One of the most difficult questions to answer when pursuing the story of closed churches is, “Where did the people go?”
Finding “Where have all the churches gone?” is doable. Public records reveal when properties are bought and sold. Christians everywhere can tell the stories of the church that “used to be” or “where I grew up” or “that closed its doors.” Pictures can be taken. Documents can be archived.
But the people who departed — over time and in the end — are much harder to find. The directories of Churches of Christ that 21st Century Christian has published since 1960 document the names and details of congregations, not people. We have no directory of departed church members. We don’t even have a directory of active church members.
Churches of Christ are “so autonomous we’re anonymous,” Grady King, a co-leader of HOPE Network Ministries, likes to say.
Never is that more evident than when trying to find the people who used to sit in the pew in front of you, or who once taught third-grade Sunday school, or whose weddings and funerals were conducted in that old church building. Until they weren’t.
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A recent online survey by The Christian Chronicle didn’t help clarify things. Now that’s a sentence no journalist wants to write.
With only a few dozen responses, results are anecdotal. But they do represent former members of closed congregations scattered across more than a dozen states, congregations about evenly distributed across a conservative-to-progressive continuum, according to the respondents, skewing slightly toward the conservative end.
Stan Granberg, vice chairman of the Heritage 21 Foundation, has conducted extensive research on closing churches. The foundation works with churches that are nearing the end of their lifespan to help them reinvigorate or close with dignity.
Granberg said church members leave a congregation in waves. First to leave a church that’s reasonably healthy are people he describes as more progressive, “people who want to see something different, something more relevant.”
“Then leadership gets concerned and tries to do something in response, so there’s the second wave, the more conservative folks,” he continued.
Finally, it gets down to congregations of about 50 people, what he calls “extra-grace-required people — people who have lots of needs, emotionally and physically. They stay and will stay until the church just can’t make it anymore.”
Of course, in some parts of the country, congregations of 50 or so have survived and thrived for many years.
But when the doors close, where do the people go?
Granberg said the more progressive members tend to go to independent Christian churches or community/nondenominational churches. Conservatives will go to a more conservative Church of Christ if they can find one.
But not always. Sometimes, he said, members in both groups just quit going.
Survey respondents reflected Granberg’s explanation. About three-quarters had found another Church of Christ congregation after theirs closed, but the others fell into a few categories including those he listed: community/nondenominational churches, other denominations, a house church or online worship with a Church of Christ in another city.
Geography plays a part, but so does demography. In some parts of the nation, there’s nowhere to go.
“In the Northeast or Northwest, people don’t have other options,” Granberg said. “If their church closes, they may not have an option within 45 minutes or an hour. They seldom go into another Church of Christ because they just aren’t there, so they’ll go into a community church or just not go at all.”
That was the case for the Fargo Church of Christ, a North Dakota congregation that closed in 2019 after attendance dwindled to about 15. Allen Newhouse, a member for 30 years, now attends a community church. Others go to a Christian church.
Newhouse said efforts were made through the years to work with another Church of Christ on a Vacation Bible School and other projects. “But they wanted us to agree with everything they were doing. We had a good relationship for a while. … We agreed on the majority but not everything, and they wouldn’t have fellowship with us anymore.” Heritage 21 is helping the congregation sell its building.
In 2018, 21st Century Christian listed only seven congregations in all of North Dakota, the largest in Minot with about 80 on Sundays.
Similarly, the Agape Church of Christ in Portland, Ore., started as a church plant about 15 years ago. Before it ceased operating in February 2020, Sunday attendance averaged about 65. But when minister Ron Clark left to become director of Kairos, a church-planting organization associated with Churches of Christ, he said leaders “felt it was best to close and bless other churches.”
Clark said in his survey response that “about half the members went to another Church of Christ, and about half to other conservative denominations.”
Jessica Knapp, former member of the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ in Tucson, Ariz., responded that when it closed around 2017, many left church altogether, but some went to the Ina Road Church of Christ, and several, including Knapp, gathered to form a seed team for a church plant.
