I contacted a publisher about a year ago concerning an idea for a book I had. Nearly a year went by, and I hardly gave it another thought after I clicked send. Lo and behold, this summer I got an out-of-the-dark response that said there indeed was some interest and to start working on a formal proposal. Well, nearly two months have passed and I am no closer now than I was then to beginning anything formal. In the meantime, I haven’t found much time to blog either. So . . . I found myself in my office today trying to avoid going home to my truck that won’t start and my head kind of burned out from typing out leadership material all day long . . . and I thought I would try to work on some of both. So . . . on the Supermetz blog today, I am revealing this proposal that has piqued some interest.
Before we get too carried away here, I plan to be working on something with an extremely narrow focus – particularly within the group of churches within which I work called the Churches of Christ. I have taken many reflections from my years among them and have been asking the question, “Why is everyone leaving?” Now, there is a larger epidemic among all evangelical churches in America, and that no doubt those same problems are contributing to our group just as much. But what concerns me is the large number of friends that I have, strong Christians with many gifts to offer our churches, who are leaving the Churches of Christ to find a place elsewhere. These friends of mine cross the gamut of thought within our churches: progressive, liberal, traditional, conservative, whatever – there are so many leaving for other fields. Why is that? I am setting out to ask that question of folks who, like me, are sticking it out, often times while beating our heads against the wall, but remaining within the tradition which has helped shape my faith most dramatically.
So . . . with that much stated, I would like to post here, some opening thoughts from what, hopefully one day will be an introduction. [Warning: At this point, the post could get rather long, so if you’ve read this far, come back and check out the second half on a future lunchbreak]
My wife and I moved into our house on Main St. five years ago. Like all young married couples, we were excited about this major future-defining purchase that we had made (OK, major understatement). As we considered the number of bedrooms and bathrooms and squarefootage among other house-suitors, I was always drawn to the backyard. Growing up on a sprawling lot in the country surrounded by trees, I knew the metropolitan setting of suburbia was going to be a challenge for me. Sprawling country acreage was never within our financial means, so I settled for a big backyard, and our first house on Main St. has a nice big backyard where I spend as much time as I can.
One of the most striking features of our neighborhood is the trees. There is a sign on our street that decrees Westerville, OH as “Tree City USA.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but what I do know is that we have many large and beautiful trees in our neighborhood. As we visited potential houses five years ago, we saw many houses that were nicer, newer, and larger than ours but few had trees as large as the ones at our house. Directly behind our house is a beautiful silver maple tree that seems to stretch forever towards the sky. It has such beauty that I am willing to ignore the numerous large branches it has lost since we moved in – even the ones that have scraped our gutters. Behind the silver maple is an even more impressive sugar maple – a beatiful sight particulaly in the fall. In the back corner of the yard are two pine trees that shade our hammock in the summer. And just a few feet from one of those pine trees is a large apple tree.
When we first moved into the house, the trees hadn’t been trimmed in many years. My first mowing experience was similar to running an obstacle course dodging hanging branches and low-lying limbs. The overgrown limbs greatly hid the beauty of our backyard. As a matter of fact, during our first year in the house, I didn’t even realize we had an apple tree. Fall came and went and there were no apples on the tree. However, thanks to my pruning, when the next spring came around, the apple tree was full of the most beautiful blooms filling the air with their sweet fragrance. The scent was no guarantee of the apple harvest, however, as the blossoms gave way to small fruit. The fruit never matured, and we ended up with a tree full of rotten half-grown apples. Upsetting to us tenants, but great news for the local squirrel community.
The half-grown apples were a disappointment, but it was encouraging to know that we had made some progress. I was committed to giving the tree constant TLC and to willing it on towards a more bountiful future. And the tree reponsded. Unfortunatley, just as the tree seemed ripe for a large harvest, it was nearly destroyed by Ohio’s first hurricane. (Really, Ohio had a hurricane!) One large gust sent the top-part of the neighboring pine tree right on top of the apple tree I had been caring for. So much for the progress!
This year I have done my best to salvage our apple tree. I trimmed all the branches that were damaged by the pine tree. I cleaned out all the dead branches and limbs. This spring there were but a handful of blossoms, but it looks as though it is going to make it. The handful of blossoms gave way to exactly three apples. Because there were only three, I gave these apples special attention. I did my best to nurture them keeping them free of insects and harm. Slowly, across the summer, all three of these apples matured right in front of our eyes. It was the most beautiful sight – these three apples hanging alone on this large, damaged apple tree.
I want to use this apple tree as a metaphor for the Churches of Christ. The tree has been beat and battered by the weather. It has been split by the storms life has rained down upon it. In the same way, the Churches of Christ have been beat and battered with storms of their own: divisions, scandal, and tension. And these churches have not been left unharmed. Unity has been the chief victim, but there are others. As I sat looking at my apple tree last fall after the hurricane, questions that I have had about the Churches of Christ seemed dually applicable – is she going to make it? Will she continue to bear fruit in the future? Is this the end? Has she finally been beaten into irrelevance? Does she have anything left to offer? Am I wasting my time trying to save her?
It’s important to note here that in my analogy there are other, larger, more healthy trees in my backyard. Sure, they all have their problems: the silver maple has a disease that my kill it one of these days, the pine tree that took out the apple tree is missing its top half, and the sugar maple badly needs pruned. These are the other denominations. There are other, older, solid parts of the kingdom living out the Gospel alongside us. There are also some smaller shoots that have taken root and they that may or may not make it into adulthood – other denominational movements that continue to grow and shoot off from the others. In this analogy I am certainly not concerned that the church is by anyway defeated. This is an intramural dialogue for those of us associated with Campbell, Stone, and the boys.
There are some reasons to throw in the towel and give up hope – any Google search of “Church of Christ” can affirm that. And yet, like my apple tree in the backyard, there seems to me to be a few pieces of beautiful fruit still hanging from the tree, not ready to completely fall to the ground, giving up. This fruit needs nurture and attention. It needs time and care.
In the work that I have proposed, and will be fleshing out here in the months to come, there is some productive fruit still hanging from the group of disciples who call themselves “Churches of Christ.” This group increasingly grows diverse and discussions about them grow increasingly complicated – but perhaps, considering the complicated postmodern matrix of the Western world, that in and of itself is one of those pieces of hopeful fruit.
In the next several series of posts I’ll be addressing what I believe to be the most hopeful pieces of tradition in the Churches of Christ. This work will be divided into two sections: Hopeful Fruit and Pruning Shears. While there may be some hopeful fruit dangling from our tradition, there remains at the same time some major obstacles to our growth that will require pruning. In the coming months I’ll be soliciting fellow ministers who are in a similar place to me to reflect on these areas offering practical and timely suggestions on how we might save our apple trees – if that is in fact what God wants us to do.
I would invite those of you in these churches to post thoughts and ideas about some of the hopeful fruit you see in our movement as well as other harmful limbs that you feel need to be pruned. I am continuing to assemble a group of writers with topics on this issue and would benefit greatly from hearing the ideas of others. I’ll be copying this post throughout on the like-minded group site: Post-Restorationist Perspectives. I hope you enjoy!