The church is people, and people matter

Carl and Carrie Royster

Carl Royster discusses the challenges of compiling an accurate count of ‘Churches of Christ in the United States’

Almost every church has a “deacon of the count” — someone who pokes his head into Bible classes and tallies the number of attendees.

Carl Royster does that for the whole country.

As part of Nashville, Tenn.-based 21st Century Christian, he serves as system administrator and data compiler for “Churches of Christ in the United States,” a directory produced every three years by the publishing company.

He has deep roots in the fellowship. Ancestors on his father’s side launched the Knob Creek Church of Christ in Graves County, Ky., in 1834 — believed to be the oldest extant congregation in the Jackson Purchase area. His father and grandfather were preachers, serving Churches of Christ in Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Royster found a different way to serve the church, graduating from Lipscomb University in Nashville with a degree in computer information systems in 1989 — the same year he started working with 21st Century Christian. He worked alongside Lipscomb professor Mac Lynn as Lynn compiled the 1997 edition of the directory. Lynn turned the work over to 21st Century Christian after the 2003 edition. The newly released 2015 edition is Royster’s fourth as data compiler.

“To what degree should statistics matter in the church?” Royster asks in the book’s introduction. “The church is people, and people matter.”

Royster is a member of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and has previously served on its board of directors. The association produces the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, or RCMS, every 10 years. It’s the only county-level religious census produced since the U.S. Census Bureau stopped collecting such data about 1940. The data Royster compiles for “Churches of Christ in the United States” is recorded in the RCMS.

Royster’s wife Carrie, is project coordinator for 21st Century Christian. They worship with the Pegram Church of Christ in Tennessee, where Carl Royster assists in youth ministry. They have two daughters, ages 22 and 19.

“First and foremost, I am but a sinner,” he says when describing himself. “However, I am also loved by God, and I am saved by his grace through the blood of his Son. All praise and glory go to him.”

How are you able to collect so much information for thousands of congregations?
The key to it all is the kind cooperation received from thousands of Christian brothers and sisters all over the country. Without their thoughtful consideration and the time that they volunteer, it would be impossible to conduct such a project.

Of course, Dr. Mac Lynn laid the groundwork — basically starting from scratch in the early 1970s. He traveled extensively, visited congregations, spoke with church members, obtained directories, made numerous telephone calls and wrote many letters. It is one of the reasons that I say that “Churches of Christ in the United States” will forever be his work.

Mailing out data update forms to congregations continues to provide much of the information. The Internet provides extensive amounts of valuable resources and communication avenues. Periodicals occasionally provide information, while other times it may come from a church ordering materials from 21st Century Christian’s bookstore. Basically, I am happy to get it any way I can.

What criteria do you use to identify what is a “Church of Christ?”

In any historical, statistical project such as this one it is vitally important that one adhere as much as possible to the project’s defined scope.

Dr. Lynn’s purpose, defined in the early 1970s, was for a current “united” national directory and statistical record of the a cappella Churches of Christ — as none existed at the time.

That purpose remains the same today. The scope that defines the collected data, as stated in the directory, is simply this: “A continuing effort to provide a compilation of current information relative to those congregations aligned with the ‘Restoration Movement’ or ‘Stone-Campbell Movement,’ which have been historically known for their a cappella worship.”

Despite what some think and others even request, the presence or exclusion of a congregation has never been based on any doctrinal views.
How do you verify the accuracy of church size information? 

Sometimes that is easy. Sometimes it is not. After processing tens of thousands of updates for many years, one develops a kind of “feel” for what is going on. Some churches are blessed with members who are very thorough and frequent with their information. Some are more apt to give round, yet fairly accurate figures, while others simply refuse to provide any numerical statistics for one reason or another.

Reported figures are not simply taken at face value. If something does not “feel right,” then some investigation is done to validate (or disprove) what was reported.

For the most part, however, I am relying significantly upon what someone from a congregation reports.

What insights into Churches of Christ have you gained from this project? 

Definitely too many to discuss here, but one thing I think that we all need to realize is that declining attendance and membership is a problem much greater than so many of the issues that have been debated for so long.

The thing that concerns me the most is the ever-increasing number of people who believe in God, identify themselves as Christians, but choose to have no affiliation to any church of any kind.

The younger generations increasingly are buying in to the worldly idea of “it’s just you and Jesus,” “you don’t need a church family,” “have it your way,” “whatever works for you,” “there’s an app for that!”
What other information have you considered including? 

My goal, always, is to make the next edition better than the one before. I receive several requests and suggestions from readers.

As churches incorporate new technology, communication methods or particular characteristics (such as the multi-campus churches introduced in the 2015 edition), I make note of what I observe. These are all evaluated and discussed with other staff here at 21st Century Christian and/or Dr. Lynn.

Anything deemed to be in keeping with the spirit of the project — and a useful improvement to the content — is selected, including statistical data, communication tools, congregationally described characteristics or historical information.

Lynn McMillon and Erik Tryggestad | Christian Chronicle

April 2015

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