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churchofchristsignI think many Churches of Christ are caught in a dilemma that they don’t even know will have a long-term effect on them.  See if you agree with me.

Prior to the last quarter century, Churches of Christ viewed as part of their core identity their non-denominationalism.  In fact, the earliest roots of the Restoration Movement in the U.S. were a reaction to the fact that denominationalism had become the means of excluding those from one’s fellowship who had different creedal beliefs.  By laying aside all human creeds and denominational organizations, restorationists believed they were more perfectly practicing the unity of the Spirit in the one Body of Christ.

During the 1970s, many in Churches of Christ began to believe that regardless of our theology, our practice had become denominational.  Churches of Christ had in practice adopted a brand that was defined by its own traditions and that brand was used to exclude rather than include.

Whereas in the sixties, we argued over whether to write “church of Christ” with a capital C or not, by the 70s, those debates were over, and we had become totally tolerant of talking about “Church of Christ” preachers, “Church of Christ” colleges, “Church of Christ” elderships, buildings, JOY buses, and when asked about personal membership “Church of Christ” was the only acceptable answer.  The term “Church of Christ” no longer was just a descriptive name borrowed from Romans 16:16, but rather a brand name and trademark of a very particular group of Christians—the very definition of denominationalism.

Interestingly enough, about the same time period, two new developments began to surface in the broader Christian community:  a number of new non-denominational  groups like Calvary Chapel, The Vineyard,  and The Way were started.  Also the whole Bible church and community church movements flourished. These were typically individual congregations very loosely associated with other churches, if at all.

As these independent non-denominational churches became more numerous, they were seen to be taking advantage of growing tolerance among evangelical Christians in particular.  Congregations of mainline denominations, seeing the tide moving away from denominationalism, began changing their congregational names to more generic names.  New names like Harvest Church, Covenant Church, New Life Church, etc., replaced old names and left old denominational identifications to very small fonts in parentheses, if visible at all.  Some of these churches quit their denominational organizations, but most just changed names.

 So as I see it, about the time the Churches of Christ became comfortable about being one among many churches—at least among evangelical churches (although I myself think we are very inconsistent to only identify with evangelical churches),  those same denominations started moving away from that very position and towards the non-denominational position that Churches of Christ were abandoning.

Here are my conclusions for Churches of Christ:

  • Churches of Christ need to return to their roots and recover their non-denominational theology.  What a great opportunity to be what we have historically claimed to be, a unity movement.  What a great time to preach and actively embrace the unity in the Body of Christ.
  • Churches of Christ need to quit trying to imitate “successful” churches and decide who God wants them to be and what He wants them to teach. Turning to market research for our identity has two big drawbacks: It leaves us being a lesser imitation—a knock-off—of an original, and it means we are always catching up to the “latest trends” often after those who established those trends have moved on.
  • The highly autonomous congregational approach to church is robbing Churches of Christ of the power in community, in fellowship, in “many members but one body!”  We must learn to be more collaborative, to look for true fellowship in the work of the Gospel, and to welcome partnerships with other members of the Body.  Isn’t that the only way to be a whole and healthy Body!

Watch for more on this last point later.

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ICOM 2014My dad played the violin–not the fiddle, the violin. He had polio when he was ten, and, fortunately, it didn’t leave him crippled, but he could never really run again, so he couldn’t play sports like the other boys. He chose to play in the orchestra–in the high school orchestra, which was the pride of Glasco, Kansas.

When I was eight and in the third grade, my school offered free violin lessons, so, of course, I started getting out of class one or two days a week and taking violin lessons. I used my dad’s violin.

By the time I was in the fifth grade, I was the only one who was playing at my level at the Bonnie Brae Elementary School, so my weekly lessons were private lessons–and still free. Because I was pretty good for my age–maybe–my teacher would take me to other schools and we would play short programs together in their assembly, probably trying to get younger children to enroll in the free strings programs at their schools.

In the All-City Elementary school orchestra, I sat on the first row with four or five other kids, so I guess I was decent, but the perk I really liked was that because I was in the violin program, each year I was taken out of school one day with the other kids in strings to attend a special concert by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at the Will Rogers Auditorium. I knew nothing about what they played or who the composers were, but I loved the music–the huge blend of all of those different instruments: violins, violas, cellos, bass violins, oboes, bassoons–even the triangle and tympani.

