Hope for Churches of Christ in Ohio

I want to continue in my postings about my Christian tradition. I spent some time in my previous post reflecting upon my upbringing in the small, backwards Defiance Church of Christ. I began my current ministry position five and a half years ago at a Church of Christ in northern Columbus, OH. Our church is on the very outer-fringes of the Columbus suburbs. It’s about two and a half hours from Defiance. In the years I’ve been in Columbus, the atmosphere of the Churches of Christ I’ve experienced has been incredibly disappointing and frustrating. I suppose the phone book (and Mac Lynn) probably find evidence of about 25 – 30 “congregations” in the Columbus area. There are a few large enough to be multi-staffed (Fishinger and Kinney Rds., Spring Rd., Northland, Reynoldsburg, Genessee Ave. – Gennessee Ave. is a predominantly black congregation, and while it defies everything I believe to treat them differently, the fact of the matter is, in this conversation, they are a bit different), and Marysville. Also could be included is Heath and Lancaster, but they are a bit futher away. In any case, there are a few.

Columbus, OH is the 15th largest city in the United States. Perhaps you are surprised. I am. For a city that size, our particular denomination is very under-represented. What is more disappointing, is that the few churches that are here don’t have much to do with each other. I mean, I know that churches are kind of known for not getting along, but seriously, the churches in Columbus, OH don’t care too much for each other. I hardly ever talk to any of the other ministers. I am good friends with one of them, but the others I probably talk to less than once or twice a year. Perhaps that is because I am not making the effort . . . but neither do they. To show that it is not all on me, when I first came to town I tried to begin a regular lunch meeting with the youth ministers – there were about five or six of us at the time . . . we met a few times, then it flopped. Some of the ministers have been here for a long time, most of us have been here from between 5 – 10 years. From my best judgement, this is a deep-seeded disunity that goes back many decades – and there looks to be no progress in sight.

I have met a few ministers from a little further away – Jeff Slater in Ashland, Russell Howard and Matt Dahm in Marion. I could list a few others – but only a few. I went out of my way to attend a meeting in Marion that I didn’t find too beneficial simply because I felt it was a good offering of fellowship on my behalf. I have attended events and brought teens and children to local events simply to be supportive. Seldom has that support been reciprocated. I’m not trying to sound high and mighty here either – I repeat, I have failed in this manner as well. I believe this group of churches is in some trouble.

The more conservative churches in the area (Fishinger and Kenney, Alkire Rd., Pataskala, and some others) do a much better job of communicating and associating with one another. They are united by some of their simliar antiquated events such as Bible bowls and such. (Alkire Rd. actually has a school where they offer Bible classes). I commend them for much of their efforts, while choosing to disagree with a great deal of their theology. I see some positive organizational points for them, though I think they may be dying under their oppressive and judgmental theology.

There are a few other chruches that lean more towards the center of “mainline churches of Christ” but are a little on the outs with the more conservative groups mentioned above. That leaves three or four of us others. These other churches (and ours probably leads the way) find ourselves in a theological quandry. We know we we are not “them.” About half of our membership consists of people “born and raised” among churches of Christ. Several, however, have been burned by previous churches due to situations of divorce or other tragedies. Many find themselves here because they don’t really know where else to go. We don’t lose many members to other Churches of Christ . . . instead we tend to be the last church on their way out of the movement altogether.

Our church is different. Two of our elders are in their second marriage (all these situations are complicated, but people in most traditional churches of Christ would probably not be too excited about the details of either of these cases). We have claimed to be a grace-oriented church before it was cool. We don’t know much of what’s going on in our “brotherhood.” We use instrumentally-accompanied tracks on occassions – though we usually don’t sing with them. We have used women in an expanded use on occassion – though not regularly. More than anything, we aren’t afraid to talk about anything. With all that said . . . we still don’t have much of a sense of who we are.

Probably half of our church has been with Churches of Christ for quite some time, but we have a sizeable minority who have no clue about these things. We regularly have visitors, some who stick around even though we are a cappella, who don’t know much about us. Our four elders all are “born and raised” church of christers. Both ministers are too. And none of us have any idea what to do.

Some of our members fit nicely in the Church of Christ mold, and would like it if we stand there. They seem really hell-bent on insisting that. We have another sizeable number who fit more in-line with an evangelical mold. They enjoy reading and listening to authors, pastors, from evangelical churches and attend concerts and events that are mainly evangelical. Then, there’s a small minority who probalby empathize more with a mainline denominational structure (we have two Catholics who attend regularly for one example – though, of course, they are not considered “main-line”).

In addition to these problems, our small membership (100 or so) live in a radius that comes close to surpassing 50 miles. We live in five or six different counties. All in all, it’s a mess. And honestly and truly, I have no idea what to do. It’d be a lot easier, as I’ve stated before, to start a new church. Little of the emergent and missional ideas I read about and empathize with are prepared for any mileage here. Our baggage is immense. And, all the same, I figure we have it a whole lot better than many in our movement.

To make a long post longer, I think Churches of Christ in Ohio are in trouble – especially, and ironically, the progressive ones – or open ones – or whatever you call us. (Maybe confused ones). We have, probably more than anything, lost our mission. We’ve been so caught up in the newfound freedom in worship that we found two decades ago, that we’ve never moved beyond that. Now, so much of our time (and especially my time) is caught up in a two-hour event on Sunday mornings. We are currently a church culture more obsessed with the “correct way to conduct an hour-long worship service” than bringing hope, justice, and love to a dying and decaying world. That is a problem . . . and a big one . . .and I sure hope we can take a few very small steps in overcoming that in the coming months . . . perhaps God will allow us through our repentance to participate alongside him – and stand back and watch.

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