someone.

We have so focused on assembly as if this is the end-all-and-be-all of Christianity. One-three hours a week? This is what Jesus died for? Or did he die and resurrect to create a people who would participate in his rescue and reclamation of creation--to bring God's will to earth as it is in heaven?

I am not suggesting that assembly is unimportant. It is important--but it is not the totality of Christianity. We must reclaim God's mission--which involves transformation into the image of Christ in our day-to-day lives. Some one recently said that obedience to God is not about fulfilling a legal obligation--but obedience is part of God's transformative work in our lives. Somehow our obedience to God is supposed to be part of the transformation process that He accomplishes in us. That involves much more than one-to-three hours a week.

Comment by Darryl Willis on December 6, 2014 at 8:51pm

Jim Lovell you said "granted young people, 18-35 year olds, need saving but nobody cares what they want."

That is a very sad statement to read. It is also clear this is a major problem. Frankly it isn't just 18-35 year olds. Honestly, more 18-25 year olds tend to be more attracted to a "high church" format with ritual and mystery. It is my experience that those who want more of what James has mentioned are the baby boomers my age (50s-mid-60s).

How does "making preaching biblical" point 5 an "unbiblical method"? or "dimming the lights" we did that in churches of Christ in the 60s all of the time (I remember) when we prayed and took the Lord's Supper. How is power point different from carasol slide projectors, chalk boards, and large flannel boards some preachers were fond of using in the 60s & 70s? How does "emphasizing community" (in light of the first several chapters of the book of Acts) demonstrate and unbiblical method?

Frankly, I think power point is overused. But it isn't any more anti-biblical than a building, a song book, or a flannel graph. There are no biblical examples or commands for most of what we do in assembly. In fact, what examples do we have of conversions happening during a worship assembly or even for the focus of an assembly to be primarily evangelism?

Frankly I care what communicates with young people--and old people--and middle aged people. This is a matter of how do people communicate and learn. So it is essential for us to use all possible communication methods to connect. These are not matters of faith but matters of expediency.

Comment by Jonathan Granger on December 5, 2014 at 9:54am

This discussion is of great interest to me. My family and I have been attending a Church of Christ for the last year. I really like the acapella singing and can understand the old fashioned perception about the overall experience. I say experience, because regardless of whether a church uses cutting edge technology and dims the lights, or a traditional setup with bright lighting – both are designed to create an experience. The disagreement seems largely over what the experience should be.

Personally, I care very much what 18 – 35 year olds think. I care because they are going to be the one's making the decisions much sooner than we might want to accept. After all, we are talking about adults who should make up about a fifth of the church population! Unless there is direct biblical guidance to the contrary, we should communicate to young people in a language they understand and are receptive to.

Yet, we should not focus on creating an experience at the expense of pleasing God, and certainly not one that is tailored to only one generation. The Bible is packed full of multi-generational worship and heritage, which has allowed prophesy to be passed down over many centuries. Only a bond between old and young (along with divine providence) allows this to happen. Whatever course is chosen it must not separate these two groups into separate worship. I know many churches are doing this today, but they might as well have two separate churches at this point (although one would be broke for sure!)

What may be surprising is some younger folks are actually seeking out traditional forms of worship and for good reason. They see the commercialization of the church, the highly scripted performances, and the sparse reading of scripture. This is what I love about the Church of Christ we attend – lot's of scripture gets covered each Sunday with little fanfare or worldly marketing ploy.

Truly, what I often enjoy is the fellowship after the service. People don't head for the doors like in so many churches, and the one thing that really sticks out is the number of people who will invite you over to their home for dinner. This cultivates real relationships, which as previously mentioned are what many people seek.

I think there are larger issues at work within the Lord's church, and this is perhaps fitting for another discussion tailored beyond independent churches of Christ. This said, the things happening within the churches of Christ are of significant interest to me, because this is where I see people living close to the written Word. This is attractive and resonates with me - it's an experience unto itself.

Comment by Jim Lovell on May 29, 2014 at 11:47am

Very dangerous article for four reasons:1)  We cannot increase the size of the Lord's church.  He will only add those that believe and are baptized.  Acts 2:47.  What does this mean?  It is not within our power to change someones heart by what we offer in any type of "experience".  But some will say we are suppose to share the gospel and be an example to bring the lost to Christ.  Exactly!  And we must look to the New Testament example for the pattern which leads to point number two.

2)  The methods prescribed to reach the lost and keep them are unscriptural.  What commands and examples do we have of people obeying the gospel in the New Testament.  Bold and forceful preaching that made people understand their lost condition, from John the Baptist to Jesus to the Apostles the same message was preached.  Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, believe and be baptized for remission of sins.  Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:3, Acts 2:36-39; 9; 14.Look at the response to bold preaching of the gospel.  Show me a response like that today with fluffy preaching and entertainment.

