1981 Diminishing Membership

Diminishing Membership In The Church Of The Brethren

1981 Church of the Brethren Statement

The Missouri District Board in its July 8, 1978 meeting, voted to pass this query from a Membership Committee appointed by the Board on July 9, 1977, to the 1979 Annual Conference.

We the people of the Missouri District Conference, assembled at the Rockingham Church, September 9, 1978, are deeply concerned about the diminishing membership of our district and of the Church of the Brethren at large. We feel something must be done about this. We all have been called into the ministry of Jesus Christ when we made our confession of faith, and one of the charges then put to us is “go and tell the Good News.” Therefore, we petition the Annual Conference of 1979 at Seattle, Washington to study this question of diminishing membership.

Signed: Cindy Weber-Han
Lawrence Kienberger
Herbert Thomas
Harold Beach
S. G. Hoover

The Missouri District Conference, September 9, 1978, voted to pass this query on to the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, meeting in Seattle, Washington, July 3-8, 1979.

James H. Baile, Moderator
Sandra Gardner, Clerk

Action of 1979 Annual Conference: The recommendation from Standing Committee was presented by Joe Reeves:

Standing Committee recommends that the concern of the query be approved and assigned to the General Board. It also requests the General Board to involve districts and local groups in making the study, and to report to the 1980 Annual Conference with specific recommendations for dealing with the problem of diminishing church membership.

The following amended statement was adopted by the delegate body:

Annual Conference recommends that the concern of the query be approved and assigned to a study committee of seven (7) persons appointed by the Annual Conference officers. The study committee is to involve districts, local churches, and the Parish Ministries Commission of the General Board in making the study; it is to report to the 1980 Annual Conference with specific recommendations for dealing with the problem of diminishing church membership.

The Committee members selected are: Dorothy Fry, Marilyn J. Koehler, Olden D. Mitchell, Owen G. Stultz, Cynthia Weber-Han, Lorele Yager, C. Wayne Zunkel, Matthew M. Meyer, Staff liaison.

1980 Report of the Committee
The report of the committee was presented by Olden D. Mitchell and interpretative media supporting the study was demonstrated by C. Wayne Zunkel. After consideration had been given by the Conference to the progress report of the committee, 2 the motion by the committee was approved by the Conference to grant an additional year to complete the study.

Action of the 1980 Conference: The delegates adopted the motion recommending that the first part of the report from the committee as printed in the 1980 Conference booklet be received as a progress report, and that the committee be given another year to complete the assignment with major focus being given to “specific recommendations for dealing with the problem of diminishing church membership.”



In studying the query and the action of the 1979 Annual Conference, the committee observed two major concerns: 1) to discover the basic reasons for the diminishing membership and 2) to propose specific recommendations for dealing with this problem. In its endeavor to fulfill both assignments, the committee decided to focus its study first on discerning why the decline in membership and, in light of these findings, bring recommendations for resolution.


A. How The Church Has Grown. For the first 232 years of its history, the Church of the Brethren experienced steady, significant, and sometimes impressive growth. About 1940 the rate of growth began to decline so that for the first time in its history, the Church’s increase no longer kept pace with the growing population. The 1960’s was a time of loss of membership in the Church. That loss has continued to the present.

B. Scope of the Study. To discern how Brethren feel about the diminishing membership and related factors, the committee: 1) conducted interviews with many pastors and lay persons, the Elgin staff, the Bethany Seminary faculty, the district executives, and with the director of evangelism of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, Brother N. K. Mamza; 2) held a hearing session at the 1980 Conference and heard the discussion from the Conference floor; 3) received many letters from across the Brotherhood; and 4) studied questionnaires from the following persons and groups: a) members of the General Board, the staff, and the district executives; b) persons from growing and from declining congregations, as selected by the executive of each district; c) those receiving the packet of Source materials sent out by the Elgin staff; and d) those receiving the January, 1980 issue of Messenger.

The committee members did extensive personal study in the areas related to the decline in membership and the resolution of this problem; 1) reading and research; 2) interviews and correspondence with leaders of other denominations; 3) participating in seminars, retreats, workshops and special classes; 4) studying some denominations with a decline in membership and some that are growing.

Some assistance was given the committee by two Bethany Seminary students who were involved in research for the committee, and one student from the Elkhart Mennonite Biblical Seminary.1


(See original document for graph)

The percentage of gain or loss by decades between 1850 and 1970 is as follows:

Percentage of Gain or Loss by decades

(See original document for graph)

C. Questionnaires and Responses. The committee sent questionnaires to the following persons and groups: 1) General Board, staff, and district executives; 2) selected persons in growing and in declining congregations; 3) those reading Source; 4) those reading Messenger. The responses are presented in the following graphs.