How could all of those different people–maybe 40-50 players–with so many different gifts and playing so many different instruments at the same time produce a result that was so beautiful?

The word symphony comes to English from two Greek words: sun, which means “together,” and phone, which means “sound.” The word is usually translated harmony, harmonious, or harmoniously, when talking about music, but is also commonly used to mean to agree, to be of one mind, or to connect the most literal meaning with the vernacular: to be in unison.

Matthew used a derivative of symphony in chapter 18, verse 19, quoting Jesus he writes, “Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth are in agreement (symphōnēsōsin) about anything whatever you may ask, it will be done for you by my Father who is in heaven.”

About five years ago, we started attending the National Missionary Convention of the Independent Christian Church/Church of Christ. Having been involved with foreign missions our whole life together, Sherrylee and I have been to many, many missions conferences and mission workshops in our branch of the Restoration Movement–and because of our direct involvement we know lots and lots of the people involved.

But just across the aisle at the NMC the first time, our most common feeling was: we don’t know anybody here!

That was five or six years ago. Last week we attended the International Conference on Missions (ICOM), which is the new name of the NMC. Over 10,000 people attended the 2-3 day event, held in the Convention Center in Columbus, OH–one of the largest single venues I’ve ever been in. One huge section of the convention center was set aside for “exhibitors,” which at most conventions means businesses which are trying to sell you something, either immediately or after you get home.

At ICOM it was different. Picture an area the size of your nearest Super Wal-Mart or Super Target–not just your neighborhood sized–and then fill that whole area with small booths, each one representing a mission effort of some kind.

There were individual missionaries, like Pino Neglia, missionary to Lecce, Italy and to Albania. We met him three years ago at his booth and in 2014, LST sent him a team to be a part of his efforts. Eric Estrada (not the movie star), missionary to Murcia, Spain, was there. We sent him three teams in 2014.

There were also plenty of mission organizations like us: Pioneer Bible Translators, Open Door Libraries, Holy Land Christian Foundation–and other businesses and organizations that support missions: transportation, security, training ministries, even fund raising ministries.

It was a symphony! So much diversity of talent and interest. Long-term, short-term, house church, mega-church, men and women, social justice and evangelism, academic and common, all these different instruments but all playing their part in the same symphony: the Missio Dei — the Mission of God!

I came home wondering why we in Churches of Christ have so much trouble playing together? Many have already spoken to this question, but one part of the answer is that we are rapidly losing our sense of together. We know the music, we know the director, but too many of us do “what is right in our own eyes,” a phrase from Judges 21:25 that introduces some of the darkest days for God’s chosen people Israel.

Our papers first created a sense of together, but we are down to one, the Christian Chronicle, and it struggles to survive. Then our lectureships held us together–but they are a shadow of what they used to be–perhaps with the exception of Pepperdine Bible Lectures. Even our song books used to keep us together, but we don’t all sing the same songs anymore!

Our symphony is not in harmony. We try to have a Global Missions Conference every three years–and we hope to have 1000 people attend. The World Missions Workshop for college students is barely hanging on to life. There are lots of small, independent gatherings for missions, nice little quartets, but where is the symphonic chorus?

After the fifth grade, I changed schools. I started attending Fort Worth Christian School, which offered no free violin lessons–so I quit playing the violin. Two years later, when FWC started a band program, I took up the trombone and played through college. My brother Gary was three years behind me in school, but that was not a big gap at FWC in those years. He and I were the whole trombone section of the band for 4-5 years. We didn’t march–we were too few; we did well just to have enough of the required instruments to play at all.

We as a fellowship have been satisfied too long with being a small non-marching band.

Jesus said he wanted a symphony.

We dare not forget how to play in harmony together.

 

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A-ChristianLet’s talk a little more about denominationalism.  I know of no Christians who would take issue with Jesus’ prayer for unity: “that they may be one, as I and the Father are one” (John 17:11,22). Nor would they argue with Paul’s unities in Ephesians 4, beginning with “one body” (v.4). So why does denominationalism seem normal and unity abnormal?

