We are Approaching a Critical Moment in Churches of Christ

There is a confluence of factors steamrolling toward us that I think we are largely asleep to in Churches of Christ. What happens next is anyone’s guess but I think we can plan and adjust in a way that makes sense.

What are those factors and what kind of change is it leading toward?

Upcoming ministers – The last time I checked, enrollment in our Christians colleges for typical ministry/Bible degrees is down. Recruitment has become difficult for some of our Church of Christ Universities. There are fewer people wanting to do traditional ministry than in years past. It also seems to me that college age people are more drawn to non-profits and missions than they are to congregational ministry. Maybe they smell something those of us entrenched in our systems have a hard time smelling? More on that in a moment.

Change in culture and values – What are our young people smelling that we may not be smelling? Some say it is just lack of commitment. I don’t believe that. This is a zealous bunch. They have grown up in church and haven’t liked what they have seen on the leadership level. They have seen unhealthiness all around: poor leadership styles, poor minister-elder-congregation relationships, etc.

They also don’t like how the money is spent. The typical church spends most of its budget on staff and facility. The rest goes to various ministries. It seems upside down.

Before we blame one generation (which we shouldn’t do anyway) their parents weren’t big on encouraging them to go into full time ministry. Their parents were complaining about the worship service and the preaching on the way home while encouraging their kids to be doctors and lawyers.

The state of our churches – Churches are mostly in decline even as the population around them grows. That also means budgets are flat to down as people give more per person to make up the difference or can’t give enough to make up the difference so the contribution is dropping in many churches on an annual basis.

A Challenging combination – The weaknesses of our flawed paradigm have caught up with us and we are about to reach the point of no return to the way things were. That isn’t bad. That can actually be good. This all leads us to a crunch point where churches cannot afford to hire someone because they are shrinking and the pool of people to hire is also shrinking. The demands of needing a professional degree has also increased the competitive cost of people who can fill these positions, which makes the crunch to afford someone even harder on congregations

What can we do to address this while we still have the resources to do something about it?

I don’t claim to have an answer for this. Here is what I would like to see us do. Go back to the priesthood of all believers by expecting everyone to ministry. That means we need to spend less time educating on random pet classes and sermons and devote time to equipping our members to be ministers. We also need to cut down on overhead. This could be a move to house churches. This could be merging churches. This could mean downsizing facilities. More of our money needs to be going to help people not brick and mortar.

I would like to develop a multi-year curriculum that would train our volunteers to take up much of the ministry of the church. This could help the congregation wean off their reliance on professional ministers and take on the work of ministry themselves. Talk about a first century move! This would take some time to develop but I think if we start soon we can meet this need before things get even more challenging. We could do apprentice work and encourage more people to get graduate level theological training as that will still be needed.

I am just dreaming here a bit and sharing something that has been on my heart for a while but may be time to start working on soon. I would love to hear your input, from your experience!

17 Responses to We are Approaching a Critical Moment in Churches of Christ

  1. “I don’t claim to have an answer for this. Here is what I would like to see us do. Go back to the priesthood of all believers by expecting everyone to ministry. That means we need to spend less time educating on random pet classes and sermons and devote time to equipping our members to be ministers. We also need to cut down on overhead. This could be a move to house churches. This could be merging churches. This could mean downsizing facilities. More of our money needs to be going to help people not brick and mortar.”

    Matt, you could go back in your archives, and see the number of times I have suggested exactly what you write above. It was never the intent for congregations to become real-estate holders, have 80-85% of the weekly offerings go to building and professional staff.
    “We,” in our hurry to become just like everybody else around us, have forgotten what matters: Proclamation (evangelism) by the members. Edification by the members. Priesthood by the members. Not by highly educated paid staff (Without a Master’s Degree, don’t bother applying).

    The first wave of missionaries after WWII held few College graduates – but lots of men with the love for those who were lost. Men who knew their Bible, were committed to their mission. A number of them continued their education – but that was not their primary concern.

    The third wave of missionaries (To Europe, anyway), learned a lot from those that had gone before. And more and more were graduates. But their love for those lost did not diminish in any way. Their support, strangely enough, was by many calculated in whether or not they were “fruitful.” How many they baptized. I would so love to see the same matrix used for those who are in “full time” ministry in the U.S. And without counting the family members, too!

    I used the “full time” ministry on purpose. It is a misnomer. ALL believers are expected to be in “full time” ministry, whether paid or not. And when we become more aware of that, we will get to a different dynamic.

    The congregation where I have attended over the last 23 years has seen more people being taught by the members of the congregation before being baptized than any minister in those same years (Wait, correction: The minister baptized them – but only because we seem to think that is part of the job description).

