Recent years have been difficult ones for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
One of the original “seven sisters” of mainline Protestant Christianity, the Indianapolis-based denomination has seen repeated declines in membership, attendance, and total number of congregations exacerbated by COVID. Their ability to minister as a denomination of nationwide reach is rapidly fading.
Like other mainline Protestant churches, the denomination reached its pinnacle approaching two million members in the mid-1960s. By 1993, that number had halved, and was again halved by the early 2010s.
By 2019, the DoC was down to 350,618 members and average attendance of 126,217, according to the denominational yearbook, smaller than the mid-sized Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which reports 390,319 members.
COVID restrictions accelerated decline. In 2021 the DoC reported 281,348 members and attendance of 97,402. In 2022, membership again dropped to 277,864 and attendance of 89,894. This final number is the most troubling: many denominations reported some attendance rebound in 2022 after 2020-21 closures, although the gain varies widely. From 2019-2022, there was a 21 percent drop in membership, a cataclysmic rate of decline.
Congregations have also declined (see chart below) from more than 8,000 to now number 3,624. Ministers have hovered around 7,000 since the early 1970s.
North American Context
Mainline Protestants have all experienced uninterrupted decline, as have two large conservative bodies, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod beginning in the late 1990s, and the Southern Baptist Convention beginning in the mid-2000s.
There are exceptions: the Assemblies of God, Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and a handful of smaller denominations including the Wesleyan Church report growth. Additionally, some “mainline-adjacent” conservative offshoots like the Global Methodist Church and Anglican Church in North America are adding to their numbers.
That said, these are denominational outliers in North America. Multiple religious landscape studies show increasing numbers of both “nones” and non-denominational Christians.
Not all denominations will survive this time period. The DoC is in a spiral and will likely halve its membership again by the close of the decade.
Readers of this blog are already familiar with declines in the United Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian (USA) churches. Hard-hit by COVID restrictions, these three belatedly reopened to discover that a good number of their congregants had either dropped regular church attendance or had migrated to churches that more quickly resumed public worship. Each experienced a gradual level of uninterrupted decline across decades, but each continues to have a nationwide presence and a large, if diminished, membership.
That can no longer be said of the DoC. Heavily concentrated in the midwest, more than a third of the denomination’s members can be found in Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri, the early 19th century new frontier where Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander, ministered.
The Road Ahead
An important caveat to this report: nearly every denomination has pockets of vibrant ministry, and I do not expect that every Disciples congregation will be gone in the next decade. Far from it! But the Disciples struggle without a distinctive “brand” (partly due to the ecumenical nature of the movement that emphasized Christian unity).
Renewal organizations, including Disciple Heritage Fellowship, exist to support churches with a common heritage in the Stone-Campbell movement.
It is now common for me to run across other churches meeting in spaces that were once DoC church buildings, even in parts of the United States that experience population growth.
Disciples have firmly moved in a theologically revisionist direction on matters of human sexuality, gender expression, and radical individual moral autonomy. The 2023 General Assembly meeting in Louisville, Kentucky July 29-August 1, 2023 emphasized the “kin-dom of God” rather than God’s Kingdom.
Close to IRD’s offices in downtown Washington, the beautiful National City Christian Church was constructed in the 1930s as the denomination’s national church. Built to accommodate more than a thousand worshippers, the John Russell Pope-designed neoclassical structure is festooned with various iterations of pride/progress flags and Black Lives Matter signage. What it lacks is members, with online participants seeming to be the majority of those counted as attending services. Total membership dropped from 664 in 2019 to 275 in 2021.
Chart data on clergy, members, and churches are taken from the National Council of Churches’ Historic Archive CD and print editions of the Council’s Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. For me information visit the Association of Religion Data Archives.