The concept of denominationalism grew up in the early years of the Reformation, especially in England, when the Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. When then the Separatists, the Anabaptists, and others including Calvinist reformed churches and the Presbyterian congregational churches solidified into something other than the Church of England, none of them wanted to claim to be the exclusive Body of Christ, so everyone except the Roman Catholics abandoned the theology of One Body=One Church and moved to One Body=many denominations.

Lest we forget, however, these early denominations were rarely, if ever, in fellowship with each other either. The New World became the haven for persecuted denominations, which often then persecuted other denominations after the formerly persecuted gained the ascendency.

And so we in the US are exactly as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described us in his 1939 essay Protestantism Without Reformation after visiting the US. He said, “It has been granted to the Americans less than any other nation of the earth to realize on earth the visible unity of the church of God.”

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “The unity of the church of Jesus Christ is to American Christianity less something essential, originally given by God, than something required, something which ought to be.”

A denomination, if seen as just a convenient association of Christian congregations, or just a brand, seems pretty innocuous to most of us.  What truly frighten us today are those radical Christians who claim to be the one true church!

These polar opposite positions prove to me that we have been living in and rationalizing disunity so long that we are now to the point of celebrating the division among us instead of abhorring it.

Many will agree with me and will call with me for true unity–but, let’s be honest: describing what that unity really looks like is a daunting task for us—another indication of how far removed we must be from it!   I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few possibilities:

  • Jesus’ disciples would love one another—not just in words, but in deed and truth. Don’t be tempted to ask at this point “who is a true disciple?” It sounds too much like the “who is my neighbor” question from Luke 10.  Instead, make a list of those things you would do for or with other disciples of Jesus if you love them.
  • Jesus’ disciples would be found in ever-growing gatherings. They would eagerly welcome others of like faith, and they would be telling others of God’s great love, so the Lord would be adding to their numbers daily those being saved. Theirs would be a spirit of inclusion, not exclusion.
  • Jesus’ disciples would “love the brotherhood” (1 Peter 2:17). I’m quite confident that this verse does not mean love just your family, or your small group, or just your congregation, or just those who read from the same version of the Bible or sing the same songs that you do.  In fact, the same word for brotherhood is used in I Peter 5 to talk about the brothers and sisters in Christ “throughout the world” (v.5).

With these last points, perhaps we have laid the groundwork for talking about less pride in autonomy and greater value for fellowship.

My conclusion then is that denominationalism is a convenient rationalization, but that it is not the unity with which churches of Christ should be satisfied. 

Allow me just a few more insightful words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Where the unity of the church is forgotten as a goal . . ., the work of the Holy Ghost, who will fulfill the promise of the unity of the church, is no longer taken seriously, and a separatist Pharisaic claim takes the place of the divine unity of the church.

Next we will get into the questions raised about autonomous churches.  

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missions2Yesterday, I suggested the following about the current state of foreign missions in Churches of Christ:

  • Greater tolerance has produced less urgency for evangelism.
  • Missions are being redefined as social justice activities at the expense of evangelization.
  • Churches are turning toward more domestic mission projects
  • Churches are depending on missionary organizations more.
  • More older Christians and fewer younger Christians are involved in foreign missions.
  • Churches are opting for safe and successful missions.

If you believe that the above statements are true—even mostly true—then what does the near future look like for missions from American Churches of Christ?

These churches will do less and less evangelistic work, both in the U.S. and especially in foreign countries.  Why?

  • Historically, most of our mission force has come from recent college graduates and young families.  Since this demographic is now the product of greater tolerance (less urgency) and has replaced  evangelism with social justice, fewer will have the motivation for foreign missions.
  • Those who do go overseas will more likely be involved in humanitarian activities than church planting.

As older church leaders become less able to travel themselves and because fewer younger people are evangelistic, churches will outsource their foreign missions and evangelistic work even more. This suggests that independent ministries will continue to grow until the older church leaders give up their leadership to a younger generation of leaders.

