The Sky Isn’t Falling

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation on the campus of Freed-Hardeman University.  The Christian Higher Education Foundation, representing colleges and universities affiliated with Churches of Christ, commissioned Dr. Flavil Yeakley to study the post-high school years of our young people related to their spiritual growth.  (Dr. Yeakley’s presentation, along with his PowerPoint slides will be made available for download on Freed-Hardeman’s website in the near future).

Dr. Yeakley presented several interesting facts that I wish to share with you.  Not only did he share information about our young people, but about churches of Christ in general.  Here are some of the statistics that he shared:

  • Churches of Christ constitute the 12th largest religious group in America.
  • Churches of Christ are the 6th fastest growing church in America.
  • Churches of Christ rank 4th in the nation in total number of congregations.
  • Churches of Christ rank 5th in the nation in number of counties in which there is a congregation.
  • Churches of Christ rank 1st in the nation in distribution of congregations.
  • Churches of Christ rank 1st in the nation in weekly attendance among its membership.

That’s a far cry from the gloom and doom propaganda that some have been preaching.  So much for the talk that we must embrace certain innovations if we want to grow and be remain relevant. 

Another interesting tid-bit from Dr. Yeakley’s research was that the greatest retention rate of young people following graduation from high school comes from congregations who are described as “middle of the road,” whereas the worst retention rate of young people comes from congregations who are described as “much more liberal.”

Friends, while we certainly have room for improvement, these statistics prove that we’re doing some things right.  While we need to be warned and sometimes criticized, we also need to be encouraged, strengthened, and patted on the back.  Take a child from the time he is old enough to understand words, and give him constant criticism.  Tell him how he is no good, and how other children are better than him.  Tell him that he is worthless, and that he has not and cannot achieve anything worthwhile.  What impact do you think this would have on the self-image and productivity of that child?

Likewise, take a church, and for an extended period of time, do nothing but criticize it.  Tell it how it is no good.  Tell it how other “churches” are better than it.  Tell it that it is irrelevant, legalistic, and graceless.  Tell it that it cannot achieve anything worthwhile.  Now what kind of impact do you think this would have on the self-image and productivity of that church?  I would suggest the same.

These statistics aren’t given so that you will have something about which to brag, but rather are given to encourage you to “keep your hand to the plow” and help you to realize that you are making a positive impact in the world.

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Comments 34

  • This is great news that I am going to share with the congregation. As I love the success of “middle of the road congregations.” As a body of Believers we must remain healthy in all aspects of Christianity. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Steve, I really appreciate all the work you do, and count it a personal privilege to have a friend like you. I enjoyed the bulletin article regarding the condition of the church in this present day. Appparently, we are in a better position that some, even of our own, seem to think
    You are a beloved brother.


  • I thank God for brethren who are working hard like you. We aren’t perfect. We aren’t all we want to be or need to be; but we aren’t lame either. We can be proud of our efforts, considering the devil is our enemy.


  • Steve,

    Thanks for the helpful information. I am going to use the stats and some the thoughts in a bulletin article. I will give credit by citing your blog address. Keep up the good work.
    Josh Ketchum

  • Steve, Good article. However, I’m not clear on how we can be 4th in number of congregations and 1st in distribution????

  • Hi Ben,
    Thanks for your comment. The answer to your question is that this statistic demonstrates that the congregations are not all clustered together in one general location. In other words, not all of our congregations are clustered in one state, but are distributed throughout the U.S. In fact, according the Dr. Yeakley’s stats, we are more evenly distributed than any other religious body. To me, that speaks of our willingness and desire to be evangelistic.

    Hope that helps to clear up your question.

  • […] to an article by Steve Higginbotham, posted on, Yeakley surveyed where the church stands in relation to other religious […]

  • The church in Brookings, SD almost parallels these stats. But we are likely the smallest church in town, but percentage wise the most active.

    Although we had a dry well for a couple years and several families moved away, 2007 was a good year.

    We had five baptisms (only one was a family member in the congregation) and three restorations and a new family moved in from Idaho and a man from Michgan too.

