Disciples of Christ

August 31, 2017

Membership Crash at Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

NBC News has a notable story this week about Teresa Hord Owens, the first black woman to lead the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination. Significant news about the group’s membership is also in the report.

Owens may or may not be the first black woman to lead a Mainline Protestant denomination (depending on how executive leadership is defined within churches of differing polities) but reporter Mashaun D. Simon seems to have “buried the lede” quite far down in the NBC coverage. Quoting Disciples Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications Cherilyn Williams, the story reports:

“We have 450,425 participating members reported, but not all congregations report numbers so this is an educated guess,” she said. “There are 2,066 persons who are coded as pastor or student pastor of a congregation. Of that number, 522 are women; 275 are African-American and 82 are African-American women.”

Presumably Williams is citing information from the denomination’s 2017 yearbook (that must be purchased to view).

In 2007, the denomination had reported membership of 689,507. The most recent publicly available data on the denomination is from the 2014 yearbook, posted that year by blogger Derek Penwell, the yearbook reported 497,423 members.

Disciples of ChristSo the denomination has declined by 46,998 members since 2014, a drop of 10 percent, and by 239,082 members since 2007, a drop of 35 percent in the past decade. While not the worst drop among the “seven sisters” of Mainline Protestantism (that dubious honor currently goes to the Presbyterian Church (USA) which has dropped 5.71 percent each year for the past two reporting years) a 10 percent drop from 2014-2017 is a stark rate of decline for the Disciples. The Association of Religion Data Archives has membership data from 1925-2010 view-able here. According to records, the denomination has dropped from a high of 8,081 churches in 1965 to 3,624 in 2010, a decline of 55 percent. Attendance is also tracked, with the 2014 report listing an average worship attendance of only 177,141 persons.

The Disciples of Christ recently held its biennial General Assembly in Indianapolis July 8-12. Readers of this blog may recall that denominational officials had earlier threatened to pull their convention from Indiana after the state legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Then-Disciples General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins argued in a letter that under the state law some church members “might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection” under the law, which was quickly repealed under strong pressure from business interests.

The Disciples of Christ jointly shares a public policy advocacy office with the United Church of Christ, frequently staking out politically liberal positions. In 2015, Watkins was among a group of 44 Religious Left officials releasing a statement calling for continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in the United States. In 2013, the Disciples General Assembly joined with several other Mainline Protestant denominations in embracing sexual orientation and gender identity as specially affirmed categories in the church.

The Disciples are the smallest of seven Protestant churches historically classified as Mainline. The denomination has lost three-quarters of its once nearly 2 million membership since the 1960s. Prominent members have included Presidents Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson and James Garfield.


34 Responses to Membership Crash at Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

  1. Larry E Collins says:

    Another “mainline Protestant church” that has watered down the message of the Bible, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and traded evangelism (their birthright) for social progressivism (a bowl of porridge).
    I’m wondering if these mainline churches will wake up to the fact that they are increasingly irrelevant. People don’t need another social club – even one with pretty music, pretty robes, and pious words. What they need and want is the Church of Jesus Christ boldly proclaiming truth. Otherwise, why bother.
    But I fear the downward spiral will continue because they have neither a clue as to what the problem is nor any idea how to solve it.

    • David says:

      Don’t know what gospel you’ve been reading, but social justice has always been a priority in Jesus’ teachings and throughout the whole Bible.
      As for anyone who doesn’t prioritize such things, they should read Matthew chapter 7, which explains why there are so few genuine followers and what will happen to the rest.

  2. Louis Alverides says:

    When you tear down moral fences, you better understand why they were there in the first place. Liberal religious leaders want to advocate everything that goes against the teaching of our Lord. Subsequently they pat themselves on the back for their stance and at the same time, while members are leaving in record numbers. How unfortunate, and this really reflects their SECULAR way of living and thinking under the guise of the Christian banner.

    • Dave says:

      So here’s the deal: being a Christian or a Jew means caring about the welfare of others and doing something about it.
      If you don’t know that, better read the book again.
      And pay siecual attention to Matthew 7.

    • Dave says:

      Lots of Jesus’ followers left too, including the rich young ruler.

