President George Bush gave his annual State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress January 31st. It seemed a good moment to ask a few friends to give their perspective on the state of the brotherhood.
Churches of Christ have been plagued in recent years by change agents seeking to head us in a different direction. Where are we? What’s been happening this past year? What are our prospects for the coming year and the remainder of the decade? Where will all this take us?
These are the questions I asked. Here are the answers I received. None of the respondents read the other answers before we published them.
It is the best of times and the worst of times. There is tremendous potential of church growth over the next few years. GBN will help spread the word. There seems to be an increased interest in benevolence and mission work within the brotherhood. Mission works have lost money due to funneling toward hurricane and tsunami relief. But this will be short-lived. There will be at least a three-way split in the brotherhood over the next few months. Those who have been considered strong conservatives are fighting among themselves and will part ways over several issues. This split will hurt mission works, benevolent works, and other aspects of the kingdom.
Deacon of missions
Pell City, Ala.
In 2006, as in any other year, we need to listen to God’s word. Too often in today’s post-modern world, Christians are tempted to reconcile things that can not be reconciled. Once caught in this trap of contemporary thought, faith then comes into question, truth is reinterpreted, and the Bible is seen as a self-help book. Then when conflicts arise, the message of the Bible is ignored and the problem becomes larger.
We must remember that we are not at war with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), and the church has been established for a purpose. Therefore, in 2006, we must continue to teach, preach, and live the gospel of Christ (Matthew 22:37-40). We should not worry about numbers, budgets, or programs, for we are called to walk by faith. We must remember that we are in a hostile environment, and that we need the church of Christ (Matthew 16:13-20) to support us in worship, prayer and study.
Elder, Park Ave. church
We will see a continued decline because of these factors:
1. Some larger progressive churches will continue to leave us. Future directories will no longer list them because they embrace the instrument. A nearby church of 1,000 is moving its location. When it does it will take up the instrument and change its name. It shouldn’t be listed after that. The progressive movement has taken advantage of our na?ve brethren, and in many places are ready to embrace the instrument. The number of preachers we have who now believe there is no problem with the instrument is increasing. The unity meetings, like at Cincinnati at the NACC, with some of our preachers (Rick Atchley, Jeff Walling, and Prentice Meador) show a willingness to compromise on the part of many among us.
Our preaching is far out of balance. Truth has been sold out to diversity, and personal need-meeting preaching has replaced Biblical exposition. I ran across this recently, excerpts from a professor of the Bible at Lipscomb, Gary Holloway:
(Begin quote) “Throughout most of the twentieth century, Churches of Christ practiced ‘head union’ based on a common understanding of the Bible … In Churches of Christ this led to the worst of sectarianism — we alone were the whole church and others could be unified with us if they accepted ‘the truth’ (that is, our opinions on certain texts). It is clear that ‘head union,’ that is, hermeneutical agreement on the Bible, will not produce true union but rather division and sectarianism.
“‘Water union’ seems too weak to unite Christians … Currently there is some controversy among Churches of Christ regarding immersion. Many of us cannot deny that there are many devout Christians who are unimmersed.
“My own experience teaching in a university where 70% of the students are from a cappella Churches of Christ confirms this cultural shift away from the importance of denominational labels to a deep concern for relational and spiritual union. It is not unusual in a typical week for our students to attend a Monday night instrumental praise worship at a local Church of Christ, a Tuesday night ecumenical teaching session at First Baptist downtown, Wednesday night church at a fairly traditional Church of Christ, and Thursday night Taize worship at a Presbyterian church — all before going home on the weekend to their parents’ Church of Christ where many think we are the only Christians!