    Last year our attendance averaged 22. Now we are nearly 40 and have 1-3 visitors nearly every Sunday.

    Our attendance on Sunday is 100% each week unless someone is ill or travelling. This is especially good in light that 3/4 of the congregation lives from 20-35 miles away from Brookings. My how the Christians love to come together. With such distances, even our Wednesday night attendance touches 20.

    Say Amen!!

  • Thanks for your comments, James! It’s great to hear such good news. Keep up the good work!

  • Steve,

    Great news! I appreciate the article. The question I had concerns the statistic that we are number 1 in weekly attendance of our membership. Does that mean we have the highest percentage of our members attending?

    Donnie Bates

  • Thanks for the encouraging news. It is nice to hear something besides the “gloom and doom” story some within the brotherhood paint. It reminds me that things are not always as they seem, much like in the case of Elijah in I Kings 19 when he wrongly thought he was alone in service to God. It is so encouraging to be reminded that we are not losing.

  • Donnie,
    Yes, you are correct. That statistic that states we are #1 in attendance is not based on total number of attenders, but is based upon the percentage of members who attend.

  • I hate to be a whistle blower (though I am a bit skeptic by nature 🙂 but these statistics don’t tell me anything.

    Being the 6th fastest growing church group in the US does not mean we are growing fast. We may rank 4th in distribution of congregations and 5th in distribution among counties but that does not say what the average attendance of these congregations are.

    I cannot speak for every geographical area in the U.S.A. but I grew up in the Chicago area and at the beginning of the 21st century the CoC represented less than 1/10 of the greater Chicago metro area population (NE Illinois & NW Indiana).

    What give me hope is that at our Universities and colleges, students are beginning to graduate and be part of a domestic church planting team. That is, we are finally actually accepting (and not giving lip service to) the reality that the U.S.A. is no more, no less Christian than any other nation and like all other nations, it is just as much of a mission field. I believe these church planting efforts are happening among both the more progressive and the more traditional (and there is a place and need for both). May such efforts lead many more people to comitt their lives to Jesus Christ as his disciples.

    Ithaca Church of Christ
    Ithaca, NY

  • Rex, I don’t see your comments as “whistle blowing.” First, there was nothing in the article that was being hidden, so there’s no “whistle to blow.” In fact, the article made sufficient mention that we have room for improvement. The point of the article is that things are not as bad as some have suggested, and that is what the evidence demonstrates.

    One other comment…you speak of church plantings as some new phenonomon. However, church plantings done by our predecessors are the very reason we are ranked #1 in distribution of congregations.

  • Steve,

    I know that church planting is not a new thing but planting missional-minded churches (cross-cultural evangelistic churches) has not been a huge priority (in my opinion) until recently. Now we are begining to see that not all of the US is a southern Bible-belt church culture and therefore are approaching the target area in the US with the same mission principles that are used for over seas cross cultural missions.

    And some of are distribution that we are told to take pride in has not come from “church planting” but from “church splitting.” Where I currently live, there are two CoC’s but there would only be one had it not been for a divisive split (long before I came). And I can tell you that the only person who has reaped a harvest from that split is Satan.

    Ithaca Church of Christ
    Ithaca, NY

  • Thanks, Steve for the excellent post! This is very useful information that can encourage us mightily.

    God Bless your efforts here!

  • Steve, I saw no mention as to where Brother Yeakley got his statistics from. He reported churches of Christ to be the 12th largest. The 2007 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches list us as 16th.
    Was anything mentioned concerning how he arrived at his ranking?

  • Thanks for the very helpful information. I checked FHU’s website and did not find the power point. Do you know where I should look to find it? Thanks for any help.

  • Ed, Brother Yeakley gathered his own statisics. For you and Gary who had also asked, FHU said that they were going to put his presentation online. Apparently it’s not there yet. However, you can purchased for a little under $4.00 a book with all of brother Yeakley’s findings. In this, he provides information on who was surveyed, how many, etc. I have the book, but it’s at the office and I’m at home.