3)  The focus is solely on young people.  Granted young people, 18-35 year olds, need saving but nobody cares what they want.  All I hear today is young people this and young people that.  We have raise a generation of people who only care about themselves and what they want out of worship and everyone else, including our wise and knowledgeable elders, are ignored.  This is called narcissism and it is the parents fault.  Christianity is never about self and all about sacrificing for others and respecting our elders for their guidance. By the way I'm 38 so I'm stuck in the middle but see the dangerous road our young people are heading down.

4)  Emphasis is placed upon an "experience" during worship.  Since the young people is everyone's focus we try to give them what they want.  They want lights, music, action and a theatrical experience because that is what moves them and makes them happy.  Worship has nothing to do with pleasing us and everything to do with pleasing God,  Exodus 29:18, Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17.  Worship is about a worship that pleases God.  If we worship how we are suppose to and God is pleased we cannot help but be edified and encouraged.  If this is what it takes to save and preserve worshipers then what are we to do in areas or churches where these funds are not available our countries without electricity?

I admire your efforts to bring people to Christ but I beg that you examine your Bible to determine what has always brought people to Christ and study history to see what has always brought people to Christ.  The gospel is what saves and brings people to Christ.  Goodies and flashy things may swell your numbers but they will not increase the size of the Lord's church.  Take away the goodies and flashy electronics and they will leave just as the people left Jesus when he stopped feeding bread.

There are many reasons we are in decline and I'll give you three reasons, lack of intolerance of sin, lack of self-sacrifice and lack of submission especially to elders.  Obviously these reasons are deep and require much more space than I have.  But the world hears us say we are different, but we don't look different, we don't talk different and participate in the same things the world participates in.  The world sees a group of hypocrites and that is not attractive to anyone to join.  The world needs to see a group of people that are different, a called out people, a holy nation of living sacrifices.  If people, young or old, see that they will join if their heart is made of fertile soil.  If not, they will reject God's word no matter what we do. 

Thank you for you times and I hope I have stimulated some good conversation as we both are concerned about the declining numbers in the Lord's church.

Comment by Jayaraj.E on July 12, 2013 at 7:56am

Excellent article with full of information and advises to be implemented in the Churches of Christ throughout the world ..

Thank you Brother

Comment by James Nored on July 11, 2013 at 10:28am

Well, this blog post is now nearing 40,000 views. I have been encouraged that so many have said that they have used this post to generate discussion and thought about how to reach younger generations today. I hope that the other posts in this series are also looked at in these discussions, as this post is just one part of the puzzle.

I am saddened over those who insist that any type of attempt to use current communication methods and address the "right brain/left brain" disconnect in our fellowship is "entertainment." That is a loaded word, implying meaningless, mindless dribble. That is hardly what I advocate, as one can read above. Powerfully telling God's story in a holistic, current way that speaks to both the head and the heart is what I hope to see us do more of.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Let's keep the dialogue open.

Comment by Darryl Willis on April 25, 2013 at 11:35pm
James--we agree on that! 8^)

Using text on slides (and especially charts with tons of data) is certainly counter-productive and horribly ineffective. But that misuse of power point isn't what I am speaking of.

Even those of us who utilize image based slides and avoid text based slides have rarely heard anyone suggest we need more slides rather than less. In fact, I have been working harder to use less slides and integrate more interaction. Communispond, a professional presentation organization has been advancing this for years.

Power point or video or technology tend to be over used in every aspect of our lives (education, sales, workplace reports). We become overloaded. The overuse of technology makes it less effective. I say this as someone who uses quite a bit of technology including social media as a communication tool. But as we are seeing it is a poor substitute for relationships. This is why I believe relationship is the overlooked element when speaking of church growth. It isn't the flavor of your assembly--it is the integration of a human being with a community he or she knows loves and cares about him or her.

I don't think you are suggesting that technology is more important than relationships, so I hope I'm not giving the impression that I think you do. I'm just suggesting again that church growth has much less to do with power point and video and technology than we might think.
Comment by James Nored on April 25, 2013 at 11:10pm

Many people misuse Powerpoint. It should primarily be image based, not text based.

Comment by Darryl Willis on April 25, 2013 at 11:03pm
Oh and by the by, when I was actively involved in youth ministry, I tended to avoid video as much (I did use it, though along with a host of other experiential type of activities) for the simple reason that kids were so innundated with media, that it became less effective with them. Not using video was more innovative. Retreats where we banned media became wonderful times of rest and reflection for the kids.

I've noticed similarities with power-point. I've never heard anyone after a presentation I've delivered say, "You know, that was great, but what I really think it needed was one more slide on your power point!" 8^)

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