  3. rt says:

    Hmm, I thought Mainline meant a denomination that existed before the founding of the United States, which by the way makes the UMC borderline in that regard. My, how definitions change.

  4. D Wallace says:

    Depart from proclaiming and teaching Truth, the gospel of the Son of God incarnate, crucified, and risen for the justification, freedom, and life of sinners, the true center of human history, and the Truth and Life will depart from you.

    Theological liberalism = No life, no power, no truth, no point. All that remains is just empty, dead, powerless ritual.

    So we humans don’t need more “religious” social clubs, just the truth accurately, fully proclaimed and taught in the power of the Holy Spirit as He sovereignly saves whom He will through those means.

    • Dave says:

      Jesus spent most of his time in the gospels preaching about caring for the poor, the needy, healing the sick, and calling out religious hypocrites who failed to do any of these things.
      The things you mention are all to do with white southern evangelical fake Christians. You know, the same ones who thought slavery and Jim Crow were part of God’s plan.
      Those people are in hell.

  5. William Webber says:

    Those responding above are probably right-wing Christian control freaks who are evangelicals. Modern-day evangelicals do not at all follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Instead, they congratulate themselves for being the modern-day pharisees that they are. And we certainly know what Jesus thought about those guys, eh? Evangelicals, who are (as you can see above) “so correct” in their phony baloney Biblical literalism, are always quite ready to criticize those who do not happen to agree with their limited view of the Kingdom of God. They take shots at the more progressive denominations such as The Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) and will pay for that in the future. Many are already paying for it. Many of their children see the hypocrisy of these evangelicals, and do not continue with their denominations into adulthood. And evangelicals these days find themselves becoming more and more isolated in American culture because of their continued ignorance, judgemental attitudes, and due to the spiritual violence that they perpetrate upon the rest of Christendom. May God have NO mercy upon these hypocrites. And may The Disciples of Christ turn the corner, grow, and thrive in this new millennium.

  6. Matthew Ray says:

    I find it particularly troubling that the folks writing these articles seem so eager to dance on the graves of the mainline Protestant movement, when there are declines in evangelical and fundamentalist segments as well. These modern day Pharisees would love to see anyone who dares to think differently, look different, or believe differently fail…and go to “hell”. This is not a mark of Christian love, as defined by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. I pray for folks like the author of this article, that they will learn to live in peace with their fellow Christian in the mainline churches, instead of engaging in a smear campaign of hate and fear.

    • Scott says:

      Sorry, I see no hate and fear in this article. The author is simply stating facts – and facts do not lie. In the last 50 years the DOC has lost 67% of its membership. There has to be an underlying reason for this. Having served as pastor in both Independent and DOC Christian Churches, I can safely say that part of the reason for the decline is self-evident. When you cut yourself off from the Vine (abandon God’s moral paradigms) then you will die. It’s as simple as that.

      • David West says:

        I find each Christian Denomination has their own unique differences. Yes we may disagree in interpretation, but we do agree in Jesus Christ as the Son of God ; divine savior for all who will listen and open the door when you hear Christ Knocking. The decline we see involves many different issues and not solely theological. I would highlight the fact the comments here are attacking other Christians who proclaim they follow the Love and Grace of God seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. I stand by the Disciples of Christ and the UCC because they seek to help all no matter where they are in their “life’s Journey” to realize their divine connection with God as seen through the Holy Scriptures, the Bible, the Inspired Word of God. The Word through which we can discern through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

        When we start to attack each other then we show those of the world how we are merely clanging cymbals rather than centered arm and arm with God – living as examples of God’s Love and Grace! (1 Cor. 13 – Love Chapter).

      • Mrs. R says:

        AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Right on Brother-you nailed it!
        As a DoC church member I thank God ea DoC church is autonomous.
        There is a faction within our assembly that call themselves progressives; disapproving messages from the Word that “offend” them. Ironically, we are receiving folks from local churches where “progressive” action is accommodated! Some people WANT to hear God’s Word as it is written!
        This faction presents no surprise however, as said by others here, “progressives” have been an issue forever. This is predicted as part of End Times. I am proud to be a believer of the Word-as it is written-not as man wants it to be.

