The worst thing to ever happen to UCG was its 2010 schism with what would become COGWA.
While senior UCG leaders viciously pushed out the dissenters that eventually formed COGWA -- which was viewed as a victorious purge of more conservative Armstrongite traditionalists that would have stood in the way of the cult’s recent attempts at transformation -- the backlash was far worse than Dennis Luker, Victor Kubik, Roy Holladay or Robin Webber could have ever anticipated.
Aside from losing 75 percent of its paid ministry and a big clip of its third-world congregations in Latin America, UCG’s budget took a huge hit despite no longer having to pay those pastors or subsidize those congregations, because growing numbers of members and their tithe money have also waltzed out the door.
We’ve discussed some of the big reasons why UCG has been dramatically declining in recent years, but the most interesting and significant factor is that UCG’s disaffected have a place to go, and that place is COGWA.
While those who get tossed out or leave LCG, PCG or RCG may struggle to find another COG group to meet with due to decades of inter-COG infighting and animosity, those leaving UCG have found easy transitions to COGWA, which makes sense because a mere six years ago now, they were literally the same organization run by the same people.
It helps too that younger members have continued to associate outside services with those in the other cult and in some cases have been intermarrying. Even though members were told to reconcile in UCG, those members do, at their heart, understand the schism was always a spat between ministers and senior leaders. Any existing disagreements between members were stoked by pastors on either side as they scrambled to stake their claims.
Family, friends and familiar pastors await grumbling UCG members who have decided to reject the years of anti-COGWA propaganda spewed by their church, which means they don’t really need to leave their comfort zone. In fact, as UCG continues to transform and become less Armstrongized on its surface, new COGWA members may find their decades-old comfort zone restored.
And the numbers show this has happened dramatically over the past five years.
COGWA, despite only having a reported 5,300 attendees during its first Feast of Tabernacles following its 2010 schism from UCG, has reportedly risen to 9,300 in attendance in 2015 -- a sizeable net gain of 43 percent.
LCG, for context, reported 10,400 attendees this past year, which if any of these reported numbers are even remotely accurate, makes Roderick Meredith’s cult the biggest in terms of raw numbers of humans swelling its ranks.
Comparing that to UCG’s 8,000-ish U.S. attendance, it’s clear that Kubik’s cult, which was once far and away the largest splinter to rise out of the chaos of 1995, has dwindled while COGWA has risen. UCG's international numbers may account for additional thousands, though it's third-world, international congregations are far fewer than before 2010, after which many defected to COGWA.
Increasingly, UCG's status as top dog in the COG is falling. LCG, despite the massive upheavals cult leader Roderick Meredith has put it through, may be narrowing the gap in size. And COGWA is no longer fourth place in the pack when it comes to money and members. If anything, COGWA, which was one estimated to be a third of UCG’s size and struggled to launch early on, is now very comparable to UCG right now.
Both cults are obviously smaller and weaker than they were while united and COGWA hasn’t yet replicated all of UCG’s media and resource infrastructure. But COGWA has managed to attain a level of success in half a decade that inversely matches UCG’s gradual collapse over the same time period, and it’s a clear case of cause instead correlation.
The weaker UCG gets, the stronger COGWA seems to get, which is a very strange and rare case of a COG cult growing while virtually every other one has significantly dwindled year in and year out. COGWA has found a way to survive by acting as a safe harbor for existing COG members, the opposite strategy UCG has invested in as it vainly struggles to attract the great unwashed public into its ranks.
An interesting thing to watch is COGWA’s “secret meetings" with LCG. Both cults claim these are not merger negotiations, but this is likely to be a clever lie. Roderick Meredith has carried out a purge of most LCG members deemed disloyal to him over the past year or so, and he knows that when he dies – which will be sooner rather than later – his remaining followers will not pledge allegiance to any potential successors. And COGWA head Jim Franks, who is as power hungry as any COG leader, probably sees LCG as fertile ground to expand his empire.
Where COGWA’s success might pop off the tracks lies with such a merger, which some COGWA members say will force them back into UCG, reversing the polarity of the intercult bleeding.
What will happen to COGWA in the future is unclear, other than its ultimate conclusion of not existing at some point, which is the fate awaiting all of Armstrongism. But if current trends hold, it may be one of the last COG cults standing.Update 3.30.2016: This post has been amended to account for international numbers and better reflect size comparisons between UCG, LCG and COGWA. It should also be noted that membership and attendence reports from COG groups are frequently unclear in their definitions and may not accurately reflect the actual number of baptized, tithe-paying church members.