    What you are talking about in the above quote, is a “going back to…” a splendid idea!

  2. John says:

    Your idea for a multi-year curriculum to train for ministry is a spot on. The problem in the past in training people who could not afford college was that they were simply handed a few sermon outline books that they relied on too much, even into their full time work. There were exceptions of course. Gus Nichols of Jasper, Alabama conducted weekly preaching classes for men who could not afford a higher education. Though I am of the deep conviction that substance and emphasis needed to change since that time, the idea was indeed admirable.

    Materials from a wide range of writers and scholars would be necessary to produce healthy, studious teachers.

  3. Mark says:

    Quite a few younger people saw a massive rift between the elders and the minister(s). The minister always got the short end of the stick. Rumors may (not) have been heard and then the minister is just gone or has to make a statement on his last Sunday that is just not believable. Sometimes, the elders make the only statement and the congregation realizes that the minister was just fired. Besides, elders meetings are generally closed events so no one ever knows what really goes on in them. Additionally, which faction do specific elders represent? We know that a few people in the congregation have a lot of power by virtue of their being friends with and peers of the elders. Summaries and minutes aren’t released, neither is their thinking or the actual vote. Most of us know that elders don’t have Q&A sessions nor does the cofC believe in annual or congregational meetings. Fast forward to today when those who saw this don’t want to be on the receiving end and whose peers aren’t powerful enough to prevent it from happening. This has lead to a reduction in the number of members and (available) minsters.

    • “I think we are talking past each other.”

      My bad. It was a response which got lost from a different conversation… Sorry it took me so long to reply. Work AND weekend have been too hectic to try earlier…

  4. Dwight Haas says:

    I think one of the problems we have is the inability to see ourselves, what we really are. This happens when you perceive you are correct in what you do and what you say. But other can see through it.
    Case in point. Our preacher gave a good lesson on I Cor. 16 and the collection for the saints where he read this verse “Now concerning the collection for the saints…” and he stressed “for the saints”. Now back to reality is that the very church that we collect money in only a portion goes to the saints, maybe more 70%, but that is not all of the money. So we are being hypocritical in saying we do things exactly the Bible way and we are condemning others for using their money to support institutions that help others, even while we use whatever we deem for whatever we want to use it for ourselves.
    Other people see this. And they smell it too.
    Even when we don’t see it and smell it.
    But we like the person who wears overpoweringly bad cologne have stopped smelling it ourselves and it annoys everyone else, because we condemn them.
    As you point out…there are many things we can do to change, but first we have to see what needs changing.
    Often our wall against change is tradition, which we call usually expediency.
    We need more writings like yours to point out that we can do things better not for ourselves, but for others.

    • Mark says:

      Recommending change is frequently construed as complaining which generally results in being criticized, punished, or condemned to hell in a sermon on murmuring, depending on who you are and your age. This is unless you are an influential (aka old, powerful) person, then it will be implemented immediately. Hence, necessary changes are often not mentioned.

  5. Jesse Walker says:

    Part of the issue as I see it, and I do realize it’s just my opinion. So please don’t let this offend anyone. But it’s been my experience that the Church of Christ as I know it, has spent to much time teaching rules and regulations and not enough time on becoming more like Jesus. Until we put more faith in Jesus and less in our regulations, the church isn’t going to grow. I believe that’s what our own children (mine included) have grown up to experience first hand.

    We use the bible to defend traditions that have no place in God’s worship assembly. We push our likes and dislikes to a point of fellowship or non-fellowship. I could list the number of items that drive a wedge between local congregations. We’ve come to believe we are the only children of God on the planet. Those who don’t think like us, walk like us, dress like us, or talk like us, are not welcome. If you’ve been a member of the Lord’s church for very long, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the elephant in the room. It’s time to put Jesus first and Him alone. Maybe that’s why the apostle Paul said, “He preached Christ and Him Crucified”. I know this is not an exact paraphrase, or that it means Paul knew nothing else. But I do think it shows the importance of staying focused on Christ. We must learn what it means to “Desire Mercy, not Sacrifice”.

    Until we put Christ first, I’m afraid no matter what changes the church makes, the numbers will always be on the decline. In fact, isn’t that taught in His Holy Word. If it isn’t of God, then it will be fruitless?

    The key in my humble opinion, in spreading the Kingdom of God, is realizing we are bond servants. As such we have no rights, no belongings and no agendas to push. We loving offer Jesus through the Gospel of Love. May God grant us all peace and grace to complete our mission here on earth, longing for the day of release.
    Jesse Walker

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      I think you are on track Jesse. What did Jesus teach? The gospel of the kingdom. What do we teach? The same thing. But do we? If we are disciples we do. If we are more interested in tradition we don’t. I don’t think it is that complicated. If we will commit ourselves to teaching Jesus and walking with people closer to Jesus things will change. It doesn’t matter if the leadership wants to or not for you or anyone else to just go ahead and do what Jesus told you to do.