1. Response of Brotherhood and District Leaders

2. Response of Selected Persons in Growing and in Declining Congregations

(See original document for graph)

3. Response to SOURCE Questionnaire

4. Response to MESSENGER Questionnaire (see graph 4, next page [this was located on the next page in the original document – see original document for graph])

5. Some Observations Drawn From the Responses to the Questionnaires:

  1. The leadership of the Church of the Brethren – as represented by those responding of the General Board, the staff, and the district executives – feels that the decline in membership is serious, and that growth is important, for the church.
  2. Those in growing congregations have more positive feelings regarding the Church of the Brethren, their own congregations, and their own personal growth than those in declining congregations.
  3. Those in both growing and declining congregations indicated that faithful church attedance, feeling good about the worship and preaching, caring and fellowship, does not necessarily result in feeling good about reaching and winning new members.
  4. More members were lost to the church by being dropped from the rolls than by death.
  5. Many feel that a major cause for the decline in membership is that “We’re apathetic, satisfied with the status quo.”
  6. Many of the reasons given for the decline in membership are more nearly symptoms than causes. The committee endeavored to differentiate between the two, and find the basic causes of diminishing membership in the Church of the Brethren in order to bring responsible recommendations.

D. Why The Decline – Exploring The Problem

1. While aware of contextual factors in our society over which the church has little control, this committee attempted to concentrate its study on national and local institutional factors that relate to church growth and decline. Many reasons for the diminishing membership in the Church of the Brethren have been explored and evaluated. From these, in our 1980 report, seven basic causes were listed:

  1. We are lacking in a warm, vital, personal relationship with, and commitment to, Jesus Christ;
  2. We have lost a clear sense of purpose or reason for existence as a Church;
  3. We have an incomplete and inadequate understanding of Christian discipleship;
  4. The commission to “Make Disciples” is not a high priority for our church;
  5. We do not have any plan or strategy as a church for faith sharing;
  6. During the past two decades we have failed to continue establishing new congregations on a regular basis;
  7. We have failed to adequately respond to the convulsive change in our society and culture;

2. In work done for the committee by two Bethany Seminary students they report that “The last four decades have seen the Brethren transformed from a denomination still aware of its sectarian heritage to one that maintains only a superficial acknowledgement to their unique contributions to the Christian faith. It is our contention that it is this basic loss of our identity combined with acute acculturation that has contributed to our decline in membership. We have embraced a stance that supports nothing with conviction.”2 (Sharing some of this concern, the committee encourages congregations and individuals to give special study to APPENDIX A, “Some Perspectives on the Faith and Life of the Church of the Brethren” and to APPENDIX B, “Some Views on the Identity of the Church of the Brethren.” The committee is convinced that it is crucial for a growing church to know who they are, whose they are, and what they are about as Christians.)

3. Our study of membership loss in some other denominations has taught us that there are many factors contributing to their decline. The same holds true for the Brethren. But the primary reason for membership decline among the Brethren seems to be that, while we have witnessed effectively through a strong social ministry, we have not witnessed as well for Christ with our words and in leading people to accept Him as Savior and Lord.

E. The Road Back

1. There may be times when a loss of membership is evidence of faithfulness. There are congregations which, because of prophetic witness or special ministries or conditions of location, will not grow. For others, growth will be minimal. However, they too can help fulfill the Great Commission among other peoples in other places.

2. Growth can come to the Church of the Brethren as we reaffirm who we are. It will not come by copying others but by rediscovering what is of most value in our own tradition, and by being true to our own best understanding of the Gospel.

3. If our church is to grow again it will share unashamedly such basics as the following:

  • No creed but Christ.
  • The New Testament is our rule of faith and practice.
  • All war is sin.
  • In Christ there is neither male nor female, neither white nor yellow nor black nor red nor brown.
  • Moderation in things good; abstinence from things harmful.
  • The New Testament ordinances: believers’ baptism; anointing for healing; the love feast with its meal and washing.
  • Christ calls us to a simple lifestyle, to service to our neighbors, to integrity of speech.
  • Nonconformity to the world (conformity to Christ).


It is our conviction that both the cause and the solution to the problem of diminishing membership in the Church of the Brethren is very closely intertwined with our faith. Our faith has brought us where we are as a Church, and our faith determines our future. “According to your faith will it be done to you,” was the assurance expressed by Jesus.

