Christian universities feeling the pinch as Churches of Christ shrink

Sharp decline seen in number of freshmen who identify with the numerically declining fellowship.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

Since today’s college freshmen were infants, roughly 1,200 Churches of Christ in the United States have closed, and the number of men, women and children in the pews nationally has shrunk by 200,000.

In the same 18-year period, universities associated with the fellowship — from Abilene Christian University in Texas to York College in Nebraska — have seen a 51 percent decline in students who identify with Churches of Christ.

Just 2,177 freshmen who enrolled at 14 such universities in fall 2017 gave their religious affiliation as “Church of Christ” — down from 4,411 in fall 2000, a national survey found.

At the start of the 21st century, two out of every three freshmen at those dozen-plus universities — 66 percent of 6,643 total first-year students — cited their heritage in Churches of Christ.

Now, that figure stands at two out of every five freshmen — 39 percent of 5,603 total first-year students — revealed the annual survey conducted by Trace S. Hebert, a higher education researcher at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

“In previous generations and during much of the 20th century, Church of Christ affiliated institutions were beneficiaries of a certain type of ‘brand loyalty’ from C-of-C congregations, church leaders, church members, and alumni from affiliated institutions who would encourage young people to go to an affiliated institution of higher education,” Hebert wrote in a recent report to the Christian universities’ presidents.

“The C-of-C enrollment data revealing declining numbers of C-of-C enrollees in affiliated institutions suggests that the era of brand loyalty has substantively diminished from what it once was,” added Hebert, associate dean of Lipscomb’s College of Education.

Read the full story.

Expanded interviews: Q&A: Christian university leaders on recruiting students in a declining fellowship

Related story: Christian higher ed challenges: Parents of college freshmen weigh in

These stories appear in the January 2018 print edition of The Christian Chronicle. 


In 2017, these Christians demonstrated faith, hope and love

Ten stories that inspired me — and hopefully you — over the past year.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

I am blessed.

As chief correspondent for The Christian Chronicle, I am privileged to tell the stories of Christians living out their faith — often under difficult or extraordinary circumstances.

Over the last 13 years, my travels with the Chronicle have taken me to all 50 states and 11 countries.

Among the many stories I reported during 2017, here are 10 that inspired me — and hopefully you.

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online edition of The Christian Chronicle.

God and guns: Texas pastors undergo security training a month after Sutherland Springs massacre

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

PLANO, Texas — Shooting holes in a “paper bad guy” during target practice? That’s easy.

Defending a house of worship against a real gunman? That’s a whole different story.

As he led a security training on Tuesday (Dec. 5) at a Dallas-area megachurch, Sgt. Mike Gurley warned against thinking that worshippers licensed to carry handguns can offer reliable protection.

“To assume they’re going to be effective in an active-shooter situation is comparable to giving me a set of golf clubs and expecting me to win the Masters,” the retired Dallas policeman told the crowd of 650 pastors and other church leaders.

The event, titled “Church Security in the 21st Century,” was held at the 42,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church exactly a month after the worst church shooting in American history.

That mass shooting occurred about 300 miles south of Plano at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5. Twenty-five members ages 1 to 77, including a pregnant woman, were killed.

Gurley, principal of the security firm Teamworks Consulting Inc., said even people licensed to carry firearms need specialized training to be able to respond to active-shooter situations.

He urged churches to develop policies for minimum training and qualifications for anyone armed with a gun and to consider involving members with law enforcement and military experience. Helping with the security team requires just as strong a calling and “God-given talent” as any other service, he said.

“Sutherland Springs was not a gun control issue,” he added. “It was a sin issue. We have to safeguard the body of believers.”

Read the full story.

Religion News Service is a national wire service with more than 100 secular and religious media subscribers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR.

Trump + Gillibrand + faith: ‘Why is religion only talked about when reporters profile Republicans?’

By Bobby Ross Jr. | GetReligion

Did you happen to hear where Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was last week when President Trump posted a tweet about her that the president’s critics labeled “sexually suggestive and demeaning?”

Yep, that’s right: The New York Democrat was at a bipartisan Bible study.

So what are the odds that the New York Times political writers who profiled Gillibrand in Sunday’s newspaper — in a lengthy A-section piece tied to the president’s kerfuffle with the senator — delved into her faith?

Hint: The Times makes passing reference to the aforementioned Bible study.

But any actual consideration of Gillibrand’s faith? Not so much. (Interestingly enough, the profile does point to the senator’s propensity to curse “freely in public venues.”)

In case you somehow missed Trump’s tweet and Gillibrand’s response, here they are:

I first became aware of Gillibrand’s participation in the regular Bible study when I did a Religion News Service profile of Sen. James Lankford earlier this year. I asked the Oklahoma Republican’s team for the names of Democrats involved in the study. They put me in touch with Gillibrand’s office.

