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The organization known as the International Churches of Christ (ICOC), not to be confused with the mainline Church of Christ, has frequently, during its short twenty-three year history, asserted that it has exclusivity on being the kingdom of God on earth, the one "true" church. It has also been asserted by this organization that their growth statistics stand as evidence in support of that claim. Parallels are drawn between the growth of the first century Church and this modern day "movement" begun in 1979 in Lexington, Massachusetts, with "30 would-be disciples", one of which being the founder and current leader, Kip McKean. Based on these parallels Kip McKean has made such statements as,
This view, spouted and bragged about by Kip McKean, has been sown into the very fabric of thought within the membership of the International Churches of Christ. It is one of the main points members use to defend their movement. Because of such statements and the view imbedded within the membership, the need for impressive growth is imperative. Anything less than impressive would be unacceptable, as lack of such growth would throw doubt on the claim of kingdom exclusivity and on Kip Mckean as being "God's man" chosen to lead "God's modern day movement".
This need for impressive growth has led to a system of practices and teachings focused on creating highly productive recruiters (convert makers), rewarding the successful as "spiritual" and "godly" while shaming the unsuccessful as "struggling", "in sin" and "unspiritual". Thus many leadership conferences and church services have been little more than pep rallies or chastisements, given the state of growth statistics at any particular time. The recruiting tactics became so aggressive and relentless that they bordered, in many cases, on harassment.
The need for such aggressive recruiting is due to the strenuous demands placed on time, productivity and money which tend to wear down the majority of those who become involved. Like many multi-level marketing companies that rely on aggressive and relentless recruiting because of similar demands, the ICOC relies on such recruiting not only to support their claim of kingdom exclusivity, but for the organization's very survival. People continue to become worn down and leave in such large numbers that if the recruiting tactics were not so aggressive and relentless, the ICOC would soon dwindle to near extinction. And even with such aggressive and relentless recruiting tactics, during the last three years (1999 - 2001) the growth of the ICOC has waned. In 1999 the organization grew by 10,587. In 2000 the organization grew by 9,762. And in 2001 the organization grew by only 5,476 (a little more than half the growth of 1999).
Still, at first glance this amount of growth appears impressive, especially if all you are given are the growth numbers. For this three year period the net growth was 23,823. There is a small discrepancy between the YTD (year to date) growth of each of the three years and the actual increase in membership as recorded in the statistics published by the ICOC resulting in the three year net growth being less than the total sum of the individual years. But again, membership growth of 23,823 seems impressive. Yet when the annual number of new recruits is compared to the annual number of "fallaways" (a label given to anyone who leaves the organization), what becomes impressive, or should I say shocking, is the number of people leaving and a retention rate below 20 percent. That falls far short of the retention rate of many denominational churches. And compared to the growth rate of other organizations, the ICOC growth isn't so impressive.
In just 9 years the International Pentecostal Holiness Church grew from 297,286 in 1991 to 1,345,890 in 2000. They grew over 400 percent in 9 years. That is an average of 116, 511 per year. Given the ICOC mindset, those would be impressive numbers.
It is reported that there are an estimated 25 million Christians in China. One recent report spoke of a missionary in southern Henan province, active in a house church movement with 10,000 members, who was sent to Singapore for three years for training and upon returning, found that his house church movement had multiplied 30-fold to 300,000 members. Another recent report spoke of 2 young Christian women (sisters who came to Christ on the same day) who had planted 29 house churches in the two years of their being saved. The largest has an estimated attendance of nearly 5,000. Yet the Hong Kong Church of Christ (ICOC), which was planted in 1988, has grown in its thirteen years to a membership of only 2,454. They grew by only 418 over the last three years. There is some impressive growth going on in China, but it's not the ICOC.
In Russia the number of Protestant churches is reported to have grown from 480 in 1990 to 7,200 in 2000 with about 100 new churches currently being planted each month. Today, there are around 10,000 evangelical churches in Russia. At the end of 2001 the ICOC had planted only 17 churches in Russia and the Ukraine since 1991 with an accumulative membership of 9,962. Of these 17 churches, 10 grew by only 50 or less in 2001, and 6 had a negative growth.