As we study the New Testament and the faith of the early Church we see that for them “being disciples” and “making disciples” headed their agenda.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son … not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16, 17) Following his baptism, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit … led by the Spirit … returned in the power of the Spirit” and stated in the words of the Prophet Isaiah his own sense of call and mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news … to proclaim … to set at liberty … to proclaim.” (Luke 4:1-19)

As Jesus began his ministry he called the twelve and said, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” Throughout his ministry Jesus called and trained coworkers to be with him, and gave them the power and the authority to heal the sick, cast out demons, preach the good news of the Kingdom, to prepare the way for his continued ministry. (Mark 1:17; 3:14-15; Luke 10:2; 9:1-6).

In Luke 15, Jesus used a parable to confront some who are more concerned about being faithful than about lost people. He presented some of the ways in which persons are lost and are restored. But his central emphasis, at the end of the parable as at the beginning, was that also caught up in the lostness are the good and faithful people who do not share the Father’s concern for restoring their lost brothers and sisters.

The New Testament writers portray the resurrected Christ as sharing four primary concerns: 1) to assure his followers that he is alive, that God has given to him all authority and power, and that he will be with them always; 2) to all the world they must go to witness, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all peoples,” to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to observe all that he had taught (Acts 1:8; Luke 24:44-49; Matt. 28:16-20); 3) love for their Lord would be expressed in more than words; it must also be demonstrated in the care given the lambs and the sheep of his flock (John 21:15-18); 4) they will all be filled with power for their mission when the Holy Spirit comes upon them; but they must wait until they are ready to be filled and empowered and led by the Spirit (Acts 1 and 2; Luke 24:49).

In the early church there seemed to be a clear understanding of the primary intent of Jesus for them as his disciples, and they were committed to it. They had news, too good to keep, so they shared it everywhere. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” “The word of God increased, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.” Their love for Christ impelled tem to share him, and the making of disciples became their first order of business. And they did it with a sense of excitement and enthusiasm! (Acts 2:47; 6:7; 9:31)

The Apostle Paul’s commitment to making disciples for his Lord was expressed in all he did and said, and in all he wrote. “So naturally, we proclaim Christ! We warn everyone we met, and we teach everyone we can, all that we know about him, so that, if possible, we may bring every one up to full maturity in Christ. That is what I am working at all the time, with all the strength that God gives me.” (Col. 1:28, 29)

“I am a free man, nobody’s slave; but I make myself everybody’s slave in order to win as many people as possible. While working with the Jews, I live like a Jew in order to win them. In the same way, when working with the Gentiles, I live like a Gentile, outside the Jewish law, in order to win the Gentiles. Among the weak in faith I become weak like one of them, in order to win them. So I become all things to all people, that I may save some of them by whatever means are possible.” (I Cor. 9:19-22)


The Apostle Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (I Cor. 3:6) While God through the Holy Spirit moves persons to become disciples of Jesus Christ, we have an important responsibility to help create the climate or conditions for response.

Church growth leaders and religious social scientists agree that the matter of church growth is quite complex. There are many factors which influence persons to respond or not respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Studies of church growth and decline in the U. S. indicate there are national and local contextual factors (external economic, social and political factors) over which we have little control. There are also institutional factors both national and local (including priorities, mission outlook, leadership, attitudes of members, etc.). Over these there is control through decision by the denomination and by congregations.3 All denominations and congregations operate under both contextual and institutional factors that influence growth.

Principles listed below are important factors in growing churches. Their application helps create the climate for growth.

A. Some Principles Which Help Create the Climate for Growth Are:

1. Strong and enthusiastic affirmation of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, holding the scriptures in high esteem, and fervent prayer for the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

This affirmation of our faith is fundamental to the church and its mission.

2. Making Disciples as a Top Priority.

The matter of our relationship to God is the central business of the church. No other institution deals with this. Making disciples must have a top priority status. Obedience to the gospel involves the church in many important ministries but none should overshadow helping people commit their lives to Christ as growing, serving disciples.

Sometimes it is feared that an adjustment of denominational priorities and resources to place making disciples as a top priority may weaken our much needed social and prophetic ministries. Studies indicate that this is not the case. Church growth either does not affect or affects positively the accomplishment of other goals. “… growth has little impact, either positive or negative, on the congregation’s achievement of other goals. If anything, growing churches appear to be achieving other goals a bit better than those that are stable or declining in membership.”4

3. Believing that God Wants the Church to Grow, and Definite Planning For the Church to Grow.

This means planning for reaching new people for Christ. It is not a question of faithfulness or evangelism. Faithfulness involves us in good planning for growth, recognizing that God produces the growth.

