Disciples Christ Decline

October 15, 2018

Can the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Outlast the Next Decade?

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.

christian church disciples of christAn 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.


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15 Responses to Can the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Outlast the Next Decade?

  1. senecagriggs says:

    One of our older established Disciples of Christ churches in my city , has, in 2 generations, gone from a healthy church pastored by a theologically orthodox gentleman who was there for many, many years, to a liberal gentleman, nice but liberal to a young lady [ they got her for less than the previous pastors] , who was a social worker first then decided she wanted to be a pastor.
    She does not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus.
    from the grave.

    Other than the janitor the 3 paid staffers are females.
    The neighborhood is stable.
    I suspect this is how many churches /denominations die.

  2. David says:

    There seems to be a good deal of gloating or Schadenfreude here regarding the problems of other denominations. I am waiting for an article on how the Cult of Isis has lost it members. This will likely be blamed on the use of priestesses.

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      David, can you point out where opinion is expressed in the article above? This is a report on statistics provided by the denomination, and I don’t see gloating or Schadenfreude, although I may be missing something. Please share what is problematic.

    • Jim Wass says:

      Hello, David. Nor is my feeling shadenfreude. It is much more profound sadness. I was one who felt rejected by the church and walked away 2 years ago. I am reminded of a very prominent professional athlete who has very definite political leanings and supports those causes and candidates. However, he recognizes what the market is and has been known to say “[other political party members] buy sneakers too.” Thus he explains that true diversity honors different viewpoints.

  3. MikeS says:

    Re: mainline churches: if you can get the gist of their message by reading the online NY Times from the comfort of your home, why bother going to the bricks and mortar mainline church?

  4. Todd Collier says:

    First, an excellent report of the current status of this group. Second, Pres. Garfield should probably not be included as a member of this group since he was a member of the Restoration Movement before the division into Disciples and Church of Christ. Thirdly the initial sharp drop in the ’60’s and ’70’s followed a further split in the Disciples movement between the “liberal” and “conservative” wings. The conservatives formed the “Independent Church of Christ/Christian Church” group. I began life in the old Church of Christ and now minister in the Independent movement. They range from indistinguishable from any other “non-denominational” church to “conservative Church of Christ with a piano.” Curious to see where the Restoration Movement goes from here.

  5. Will J says:

    It’s kind of sad that the Disciples of Christ has dwindled. I grew up and was immersed in one but have been a member of the Independent Christian Church since the 1976. Since the late 60’s the D of C has been moving away from the Gospel and more toward social gospel. As the group moved those congregations and/or people who were more Gospel and less social went their own way and became part of the Independent Christian Church. Certainly this is not the only reason but when The Word of God becomes just another belief or value then the Holy Spirit moves people in other directions. I am not suggesting that those members of the Disciples are not believers but rather that when the church looks like the world why not just hang out in the world?

  6. Dado Klinche says:

    The Schadenfreude comment is interesting; in my case I believe in the Restored Church of Jesus Christ with proper priesthood authority that shall fill the earth as prophesied in the Bible, like a stone that keeps rolling. I do not celebrate other denominations failing, but at the same time as I understand the end times not all churches are supposed to stand. One will be lead by Jesus Himself, and the rest had better comport. God bless all of us to find that faith, the one that Christ Himself leads and endorses, to fulfill all scriptural truth.

  7. Eric Holmes says:

    Hi Jeffrey,
    This was a nice read. I am up for commissioning with the DOC next week and remember hearing about the decline since the 60s, largely when the DOC got involved in “Social Justice” issues. Is that what you see, and can you please explain a bit more on the “social gospel aspect mentioned above?

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Hello Eric, I think many of the readers of this blog would draw a direct connection between social justice advocacy and church decline, but I’m not quite ready to go that far. It may be one of multiple contributing factors, alongside a lack of procreation (the single largest driver of religious growth), a lack of evangelism (due to a universalist theology) and a lack of discipleship (necessary to deepen the faith of the believer).

  8. Andy Campbell says:

    I would not make the connection between social justice issues and the decline of the church. I blame the decline of the DOC and other denominations on the same group of people who are responsible for the decline of the nation. In 1964, the DOC was at its peak and it has gone downward ever since. 1964 is significant in that the first generation of Baby Boomers were beginning to assert their independence. The distrust of institutions was beginning. The church was one of the institutions that began to suffer. In addition to the dwindling numbers, church members began giving less to their churches as a percentage of income. Baby Boomers were beginning to practice selfishness and greed above all other things. Tithing was out of the question and any gift to the church was accompanied by demands and conditions. As the church went on, Baby Boomers became the dominant voting block in our nation and became the ones leaving the church in droves and not supporting it in the way their parents or grandparents did. The 1980s saw Baby Boomers controlling the government and the church. The church is the volunteer arm or our total neglect of infrastructure in our nation. People who complain about the social safety net often point to churches to help the poor, knowing full well that they have gutted the church in the same way they have gutted the wealth of this once proud nation. While we don’t like to say the church should cater to younger generations, it will be up to them to save the church. This generation is not equipped.

  9. David Cobb says:

    Disciples/Churches of Christ have been involved in social justice issues since the beginning, certainly long before 1906 when they were recognized separately in the US Religious Census, so that’s not probably a fair correlation to the membership decline.

    Several factors are likely at play, in my opinion, but I don’t have hard data to back it up, just my observations.

    First, I suspect the ecumenical commitment at the heart of Disciples identity has led to increasing openness and respect for other Christian denominations. Baron Stone once wrote in the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery about “dissolving” into the body of Christ at large. After a century or more of focused ecumenical commitments, that may be happening.

    Second, I suspect the fundamentalist/modernist debate from the 1920s took longer to divide Disciples than it did the more centrally-governed traditions. We still struggle with it, even after the schism with the independent Christian churches. We have a common commitment to take scripture as our guide for faith and practice, but literalists and modernists no longer are willing to tolerate each other they the same roof or, sadly, at the same table.

    Third, congregational autonomy, which is historically a Disciples strength, has overshadowed covenantal commitment to stay together despite differences of opinion. We’ve lost the radical call of, “in all things love.”

    Forth, the wider mission agencies of the church have always pushed boundaries on social justice issues from the early days of the Christian Women’s Missionary movement onward, so I don’t think it’s really got anything to do with the perceived distance between the general units of the church and local congregations. Institutional church is an easy target but really just a red herring. More to the point, I think, is a strong libertarian streak in our culture that is challenging all structures that call for mutual accountability and obligation beyond the self. That’s another way to say collective sin is the problem.

    Fifth, by letting ourselves get caught up in the false dichotomies between science and religion, we’ve lost our confidence that religion and reason have anything to do with each other. By pitting irrational religion against secular humanism, we’ve forced a false and ridiculous choice on Christians who want to believe God gave us minds and expected us to use them for good. Younger generations and older ones alike see the folly of this and understandably want nothing to do with church. Campbell and Stone preached a reasonable, humanist Christian faith. Until we do the same, the numbers will keep dropping.

  10. Keith says:

    I am a third generation CCDOC. Ordained 1984. Atlantic Christian College and LTS. I have left the ministry after 38 years. Too many battles. To paraphrase Reagan: I didn’t leave the CCDOC. They left me. I am saddened by the slow suicide of this “Brotherhood.” I appreciate your articles and follow your writings. Ministry and CCDOC is all I ever desired. Now I’m lost.

  11. David says:

    Is the church in the picture Central Christian in Wooster, Ohio? If not, someone is cloning buildings.

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