And Another Thing…

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It’s Never Going to Stop, Is It?

Warning: If you have no history with the churches of Christ or any other fellowship to come out of the Restoration Movement, this post may make no sense (or be of interest) to you whatsoever. However, if you are curious, read on; if you have something to share from a different perspective, by all means feel free to comment.

The c of C blogosphere has been all abuzzin over a story in the Christian Chronicle about the 2009 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States. This latest edition reports that our congregations are closing shop at record rates and our membership numbers are on an increasingly steep decline. To be exact: we have lost 526 churches and 78,436 members in the past six years. And we were never that big to begin with: 12,762 congregations with 1,601,661 adherents at our peak.

As the story points out, some of the reduced numbers can be attributed to the decision of the directory’s editors to remove congregations that have one or more services which use dat ol’ debbil instrumental music. Case in point: the directory excludes the Richland Hills church, which as it happens is the largest congregation in the fellowship.

Many c of C bloggers (mostly elders or ministers) have chimed in on the issue; and best as I can tell, there are six recurrent (and contradictory) themes:

  • The editors of the directory were wrong to exclude churches with instrumental services. What they are doing amounts to calling out dissenters and excluding said dissenters from fellowship.
  • The directory is nothing more than what it says that it is: a directory – not a manifesto or creedal statement on who is “in” or “out”. To infer that the editors intend to “disfellowship” congregations which use instruments is a mistaken presumption.
  • This is a sign of our fellowship’s stagnation due to traditionalism – we are losing our youth and young adults to other types of churches because we are not speaking to them in their language, etc.
  • We’ve abandoned the gospel for a feel-good message of therapeutic deism.
  • We’re not (choke) relevant. We have no idea how to communicate with the postmodern generation.
  • We are pushing our brand or tradition over the gospel.

As more than one astute observer has noted, many of the posters and commenters have considered the issue and seen yet another demonstration of their favorite axe to grind and are cheerfully grinding away in response. I must admit, I am tempted to do this myself. In my case one of the axes of choice would probably be our abysmal failure to get a meaningful foothold outside of the Bible belt. I say this not to disparage the good and important work being done by churches and individual believers in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. But really folks, when are we going to make a serious, concentrated effort to get out there? We are surrounded by a mission field.

Another of my axes applies to most conservative Christian churches but is certainly a preoccupation of our tradition: an obsession with methodology. Everyone falls in line to adopt the Next Big Thing in church growth. Do this, the writers and lectureship speakers assure us, and your church will grow and grow. Preacher, please. No methodology substitutes for the often exhausting work of investing our lives into the lives of others, getting our hands dirty by living and preaching the gospel. As Evertt Huffard, a far wiser man than I once observed, ministry is done in the context of relationships. And there is no substitute for a relationship.

But I digress.

Mostly, speaking as a layman, this discussion just makes me tired all over again. When I was a student at Harding in the early ’90s, I honestly thought that the whole instrument vs. a capella controversy would be a distant memory by now. Chalk it up to the naiveté of youth.

I despair of this issue ever being settled with an agreement to disagree. As John Dobbs observes:

Add to that fact that we in Churches of Christ have specialized for the past several decades in dissecting and destroying each other. Editors have been our bishops, papers have been our weapons of mass destruction, and nit picking each other’s efforts has led to general malaise and disinterest. The primary emphasis has been on us for so long now that we struggle to find time to relate to them. Those outside the church perish without ever hearing about Jesus.

As he so often does, John nailed it.

If you want to read more about this, Matt Dabbs and Danny Dodd have written more about this and have links to the many other blogs out there who are hard at it. I also really appreciate Brian’s take on it at The Blog Prophet.

So how about it, readers? What do you think is the problem? If you could address the fellowship at large, what would you have to say?

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15 Responses

  1. J D says:

    Thanks, Mike, for expressing things so well. The bigger question for all ofus who are calling attention to this is … will anyone hear?

  2. becky reeves says:

    Thanks for posting about this Mike! I like your reference to what John Dobbs said about being so focused on ourselves that we forget others who need Jesus. I would also say we forget the first thing which is Jesus, Himself. Remember when the mantra of the restoration movement “Christians only” was talked about even in our generation? That’s how I finally completely see myself. The baggage that any denominational name brings to others who hear it seems to only take glory away from Christ. (I know I have it a little easier living outside the states and being part of God planting brand new churches who can see themselves in a fuller way than many of us can as “Christians Only” or “Followers of Jesus Only”. I just want to be a follower of Jesus. I have found many followers in all sorts of different denominations and have found many within the Church of Christ fellowship. The converse is also true of all different denominations including the Church of Christ. People who love the Lord with all of their heart and as a result obey what He teaches in His word (about everything they read, not just baptism!*) are all the true “Christians”. If we are in Christ we are one body. If we’re out of Christ and trying to struggle to fulfillment on our own we don’t get the whole point… it’s all about Jesus and us in Him to the glory of God.