According to Operation Agape, Christians in Madhya Pradesh state in northern India planted, against threat from Hindu fanatics, 316 new house churches in their district in the first six months of 2001. The report states that "Amidst all forms of persecution, beatings and discrimination, Northern India's church movement continues to grow." In Orissa (India), where missionary Graham Staines and his sons were murdered, 117 new house churches were reported planted in the first half of 2001 with a membership of over 1,500 new believers. And in Allahabad, 7,000 new believers meet in one church. By the end of 1999 the ICOC had planted only 23 churches in India with an accumulative membership at the end of 2001 of 5,888. Some explosive growth going on in Russia and in India, but it's not the ICOC.
And in some areas of the United States where the ICOC has a major pillar church, other churches are growing just as fast with a better retention rate than the ICOC. In LA, where the ICOC's crown jewel of a church is located, it is only 1 of 7 churches that have an attendance of over 10,000. 5 of these churches are larger than the LA Church of Christ. In 1992 Kip McKean listed several LA area churches and their attendances during a leadership conference where his stated focus was to become the largest church in LA. He even spoke of it being SIN to allow any other church to be larger than the ICOC church. From that list of LA area churches were 4 of the 5 which are larger than the ICOC church.
Currently these churches have attendances of:
Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, the original planting of the Calvary Chapel churches, was founded in the late 1960's with 25 members and grew to an attendance of around 25,000 by 2002. As of the end of 1999 there had been 251 additional Calvary Chapels planted in California. At present the 12 largest of those plantings have an accumulative attendance of nearly 61,000. That makes an accumulative attendance for the largest 13 Calvary Chapel churches in California of around 85,000. These statistics supplied by Hartford Institute for Religion Research, The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, and Glenmary Research Center.
The LA Church of Christ (ICOC), planted in 1989, currently has an attendance of just over 12,000. There have been only 4 other ICOC plantings in California, all between 1987 and 1994, with an accumulative attendance of 7,979. That makes a total of 5 churches planted in 15 years with an accumulative attendance of just over 20,000. Of the other 4 plantings only the Sacramento church, had a positive growth in 2001. It grew by 5.
Based on the statistics, the impressive growth award would have to go to Calvary Chapel.
And this pattern is repeated in other areas like Chicago and South Florida where other churches exceed the size and (or) growth of the ICOC churches in those areas. Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago was planted in 1975 with 125 members. The current attendance is 18,000+. The Chicago church (ICOC), planted in 1982, only seven years later, has a current attendance of just over 4,000. There are three other ICOC church plantings in Illinois. All but one had a negative growth in 2001, and two of them (the Chicago church being one) have had a negative growth for the past three years. Incidentally, the church that had positive growth in 2001 was the Springfield church (ICOC). It grew by only 1.
The First Baptist Church in Orlando has a current membership of 11,622 with a three year growth (99 thru 01) of 1,798. The Orlando church (ICOC) has a current membership of just over 1,000 with a growth of only 129 for the same three year period. Calvary Chapel church in Ft. Lauderdale, planted in 1985 with 2 families, has a current attendance of 12,000+. The last three years has seen growth in attendance of about 2,700. The Miami church (ICOC), planted four years later in 1989 had an attendance as of December 2001 of around 2,600, which is a drop in attendance over the last three years of almost 400.
Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX has a current membership of 13,000 (1,012 of which became members during the first four months of 2002). Lakewood Church in Houston claims an attendance of 15,000. New Light Christian Center in Houston claims 14,000. The Dallas/Ft Worth church (ICOC) has a current membership of just over 1,200 with a negative growth in 2001 of -248 and the Houston church (ICOC), current membership of 577, had a negative growth in 2001 of -34. Of the other 7 ICOC plantings in Texas, the accumulative growth for 2001 was only 24.
In the same 1992 leadership conference in which Kip McKean focused on church size, he stated:
Given their size and growth over the last 10 years, Kip McKean would have to admit that Crenshaw Christian Church, West LA Church of God, Harvest Fellowship (Riverside), Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, and many other churches across the country are all "of God" or reject his own words. He would also have to admit, or reject his words, that the majority of ICOC churches are knee deep in SIN.
According to annual statistics published by the International Churches of Christ, from January of 1999 to December of 2001 there was a world wide total of 102,892 baptisms. That is over four times the amount of people the organization actually grew by. 102,892 recruits, yet the organization only grew by 23,823. How is that possible? Because during that same three year period the world wide total of "fallaways" capped just shy of 84,000. The actual number was 83,928, just under 19,000 shy of the total number of baptisms. And if not for the 4,859 restorations, former members convinced to return, the organization would've only grown by 18,964.