4. A Vigorous Program of Starting New Churches.

New churches reach more new people for Christ than older churches. Older churches find new vitality as they engage in starting new churches. Studies indicate that starting new congregations is vital to the growth of the church.5

5. A Sense of Identity, Clarity of Purpose and Strong Leadership.

We need to be able to tell in a positive and forthright manner why we are Christian and why we belong to the Church of the Brethren. Strong pastoral and lay leadership is essential to equipping and motivating the church for mission.

6. A Recognition of God’s Differing Gifts to Persons. (1 Cor. 12:1-31)

In the growing church, the abilities and skills of persons are recognized, affirmed and used in an integrated manner for the total good of the church. “… His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers … for equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11, 12).

Christ’s ministry takes many forms and utilizes all of God’s gifts. Loving Christian witness helps create the climate for people to respond to Christ. We rejoice in the many witness and service ministries in the Church of the Brethren. These can be very helpful in creating the climate for persons to respond to Christ.

7. An Orientation of the Congregation Which is Outward.

The congregation that grows is one which serves its local community in a helpful way and participates in the world-wide mission of the church. Through service ministries the love of Christ is expressed but never as a substitute for making Christian disciples.

8. Strong Emphasis on Worship, Preaching, Christian Nurture and Fellowship.

It is essential that there be strong Biblical preaching in worship services that are planned so the congregation can be involved in expressing their gifts and talents to the glory of God. We also need to belong to a group where we know one another, and experience mutual caring and supportive relationships, and where in-depth study and sharing can take place. When there is deliberate planning for many fellowship and face-to-face groups within the larger worshipping congregation, the climate is created in which growth can take place. Churches grow by multiplying groups within the church. Consolidation of groups normally leads to decline.6

9. A Compassionate Loving Spirit with Openness to New People and New Ideas.

“By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Genuine love for persons must be unmistakable. A church fellowship in which there is unity and a warm caring spirit is conducive to growth. Unresolved hostilities are discouraging to church members and repel non-church people.

For the church to grow, new people are sought out because we are Christ’s disciples and He wants all persons to have “abundant life” in Him. Openness to new persons also means a willingness to allow them to become decision-makers in the congregation. New people can bring freshness and vitality of both insights and spirit.

10. Faith With a Willingness to Take Risks.

Faith realistically assesses existing circumstances but sets goals which reflect that “with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26). Faith means we are willing to adjust priorities in order for the church to grow. Faith means we set goals based on what we believe God wants done, not on the basis of what we feel assured will succeed.

11. A Balance of Ministry

It is not a choice between evangelism and meeting human needs. The two go together. Jesus asked persons to follow Him, but he also healed the sick and fed the hungry. Donald E. Miller of Bethany Theological Seminary, speaks of “… hospitality evangelism: an evangelism in which telling and caring belong together; an evangelism in which discipling and nurturing are done together. We are a hospitable people, as God intended, but we should be a lot more intentional about reaching out, caring, sharing with others in the name of Christ.”7

B. God is Creating a Climate For Growth In the Church Of The Brethren

The kairos moment seems to be here to move with renewed determination to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ.

In recent years we have studied at Annual Conference the meaning of creative discipleship, our Brethren understanding of the Bible, and our new interest in missions. A number of conferences related to the Holy Spirit in the life of the church have been held. There is evidence of a new openness to the Spirit.

The responses to our questionnaires, especially in Messenger, indicate a growing interest in facing the problem of diminishing membership. The Goals for the 1980s are calling the church to new endeavors to grow, to plant new congregations, to grow in membership by adding new disciples.

The General staff and the district executives are actively engaged in seeking ways to strengthen our mission through coordinated planning. Pastors and local church leaders are becoming more enthusiastic and excited about the possibilities of making disciples and again becoming a growing church.

The hearings and the discussion at the 1980 Annual Conference indicated a high level of interest and readiness for working at ways to become once more a growing church.

We rejoice in the new interest in creative discipleship in the Church of the Brethren. We are excited in hearing anew the call of Christ to make disciples, and to respond with new commitment as the Spirit moves in the life of the church.


“As a part of the total Christian fellowship, the Church of the Brethren has been entrusted with a message – the best news of God’s love for all persons. We have also been enlisted in His ministry of reconciliation. But for far too long we have allowed our uncertainties to inhibit our evangelism and we have been hesitant to share enthusiastically our convictions about God’s love and grace. Surely we are called to be more positive in affirming our loyalty to Jesus Christ and more aggressive in seeking commitments to Him, to His church and to His Kingdom. As persons, as congregations, as a brotherhood, we prayerfully anticipate the renewal of faith that will be reflected in the desire to grow, to be fruitful and multiply – both for the glory of God and our neighbor’s good.” (A Statement on Evangelism for the Church of the Brethren – passed by 1972 Annual Conference).