    *disclaimer here to all of the CofC readers with their eyebrows raised. I do believe baptism is a huge part of obedience to Christ…as are MANY things*

  3. brian says:

    well said!
    thanks for the link, but i didn’t offer any solutions, just trying to help people see the problem more clearly

  4. Jr says:

    Wow Odgie, you touched on so many issues here.

    On an individual level, the whole denomination thing is and always has been rather ridiculous in regards to who “gets in” (of course, as long as The Gospel, biblical core doctrines, and apostolic teachings are maintained, defended, lived, and preached). I could care less what directory I’m in – as long as my name was written in the Book of Life of the Lamb who was slain (slaughtered) before the creation of the world (Rev. 13:8). I’m convinced that the majority (yes, majority) of people who call themselves Christian will see the door closed to them in the end. Does anybody else tremble at that probability – or are they still arguing over church directories?

    Becky is right on with her point about the Body of Christ. Jesus knows His Bride; and it has nothing to do with what congregation you are apart of. Though I would caution that you can “follow Jesus” all day long; but if you do not believe in what He came to do at the Cross; its pointless.

    On your bullet points: This tiresome argument of how to “reach the postmoderns” usually leads to what you said, “We’ve abandoned the gospel for a feel-good message of therapeutic deism.” This, I have noticed, is the track that most people take to reach them.

    Preach the Gospel. Period. Some will hear, many will not; that is how its always been. Some will come to the light, most will remain darkened; and that to the Glory of God.

    Preachers, get on your knees in prayer. Study the Word. Preach Christ and Him crucified. This is nondenominational. This is Christ! This is the proclamation of The Word!

    And a final note about these preachers or leaders who have blogs. Not saying they are a negative thing always if used for Christ, but you know, I wonder if they spend half the time they do online or talking about politics; actually working on their sermons. With all the fluff coming out of pulpits these days – I doubt it. Oh how The Word is trampled on every Sunday in far too many pulpits. And we wonder why Christianity is the way it is these days or why we are “losing” the next generation.

    Wimpy theology = wimpy Christians

  5. awgonnerman says:

    This has been a crazy week. I got caught up in this mess and was called a hypocrite (in the context of a blog commentator saying the hypocrites needed to be turned out of the pulpits) and this morning was misidentified (I believe!) as a “progressive” by a Church of Christ missionary in Brazil.

    Check it out: http://tinyurl.com/dxjbm3

  6. David B says:

    Hey Mike…I, too, would wish that the issue of our college years was a distant memory, but I think we have to concede that an issue of the past 150 years will continue to remain an issue for the next 150 years. Sadly, our identity as the Church of Christ is grounded more in what we are not than what we believe, and I’m certain that many people are blissfully happy that this is so.

    The book is still a monumental achievement, something that should bring us together, but unfortunately it is yet another wedge Satan is using to drive us apart.

  7. Andy says:

    I doubt this is something that’s unique to the CoC. My guess is that you could look at any major denomination and see a lot of ageing, shrinking churches. So, while modernism vs traditionalism or other various decisions may have some effects, I don’t think those things are ultimately driving decrease in church membership.

  8. odgie says:

    In order:

    1. John asks “will anyone hear?” – Good question. I hope others will take a swing at it, but my answer for now is “only those who are listening.”

    2. Becky – I am glad to get a foreign missionary’s perspective on this. You bring up a point that I had not thought about: that those doing work overseas don’t have to deal with all of our cultural baggage. On the other hand, I think you are being self-deprecating when you say you have it “easier.” Ministry is tough, no matter what. But I can’t imagine a foreign work that is easier than domestic work. I share your sentiments on the Kingdom as well. Committed believers can be found all over the world, under a wide variety of denominational markings. I think a lot of folks are in for a shock when they get to heaven and see who else is there!

