There is this peculiar group of churches of which I am a part. It is one of the few American Protestant creations, and it is one that I am proud to be a part – most of the time. I want to spend the next few posts discussing my history in the churches known as Churches of Christ, highlighting what I think are some of our most endearing qualities, apologizing for what I think have been some of our most unfortunate qualities, exploring the hope of the future of our movement, paying special attention to my specific setting: Churches of Christ in Ohio – there ain’t many, and they ain’t healthy.
In this post I will lay out my personal heritage in Churches of Christ. My lineage in Churches of Christ is linked to my mother’s side of the family. My mom’s mom died when my mom was only 17, so I never knew her. I know that her (my grandmother) as well as her sisters and brothers were the Church of Christers. We had a prominent place in the small church I first grew up in. Due to many reasons, all of which I am still not aware, my mom did not take us to church regularly until I was about 10. We had attended vbs and things like that on occasion, but not often. There are two churches which underly my upbringing in faith: The Defiance Church of Christ and the Paulding Church of Christ. Both churches are still in existence, but, all signs point to a rapid decline – at least in Defiance.
I have a strong sense of personal calling and it began almost immediately from our regular attendance at the Defiance Church of Christ. It was a church that never had more than 80 and most usally had less than 60 – and now has less than 30. It is comprised of mostly families with West Virgian ancestory (almost exclusively – we were just about the only thorough-bred Ohio family in the church). The Paulding Church of Christ (it is older than the one in Defiance and is a kind of step-father to the Defiance Church) was a little further from my house, so Defiance became our home church. Mom would regularly drag me and my brother and sister there every time the doors were open, as they say.
As I look back, I have a special place in my heart for all the people. They do love God and worship him the best they know how, but I feel strongly that they are the product of several decades of a narrow-minded group-think that starves out any kind of new thinking. Looking back, it was an oppressive environment that I have spent more than ten years overcoming. Financially, they gave me several thousand dollars (like, several, several thousand dollars) to get my degree in ministry, and for that I will always be thankful. As I said, I hold the people there very dear. However, the irony is, that going away to school and getting out of their group think mentality put me, for many of their folks, at odds with their doctrine – which, by the way, we have never talked about since I left.
To make a long story at least a little shorter (remember, this is 20 years of history!) I found the family of faith that I needed to nurture me at church camp. I attended camp at Camp Indogan (where my mom and her sisters had gone) in Angola, IN. That place, too, holds a special place in my heart. Facebook has helped reconnect with several of those friends again. It was there that I feel like my faith was most closely nurtured. From my earliest teenage years I had an insatiable hunger and thirst for the Bible. I actually read through the whole thing because I loved it so much – I didn’t learn all the stories when I was a little kid like everyone else. This was all new to me. This is probably the single most endearing quality of our tradition – we love the Bible. We know it better than folks in most denominations – at least we used to, but I’m not so sure about that any more.
Anyhow, my camp environment was much the same as my church. I remember one of my friends from camp coming back from a year at some Preacher School in Florida and the disconnect began even from that early age. Some of my closest friends ended up at Freed Hardeman University, and one visit there during my college years helped me realize how far I was from their teachings – even though they were very consistent with my upbringing.
I grew up in a small town and looked forward to college in a big city – that was probably the biggest driving force to my attending Lipscomb University. I spent six years there for both undergraduate and graduate work. In those six years my understanding of church and specifically Churches of Christ broadened immensely. Many of the thoughts I had early on that I couldn’t articulate were given language and a life of their own at Lipscomb. I never had intended graduate school, and looking back I still can’t explain what led me there, but it turned out to be the very beginning of a major shift in my thinking. Lipscomb was a nice conservative, but safe place for me to explore and meet me where I was in order to get where I am today.
I now know that I grew up in one of an area of the country where there are fewer churches of Christ per population than just about anywhere else in the country. I now work in Columbus, central Ohio, and there are extremely few churches of Christ north of where I am. There are quite a few in Columbus, but they couldn’t be more divided and further a part (and have the same name).
I worked for about four years for the West End Church of Christ in Nashville exposing me to the realities of minstering in Churches of Christ in their stronghold and realized I would probalby never be able to authentically minister there again. I now work for the Alum Creek Church in northern Columbus. I’ve been here for five and a half years. We have much baggage from our Church of Christ heritage, but the more I interact with people in other Churches of Christ around the country, I realize that we hardly resemble one any more . . . and I have even a more difficult time fitting in.
Probably 75% of our members are here because they have some affiliation or tradition with Churches of Christ, but don’t want an old stodgy Church of Christ. We explore and do different things . . . but or leadership and vision continues to be bogged down in exclusively Church-of-Christ thinking. That doesn’t have to be a negative, but, more often than not, it’s not critically considered, it’s just the way that it is.
So . . . I find myself in a precarious position. I love this church, dearly. Great folks here. I love God more, and I constantly ask myself what he has in store for me and my family. How can we best serve him. Often times, I feel the best thing to do is to leave the established church. We seem to be in the same mess the Pharisees were in when Jesus lived, and have the same inability to recognize it. It is incredibly frustrating. And at the same time, I find myself not even thirty. To claim to have many answers seems pretty arrogant and presumptuous. And then I think about David, and Josiah and Timothy . . . and even Jesus himself (I’m just about the point he was at when he “took it public”) and I find myself in a push and pull with my emotions and direction. I think our faith is infected with a pretty serious disease. I don’t claim to be immune, but I do think I’ve considered a lot of things critically, when most folks take them for what they are. And, I’m pretty sure that they’re better off more times than I would ever want to believe.
In the end, I think there is a lot of hope for our group. There’s a sizeable segment that, for all intents and purposes, has broken off. They are represented by about half of the churches in Columbus that have nothing to do with us (and vice versa if I’m being honest). However, there is also a great redeemable segment that is asking difficult questions, that are looking again at our earliest roots and considering whether we’ve gone astray even from their dream only 200 years removed. I think our group has much hope . . . and much work ahead, and I hope to address both in the weeks ahead.