“Are we willing to embrace in prayer, worship, and service all those who exhibit the fruit of the Spirit? Are we willing to see the Spirit at work in an ordained woman and in one who opposes the ordination of women? In those for and those opposed to abortion? In those who believe the Bible is inerrant and those who do not? In those who support war in Iraq and those who do not? In all these ‘issues’ of ‘book union’ and ‘head union’ it is clear to me which side God is on. However, God through his Spirit can work even through those who are wrong. I hope so, for I believe he works in me even when wrong.” (end quote)
Here is my response: “Relational and spiritual union” is a postmodern euphemism for religious pluralism, where the truth of God’s word is sold out to toleration of error. One must wonder how those who embrace self-made practices (sprinkling) can assume they have genuinely entered into a spiritual relationship with the Lord. If they have done so, it is on their own terms and not the Lord’s terms. They want to be children of God by their own ways and means. Only the Word of truth can begat new children of God (1 Pet. 1:22-25). One cannot pervert it or blend it with popular religion and expect it to be pure.
Relational union has little need to buy the truth, for they have already sold out to man-made religion, which may grow as a plant but will ultimately be uprooted by the Lord –tares indeed.
Would to God that they might return to the truth.
2. Some smaller “gray” churches with an average age of 75 will dwindle and finally close their doors. Churches with predominantly older and dying members lose their energy and die. We have numerous family and neighborhood churches built in the 50s that are just in this category. One-hundred twenty-four of the 192 congregations we lost had an attendance of less than 50. Whether a lack of energy, a lack of resources, or laziness (in the past), these churches have plateaued or are declining. They cannot attract the young.
3. Many average churches are plateaued or in decline, because they have lost their evangelistic fervor.
4. Many churches of 99 or less in attendance will die in the coming decade because of personality issues and fusses between members. Control here (not truth) is the issue, and the fighting is killing some churches.
5. We aren’t planting very many new churches. We can’t grow without some new plants.
On the other hand, I know many sound preachers who are working hard, baptizing many, and reaching out. Concord Rd. is full of young adults and has doubled in the last decade. I know of many sound churches that are growing. The churches with 500+ attendance generally grew among us, in spite of some of the progressive decay.
According to ARIS, churches of Christ have two percent more young adults (18-29 years of age) than they did in 1990. Fancy that!
Minister, Concord Rd. church
Judging the state of the brotherhood is a difficult proposition. Being involved in brotherhood discussion groups online, we can get an insular, artificial perspective on the state of the church. One can easily hear Chicken Little’s cries of doom and despair. Yet, I think this is somewhat distorted.
The brotherhood extends worldwide and is beyond my purview. However, locally, for the most part, the church appears to be fine. Congregations are doing their work and becoming more mission-minded in many places. Brethren are warming to the idea of the mass media; radio, television, and Internet endeavors are expanding. Efforts are underway to reach more people, even if it is in a culture that is more resistant to traditional visitation and evangelization. This leads to the explosion of success from House to House/Heart to Heart from Jacksonville, Ala. Over a million homes receive them every other month and this is making an impact.
The church appears to be blossoming in India and Africa. Congregations in the United States are coming to the realization that Spanish ministries are the next great frontier. Racial integration is continuing to inch forward.
All of these positive things are happening locally and in so many places.
In some places, though, the church is abandoning the Old Paths and turning to the denominational world for guidance. Seeking to be liked by all men, churches are turning jealously toward the pluralistic, business-like community-church movement. Abandoning doctrines like a cappella music and the role of women and becoming squeamish about baptism, they seek to be unified with the larger religious world. Sin is being diluted and a postmodern view of absolute truth is raging like wildfire. Whether this will be cyclical or lead to a full-blown split remains to be seen. These few, powerful brethren continue to fill the pews and construct larger and larger buildings and programs leading to the false notion of success. The majority of brethren who remain sound, must turn their eyes away from their “successes” lest they be found like Lot’s wife pining for Sodom.
The present state of the brotherhood continues to point to the lack of leadership as the most serious problem in the church. The departures from the faith would never happen if godly men were at the helm. Congregations over one hundred members without elders are becoming disturbingly frequent. Further, pulpit preachers are dropping out and fewer are being trained. And those who are tending to the youth continue, in far too many instances, to lead them away from the faith. These trends must be halted as the brotherhood of sound brethren ages and the vacuum after them becomes more pronounced.
We need a spiritual revival and that will be found in a renewed immersion in the Word of God and prayer. Let’s be busy in these endeavors and stay true to the doctrines of God.
Preacher, Lone Star church
Falls of Rough, Ky.
