Disciples of Christ on track to lose half of its membership in 10 years

The 2018 Indiana Disciples Regional Assembly at Light of the World Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The 2018 Indiana Disciples Regional Assembly at Light of the World Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. | Facebook/Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The Disciples of Christ could lose half their membership within ten years if the current rate of decline remains the same, according to a report by the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

Also known as the Christian Church, the Disciples saw their membership decline by 7 percent, going from approximately 411,000 in 2017 to approximately 382,000 in 2018, according to an entry posted Tuesday on the IRD’s blog Juicy Ecumenism.

Worship attendance fell 11 percent, going from about 139,000 in 2017 to about 124,000 in 2018, and baptisms declined by 13 percent, from approximately 4,300 in 2017 to approximately 3,700 in 2018.

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Jeff Walton, author of the theologically conservative group’s entry, drew from statistics provided by the mainline Protestant denomination’s Office of General Minister and President, which appear in the Church’s 2019 yearbook.

“At the current rate, the denomination will shrink by another 50 percent within a decade,” wrote Walton. “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.”

Walton added a disclaimer that the denomination switched to an online reporting format and as a result, a smaller number of congregations submitted a report.

In an interview with The Christian Post, Walton explained that the Disciples’ decline in membership exceeded that of all other mainline Protestant churches, with their 7 decrease being larger than the 1-3 percent annual declines reported by The Episcopal Church and American Baptist Churches USA, or the 5-6 percent declines reported by the PC(USA) and the United Church of Christ.

“The denomination is aging out, shown in a steep decline in baptisms. A universalist theology appears to be sapping the evangelistic vigor of clergy,” said Walton.

“The Disciples trace their origins to the Restorationist movement, which has a history of dynamic preaching and evangelism. Unfortunately, that history is increasingly discarded as those charged with spiritual leadership instead choose to figuratively ‘marry the spirit of the age.’”

Walton also told CP that he believed the theological views of the Disciples was contributing to their decline, citing research that found the denomination’s clergy to be more liberal than their overall members.

“On a more anecdotal level, I'm hearing from Disciples members who are tired of political lectures in general from their clergy during Sunday worship services,” continued Walton.

“They'd like to hear the Gospel preached, but their clergy are more focused upon social witness and, in the words of one Disciples' congregant, ‘milquetoast sermons.’”

The Christian Post reach out to the Disciples of Christ for this story, however their spokesperson was unable to respond by press time due to travel issues.

The reported numbers represent a steep decline from 2000, when, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives, the Disciples had approximately 820,000 members.

Disciples spokesperson Cherilyn Williams told CP in a 2018 interview that the denomination was taking measures to counter their years-long decline, including the planting of several new worship communities.

"Our New Church Ministry, as part of Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, includes a 'leadership academy' that trains both planters and people from existing congregations looking to transform their mission," explained Williams at the time.

"Other congregations have shifted tactics and found they are appealing to people who have been uninterested in organized religion. We have regions that are doing workshops aimed specifically at supporting rural congregations in their unique situations. And the list goes on."

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