      • Rudy Schellekens says:

        be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect – Jesus
        Be imitators of God – Paul

        Sounds like rhe same message to me!

        Jesus imitated the Father in Word and Deed. Lets do the same.
        Jesus quoted His Scripture. Let us do the same. his Scripture ended with Malaci. Ours ended with Revelation. Lets quote all of it, depending on setting Then and now) and context (then and now).

        “Progressive Christians” seem to have tossed everything after John’s gospel. “Jesus did not say anything about xxx , so we are okay with accepting x, y or z.

        It is short-sighted

        • Matt Dabbs says:

          Who is saying differently than this Rudy? I am just not getting where you are coming from on this one. Who is tossing it all to the wind in this conversation? I don’t see this being short sighted. I see some of our past as being short sighted and in need of expanding what we are feeding ourselves on scripturally. Maybe I am not communicating this very well.

        • Rudy Schellekens says:

          The idea that the Gospels are more important than the rest of the new testament… The idea that what Jesus said is more important that what the letters have to say. It is “bad theology.” Unless we have reached the point where Paul is not inspired?

          Of course Jesus says little about the church/body/family/fellowship/brethren or whatever term you want to use to describe the believers. It did not matter much since there was no church yet. Jesus message was to Jews in their immediate context. He had little to do with Gentiles, on purpose.

          The rest of the New Testament tells us of the impact His story had on the Jews, the Samaritans and the Gentiles. Without the rest of the New Testament, the story of Jesus in incomplete.

          So the extraordinary emphasis on the Gospels, putting the rest of the New Testament on a separate level does not tell us the complete story.

          For non-believers, of course the story of the Christ event is of first importance. For believers, there is much more to the story after the response to the message of reconciliation…

          “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

        • Matt Dabbs says:

          I don’t know where you are getting this from. Who is saying this about Jesus vs the rest of the bible? It is all inspired. It is all useful.

          Maybe you are misunderstanding me.

          I am saying start where they started. Start with Jesus and get the order the same as they had it. Yes. Then move on to Paul, Acts, etc etc. It is all inspired.

          I think we are talking past each other.

          Blessings.

        • Matt Dabbs says:

          Are you talking about other people elsewhere or things actually being said in this conversation?

          For instance,
          “The idea that the Gospels are more important than the rest of the new testament… The idea that what Jesus said is more important that what the letters have to say. It is “bad theology.” Unless we have reached the point where Paul is not inspired?”

          – Who said that?

          “So the extraordinary emphasis on the Gospels, putting the rest of the New Testament on a separate level does not tell us the complete story.” – Who did this?

          My point is that if you want to learn to disciple people learn from Jesus who discipled people. Even Paul said in 1 Cor 11:1 that you can follow Paul’s example as he follow’s Christ. This isn’t about the inspiration of scripture or who is more important. If you want to learn, from the Bible, how to disciple people you go to Jesus. That doesn’t make other parts of the Bible less important. To your point, it just means we go to different parts of the Bible for different reasons and this is a discipleship conversation so guess where we start? Jesus.

          I hope that clears some things up. If you are directing your comments toward what I am saying you aren’t understanding my view. Blessings.

      • Jesse Walker says:

        Thanks Matt. I I’m new to your site but it is very refreshing and I truly enjoy your articles and feedback. Stay strong for the truth. May God bless your efforts.

  6. Jos. Wheatley says:

    With regard to your first point about college enrollment being down, in my 60+ years in the church I have had one minister with a college degree. I think the problem is not so much that college enrollment is down but that the value of a college education for ministers is not understood. Some of the preacher schools advertise that the curriculum is X number of times through the Bible (and likely KJV at that) with little regard for studying the context of scripture, the writings of the Early Church Fathers who are dismissed as being Catholic despite being closer to the events of the NT than we are, and ignoring contemporary scholars who are not part of The Brotherhood. Colleges and universities are seen as being too liberal and the main consideration in choosing a new minister is often “soundness”, a code word for conservative.

    You write, “The demands of needing a professional degree has also increased the competitive cost of people who can fill these positions…” In my experience, having a degree beyond a BS would exclude a candidate from being considered for a preaching post.

    We need to move on from the belief that anyone can pick up an English translation of the Bible, take everything at face value and completely understand everything that is written. I am taking it out of context but, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6) should be a major concern for us.

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