Wineskins Archive

December 10, 2013

Book Review: Why They Left – Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ (Apr 2012)

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By Jesse Mullins

Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ by Flavil R. Yeakley Jr. (Gospel Advocate: 2012)

Flavil Yeakley’s detailed analysis of the causes of membership decline in Churches of Christ is a work that is candid, forthright, responsible, even circumspect. Just the same, Why They Left could as easily be described as a study on how to retain membership. And in that regard, it must be admitted that this book will appeal more to those who hope to preserve traditional doctrinal positions and the church’s status quo than it will to those who might share any of the sentiments of former church members who left, or current members who contemplate leaving.

That is not a condemnation. That dilemma—of occupying a position—would befall anyone who undertook a work like this. There’s no real neutrality in such matters, and to be honest I would number myself among those who lean Yeakley’s way.

But before it’s decided that this book tackles a two-sided issue, it also must be admitted that there is something else at work here. And that something else is the best thing about this book. In the course of examining the various reasons why 325 individuals departed the Churches of Christ, Yeakley finds it necessary to define church positions and to explain doctrinal conflicts. He does a masterful job of each. Moreover, his best insights emerge when he turns his scrutiny not to those who left but to those who’ve stayed.

It’s there that he’ll do the most good. Sure, Yeakley points out what’s wrong with the (collective) views or attitudes of the 325 individuals he surveyed. He’s not much given to taking their sides. But neither does he always condone the ways or beliefs of the congregations they left. And in fact he can sometimes be quite pointed, as he is in his discussions of ineffective elderships, when he remarks, “Church leadership is not about control. Control is a sick way of relating to people.”

This book surprised me. I came to it expecting that Yeakley, as longtime statistician and researcher at Harding University, would merely diagnose the dilemma in statistical terms and simply dispense practical advice of the kind we have heard for a generation or more.

For about three chapters, he charts his methodologies and strategy, and all seems predictable enough. He says things like this:

“Among the young people from Churches of Christ who attend some school other than a Christian college or university, 85 percent stop attending church services as soon as they leave home.” (p. 43)

But as he ventures further, he inserts thoughts like this:

“If the only people church leaders listen to are those who give them praise, they may not be hearing the most important things they need to hear. Those who are leaving a congregation are voting with their feet, and their vote is one of ‘no confidence.’” (p. 48)

And by about page 60, we’re done with scene-setting, and he is in high gear. The statistician has given way to the diagnostician.

These are some sophisticated diagnostics. Yeakley takes us into an analysis of “group personalities” as applied to congregations. Into Carl G. Jung’s theory of Personality Types. Into the workings of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Into the tenets of Postmodernism and how they impact the prevailing culture and the church culture as well.

He dissects the Boston Movement. He lays down the difference between manipulative language and “authentic dialogue.” He examines the Mormon Church’s evangelistic methods and finds something unexpected there.

But mostly he delves into congregational matters. And along the way he gives us tidbits like this:

“The average church member is not exposed to the less-flattering side of the leadership process. The closer a person gets to the inner workings of congregational life, the more that person is likely to conclude that the church must be a divine institution or it could never have survived its members and their leaders.” (p. 133)

Yeakley says that in “far too many” Churches of Christ, the elders are doing deacons’ work. Meanwhile, “the deacons have very little to do; and the church-supported ministers do most of the pastoral work. If strategic planning is done at all, it is done by ministers.” (p. 141)

And more than merely playing the diagnostician, Yeakley dispenses a prescription, some of which can be discerned here:

“The lowest net growth rate [is] in congregations where the preachers and personal evangelism workers accepted a teaching model of evangelism. Those churches had few converts, and most of their converts soon dropped out of the church. The best net growth rate as in congregations where the preachers and personal evangelism workers accepted a non-manipulative dialogue model of evangelism in which evangelism is like a conversation with friends.” (p. 202).

There’s much to ponder here, and all of it in a book so fresh off the presses that it actually quotes from the February 2012 edition (!) of the <i>Christian Chronicle.</i> (p. 166)

Why They Left holds something for every congregation, from the most progressive to the most traditional. We might not be able to affect what our departed or departing members think, but we can shape and refine our own mindsets. Yeakley shows us how.

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