    3. Brian – Helping people see a problem more clearly is a significant contribution, more often than not.

    4. Jr – Lots of food for thought. To be clear: my bullet points were intended to point out recurrent themes that I had seen, not necessarily what I agreed or disagreed with. I agree with you that the track of therapeutic deism is a dangerous one and one that far too many churches have adopted. While the c of C has its problems, I don’t know if any of our churches have necessarily gone that route. However, my ear is not always to the ground on such things. And as for the preachers who have blogs – if what I read on their blogs is any indication, these cats are digging into the Word regularly and vigorously. I suspect that their sermons and other duties reflect this as well.

    5. Reposted from my comment on Adam’s blog:

    Yeesh – what a story. For what its worth, I think you have said (and presumably will continue) a lot of good things here and in comments on other blogs. I’m sorry because I know all of this has been rather hurtful. I’m not going to say “don’t be discouraged” because I know that is a natural emotional response to this. But know that there are a lot of us out there in the electronic ether who appreciate you.

    6. Dave – In light of your comments, I realize that it was wishful thinking on my part. But I really thought that the issue would die of atrophy – that as newer, bigger challenges arose traditionalists and progressives alike would come to see this as a trivial issue. And those bigger challenges have arrived as you no doubt are aware. And we’re still shooting at each other.

    7. Andy – You are correct that this is hardly unique to us. All of conservative Christianity is shrinking in the U.S. I fear that before the 21st century is over, other countries are going to have to send missionaries to us.

    Thanks to everyone for commenting. Those of you with c of C histories who are lurking, speak up! And those of you from other traditions, feel free to kick in. What does this look like from your perspective?

  9. Frank says:

    Card-carryin Campbellite of the non-fiddlin sort here. My first reaction is: We’re all a bunch of should-be-damned sinners. So, no, it’s never going to stop; until, of course, it stops for good. Between now and then, church leaders should just remember: the cutting edge of the kingdom of God is your congregation. (I know, I know, the church belongs to Jesus).

    About the latest buzz: What bothers me the most is what seems to be an implicit statement by some that “Our numbers are down, so we’ve got to start DOING something. Something more. Something different. That way, we can prop up . . . US!” And that’s part of the biblical pattern, right?

    This stuff always makes me feel snarky. Can you tell?

  10. odgie says:

    Hey Frank – snark away. The truth is the truth.

  11. Kathi says:

    OK, if a non-c of C-er…
    Your paragraph which begins with “Another of my axes..” is one of the more brilliant observations of the Church which I have read. This focus on methodology is happening in full force within Lutheranism and in fact has been a topic of discussion at our congregation this week – ever since the pastor came back from vacation and talked about the “Lutheran” mega-church he visited on his trip. (The name “Lutheran” appeared nowhere in the name of the congregation, btw, but they have like 1500 members…)

    But anyway – the discussions have been focused on methodology…”we HAVE to use praise music because that’s what young people prefer!” Bull. People of all ages prefer music which is well-prepared and ministry which is meaningful to them. And by “meaningful,” I mean the type of ministry you mentioned above – rich with relationship and spirituality.

    And don’t get me started on the issues of praise music vs. hymns in the Lutheran tradition. I like aerobic worship as much as the next person, but give me theology in my songs, please, not “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs.

  12. Kathi says:

    PS – Mike – sometime, I would like to have an adult conversation about music in the c of C.

  13. dannydodd says:

    Good discussion going on here.

    Folks will hear once that are convinced we are sold out to our message. All the other stuff we get hung up on is “mass distraction.” It is about sharing Christ through a credible faith witness. That starts with me living out my relationship with him in an authentic way. Folks will hear that- not all the other stuff we are shouting at them. (including the pointless wrangling on who is in and who is out. mercy)

  14. odgie says:

    Hey – a seminarian called something I wrote “brilliant”! Kathi, you made my day. And its interesting to note that our Lutheran friends (and I suspect many other denominations) are having the same conflicts, just the details are different.

    Danny – You pretty much nailed my sentiments. Mercy indeed.

  15. Roland says:

    I love the stuff about “losing our young people” because we won’t do this or that. All I have to say to that is SHOW ME THE STATS! Like you pointed out, the stats in that book are wrong because they are omitting things they shouldn’t.

    I have been hearing that lame quote about losing our young people for the past 20 years yet no one can show me the proof, the stats concerning that. I, in fact, no many, many young people who are leaving the COC BECAUSE of the many things we are changing in order to keep them. Quite ironic.

    Oh, and this is coming from a “change agent” myself, lol who wants to see expanded women roles and such.

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