One of the first Churches of Christ

Some of the conservative Churches of Christ (which as a tenet of faith allow only a capella music) and their just as independent Christian Churches (which do allow musical instruments) insist that the word “church” remain lower case in their names — that Christ alone should receive that honor. The independent Christian Churches decline to organize nationally beyond holding their annual North American Christian Convention. Nevertheless, the two conservative groups are growing in numbers while the liberal Disciples are dwindling.

Similar conservative factions are thriving within the Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. In January, the Orlando Sentinel reported that members of the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando had voted overwhelmingly to break away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).

“The 1,759 to 185 vote exceeded the two-thirds majority needed,” reported the Sentinel. “The 3,600-member First Presbyterian is the largest Presbyterian church in Florida and fourth largest in the nation. First Presbyterian has been losing membership in recent years and blamed some of that on PC (USA) doctrines that permitted the ordination of gay deacons, elders and clergy. Some also blamed the decline on doctrines that quest questioned the Bible as the literal word of God and Jesus Christ as the only salvation.”

Artist’s rendering of Orlando’s First Presbyterian, which dominates a city block.

Unlike the litigious Episcopalians, the Presbyterian Church (USA) released the prestigious congregation – which is now in the process of formalizing its relationship with the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Why make the switch Local elder Cleat Simmons told the Sentinel “The PC (USA) has turned its back on God and is a denomination dying in the wilderness.”

So, which churches are in trouble? According to Gordon-Conwell’s figures, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have suffered a 56.4 percent loss in membership since 1960. The United Church of Christ (Congregationalist) is down 35.9 percent. The Episcopalians have lost 32.6 percent of their members since 1960. The United Methodist Church is down 23.6 percent and the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost 21.1 percent of its membership.

That’s 6.2 million people no longer sitting in the old mainline pews.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church has swelled from 42.1 million

members to 66.4 million since 1960. The Southern Baptists are up 67 percent in the same period, from 9.7 million to 16.2 million.

A historic AME church in Manhattan

Significant growth has been seen in two very conservative and traditionally African-American denominations, the Church of God in Christ (reporting 5.5 million members compared to 393,000 in 1960) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, reporting a 103% increase from 1.9 million to 3.9 million. The Assemblies of God churches report 2.6 million members, compared to 509,000 in 1960.

And the big boom — spawning many of the new and growing megachurches across the countryside — is in the independents. What’s their secret? They preach the Bible instead of denying it or explaining it away. They also focus on energetic outreaches to youth and young adults — and families.

On the other hand, “Instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace,” noted Douthat. Their defense, he says alternates “between a Monty Python-esque ‘it’s just a flesh wound!’ bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued ‘the stewardship of the earth’ too highly to reproduce themselves.)”

“When people leave mainline churches, they go somewhere else,” writes Michael De Groote for the Salt Lake City Deseret News. “As Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas describes it, they are not leaving religion so much as they are looking for religion. About 44 percent of Americans say they have a religious affiliation that is different from the religion in which they were raised, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s ‘U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.’

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