    • Donald says:

      Matthew – What do you have to say to those saints of old who left thousands of dollars that these erstwhile ‘leaders’ have squandered in their failed efforts to be relevant? If you cannot must any sense of anger toward such failures in fiduciary trust, I doubt you are capable of acknowledging the fundamentalism and self-righteousness that infects these progressive/leftist leaders.

  7. Ralph Weitz says:

    Please note that I have taught on the decline of the Mainline churches for the past 20 years. I grew up as a teenager in the Lutheran Church. I left in order to find spiritual life. My confirmation class was over 50 combined with the preceding and succeeding classes we numbered over 150, yet the high school SS class numbered about 10. When I teach on the demise of the seven sisters, I always note two things. It brings me no joy in noting their decline, since these denominations where not that long ago vibrant spiritual testimonies to the power of the gospel. Second there still remains godly pastors, members and churches that speak boldly for the biblical message of the resurrection of Jesus.

  8. Keith Andrews says:

    There has been a growing disconnect between grass roots congregational representation of the true identity of the original “Brotherhod” and those academicians who’ve hijacked the denomination!

    This is why I was black-balled in Alabama as a pastor.

  9. Dwight Kessler says:

    I left the Christian Church Disciples of Christ because of the fruits of the spirit. The idea, clearly stated in the Book of Galatians that they would never see heaven if they did not change their worldly ways to the behavior of the fruits of the spirit was totally rejected by fellow clergy in this denomination.

    • Dave says:

      The “fruits of the Spirit” as defined by scripture is the caring for the poor and needy.
      It has nothing to do with what many on the right consider to be piety.

  10. Jim Wakelin, pastor says:

    Wow! How disheartening to see such division and biting in the church as a whole. We live in a day when it is “the thing to do” criticize and even demonize those who are brothers & sisters in Christ not by what any of us have done but by what Christ did on the cross. I speak from a history of over 125 years of service in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) between my uncle, my father, and myself. I believe we come to worship with our head and our hearts engaged with the discipline to strive to see things not from our preferred perspective but from God’s perspective (pursuing a Godly life), other’s perspective (empathetic understanding), and the realization and humility of understanding that none of us have it all figured out, especially me. May God help us as we continue to be fragmented body looking for wholistic (sic) healing

  11. Eliot says:

    Interesting data and disheartening to say the least. While we argue about the causes of our declining churches, the number continue to fall. In my experience people leave when they feel disconnected, a few will do so because of doctrine, but a meaningful sense of community is not so easily abandoned. I’m afraid some of our ideas of how to relate to the world have led us away from the very things that would otherwise make us relevant in the lives of those who are drawn to the Gospel. The article is very good and invites me to engage in some honest introspection. Thank you Mr. Walton

  12. D.L. Jackson says:

    The DOC church I attend in Charlotte has a fine minister and congregation but, like the rest of the national church as described here it is withering and dying before our eyes. 40 people in attendance is a good Sunday, and the average age is close to 70. The services are drab and funerial, with most of the congregation dressed as if for a softball game. All the church has to offer is a profound but stark liberalism that any Unitarian would envy. That’s not enough, and the church is dying from spiritual, social, and intellectual starvation.

    • anonymous says:

      The church I attend is as you describe, as well. I genuinely like the minister as a person, however, the language of post – modernism creeps up often in his writings and statements. Distributive justice, underlying patriarchal power structure, micro-aggressions, gender and what not.

  13. Carolyn Gibson says:

    I work for a DOC church and am a Methodist by baptism. I am saddened by the turn to liberalism by my employer. Most of the old timers who attend here, who’s parents introduced them to the DOC as a conservative church, are turning a blind eye to what is happening. Politics are alive and well in the DOC church and administration. A local DOC pastor wrote an article in his church’s newsletter about “words matter” and then slammed the current Administration as if the words by Liberals, such as Maxine Waters, are ok. Most newsletters/articles that come from the State DOC or the Indianapolis DOC have some sort of political spin to it. My question to them: what if a Conservative goes to your church but disagrees with your politics? You preach that the DOC welcomes everybody but do you welcome Conservatives, well maybe only if they don’t mind listening to your rant on Liberal politics. Should you not be teaching love and understanding and not being judgmental about your leaders instead of “sign this petition about illegal immigrants being separated from their parents.”? If you want to do that on your personal time, fine…but keep it out of church newsletters and off your website. There is a reason for the separation of church and State. My employer says are churches are political now. Really???

