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Posts Tagged ‘Churches of Christ’

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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Glasco ChristianIn the late 1870s,  my great-grandfather and my and other family members were part of starting a new church in a small Kansas town.  They just called themselves Christians, and so the church was also called a Christian church.  As one reads the history of this small insignificant church in this scarcely populated wheat town in the Solomon River valley, the description inadvertently betrays the post-civil war rift in the Restoration movement.  On some pages, the words introduce former preachers while just a few pages later, a new minister is called a pastor. Pages are periodically silent about the music, then suddenly there is an organist, only to go silent again for a few more years!

Our  family’s conclusion is that this little wheat field town’s church members hardly noticed the differences that other Restoration Christians in larger cities were debating and dividing over.  They were first a community of Christians, living and worshiping  together–with no further adjectives necessary.

By 1906, someone who was somebody decided it was time to differentiate the two groups–that is, the instrumental, mission society Christians from the acapella, non-missionary  society Christians.  I wonder how long it took the Christians in that tiny town in Kansas to know to which group they belonged?  They may have been confused and just thought that they were Christians.

For one hundred years, the two groups operated with few exceptions in completely different circles.  We each developed our own jargon, our own heroes, our own missionaries, our own colleges.  With the exception of a few touch points, we were not talking, certainly not fighting–because we hardly knew the other existed.

The instrumental churches of Christ–not everyone bothered to change their name–later split into two distinct fellowships:  the Independent Christian Church/Church of Christ (because not everyone changed their name!) and Disciples of Christ.  The movement which began as a unity movement . . . oh, well!

Some individuals of all three groups continued to keep the hope of unity alive with annual gatherings, some pretty scholarly publications, and an occasional token invitation to a lectureship, but with the exception of this high-level contact, the average members of these churches continued to exist in different worlds, practically oblivious to the others.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the separation of Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches in 2006, several leading preachers and pastors in both groups declared that the 1906 breach was wrong and that the unity of the Restoration Movement should be restored.  At several high-profile gatherings, representatives of both groups repented for participating in division, asked for forgiveness, extended  fellowship to their counterpart, and ceremoniously traded Bibles as peace offerings.

Let me tell you why I am thinking about this.

My personal history is in the acapella Church of Christ. During the last few days, however, I have had the privilege of being on the campuses of two of the Independent Christian Churches larger colleges/universities.  I have been extraordinarily well hosted and extended complete and unreserved cooperation.  I would not have expected it to be any other way between Christians!

What  continues to sadden me, however, is how little either of us really knows about the history and the daily life of the other.  Just today, in casual conversations with colleagues,  I have learned of marvelous missions efforts,  of amazing heroes of faith, both alive and dead, even of Christian colleges/universities–all completely unknown to me.  I know a lot about our side of the aisle, but embarrassingly little about these brothers and sisters.

Maybe we have reconciled, but not actually restored fellowship.  Let me suggest a few actions that could possibly get us started in the process of really loving the whole brotherhood.

  • Local congregations should begin getting to know other congregations. It might only be a common potluck at first, but perhaps with the goal of getting to know each other.
  • Preachers could swap pulpits and use some of their time to introduce the history and heroes of their congregations.
  • Youth ministers from both groups could plan joint outings/camps/mission trips together.
  • The Christian Chronicle and The Christian Standard could each begin a section that deals with the news and ongoings of the other group.
  • Christian colleges/universities of both groups could include tracks in their lectureships/conferences that introduce both groups to each other.
  • Perhaps somebody needs to start a ministry of fellowship restoration, specifically focused on bringing not just the leaders, but the grassroots of these two groups together until we learn how to love each other again.

I know somebody is going to think that all this talk of getting to know each other and fellowshipping with people that we hardly know and may not entirely agree with is going to be a slippery slope to  . . . you know where!

I’m sure they (the others!)  aren’t perfect–but I’m not either, so I’m not going to be afraid of loving someone who loves God.  Fear makes us do terrible things–like ignore people who belong to the Body of Christ.

Maybe those people in that little church in Kansas knew something about love and fellowship and unity after all!

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missions2If you are committed to evangelism—you’ll notice I did not use the word missions for fear of being redefined—and if you believe that the mission of members of the Kingdom of God is apostolic (bearers of a message) not just diaconic (servants), then you are a little concerned about the trend lines that I have suggested in the two previous posts.

If you believe that faith comes from hearing the Word of God and that people have trouble hearing the Word without someone to preach it—as Paul argued in Romans 10:14—then you are also concerned that being salt and light in the world is our mission as Christians, but if those seekers who discover the salt and see the light don’t know what to use it on or where the light is leading them, then they could remain hopelessly lost.