  • Steve, Thank you for the information. I have ordered the booklet. I also found an article in the Christian Chronicle that said from 2003 to 2006, churches of Christ decreased in membership, at least partially due to congregations becoming instrumental and no longer being counted as non-instrumental. Can you tell if this means that we are in fact growing again, and maybe were all along with a statistical anomaly resulting from doctrinal splits? I’m just curious if I’m wading through this in the right direction.

  • I met with Dr. Yeakley recently; last year to be exact. Most of the stats that are put forth have little perspective if we are not comparing ourselves to other religious groups. Do you know we may be doing better than the Southern Baptists in keeping children in the cofC, but that doesn’t mean that we are making disciples of the majority of our offspring. Lifeway research affiliated with SBC just published a report that 88% of their kids were leaving formal religion all together after highschool. So doing better than the Baptists at keeping our kids does not mean that 66% are not leaving the cofC once they leave home. Mac Lynn’s book churches of Christ in the USA is what Flavil uses to refer to “growth” which at absolute best shows that since 1980 the cofC in the USA increased by 1.6% if this the sixth fastest growing rate in the USA then what is fastest 3%? Any statistician knows this 1.6% increase could very well be explained away by a standard tirade of margin of error. The distribution of congregations is very accurate but again if you look at Mac Lynn’s book you will see that we are now almost back down to the number of congregations we had in 1980. During the 1990s the era of church splitting in the cofC; we reached the peak. The other fact is that there are ~ 5550 out of the 9800 or so mainline congregations in the USA that are made up of old white folks with around 100 members or less and are only a few funerals away from closing down just like the 320 congregations that have closed in the last 5 years and the Rosemont congregation that once numbered 700+ in Ft. Worth that just closed down (see the Chronicle for the report). So now congregations are closing down faster than they are being established by planting or division. Mr. Yeakley did not disagree with me on this. Again if we rank first in the nation in attendance it doesn’t mean we are doing well it just means we are doing better than others. Is a 60% attendance rate good or just better than the folks down the road? The idea that if by these statistics we do better than our religious friends some how we have more of God’s approval seems to be the most disturbing delusion of all. The most important thing to remember is perspective. We can drag people to the baptistery all day long and mark them down to count them in one of Flavil’s surveys and never make one single disciple. There are two main pieces of data that have and are having more of an affect of the number of people that are regularly in a building on Sunday mornings with cofC sign outside the building. The first is that since 1957 the median age of white middle class people has nearly doubled from 23 to 41 due to the Baby boomers ( born 46-64) and the birth rate among white middle class Americans fell to an all time low in 1990 (1.8) well below the replacement level (2.1) and has remained there. So even if we were to baptize and retain every one of our offspring born into the cofC (which we know is not happening) they would not even begin the make up for those that are and will be (baby boomers) dying and those that are leaving. Just some perspective. Regardless of what stats we take a spin off of, this sociological and demographical truth.

  • Steve, thanks for some good news. To read these comments, it would seem that some folks just can’t stand a dose of good news, though. I don’t believe you or Dr. Yeakley was in any way claiming that we had arrived at the perfected church with the ultimate plan for retention and growth. What I understood was simply that the church is not “1 or 2 funerals away from extinction.” God has never abandoned His church and yet some folks seem to think that we have only recently begun to discover the blessings of the Lord while others appear to believe that we have finally reached the point of exhausting His blessings! Praise God for the good things that are happening in His church and may that ONLY serve to spur us on to greater love and more good works! Thanks for the part you play in the body of Christ.

  • David, thanks for your comments, and you caught the intent of my article. I wasn’t claiming that we had arrived, neither was Dr. Yeakley. There is still much to do. Our growth rate of almost 3 percent isn’t keeping up with the population growth rate of nearly 30 percent. I recognize that, but at the same time, I am extremely thankful that things aren’t as bad as some critics have attempted to lead us to believe.

