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.


12 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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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

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