Oldline Protestant denominations make for a competitive peer group, but the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is on track to claim the top spot for fastest declining major U.S.-based church last year.
Total membership declined from 411,140 in 2017 to 382,248 (-7%) while average worship attendance declined from 139,936 to 124,437 (-11%) according to numbers reported for 2018. Baptisms dropped from 4,344 to 3,782 (-13%) while the number of other additions (including transfers in) declined from 7,441 to 6,969 (-6.4%).
At the current rate, the denomination will shrink by another 50 percent within a decade. This annual rate of decline exceeds that of the Presbyterian Church (USA) which reported a nearly 5 percent membership drop for the year 2018 and held the distinction of “fastest declining” for much of the decade.
The dramatic decline doesn’t appear to be registering among top denominational officials.
“I am genuinely hopeful for the future of this Church,” wrote the Rev. Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens, General Minister and President in an August 15 reflection following the denomination’s biannual General Assembly. “I saw signs of life and growth everywhere, of Disciples who are learning to abide whether that means waiting with expectation or tarrying a while in the Presence.”
Owens described the denomination’s members as “primed for growing into what the Lord has in mind for us – to become a healing, helping force for good in this fragmented world.” Addressing sustained decline that has shed 80 percent of members since the denomination crested in 1964 did not appear to be a concern: “We must continue to abide, to remain, to persist.”
Denominational officials strongly embrace social justice causes. At a post-Assembly rally at the Iowa Capitol, Disciples’ public policy groups joined with ecumenical and interfaith partners on the religious left to proclaim support for government directed poverty alleviation programs. The denomination also embraces a sanctuary movement to shield illegal immigrants from law enforcement, supports LGBT causes, and partners with an “Indigenous womxn-led collective” to “shift social and environmental paradigms by dismantling colonial institutions and replacing them with Indigenous practices.”
The July 20-24 General Assembly gathering in Des Moines, Iowa included a resolution to receive the gifts of those with “gender-diverse identities”.
“God is further known to us as the male-bodied Jesus embodying God’s feminine Wisdom; and as the non-gendered Spirit,” the resolution reads.
The shrinking denomination has not engaged in public discussion about a potential merger with another church body, but did vote to enter a full-communion ecumenical relationship with the United Church of Canada. The agreement allows for the free movement of clergy between the churches, and recognizes each’s sacraments of Baptism and Communion. Both churches already have a similar agreement with the United Church of Christ (UCC), which also shares a public policy office with the Disciples.
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. Prominent members have included Presidents Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson and James Garfield. You can view my coverage of the Disciples’ 2016 membership report here and 2017 report here.
The 2018 numbers were provided by the Office of General Minister and President and appear in the 2019 Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) yearbook. One caveat with these numbers: the denomination changed to an online reporting format this year and experienced a small decline in reporting congregations. The denomination does not estimate for congregations that do not report, unlike some denominations that roll over the previous year’s congregational report if new information is not received.