  • Let me clear something up. Good news is always good, I understand the intention of the article, which is to be up beat and encourage. With that intention I was merely trying to state that there is some other information that has more of a bearing on the numerical and demographical future of the churches of Christ than Flavil’s report. It was not my intention to argue the sky is falling. But if you look at the info that I gave in the first post it is all reliable data either from the CDC or Mac Lynn’s book churches of Christ in the USA 2006 edition. All I was attempting to do is show perspective. Many people are taking security in the data that Dr. Yeakly presents without asking further questions that have deeper perspective. Here is an example. The churches of Christ have increased in baptized adult membership by 1.6% from 1980 to 2006 according to Mac Lynn and John Ellas even though on a standard tirade of 3 pt margin of error is standard. So let’s say for best data that it has really remained flat. The group of people (white middle class) that makes up 93% of the members of the churches of Christ has grown almost twice as old in median age during the same period of time due to falling birth rates post 1967 and the high birth rates among baby boomers born between 1946-64. You see Flavil’s report does not address the story or perspective behind the numbers. That data is not as comforting as the comparison that Flavil makes between churches of Christ and other religious groups in the USA, but it is critical as we look to the future.

  • I have now received Dr. Yeakley’s book and have digested part of it. As to the dropout rate, it was intimated that 66% of our kids are leaving the church when they leave home. According to Dr. Yeakley’s findings, about 45% of children in the church of Christ leave after graduating high school. This means 55% do not. However, approximately another 12% later return to the church, leaving an effective retention rate of 67%, not a drop-out rate of 66%. This still leaves an unacceptable number of souls raised in the church being lost, but the sky is not falling.
    As for a few more funerals being the end of the church, I have never attended a congregation made up only of people who grew up in churches of Christ. Every congregation I know has a significant percentage of people reared outside the churches of Christ. From my experience, this trend has not ended. Thus, even if we don’t retain all of our children, growth is not precluded, even according to actual statistics and experience, not to mention the power of God.

  • Here are some things to consider when looking at the actual data that Flavil uses when making his comparisons here. He says that 99.3% of the members of the churches of Christ attend services at least once a week which puts churches of Christ at the top among other religious groups in attendance. This number of 99.3% is absurd. If we looked real hard we might be able to find a few congregations that come close to that but they would be the exception by far. In fact if anyone knows of a congregation where 99 out of every 100 members in the printed membership directory are consistently present at least once a week please let Bobby Ross know they deserve to be reported to the Christian Chronicle as one of the outstanding congregations. Flavil also says that churches of Christ rank first in the distribution of congregations. This is also incorrect depending what perspective you have. The churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention outnumber all the variations of churches of Christ congregations (13,000) by almost 3:1 at 41,514 congregations. All of these actual numbers are on Flavil’s PPT presentation downloadable off of FHUs website,frameless.htm. Lastly any statistician worth their salt knows that the so called growth of 2.1 % or 26,232 since 1980 is well within the margin or error within the data range of 2 million. So at absolute best in brutal honesty the churches of Christ are just holding their own in terms of membership. Take a look for yourself. It is time for us in the churches of Christ to stop fabricating and twisting actual numbers into something that is not reality. These issues have always given me reason not to take Flavil’s numbers at face value. Please not respond with comments about how I don’t love the truth or do know good news when I hear it or anything like that. I have heard it all before. If there is reliable data to the contrary I am more than open to listen but have learned by experience to verify it to make sure the perspective and actual data is correct. I am tired of the rumor mill driven by both the polar ends of the spectrum within the churches of Christ and the so called middle road or mainline.

  • After viewing the presentation and reading through all the comments, I feel compelled to contribute what I can to hopefully provide a better understanding of part of the data presented.

    Perhaps I should begin by first stating who I am. I am the current data compiler for the publication CHURCHES OF CHRIST IN THE UNITED STATES (henceforth, CCUSA), published by 21st Century Christian. This is the continuing project that Dr. Mac Lynn started back in the 1970’s with the original publication title WHERE THE SAINTS MEET. The scope of the project seeks to give a historical record of congregations of the Church of Christ whose worship services are a cappella in nature. I have worked closely with Dr. Lynn since the 1997 edition of CCUSA, the first published by 21st Century Christian. Upon the release of the 2003 edition, Dr. Lynn turned this project over to 21st Century Christian, and I have been the data compiler ever since. The 2006 edition of CCUSA was the first released under this arrangement, with Mac providing some assistance as a consultant.