If present trends continue, the independent relief organizations and ministries focusing on social justice will increase both in number and scope, and as younger Christians grow in influence and wealth, more funds will flow from evangelistic missions to these serving ministries.

 

One of the difficulties of even discussing this is trying to avoid posturing evangelism against social justice—or vice versa!  Jesus went around preaching and healing—and we should too.  Unfortunately, however, in our humanity we are much more likely to swing with the pendulum than to look for harmony.

That’s what I want to do tomorrow.  In the next post, let’s talk about not about what is, or what is likely, but what is needed and how things could be with regards to missions in Churches of Christ.

 

 

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Sherrylee and I were invited to participate in the first South Pacific Conference on Missions, organized on behalf of the churches in the Restoration Movement in Australia and New Zealand.  It wasn’t a large gathering, perhaps 50-60 different people by the end, but what a wonderful group of people!

A good percentage of the participants represented the independent Christian church workers, perhaps an equal number from the Churches of Christ (non-instrumental), and then several from the remnant from the International Church of Christ movement in Australia. Although a number of these representatives knew each other either by name or from hearing about their work, quite a few new relationships were formed among the participants and much was learned about the work going on in these different streams.

If that was all that happened in this short three-day conference, it would have been worthwhile, but, in fact, much more took place.

On Thursday, Sherrylee and I were responsible for the whole day’s pre-conference workshop. In the morning, we brought our LST experience with knowing yourself better so that you know how you will work within groups to the table. By the time we broke for a late lunch, people were talking about what it meant to their work since they were a “Mission Impossible” or a “Cautious Lover”.

For the afternoon the coordinator Peter Gray had asked us to talk about leadership training in the churches, but considering the audience of leaders in the room, we decided to start with the axiom that you will not be able to train good leaders until you are a good leader, so we presented our work on “1A Leadership” which we have practiced for years with LST—you know, the leadership style based on the “one another” passages in the New Testament.

Once again, it became very apparent to me how often leaders mistakenly think that somehow their position exempts them from those very clear “one another” passages.

Sherrylee taught the women on Friday about women in ministry, and Saturday morning I shared with the group the characteristics of great missional churches (If you are interested, you can find the core material for these in my blog categories!).

But we were inspired by the tremendous work done by some of the people in the room. One brother is deeply committed to working with the aboriginal people in Australia. Another has a terrific ministry through music with juveniles who live on the streets.  Another brother has led a church planting ministry in New Zealand for 12 years, and then there is Phil, 70 years old perhaps, who has preached all over the world, conducting weeks of tent revivals, but who unselfishly brought a young preacher from India to the conference to introduce him to the church leaders there.

It’s winter in Australia; the temperatures were in the 50s and 60s—a wonderful change from our Texas heat—but the love and warmth in this conference were unmistakably a sign of growing unity and cooperation among these Christians.

They will know we are Christians by our love! Kudos to the Aussie and Kiwi Christians for bravely stepping out in faith and love.

Yesterday we arrived in Kuching, Malaysia, for the Asia Mission Forum, where we expect to find the same Spirit.

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I told the preacher from a small town in Tennessee that we have historically been with the a cappella part of the Restoration Movement, and he said, “That just makes me tingle!”

Sherrylee and I are at the North American Christian Convention, which is the primary annual meeting of the Independent Christian Churches.  We have been treated to wonderful classes, outstanding preaching, and great fellowship, but more importantly for me, we have caused goose bumps!

I stopped at a booth yesterday and was talking to three women who are involved in a benevolent ministry, listening to them tell about their wonderful work. One of the women read the logo on my shirt and asked, “So what is Let’s Start Talking?”

Of course, I started telling her and her response was, “Why haven’t I heard about this before?”  I explained that LST began in the a cappella Church of Christ, to which she replied, “Now what’s going on here? “

She had grown up in the non-instrumental Church of Christ and knew from her childhood that the two cousins were not in fellowship with each other. YET, the keynote speaker that morning was from Abilene Christian University, and here we were standing right in front of her.

I explained to her that there were still differences—like any two brothers or sisters are different—but that maybe we were all learning that loving one another was more Christ-like than castigating one another.

