The identity statement of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) states it is “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”
But congregational reporting numbers made available in the annual Disciples of Christ yearbook show that the denomination continues to welcome fewer people to that table – so few that its ability to minister as a nationwide Christian denomination is imperiled in the immediate future.
Church membership shrank to 411,140 in 2017 (down from 497,423, or 17 percent, from 2014), while average worship attendance dropped to 139,936 (down from 177,141, or 21 percent, from 2014). While these figures in themselves are striking, two objective numbers that often serve as future indicators – baptism and transfers in – are even more dramatic. New additions by baptism are at 4,344 (down from 5,808, or 25 percent, from 2014) while additions by transfer are 7,441 (down from 15,111, or 51 percent in 2014), not nearly enough to keep up with deaths and transfers out.
An important caveat about the membership number: the Disciples no longer estimate membership for congregations that do not submit an annual report. So membership numbers – but not attendance, baptisms and transfers – were possibly inflated to begin with in 2014.
The Indianapolis-based denomination does not publicly list the numbers online. I reached out to the Office of General Minister and President which was able to provide me with 2018 yearbook numbers reporting on 2017 activity.
One of several groups that grew out of the Restoration Movement, begun in the early 19th century by Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, the Disciples are the smallest of seven historic oldline Protestant denominations. The denomination has lost two-thirds of its once nearly 2 million membership since the 1960s. Prominent members have included Presidents Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson and James Garfield.
The Churches of Christ – which also trace their history to the Stone-Campbell movement and gradually separated from what became the Disciples of Christ – have also experienced decline, but not nearly to the same degree as their oldline counterparts. The Churches of Christ counts 1,445,856 adherents (down 12 percent from the year 2000).
The Disciples joined with several other oldline Protestant denominations in embracing sexual orientation and gender identity as specially affirmed categories in the church at their 2013 General Assembly. In 2015, the church threatened to pull its convention from Indiana’s capital city after the state approved its own version of the longstanding federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The Disciples have lost about 77 percent of their membership since their high point in 1964 – a higher percentage than any other mainline denomination. The Disciples’ reduced membership is now more in line with small-to-medium sized denominations like the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) or the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), although the latter has posted year-over-year growth for the past five years, unlike the Disciples.