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?