I visited with Gillibrand about Lankford and her own faith, and a portion of that interview ended up in my story:

Read the full column.

• • •

All of my GetReligion columns (December 2017):

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The guy in the red apron: How a Salvation Army bell ringer brings heart to the job

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas — To hear Bruce Bachman tell it, he’s just a guy with a bell, a red apron and a heart to serve who gives a little of his time during the holiday season.

He’s just one of the thousands of volunteer bell ringers who keep alive a 127-year tradition that the Salvation Army traces to Capt. Joseph McFee, who set out a large, iron kettle in 1891 to collect funds for a Christmas dinner in San Francisco.

From Thanksgiving to Christmas, the change, bills and occasional large checks and gold coins that Americans drop into about 25,000 kettles from coast to coast amount to roughly $150 million, said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, the Salvation Army’s national community relations and development secretary.

Some bell ringers wish passers-by a heartfelt “Merry Christmas” and hope the kettle fills. But many others, like Bachman, have honed strategies and routines to make the most of the uncompensated work — for the Salvation Army and for all who come within earshot.

Just before 10 a.m. on a busy shopping day, the 61-year-old consulting engineer arrives at a Hobby Lobby arts and crafts store with a mailbox-sized stereo, a box of Christmas CDs and a plastic baggie full of hard candy.

“I bring the candy to suck on so I don’t have to drink as much water,” Bachman explains. He knows he won’t have time for meals or bathroom breaks, so he tries to be prepared (eating a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns ahead of time).

He’ll stand outside for eight hours and — as a mix of Bing Crosby, Mannheim Steamroller and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tunes plays — invite customers to donate to the Salvation Army’s red kettle campaign.

“God bless you!” he tells a woman who pulls money out of her purse. “You have a very merry Christmas!”

“Hello, cutie!” he says in his best Donald Duck voice as 3-year-old Jubilee Longoria approaches the kettle with a handful of coins.

Read the full story.

Religion News Service is a national wire service with more than 100 secular and religious media subscribers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR.


Closing doors: Small religious colleges struggle for survival

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

SHAWNEE, Okla. — Duncan Tiemeyer chose St. Gregory’s University because he wanted a faith-based education that would teach him more than how to succeed in a career.

The 550-student Catholic liberal arts college in Oklahoma traces its roots to French monks who moved to Indian Territory in 1875, intent on developing the bodies, minds and souls of Native American and settler children.

“Here, we are taught not only to focus on our five-year plan but also our 100-year plan and our 500-year plan,” said Tiemeyer, 22, a senior business and theology major from Houston. “What are we preparing for? Are we living our lives in a way that is getting us to the next life? Are we going to be able to go to heaven?”

However, the brand of education offered by St. Gregory’s — where Benedictine monks still pray multiple times daily in a chapel beside a cemetery filled with the remains of their predecessors — will come to an abrupt halt at the fall semester’s end.

“It’s just a tragic and sad loss, and I’m grieving for our students and faculty and staff who are working through this loss,” said St. Gregory’s President Michael A. Scaperlanda.

The financially strapped Roman Catholic institution, 40 miles east of Oklahoma City, is just the latest small religious college to close in an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace.

Read the full story.

Religion News Service is a national wire service with more than 100 secular and religious media subscribers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR.

Texas hero risked life to save others

With the death toll at 26, Stephen Willeford confronted — and shot — the Sutherland Springs gunman.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

Heroes need prayers, too.

Stephen Willeford — the Texan who confronted and shot the gunman who killed 26 people at a rural Baptist church Sunday — could use a bunch of prayers, his close friend John Wood says.

To many, Willeford’s actions outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs made him a hero.

But the hero, who is described as a faithful Christian, was distraught when he called Wood at his Ohio home right after confirming gunman Devin Patrick Kelley’s death.

“I talked to him immediately after it happened, basically before any of the law enforcement arrived,” Wood — a retired Church of Christ minister and Air Force chaplain — told The Christian Chronicle. “He called me and said, ‘I just killed a man.’”

Texas Department of Public Safety Cmdr. Freeman Martin told reporters that an armed citizen, identified as Willeford, shot Kelley in the leg and torso. However, an autopsy indicated that a third shot — a self-inflicted wound to the head — likely killed Kelley.

Wood had just gotten home from worship at the Xenia Church of Christ in the Buckeye State when his phone rang.

The longtime preacher said he relied on his training in counseling as he comforted Willeford, who has long ties to Churches of Christ.

Read the full story.

First published online, this story appears in the December 2017 print edition of The Christian Chronicle.