Then there’s the demography. Churches in rural communities or aging urban areas grow grayer and grayer along with the neighborhoods around them. Or sometimes, a graying church is surrounded by neighborhoods that are ethnically or economically far different from the membership. If a church lacks the will or ability to welcome its community — often a community that looks very different from when it began — the congregation will die as most members leave for the cemetery, not another congregation.
The first story I wrote for the Chronicle in 2019 was about a tiny church in Abilene, Texas. Its minister, Pat Andrews, who has since died, told me in our first conversation, “We spend a lot of time at the graveyard.”
The first story in this series, about the closing of the Ragsdale Church or Christ in Manchester, Tenn., described a congregation that was down to eight attendees on the Sunday morning before its final service, all of them above 60 and several much older. The handful who remained said they’d find a new church home in one of the nearby Church of Christ congregations, and the most recent 21st Century Christian directory lists 15 congregations in Manchester.
But two-thirds of them had pre-pandemic attendance below 60.
The stir of church members moving about between multiple congregations or being drawn to large congregations in cities further muddies the picture. Just 32 miles north of Manchester, the North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has almost 2,000 members, according to its website.
North Boulevard has three campuses and hosts worship services in Korean and Spanish in addition to English.
Too often, the stir is fueled by doctrinal squabbles and worship preferences. One survey respondent described his former congregation in a major city in the Midwest as having closed, but in response to another question said the building was “still being used by those that chose to continue down the path of unrighteousness.”
Indeed, with just one phone call, I was able to determine that more than 200 still attend the church the survey respondent considered “closed,” much smaller than it once was but still viable.
Shifts in views of religion generally are among the many trends Churches of Christ share in common with other religious groups. Gallup research reported a year ago that over two decades the number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion has increased from 8 percent in 1998-2000 to 21 percent by 2021. Thus, researchers observed, “Americans without a religious preference are highly unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque.”
So, where did the people go? That’s still not clear. But I’m pretty sure some just went home.
This article was originally published by The Christian Chronicle.
Cheryl Mann Bacon is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University.
9 thoughts on “Churches of Christ Ask: ‘Where Did the People Go?’”
Nicely aligned journalism by Cheryl Bacon. I humbly share my own experience. As the pastors and Seminary ideologues go astray, so leave the people. It is a tragedy peculiar to middle-class America. When I picture shuttered churches, an image of the shuttered neighborhood manufacturing surfaces. The early 1970’s were a period of great deconstruction and damage to all the traditional main line churches. Social gospel pastors from main line denominations shamed their congregants on race relations, population control, school busing, etc. A few short decades later, clueless social philosophers scratch their heads wondering what happened. My answer speaks for many. You don’t have my permission to scold me in church. I have the Blessings of God and Grace from Jesus Christ. I come to church to hear Good News, not to have power sucked out of my life. Where social warriors occupy pulpits, hard working middle class folk will vote with their feet. Witness the liberal Presbyterian church, with huge losses since early 1970’s. As a young man, I sat in those pews and got lectured week after week on sins from 120 years previous. I finally said, “You don’t have my permission to shame.”
Very odd that you blame liberal pastors for scolding their congregations, when there are countless examples of conservative pastors doing the exact same thing, week after week, in their own churches, to this day. (Just watch any James MacArthur sermon, for example.) And given what I know about liberal churches, conservative pastors are far more likely to scold than their liberal brethren, who are much more likely to focus on positive messages in their sermons.
Methinks the real reason is that you disagree with the scoldings you hear from liberals, and thus object to being called out on them. When you agree with a scolding from the pulpit, you have no such objections.
I grew up in a small Churches of Christ ‘plant’ as we call them today. My parents were keen to be part of this work, from the ‘mother’ church, and we stuck it for more than a decade. It was in a low income, almost ‘trailer park’ part of our city. There were very few people with any real gifts for ministry in any way.
But, that said, we tried to cram the church into an upper middle income style. It didn’t work. Then, there was no systematic teaching about the Bible, faith or theology. None of this has to be complicated, but to move people from an implicit materialist construction of the world to a coherent Christian created-supernatural-personal understanding it is essential.