I would say that the state of the brotherhood is largely divided, at least in the United States. We have more divisions than we have ever had before. There are those on the left, and those on the right and that is among those of us who are neither instrumental nor non-institutional. And if you count those divisions, the problem deepens. We have divisions among divisions and we really don’t have anyone who has offered some way out of that circumstance.
I don’t believe we really have any central leaders as we have had in the past. At one time the Gospel Advocate was an institution that helped to congeal the unity of the church. And we’ve had leaders through the years for whom many have had a lot of respect and admiration that could help make divisiveness go away and disappear.
Part of the problem is the culture of Post Modernism in which we live. There is no real desire to have unity when the underlying assumptions of our age are that everyone has their own truth and no one has the objective truth. Why bother trying to be united when there can, under these assumptions, be no true standard for unity? Why bother when one person’s actions and thoughts are considered equally authoritative with another. There doesn’t seem to be a real desire collectively in the brotherhood to know the objective truths of the Bible.
The name “CHURCH OF CHRIST” has been so ambiguated that people now confuse us with the denomination that supports homosexuality. They confuse us with the cult that was/is the ICOC. They confuse us with people who are just another denomination. In some places, the Christian Church continues to hold that name. The Christian Chronicle evidently desires to maintain such confusion as well in their articles and writings as they really don’t seem to care whether they refer to the Christian Church as the Church of Christ or not. Such confusion doesn’t bring any solutions.
There are, however, pockets of light present in our brotherhood and it is out of these areas that the future unity of the church will be found. God is able to use all things for good and the church has certainly been in direr straights historically than it appears to be today. There are still 7000 that have not bowed the knee to Baal, I’m convinced. However, it is going to take some work from dedicated individuals to bring us out of our current problems and into a more balanced and healthy state of affairs. It may also take some pretty serious problems in our country in order to bring the social consciousness around to desiring a standard of truth other than Post Modern thought. Historically the church has grown in periods of economic depression as opposed to prosperity.
One more thought: I’m quite certain that the state of the church in other countries isn’t as poor as it is in the U.S. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems in other countries, just that other countries don’t have the luxury and priviledge of those in the U.S. Much good can be done in those countries and they may very well be where the future of the church lies as the churches in the U.S. seem to be rapidly imploding.
Minister, Berryville, Ark., church
Churches of Christ continue to discuss, and dispute, matters of doctrine and practice that have been widely regarded as identifying characteristics of our fellowship for several generations. These have broadened from issues of worship (forms of music acceptable, day of “assembly”, etc.) to the basic and critical areas of doctrines regarding salvation, especially the essentiality and purpose of baptism. Though I am by no means in a position to state this with certainty, it appears that the polarization is following a pattern similar to that of the late 19th century: larger urban churches taking the more progressive, change oriented positions while smaller, rural and especially “deep south” churches remaining with “traditional” practices and doctrine. There are exceptions to this now, of course, just as there were then. There continues to appear to be a growing gulf between the two perspectives with polarization and isolation threatening, if not already actual.
Growth among Churches of Christ still does not appear to be significant. Congregations I visit seem to be at about the same size they have been in for a generation. I am not aware of large losses, but neither do I see much, if any, gain. Reports are that the much publicized plateauing and decline of the 1980s has been halted. I pray that is true, but I personally see little difference in size of congregations or in baptisms, new church plantings or other indicators of growth.
One bright spot I do see is the continued interest in missionary activity, especially foriegn, that accompanied the fall of the Iron Curtain. Churches immediately sent workers into countries that had been closed for decades. Many of those workers were “short-term, non-professional missionaries”. I see that methodology continuing and good success resulting. The “Muslim threat” perceived following “911” has stimulated similar response in other areas of the world, notably Islamic Asia and Africa. However, there may be signs that the initial zeal of both these movements is waning and some congregations are expressing a “return to home” sentiment. I receive a number of “we want to concentrate on domestic missins” comments to my requests for help in Asia.
General impressions of the Church today are a softening of the exclusiveness previously sensed within most of our fellowship, a growing decrease in knowledge of and zeal for the Bible, an increasing secularization, akin to that remarked upon by numerous authors in Western Christianity as a whole.
