Can We Still Celebrate Us?

May 22, 2018

Honestly I hesitated to even write and post this article. It is complicated in the churches of Christ these days (starting even with how we tag ourselves–is it with a big “C” or a little “c?”). Recently the Christian Chronicle (the major newspaper of our tribe) featured articles detailing the complications.

But complications among us is absolutely nothing new. Just check out our history–complications almost seem to be what has defined us. For a movement that originated from a call to “go back to the Bible” and rally around it–historically we have not been that unified.

But we endeavored and actually at points in our history, thrived, even in spite of our complications. I celebrate that history. It was forged by people of tremendous faith who were dedicated to following Jesus to the best of their ability and understanding. At our best we were a movement dedicated to honoring God and his Word; a body who highly valued church and what that meant; an evangelistic people who were driven to share the Good News about Jesus; a church who sincerely desired restoration and revival. At our worst–well that is where the complications come in. They divided us. We could not agree on how to interpret Scripture. We drew lines. We hurt people.

Today, I see both our best and worst tendencies being replayed. I see growing, vibrant congregations making huge differences in their communities for Christ. I see dynamic faith being lived out daily. I see sacrificial hearts practicing pure religion in reaching out to the most vulnerable in our society. I also continue to see churches dividing over our complications; unhealthy rhetoric fueling these complications; and to me anyway, an imbalance–more focus on the complications than on the Savior–in some cases.

It is the imbalance that gets to me. Either I must double-down on the “old paths” or I must embrace whatever change is next–not much middle ground. Even the majority of our brotherhood gatherings now seem to parrot this approach. Depending on where I am I will either hear about how the church is going into apostasy and full of heretics or how the church must embrace a completely new identity or be doomed.

Is there any place left that just celebrates us? That simply highlights who we are and the good kingdom work being done through our churches across the globe–without having to dredge up the complications; without having to be accusatory; without having to make any statement other than “Christ and him crucified?”

Perhaps there is no room left for middle ground anywhere in our ever increasingly hostile and partisan culture. Maybe I am only kidding myself in still seeing some merit in our traditional approach to Scripture while also realizing that some evolution and change is necessary and healthy (always has been–our movement has been far from static). And maybe I am only dreaming to think that we can look past our complications, get over our differences through the grace of God, love and accept one another just as we are and find a way to celebrate us together again in an uplifting and encouraging fashion.

My favorite historical figure in churches of Christ is T.B. Larimore. He lived during a time of explosive complications within our body–yet he steadfastly refused to participate, choosing rather to emphasize Christ in his preaching and celebrate his beloved church wherever he went. Often he found that middle ground difficult to navigate due to the consequences of the complications coming at him from every direction, but he soldiered on. I like what he was saying then:

My position is to preach the word wheresoever and whensoever Providence directs or duty demands. Always hew to the line, but never hack toes or chop fingers intentionally.

My earnest desire is to keep entirely out of all the unpleasant wrangles among Christians…I propose to finish my course without ever, even for one moment, engaging in partisan strife with anybody about anything.

Shall I now renounce and disfellowship all 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. 

I propose never to stand identified with one special wing, branch, or party of the church. My aim is to preach the gospel, do the work of an evangelist…

Is there a place among us today for keeping out of all of the wrangles of our current complications, of not engaging in partisan strife; of just preaching Christ without hacking off toes; of celebrating the best of us and our history while at the same time striving to learn how to be even better in sharing Jesus as a church with our world?

If so–that is where I want to be.

 

* Quotes are from two books: The Man From Mars Hill: The Life and Times of T.B. Larimore by J.M. Powell and Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church by C. Leonard Allen

 

 

 

 

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Churches of Christ in Decline?

February 10, 2012

Recently Bobby Ross, Jr. shared some alarming stats on his Christian Chronicle blog which indicate that Churches of Christ are in decline. Based upon data compiled by 21st Century Christian (the publisher of the Churches of Christ in the United States directory) there are now 102,000 fewer people worshiping in our churches then there were in 2003. Further, the data reveals that over these last nine years 708 of our congregations have shut their doors.

This information puts hard numbers on what many among us have suspected. I know that the majority of the congregations of which I am familiar are smaller than they were just a few years ago.

Based on this information here are a few personal observations:

  • Of this 102,000- my guess is that many of  them are in the 20 something age group. I have no hard evidence for this except what I see in churches where I minister and hear from other people.  A huge discussion can be undertaken about why this group is leaving us (post-modern thinking; not grounded enough; natural rebellion of the age, etc.), but there is no denying it. Recently a friend of mine who has a 20 something child (who grew up in a vibrant Church of Christ; involved in youth group activities; summer camp; foreign mission trips; and graduated from one of our universities) told me that she is now worshiping in a community church. She calls Churches of Christ, “old school.”  Whether we like to hear this or not- we must listen and prayerfully address why this group is leaving us. We are having this ongoing discussion at Levy. It remains a challenge.
  • Some among us have (in perhaps trying to address this challenge) left behind some of our traditional core values like A cappella singing and restrictions placed on women in public assemblies. These moves have not been without controversy, of course. What some see as simply an evolution of our restoration heritage, others view as an affront to clear biblical teaching. My mention of this is not to enter into a debate about this- just to recognize what has happened. And to ask these questions- have these congregations seen real, significant growth from among the truly unchurched? Has their move to a more ecumenical, contemporary approach to worship and beliefs attracted people- including the 20 somethings? It would be interesting to see if these churches among us are having any greater success.
  • Isn’t Jesus still the answer? The first church in Acts had very little of what we recognize as church- buildings, programs, staff, Sunday  morning worship emphasis, etc. yet they penetrated deeply into their culture with the message of Christ to the point of transforming entire cities. Their secret? They lived, breathed and taught Christ, him crucified and resurrected. The more our American culture moves into a post-Christian era, the more it resembles the culture of the first century in which the church then flourished.  Is Christ the center of our message in Churches of Christ? As disciples are we genuinely living out his values in our life in a way that stands in contrast to the world around us? Are we losing our life to find it? Are we proclaiming the Good News of Jesus outside of our church walls? The church grows in the marketplace- not in church buildings. The darker our culture becomes the more brightly the light of Jesus will shine. Our challenge is not to hide this light under a bushel that we keep inside our church buildings.

I love Churches of Christ. I am alarmed at these numbers. I am praying for wisdom and guidance from God on how to be more faithful in proclaiming Jesus as a member of the Church of Christ.

It just  hurts to see us in decline.