For young people there was a dearth of choice of potential mates (marriage partners). In fact, the only pair that were close in age, maturity and intellect ended up going their separate ways as the church was a ‘low content’ congregation. Prayerful, but uninformed, isolated.
I ended up in an Episcopal church, with formal liturgy, a depth of history and richness of tradition that more connected me to the historic roots of Christian faith and life, and where everyone read books.
Thankyou for your transparency in your journey.
1. “It was in a low income, almost ‘trailer park’ part of our city.”
“God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith” James 2:5. Every pulpit and pew church must “cram the church into an upper middle income style.” It costs lots of money to hire one man and maintain a pulpit building. This version of church may be the only one you have ever heard about, but a form of church that can be practiced “free of charge” is in your Bible. No clergy will tell you about it, but I can. It’s been there for 2000 years. The majority of believers around the world are too poor or oppressed to do pulpit and pew, so they obey what the Bible says and make far more disciples than Americans.
2. “Very few people with any real gifts for ministry in any way.” Blindness to the reality that every believer has Spirit driven gifts for ministry is the norm, even in rich churches, when 99% of the saints “meet together” for ONE gift to do 99% of the truth expression. “Meeting together” by God’s definition includes EVERYONE to speak for a brief time AND in full responsiveness. Heb. 10:24-25. There are many more scriptures that agree with this. 1 Cor. 12:26-28; Col. 3:16.
Perhaps when believers wake up from their pew sleep state, or their pulpit controlling state, they will see what has been in God’s word the whole time. I woke up by the grace of God, and I’m sharing it with you. Dive in. Anyone can.
Tim……..thank you for sharing your thoughts. Very well stated. Regardless of education, we are all given gifts to share. And yes, placing all that on one person is a setup for abuse and power plays.
In regards to this article, where did the people go may be many things, but all of them related to systemic disobedience claimed to be godly. The Spirit may not be convicting believers to go to where the opposite of what God instructed is taking place. The Spirit wants believers to learn the truth and begin spreading it to those who don’t know and have no one to tell them. It’s been in their Bible, but the commands of men are blinding them to the commands of God.
Matthew 15: 9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”
Mark 7:13 thus making void the word of God
by your tradition that you have handed down.
And many such things you do.”
There is much more scripture to share to expose to the light the phony commands of men claimed to be “church of Christ.” They tried to fix lots of error when they started but did not fix many core issues. We can fix this stuff.
You know a church is on life support once there are no children in the congregation. It’s very difficult to persuade a family to make your church their home if there are no other families present, especially if there are other churches in the vicinity where families do worship.
From there, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the congregation ages out or falls apart.
I am a christian local church missionary for church of christ. I am trained with Advanced Diploma in the bible and Mission. I have served the Lord as a local missionary and bible teacher since 1990. I am now 33 years in the ministry. I did my work without any support. I presently preach for a small and young church which I planted near my home so that my family can have a place to worship. I do not have a plan to go to another church. I know what I believe and I stand firm on that believe. Our near churches are continuing to grow because of our faith. Those who close their congregations are members who never changed their lives. Every christian who move from one church to another are trouble makers and political in their believes. Church of Christ is the best church if its members understand well I will remain a member of church until I go to be with the Lord.
Do you have to be a Republican Trump person to belong to this church?
My sister belongs to the Church of Christ and we had a 100th Birthday Party for my Mom.
While at the party the church people were generally very nice but I when I mentioned my idea of geeting a 100th Birthday card from the White House, some member said “I don’t think that’s the kind of President I would want a letter from”
Im thinking What? Who brings up politics at an old lady birthdays party? Other people made disrepectful remarks about the President of the United States later in casual conversation. Why?
My sister and her husband who is prominent in the church constantly disparge Biden and actually think Trump is annointed by God to President and really won the election.
And by the way my 100 year old mother was sharp as a tack untill the day she passed and privately told me she thought Trump was the worst President of her lifetime. And Herbert Hoover as President when she was born!
I dont mean to get political because I just a middle or the road guy myself but my question?
Is this one of those Trump Churchs? Do I have to worship a NY real estate billionare to go to heaven?
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