Unfortunately many of these impressions are negative. I do not intend to make it seem that I think poorly of my brothers and sisters, or that I am pessimisstic about our future. I believe God will be with us and bless us as we strive to serve him. There is much for us to do, however. Let us pray and be diligent!
Missions minister, Highland Park church
As for the state of the church, I see it sort of slowly fracturing between some liberal progressive congregations that are dabbling in such things as instrumental music and audience-pleasing performances on the one hand, and cautious conservative churches that are generally losing ground and not making changes where they could in style.
Then there is a middle-ground group that is trying to hold to the old paths, but also updating methods and style. For instance, at Edmond church, where I am an elder, we rotate preaching among four staff members, rather than just one pulpit minister. They coordinate well what they preach and sometimes even do tag preaching, with each presenting a phase of a lesson. We use large screens to project both words and music of songs. We rotate song leading among about six very capable men. Due to such changes we are branded as liberal by some, but also too conservative and old-fashioned by others. Can’t win. However, we continue to grow, with now about 1,100 members.
We need to be more evangelistic, but are working on that. Our theme for the year is “On a mission,” in which we hope to show that all that we do as a church and as individual members is part of our total mission to reach the lost.
Most of the churches in the Metro area here are either just holding on or losing ground. Only a few are really moving ahead, which is a sad commentary.
Elder, Edmond, Okla., church
“Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but happy is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18, NKJV).
We are probably more familiar with the older translation’s rendering, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” It’s a popular jumping-off point for eager-as-punch motivational speakers who like the idea of using biblical clout to support their corporate vision.
Unfortunately, neither Solomon nor the translators of the King James Version intended this by the word “vision.” Solomon was referring to an inspired vision, one that a prophet might receive and would subsequently deliver to his people with the immortal words, “Thus says the Lord …”
In a word, Solomon is saying that God’s people are lost when they no longer have (or respond to) a “revelation” from God.
When leaders in churches of Christ have a “vision,” it is often one that relates little to an actual revelation from God’s word. It seems to me that a vision that entails becoming “more acceptable to the Evangelical community,” or one that counts church growth as the only consideration in a church’s decisions, is not vision enough.
I have observed liberal and conservative wings of the churches of Christ make a glacial move to separate. As a minister I have seen the hurt on members’ faces as they realized that the congregation they loved and helped to build no longer stood for the principles they held dear. The division is becoming clearer cut, the lines less blurred, and there will come a moment when the division will become obvious to all.
When brethren divide, it is always heartbreaking. Though this analogy is not original to me, I see similarities between our situation and that of churches of Christ and the Disciples in 1906. It was then that David Lipscomb concluded that there were, indeed, two distinct fellowships.
Lipscomb’s statement helped to make the break clean; I fear we have no one of his stature in our brotherhood today who can provide the same service. But the analogy is apt, the issues startlingly familiar -? the instrument, the role of women, and, most of all, our reverence (or lack of reverence) for Scripture. Because our congregations are autonomous, there can be no corporate severing of ties, and brethren will have to vote with their feet, selecting a congregation that will fit their perception of what is right.
What happened subsequent to the split in 1906 is instructive, too. The large congregations, the affluent ones, frequently the ones with the “big-name” preachers, went the way of the more liberal Disciples of Christ. There was heartbreak, to be sure, but in the hearts of the more conservative churches of Christ, the deep-down satisfaction of knowing that they had remained true to their convictions, and the word of God. The other lesson to be learned is encouraging, too, for it was the churches of Christ that, though small, began to grow, proclaiming an unadorned yet eloquent message of the Bible, and the Bible alone.
As a fellowship we will have to do the following:
* Go back (as we always must) to Scripture, attach the very highest respect for its inspiration, teach and live what we find within it. The restoration plea is always relevant, and always needed, because humans in every generation wander from God’s way, and need to be called back to the Bible.
* Teach our convictions again, lovingly yet clearly. I am not suggesting that we become obsessive over “the issues,” but we need to teach the next generations the biblical doctrines of baptism, our worship in song, and the unique nature of the Lord’s church.