    The congregational data that Dr. Yeakley presented came primarily from two sources, the CCUSA data and the 2000 edition of the Religious Congregations & Membership Study (RCMS) published by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). The data in the RCMS for the Churches of Christ comes from the CCUSA data. The CCUSA data was first included in the RCMS in 1980.

    Now, I would like to clarify some of the things discussed above as well as provide some additional information that will help to explain the CCUSA data and hopefully give everyone a better understanding from the different perspectives.

    First, the 99.3% attendance-to-members ratio is not “absurd” if you understand the difference between members and adherents. An ADHERENT is one who currently associates himself/herself with a specific congregation. This includes adults and children; baptized and not baptized; those attending regularly as well as those who do not. MEMBERS, quite simply, are the adherents who are baptized. Many times, when the term “member” is used, the person is actually referring to an adherent resulting in some confusion when that is applied to statistics. That attendance-to-members ratio is correct; however, the attendance-to-adherents ratio has generally been in the mid to upper 70% range. In the 2006 data, the attendance-to-adherents ratio is 76.1%.

    Next, when observing the data Dr. Yeakley presented, there are some factors that should be taken into account that were not brought out in the presentation. One such factor is that the figures presented were from 1980 to 2000 or later. If you look at the same information from 1990 instead of 1980, the results change quite a bit. Several factors lead to an increase of over 83,000 in the adherents figures between 1980 and 1990, two of the more prominent being better data collection and the rapid growth of the International Churches of Christ (ICOC) or Boston Movement. After 1990, the ICOC separated themselves from the CCUSA project and have since gathered and reported their own statistics. This made up a significant portion of the decline of almost 34,000 adherents between the 1990 and 1994 reports.

    A second factor is centered around the adoption of instruments into some or all of a congregation’s worship services. While this is not a new factor, it did have a greater impact in the 2006 data. There was a decline of over 11,000 adherents, over half of which came from one congregation, from 2003 to 2006 for this specific reason. Their removal from the CCUSA data was not a statement (or judgement) based on theological position, but rather an adherence to the scope of the project, which was stated earlier, defined by Mac Lynn many years ago, because this is an ongoing, historical collection of data.

    I hope this helps clarify some of the discussion. For more detailed information, I refer everyone to the 2006 edition of CHURCHES OF CHRIST IN THE UNITED STATES. You may also download the most recent statistical data sheet by state by going to and clicking on the CCUSA link.

    One last thing I would like to point out is that this data is only as accurate as what is reported by the congregations. Whenever you can, please encourage our brethren to update their congregation’s information. There is a Lookup/Submit Changes link on the CCUSA web page available all year round. In addition, data forms will be mailed out to the congregations towards the end of May as preparations for the 2009 edition are underway. The greater the participation, the better the data.

    Carl H Royster
    Data Compiler for CHURCHES OF CHRIST in the UNITED STATES
    System Administrator
    21st Century Christian Inc

    While the 99.3% attendance-to-members figure is mathematically correct, it is not a good statistic as it is a ratio of elements based on two different sums. Attendance is a count based on the adherents present, not just members. For the attendance-to-members ratio to be a valid statistic, there would need to be a figure showing attendance of only the baptized individuals (members). There would be few, if any, congregations that would know that statistic. The correct ratio to use based on the CCUSA data is attendance-to-adherents, which would still leave the Churches of Christ ranked at or near the top when compared to other religious bodies.

  • Finally getting some time to check out your blog. Boy I never realized all the extra work that you have to do after writing an article. How do you make the time?

  • It has long been looking for this information, thank you.

  • […] to an article by Steve Higginbotham, posted on, Yeakley surveyed where the church stands in relation to other religious […]

  • Stunning blog and good article. High 5 for u man !

  • […] As a result, there will be reports in the church media arguing that we are doing just fine, such as this one, but we aren’t. And while we may disagree among ourselves as to the changes required, change is […]

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