These statistics reveal that for every 5 people walking in the front door, 4.1 people are walking out the back. Again, this shows a retention rate below 20 percent. The number of people leaving verses the number of people joining has continuously risen since at least 1994. International Churches of Christ spokesman, Al Baird, admitted during a speech in 1995,
For every 3 people who joined there were 2 people leaving. That ratio has risen to 4.1 people leaving for every 5 people joining. The retention rate, therefore, has fallen from 1/3 of the number of baptisms to less than 1/5 of the number of baptisms. If this ratio continues to rise, it may soon be 5 or 6 people leaving for every 3 or 4 people joining. In fact, the number of people who have left the ICOC in just the last five years (1997-2001) has overtaken the number of current members, a number that took over 20 years to reach.1 Given this, it is becoming more and more difficult to keep up any kind of growth. In 2001 many of the larger churches of this organization grew very little or not at all. Many experienced a negative growth, especially the pillar churches in the US.
Whole Geographical Sectors were even affected, especially in the US.
The only real growth appears to have occurred mainly in third world countries.
And even with the growth that did take place in 2001, the world wide total net growth for the month of December, 2001, was a negative growth of -2,540. The number of "fallaways" for that one month was 3,811. And of the 35 churches worldwide with a membership of over 1,000, only Bangalore, India had a positive growth for December. Bagalore increased its membership by a whopping 1. The other 34 largest churches had a negative growth for December with Chicago leading the pack at a negative growth of -124.
Of course, slow growth (or even lack of it) is not, in and of itself, a terrible thing...unless you happen to be Kip McKean. As he has stated in the past,
If what Kip McKean was teaching is valid, the "Spirit has departed" many of the churches of the ICOC. I wonder if Kip McKean still holds to many of his earlier views. And according to other quotes by those in leadership, members have been taught that bearing "good" and "lasting" fruit (as the Bible instruct us to do) means recruiting people who stay faithful to the movement. Given the current stats and the amount of former members, this teaching would mean that the ICOC has produced 3 times as much "bad" fruit as they have "good" fruit. And during the last three years the ICOC has produced 80% more "bad" fruit than they have "good" fruit.
The International Churches of Christ recruited over 100,000 people in three years, just shy of the total number of members at the beginning of 1999. Yet, they had an overall decrease in growth. It is my opinion that the kind of radical goal Kip McKean should be laying before his churches is to increase the retention rate by working on the quality of the experience within the organization. He reminds me of the story of the puppy dog carrying a bone across a log that was spanning a creek. The dog looked down and saw his reflection in the water, but thought it was another dog carrying another bone. Forgetting about the bone in his own mouth, he lunged forward and snapped at his reflection in an attempt to take possession of the other bone, losing the bone he had to begin with.
Why are members, who become worn down and leave, flippantly referred to as "casualties of war"? Why is it said that these people just couldn't cut it or they weren't willing to meet the "cost" of being a disciple, of following Jesus? Granted, the Bible does teach about the "cost" of following Jesus, of being His disciple. But what exactly is it to follow Jesus? What is it that is expected of us? Do those expectations parallel the strenuous demands on time, productivity and money that most former members claim are present in the ICOC? Is it possible that, in addition to the many claims by former members of flawed teachings, manipulation, deception, and unbiblical authoritarian practices, that there is some level of truth to the claims that this man-made legalistic system focused on high productivity just plain wore people down, and that the God of the ICOC expected more than what people were physically able to endure? In light of the following statements made by the leadership of the International Churches of Christ over several years, the possibility is very high.
As mentioned before, the ICOC teaches that being "personally fruitful" and "bearing fruit" means one thing-baptizing someone. It is spawned from a twisted interpretation of John 15:5-8 (read Bring Forth Fruit). According to ICOC teaching, if you have not baptized someone then you have not been fruitful. According to Mr. Folker (South Florida COC) in 1998, members who had not baptized someone during the previous year and who failed to do so during the present year would be considered "dead branches" in danger of being pruned by God. In other words, cut off by God. Or as Kip McKean so aptly put it,
And this is just one of the many manipulative, abusive teachings and practices that cause members to burn out and leave in such large numbers. Ironically the above statements by ICOC leadership stand in such strong contrast to the following words spoken by Jesus.
Again, we encourage anyone who is currently a member of this organization, or thinking of becoming a member, to take a long hard look at the stats, the practices, the teachings and the quotes by leaders. It doesn’t take much to see that these things do not match up with Scripture. We welcome any comments you may have concerning any of our articles.