At least 5000 Christians are in Orlando at the conference. I hardly know anyone here—which is so different from when we go to Pepperdine or Harding or any of our lectureships or conferences.  And I didn’t really know how we would be received.  Every group has its hardliners who only have room in their hearts for people who do not disagree with them on things.  What if I sat at the table with someone who was angry that this “other” person was at their meeting!!

When the preacher from Tennessee said, “That just makes me tingle, ” the thought crossed my mind that he was reacting negatively, but then he said, “I just love it that we have begun to find each other again.”

It’s a beautiful thing when brothers walk together in unity. And it’s a sign of a maturing body of Christ, and a sign of the reconciliation of the world, and a sign of the work of God’s Spirit—and an answer to the last prayers of Jesus.

If you were thinking about bristling, stop and pray for tingling instead!

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Sherrylee and I are leaving Seattle tomorrow for Malibu and the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. PBL is the last great Christian college lectureship among Churches of Christ. The main force  behind the lectureship for almost three decades has been the director Dr. Jerry Rushford. This is his last lectureship; he has passed the baton to Mike Cope and Rick Gibson, who assume the responsibility for the future of PBL.

I think they will do a great job, but maintaining the quality while updating the format is a daunting challenge. As great leaders should, they have already begun asking and receiving input from a broad spectrum of people who have vested interest in the welfare of the lectures. 

I pray they do well. We need this forum for our conversations.

Dr. Dan Rodriguez

On Wednesday, we will be discussing the current state of missions among Churches of Christ, and on Thursday, we will go forward to what Churches of Christ need to do to have effective mission efforts in the next fifty years.  I think it will be an exhilarating conversation with these men who are passionate and informed about missions.

Dr. Dan Bouchelle

I hope to provide at least a summary of the two classes on Wednesday and Thursday for you to read—perhaps even an audio file for you to be able to listen, but today I thought I would give you a copy of the handout I will use on Wednesday.  You’ll recognize it as a summary of the blog series I did on “Re-Thinking Mission Work.”  If you want more explanation and detail to flesh out these thoughts, you can find that series in the side panel.

Even if you can’t come to the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, I hope you can enjoy a portion of it vicariously through these next posts. 

Overview of ”Re-thinking Mission Work in Churches of Christ”

By Mark Woodward

The current model for sending, supporting, and overseeing missionaries from Churches of Christ needs to be re-thought for the following reasons:

  1. The selection process is mostly self-selection with only minimal help from experienced missionaries or those who have skills or information that could guide the selection process.
  2. The choice of mission sites too often is an uncoordinated, non-strategic choice with little input from experienced or engaged persons.
  3. The preparation for mission work, if any, is not readily available for most people who would like to become missionaries.
  4. The support gathering system among Churches of Christ not only discourages the vast majority of potential missionaries from even beginning, but also most of those who do attempt to work their way through it.
  5. The “sponsoring church” system neglects spiritual oversight, is occasionally about strategic oversight, and mostly about financial oversight.
  6. The role of either elders or general mission committees to oversee missionaries/mission churches puts the decisions about mission work too often into the hands of well-intentioned people who have little or no personal experience in missions, and little or only secondhand primary information about how to do missions.
  7. The relationship between the missionary and his/her overseers is generally an employer/employee relationship with financial arrangements being the most important control mechanism.

Some of the changes that I would like to suggest that Churches of Christ implement in order to change our paradigm for missions.

  1. Mission committees should be restructured to have as their sole responsibility, implementation of strategies for raising up and surfacing  missionaries from their congregation.
  2. Hopeful missionaries should be expected to seek experienced and skilled help, either inside or outside of their home congregation, for making all of their First Decisions (Should I be a missionary? Where should I go? Who should I go with? How should I prepare?)
  3. Primary oversight of a missionary should be in the hands of Christians who know the person intimately and care about the proposed work, who likely are even personally involved.
  4. Every Missionary Hopeful should be expected to spend two years in an apprenticeship on the field with a Master Missionary before they are supported to work independently.
  5. Financial support and oversight control need to have more separation, so that both are in the hands of Christians who love the missionary and care about the work.

You can read the expanded blog articles on “Re-Thinking Mission Work” at www.markwoodward.org.

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