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





Five Church of Christ Myths or Facts?

September 5, 2013

Practically all of my life I have heard (in one form or another) these five facts about the Churches of Christ.  I now ask– are they fact or myths?

Members of the Churches of Christ know the Bible well. Just how true has this ever been? Were we a people of The Book? Did we know the Bible better than other churches? Or did we just know a certain set of proof texts very well?  And shouldn’t being a people of The Book be a given in any generation?

Members of the Church of Christ are the only ones going to heaven. Did we ever really believe and teach this? Isn’t this an arrogantly narrow position to take? How can anyone or any group claim sole possession of God’s grace and truth? If I can read the Bible and discover God’s will for my life then others can as well. Is this really what we want our identity to be?

Churches of Christ have restored the New Testament Church. I do know the significance of what we call “The Restoration Movement” to who Churches of Christ are (even today). I appreciate the courageous and noble work of those early American pioneer preachers in re-emphasizing the central importance of New Testament teaching and the New Testament church model. But is the New Testament church now completely restored? Or is it an ongoing and continual process as this teaching and model interacts with each new generation and takes root in different world cultures?

The Churches of Christ are not a denomination. Has this ever been completely true? I know from a structural point-of-view it is. That is, we have no overall church system and no formal denominational hierarchy. But attitudinally? When I hear statements like, “I am a Church of Christer” or “You are a Church of Christ preacher” or when one congregation tries to impose it’s will upon another, I wonder.

Churches of Christ were once the fastest growing church in America. I believe the timeframe for this was in the late sixties and/or early seventies. Was this true? More recently I have seen statistics demonstrating this was not the case. With all of my heart I wish we were rapidly growing today.

Myths or facts? Your input on my thoughts is welcome. Please be kind. I love the Churches of Christ. I have no ax to grind. This is no invitation to bash. The purpose of this post is simply for reflection- to get us honestly thinking about ourselves; who we are and who we want to be.

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.

Endeavor to Keep the Unity!

February 22, 2011

Such was Paul’s divine mandate to the Ephesians (4:1-6). But the original source of this idea is even above Paul’s head. Remember Christ’s unity prayer in John 17:20-23? Unity is a precious biblical commodity. Division discredits the Christian message and disqualifies Christians as credible messengers of Christ. A unified people are a strong people. A unified church is a mighty force for God. Little wonder why Paul repeatedly emphasized it (see 1 Corinthians 1:10).

The Psalmist had it right, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity” (133:1)

Some points to consider about unity:

  • Unity Takes Effort.  This is why Paul instructs us to “make every effort” or to “endeavor.” Developing and maintaining unity among even people who have much in common often takes an intentional effort. To do it- our hearts must be filled with humility, gentleness, patience and love (4:2) and our focus must be upon what holds us together (In the text Paul’s provides” seven ones” around which we should unite).
  • There is Unity in Diversity. Actually it can’t be found any other way. Beyond the “seven ones” of the Ephesian text there was great diversity in New Testament churches. Even as Paul instructed the Corinthians to “speak the same thing” he allowed for differences on certain matters. Jewish Christians and Greek Christians came to Christ’s with vastly divergent backgrounds and expectations. In the book of Romans Paul teaches them how to find unity in this diversity.  It wasn’t easy. It takes a certain amount of  accepting each other just as we are. Remember unity takes effort- especially in diversity, but it is well worth it. We have an old saying about unity in Churches of Christ which states it well: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”
  • Unity is My Responsibility. I must do my part to maintain it. Never should I assume I have the right to tamper with it. God has clearly mandated that no division should exist within Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:25).  It is in fact unity created by his Spirit and he absolutely “hates” it when this unity is threatened (Read Proverbs 6:16-19). If this unity is disturbed I am to make every effort- “in the bond of peace”- to restore it.
  • Unity Reflects Heaven. How can we be a credible witness for the unity of the Godhead and their mission to unify us to them through the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 2:14-18) if we are a divided people? Division, divisive attitudes, factions, fear, splits, continuousness, polarization do not reflect heaven. Seeking unity through peace, patience, grace, humility and the wisdom of God does.

There is nothing quite as beautiful and satisfying to the Father than to see his children working, worshipping, and living together united. By the way, there is nothing quite as threatening to Satan either.

So take up this “endeavor” and make every effort to promote unity and peace in and out of God’s church. Let’s all strive to be one as Christ and the Father are one.

MBC Celebration

September 8, 2009

News out of Kosciusko, MS is that the dates of December 11-12 have been set as a day of remembrance and celebration for Magnolia Bible College. Among others, Cecil May, Jr. will be a participant on the program.

So, spread the word among the MBC family and plan to attend. Let’s give MBC a farewell worthy of her years of service.

Les Ferguson, Sr. who is the preaching minister at the South Huntington church in Kosciusko is the contact person for this event.

BTW, The Christian Chronicle has an article about the school’s closing on its website. It just reports the same official story as the college’s website.

More About Magnolia Bible College

August 28, 2009

Efforts are underway for MBC to host one last gathering of her family. This would be a celebration occasion for all who love the college to join together to remember and say goodbye. There are no definite details yet, but I will use this space to keep you updated.

Jon Mark Smith is also frequently blogging about the school’s closure.

And a statement from MBC’s board is now posted on their website- for whatever that is worth.

My Eulogy for Magnolia Bible College

August 25, 2009

It is my understanding that my undergraduate alma mater, Magnolia Bible College located in the quaint central Mississippi town of Kosciusko, will shutter up the class rooms at the end of this year. Finances or lack thereof and an ever dwindling student population- are the cited reasons.

This breaks my heart.

I arrived at MBC when it was a fresh but fledgling school- started with the noble goal of “Mission Mississippi.”  The idea was to train people to serve as full-time ministers,  preachers and workers to strengthen Mississippi Churches of Christ. I do believe with God’s help this mission was accomplished. MBC has now provided preachers and workers for the Magnolia State (and beyond) for over thirty years.  Churches have been planted and strengthened all throughout the state as a result of the work of MBC students, teachers and graduates.

MBC has always been a small college. If I am not mistaken it is actually the smallest school accredited by SACS. It has remained small largely because of its singular purpose. The only degrees offered are in Bible and theology.

For me personally MBC was a gift from God. It provided me a wonderful education, offered me all kinds of practical ministry and preaching experience and has given me many of my closet and lifelong friends.

The most significant lesson MBC taught me was to take a balanced approach to study and ministry. MBC also provided me the foundation and tools to respect the Word of God while approaching it and studying it for myself- with few preconceived ideas. This has kept my study fresh all through the years and I am ever grateful to those at MBC who taught this to me.

But I am really saddened to know the doors will close after thirty-three years. I have incredible memories of wonderful times as a student and  later as Admission’s Director.

I came to know Christ in a much fuller sense at MBC. I captured a passion for preaching and ministry there. MBC is family and I am already mourning her loss.