Over the past quarter I have had so much fun teaching what I have entitled The Restoration Revisited. I have also learned a great deal from the scholarship and ministry, not only from the great men and women pioneer restoration leaders, but from the scholarship of many today. Below is the final lesson in this series.
From the very inception of restoration ideals in America at the turn of the nineteenth century, the pioneer leaders of this movement struggled to establish an identity as “Christians only”. In many ways, over many years, this struggle has never completely vanished. As we move deeper into the 21st century and face the theological and cultural challenges of our day- it remains a struggle. As a result, the question of “where do we go from here?” is being widely asked.
What We Face
As with every generation within the Restoration Movement there are “issues” among the Churches of Christ that contribute to an “identity crisis”. At the core of these issues today is a shift among many in the basic approach to Bible understanding. This “new hermeneutic” has lead many congregations within the Churches of Christ to broaden their outlook on such issues as instrumental music, women’s role in public assemblies, when communion is offered, worship styles, evangelism, fellowship, baptism and who is viewed as a Christian.
While this diversity exists, the majority of the mainstream Churches of Christ have not- at least in practice- embraced many of these ideas and many within the Churches of Christ continue to oppose such as “innovations” of man.
This illustrates what is at the heart of the identity struggle- and of our future direction. If the old traditional moorings are to be replaced, what will replace them? Who will we become? Is anything about our traditional restoration plea still valid? Where do we go from here?
To place even more weight on the current crisis is the fact that overall, Churches of Christ are not growing. Since 1980 the Churches of Christ have recorded a growth rate of 1.6 percent while the population around us has grown at a rate of 32.2 percent. (According to the most recent Christian Chronicle)
Some point to this non-growth as a reason to change and embrace new thoughts and vision. They claim the traditional approaches of the Churches of Christ are no longer relevant. Others, point to the changes as the reason for the plateau. They claim the non-growth is just a result of leaving the “old paths”.
Putting the different viewpoints aside, it is clear, that neither the more traditional nor more progressive among us is effectively evangelizing. “Where do we go from here?” may end up a moot point! Unless we share our faith we may end up nowhere.
Church and Culture
Where we do end up will always- to some extent- be dependent upon the culture around us and how we respond to it. Since the church was birthed (Acts 2) within the Jewish community, her practices and worship has always reflected culture. Much of the struggle for identity has always revolved around cultural shifts (Just consider the continual Jew-Gentile debate in the New Testament church). The Churches of Christ in
America were born out of 19th century, modern culture and this influence even remains with us today.
But we no longer live in that culture and to connect and grow, the Churches of Christ must- to some degree- adapt to post-modern 21stcentury culture. This does mean change. Change in approaches to relationships, change in methods of evangelism, change in the language we use to communicate our faith, and yes, change even in how we do church. While the very thought of this is anathama to many, it is happening and it must happen. (The fact is it always has happened) The great responsibility and challenge of current leaders within the Restoration Movement and in local churches is to navigate these winds of change and still remain faithful to the core truth of Christ, his death, burial and resurrection, while still offering to culture in a refreshing, relevant way the basic message of “Christians only” that has always been the hallmark of the restoration.
Changes are inevitable and the ability to embrace positive changes in order to connect to culture and further our opportunities to share the message of Christ will shape where we go from here. As always our future is about leadership, vision, and most of all, faith. By entrusting our future to God and walking by faith- not by sight, we can be assured we will go where he wants us.
One Last Voice from the Past
In the meantime, how do we handle our differences on our direction? Will we continue with the “fighting style” and continue to reap the counterproductive results? Or will we learn to accept each other even in our differences and support one another on our continuing restoration journey?
Remember that we are not the first within our restoration heritage to face these questions. Back at the turn of the twentieth century when division was immanent, sides had been taken and hostilities were evident- one man stood out as a voice for acceptance and unity in spite of differences. In the current climate of the restoration and the Churches of Christ, the words of this wise man, T.B. Larimore, should be a beacon to guide us.
“I am for Christ,” he said, “and I believe I can do more for him, his cause and humanity without meddling with these ‘matters’; hence I let them alone, and just simply ‘preach the Word,’ ‘the gospel of Christ’, the power of God unto salvation.” Larimore refused to make the issues of his day a matter of fellowship. He stated, “Shall I now renounce and disfellowship all of those who do not understand these things exactly as I understand them? They may refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with me; but I will never refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with them- NEVER.” He confessed, “I am as apt to be wrong as my brother for neither of us is infallible.” And for this reason he concluded, “I must love my brethren, and never refuse to fellowship them- ANY OF THEM- simply because we do not always understand all questions exactly alike.”
This remains the exact attitude we need to have with us wherever God is taking us next. Any other way will only continue to divide and devour us. Any other way is truly not reflective of the spirit of our beginnings in the American restoration. Any other way does not reflect the “one another” principles found in Scripture.
Where do we go from here? God knows, and if we trust him, it will be an exciting, fulfilling and wonderful journey. As always he will provide our identity as we seek to connect him to our culture as “Christians only.”