* Understand that Scripture teaches not only how to organize a congregation, become a Christian, and how to worship acceptably, but also how to live and serve. The Lord requires of us that we carry out the “weightier matters of the law,” too (Matthew 23:23).
* In 1906 we were poor and uninfluential. We have since crossed the tracks and become affluent. A cursory glance at our church parking lots on any Sunday morning will tell the story of materialism and self-indulgence. Will we restore, too, a Christianity that offers back our wealth and resources to the Lord?
* In the middle part of the last century, to our credit, we rediscovered the Great Commission and sent missionaries all over the world. Today, with multiple ministries, teen ski trips, extra-church organizations with bureaucracies to support, and elaborate multi-purpose buildings, we have lost our way. To me this is not so much a question of whether these things are biblical as it is one of our lost priorities. We need to ask ourselves whether it “pays” to be a Christian, or we should “deny” self, “take up our cross,” and follow our Lord (Matthew 16:24). Have we forgotten the need to use the “foolishness of preaching” to spread the Gospel to all nations (1 Corinthians 1:21; Matthew 28:19, 20)?
In a word, will we have a “vision” that matches God’s? A vision that is less than that found in God’s word falls short; a vision that goes beyond God’s word is a vision too far. Our prayer, over the next twenty years or so should be, that we humble ourselves, turn back to the Bible, the true and authentic revelation of God’s will, and live it on a daily basis. If we do not, we as a people will certainly perish!
Stan Mitchell is a former missionary, Gospel preacher in churches of Christ, and teaches Bible at Freed-Hardeman University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
As I look upon the church of Christ in 2006, from my limited perspective I feel these things:
I FEEL JOY as I read about the growth of the church in Africa and India, and as I have personally witnessed enthusiasm and hunger for God’s word in Peru. I am reminded that the Lord’s church is not solely an American phenomenon, but a treasure to people in any location who will open their hearts to receive God’s word (Acts 10:34,35).
I FEEL SADNESS as I read about my brethren who are giving up convictions based upon reason and God’s revelation and are turning to positions that admit more into their circle of fellowship. I am reminded that only God can draw the circles, and it is my responsibility to neither attempt to shrink nor expand that circle (Revelation 22:18,19).
I FEEL HOPE as I hear about preaching brethren who are redoubling their efforts to preach the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). I am reminded that both are vital, and that either without the other is insufficient in proclaiming Christ to a lost and dying world.
I FEEL EXCITEMENT as my brethren are more frequently tapping into new technologies for teaching the gospel to the lost, using television, the Internet and direct mail to reach new audiences. I am reminded that the Lord’s command to “go into all the world” (Mark 16:15) is to be taken seriously.
I FEEL ANGER as I read so-called “scholars” who put more emphasis on subjective feelings than on the objective standard of God’s word as they urge Christians to abandon positions for which our spiritual ancestors fought. I am reminded that we are to “buy the truth, and do not sell it” (Proverbs 23:23).
I FEEL SHAME as I see my fellow Christians (and myself) blending in so smoothly with the rest of the world, sharing common interests in clothing, entertainment and values. I am reminded that Christians are to be light in the midst of darkness, and salt that is distinctive in taste and which helps to preserve (Matthew 5:13-16).
I FEEL THANKFUL that though the vast majority of people in our world have not chosen the straight and narrow way, there are yet many Christians who have not bowed to Baal. I am reminded that one with God represents an unshakeable force (Romans 8:31).
I FEEL DEPENDENCE on God, more than ever, as I survey the battlefield. I am reminded that God must always be our hope and our trust, not the intelligence, power and resources of the brotherhood (Jeremiah 17:5-8).
I FEEL MOST STRONGLY not to trust my eyes as I survey the state of the church, for there are things my eyes don’t see. I am reminded to seek God’s help in opening my eyes so that I will be encouraged, rather than discouraged, as I look upon the world that surrounds me (2 Kings 6:17). “O Lord, open my eyes that I may see clearly!”
Minister, Central church
Johnson City, Tenn.