It will take more than passing a statement at Annual Conference to change the trend of diminishing membership in the Church of the Brethren. The question is: Are we willing to pay the price? The revision of priorities has begun. This revision will need to be further reflected in budget, organization and staff, and a willingness to let the Holy Spirit lead us in being and in making disciples.

The Brethren Goals for the 80s state that we plan “to love tenderly by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ through proclamation and example.” This goal must have a top priority if we are to become a growing church!

A. Recommendations to the General Board and Staff:

We affirm the direction that has already been given by the General Board through Goals for the 80s planning which include some measurable growth objectives. We recommend:

  1. That the General Board, in cooperation with the districts, develop a comprehensive strategy for denominational growth that emphasizes skills for caring ministry, renewal from within, and a relevance that will attract and hold new members.
  2. That we accelerate the establishment of new congregations within the decade of the 80s to an average of one per district every two years by 1990.
  3. That the general objective of 3% annual growth by 1984, as set by the General Board, be pursued with 5% annual growth by 1990 suggested as a guide.
  4. That there be increased promotion of designated gifts and special offerings for the establishment of new congregations.
  5. That provisions be made for adequate staffing and budget to enable the fulfillment of the denomination’s church growth strategy.
  6. That to help prevent indiscriminate dropping of inactive members by congregations, consideration be given to a method other than per capita goals for stewardship designations.
  7. That Messenger have a monthly section devoted to the interpretation and implementation of the denominational growth strategy.
  8. That Brethren Volunteer Service orientation continue to include the basic elements of the Christian faith as understood by the Church of the Brethren, and the sharing of that faith by both word and deed. Also, that BVS projects continue to provide opportunities for volunteers to engage in both faith sharing and social service.
  9. That every year through the decade of the 1980s, the Board include in its report and exhibits at Annual Conference the progress being made on the comprehensive growth strategy.
    1. Recommendations to Annual Conference Central Committee
      We recommend:
      1. That the Central Committee include Annual Conference themes and programs during the 1980s which promote the denomination’s growth strategy.
      2. That workshops related to denominational growth be scheduled annually as Insight Sessions during the 1980s.

B. Recommendations to Bethany Theological Seminary

Since leadership is so essential to church growth, and pastors are key leaders, Bethany Theological Seminary is in a strategic position to help change our denominational direction to one of enthusiastic expansion. We recommend:

  1. That the Seminary undergird the denominational strategy for growth by providing courses in such areas as: the Biblical mandate of faithfulness and evangelism; growth in the New Testament and the early church; principles of church growth; preparing pastors to make disciples and train the laity to make disciples; establishing new persons in the life of the church; working constructively with inactive membership; the teaching role of the pastor in Christian discipleship – membership classes, study groups, gifts discovery; training pastors in establishing new congregations.
  2. The Bethany Extension School include courses focusing on discipleship, making disciples, and developing leadership for facilitating growth.

C. Recommendations To Districts

  1. That districts set goals and develop strategies in consultation with the brotherhood and congregations. The general objective of 3% annual growth by 1984 and 5% growth by 1990 is suggested as a guide.
  2. That each district plan to establish at least one new church by 1984, and develop plans which will result in starting at least one new church every two years by 1990.
  3. That districts give aid and support to urban churches desiring to serve integrating neighborhoods.
  4. That training be provided for pastors and lay leaders on the Biblical mandate to make disciples, church growth principles and working constructively with inactive members through workshops retreats, seminars, etc.8
  5. That a group of capable resource persons be chosen and trained who will be available to help local congregations. They should be theologically informed church specialists who can assist churches in diagnosing their condition and finding their way to health and growth.
  6. That the camping program include a strong focus on Brethren history, belief, polity and witness, aimed at developing identity with the Church of the Brethren.
  7. That seminars be required for licensed ministers, and pastors transferring from other denominations, on the doctrine, heritage and polity of the Church of the Brethren and on the scope of witness of the district and brotherhood.
  8. That districts provide a person, other than the pastoral placement executive, to be responsible for pastoral care of the pastoral family.
  9. That able persons be challenged to accept and prepare well for the Christian ministry, including both full-time and part-time pastoral ministry.
  10. That a week-long or weekend retreat be prov