No one can come to the Father except through the Son, and no one has found the Son without knowing that Jesus is the Son of God and that He is raised from the dead. They have to hear the Gospel story.  No amount of good that they receive in the neighborhood will communicate the Good News unless those who serve also share the Story.  “We believe, therefore, we speak” (2 Corinthians 4:13)!

The projections of the last post based on the trends and tendencies in my first post could be taken as discouraging—but only if there were no hope!  Trends and tendencies, however, are not prescriptions!  Our God is victorious, so any defeats are just momentary. Even a valley of dry bones can be resurrected to life—and we are not dry bones yet, so there is much we can do to reverse what might seem to some as inevitable.

We need to relentlessly pursue holistic missions! Jesus went about preaching and healing (Matt. 4:23;9:35). We should do the same.

What would happen in our churches if those proposing every evangelistic effort were asked to show how they were going to tangibly show love and compassion to their audience? No evangelism without a compassion ministry component.

What would happen in our churches if those who planned and/or executed every service project, benevolent work, and every relief effort were asked to prayerfully consider and propose an appropriate time and means for introducing the Message to those benefited by their service?  No demonstration ministry without a plan for proclamation.

There is no competition between social justice and evangelism; it should be one and the same.

We need to find our urgency of mission.  Out of almost 7 billion people in the world,  2 billion claim to be Christians.  If we don’t believe in judgment, if we don’t believe in Satan, if we don’t believe in Eternal darkness, if we don’t believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—then we can relax because there is no urgency.

If we believe that Jesus came “to seek and save the lost”(Luke 19:10),  then we can’t relax any more than Jesus did. We have to work—while it is still Day (John 9:4). The Night is coming!

We need to raise up an Army of Youth to fight for the Lord of Hosts! This may require intervention—because our young church leaders/ministers are of the same generation as our children and grandchildren as far as evangelism goes.  This may be a great time for elders to shepherd their youngest sheep!

I would like to see young children learning the heroic and inspirational stories of great Christian saints, then in middle school we should intentionally work with them on sharing their faith—verbally. What do they tell their friends who ask them why they believe in God or why they believe Jesus is the only way.  Group evangelism is especially appropriate for these young teens.

By high school then, having learned and practiced their mission at home, they would be ready for going other places, experiencing perhaps real poverty of both wealth and faith.

During college, they would then want to continue speaking the Name and doing Good in the world, and some—many more—would want to do internships and apprenticeships after college. And those who do not feel called to make it their life, would go into their marriages and their careers with a completely different framework—a missional framework—for every day of their lives.

We need churches who can imagine that God can use their resources to do things they can’t even imagine! 

  • Which churches among us will pick up the list of unevangelized countries and build their mission strategy around that information?
  • Which churches are ready to take on the Muslim world?
  • Which churches have the capacity and endurance to commit to work in the highly industrialized, yet predominantly secular countries?
  • Which churches will choose the nations where it is time for seed-sowing, not for harvesting?
  • Which churches will use the wealth of their congregations in places of extreme poverty, serving and proclaiming, at the expense of their own comfort?

And finally, we need courageous mission efforts! Let’s ban any sentence that starts with

  • “I’m afraid, if we do that . . . .”
  • “I’m afraid we don’t have the . . . .”
  • “I’m afraid our members won’t want to . . . .”
  • “I’m afraid it would take away from . . . .”
  • “I’m afraid someone might think that  . . . .”
  • “I’m afraid that’s bigger than we can . . . . “

The Revelation is clear that the “cowardly” are not at the banquet of the Lamb (21:8).  The  Witnesses are!

Conclusion

 One brother who attended this class at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures raised his hand and said, “Mark, you’ve been too negative. Give us something positive we can feel good about.”

I replied, “If you hear this as negative, then I’ve failed to communicate. While there are trends and attitudes that concern me, I have no fear for the Kingdom of God and great hope for Churches of Christ.

Our churches are living, dynamic expressions of the body of Christ and filled with His Spirit. We are human, therefore flawed, but not without His grace and His blessing, so where we are weak, He can make us strong.

And I’m certainly 100% positive that the Kingdom of God will prevail against the Gates of Hell.  Led by our Redeemer on a white horse, we will continue to attack the fortress of Evil until the final battle is accomplished.  The Victory is won!

I really want to win my little portion of the Great Battle for the glory and honor of Jesus. Don’t you?

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