    • Jane says:

      Conservatives are rarely if ever welcomed. There has for several generations been a sense of spiritual arrogance at the higher denominational level, that somehow sociological, cultural and popular trends trump scripture. And when at regional and nationals levels, the activists there get to vote on what is sin and what is not, it becomes entirely disingenuous. No wonder membership has gone down by 70%! Lord have mercy on our souls!

  14. Donald says:

    I find it interesting there are a number of people decrying the statement of facts about the decline in this and in other “mainline” denominations, as though either avoiding facing them outright or asking for more “understanding, compassion, etc.” for such losses will somehow return these denominations to faithfulness.

    Sorry, Charlie. Those of us who value truth will not bite on that hook. The leadership in these denominations have failed in their fiduciary responsibilities to both Christ and their earthly employers. Sadly, these “leaders” still consider themselves wise enough to tell secular leaders how to conduct their businesses and otherwise manage their affairs. The word for this is arrogance. Nothing will cure this arrogance except the purgation that awaits all of us in the next life.

  15. Survivor in Ohio says:

    Being a survivor of clergy abuse in this denomination I can tell you this denomination/retired minister has never claimed responsibility so those members left with I being one of them. Maybe if they would take that responsibility so one can forgive and move on might bring some back.

  16. David Miller says:

    The Disciples of Christ has been hijacked by Feminazi’s. The women have ruined the denomination, just like everything else they manage. God warned us about the wicked women. Look at what Eve did.

    • anonymouse says:

      “Feminazi” is correct. David. I was a DOC church music director for 31 years, the last 22 with a feminist minister. She didn’t realize she was a fundamentalist because the religion wasn’t Christianity, it was feminism. 22 years of milquetoast sermons where the pulpit was merely a platform to preach “woman good, man bad”.
      As the attendance dwindled and (literally) died. I changed from being an active member to keeping my mouth shut (no voting) and simple functioning a service provider like the utilities company. Lastly, I knew I had to explain to my young son (10 y/o attending sermons with adults) what an agenda the minister had, that I didn’t agree and teach him why. This problem solved itself as the church went “out of business” a year later.

      • t Smith says:

        I have heard of several Disciple of Christ congregations dropping their affiliation to join the Christian Church/Church of Christ group.

  17. Dale says:

    Several of my relatives were leaders in the Disciples denomination in the 1960’s when it was more sound.
    This group is nearly apostate today if it is not. if a group
    cannot agree on simple Bible truths such as that homosexuality is sin, 1 Cor 6, and Christian marriage is only
    between and man and a women, and gender roles for
    leadership roles for women, 1 Timothy 2, it deserves to
    die. Women can do many things in ministry, but teaching
    men is not one of them. President Obama’s denomination,
    The United Church of Christ, sort of led the way concerning
    apostate denominations. Is it sad, yes, they have left the authority of scripture for yes.

  18. HR Cook says:

    I feel that the DOC has lost it’s calling due to it’s weak liberal stances! I was an elder in the church but I had to leave because it can’t uphold God’s scripture. Christ is the head of the church not someone in Indiana who sends down an Ok to soft pedal Christ’s message and change God’s word to Ok behavior we clearly know is wrong. No wonder Christian brothers are leaving the DOC.

  19. Kent Griffen says:

    This is a misnomer, because most of the membership of the Disciples of Christ is still meeting together as a body under a different name. They call themselves North American Christian Convention. The denomination was a basically conservative group. When leftists took leadership they reassembled under a different umbrella.

  20. Tracy says:

    The church I attend is strongly involved in community service and outreach, and it goes out of its way to provide congregants opportunities to give of themselves, just as Christ commanded and modeled. But, unlike the modern social justice gospel (“another gospel,” as the apostle Paul would call it) churches, it doesn’t stop there. This church preaches the gospel of faith in Jesus Christ and repentance, and its teaching is grounded in sound biblical teaching–including the teaching that none of our works, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, can save us.

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