As I looked over the apple tree in my backyard, considering the harvest cycle that was now coming to an end, there were a few apples that actually made it to fruit. Not all these apples, to be sure, were created equal. Most of them died off before they became edible. A few of them made it some time further, but then were attacked by squirrels realizing their demise at the hands of these neighborhood pests. There were exactly three that made it long enough to actually become part of our dinner one night recently. As I assess the hope-filled fruit dangling from the apple tree of the tradition of Churches of Christ, I see an equal disparity in the fruit. While each of the fruit I mention offers hope, they do so at differing levels. So, I thought I would begin here with what I believe to be the most promising of the fruit.
I have become convinced that the single-most promising characteristic of the Churches of Christ as they engage in their ministry in the postmodern world is their commitment to congregational autonomy. From my earliest days in Churches of Christ, I have known that the Bible taught “autonomy.” I think I was in college before I really understood what that meant. In a nutshell, our autonomy in Churches of Christ can be well-illustrated in business-terms: each congregation is locally owned and operated.
While the basis of this self-understanding in Churches of Christ stems from the belief that the autonomous churches in Acts serve as an example for how churches should operate today, the richness of a locally-run congregation is quickly becoming realized throughout Western Christianity. As culture deepens in its skepticism and distaste for globalization and cookie cutter development, hungering for creativity and authenticity, it seems to me that an autonomous church offers an organic structure that is both biblical and culturally significant. In Christian leadership circles, a localized approach to church dynamics is gaining momentum across the denominational spectrum (just a few recent examples are : Doing Local Theology, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, It Comes from the People, Organic Leadership and Finding Organic Church).
What many see as innovative, Churches of Christ have maintained throughout its relatively short history. One of the most enigmatic qualities among Churches of Christ have been their relative homogeneity despite their autonomous claims. Although we have claimed to be autonomous, our practice has not been fully so. Congregations of Churches of Christ in settings as diverse as Boston to rural Pennsylvania, Texas, coastal California, Florida, and the Midwest all, for some time, have looked eerily similar. While there is no organizational hierarchy declaring edicts on church policy, the schools, literature, and lectureships training our leaders clearly have had a great deal of influence throughout these churches. But, should autonomy be limited to describing the lack of a denominational head quarters? Is there not more implicit in the reality of autonomy? Haven’t we missed a great deal of our freedom?
Today, many in Churches of Christ find their Mecca in the Bible Belt of the South East or on the prairies of central Texas. In my ministerial interaction with those in Central Ohio, I am amazed when I come across ministers and elders who seem more concerned with what is happening at a school or lectureship hundreds of miles away than with the decisions of the local governments and churches within minutes of where he lives. I conclude that autonomy very well may be the best thing we have going for us . . . but it also may be the most widely misunderstood and undervalued.
I challenge us in Churches of Christ to take the autonomous heritage of which we have been the benefactors, and explore its deeper implications. What would it look like to be a truly autonomous agency of the kingdom? No denominational boundaries. We would be just as interested in the preaching and teaching of the Vineyard Church here in Columbus as we would the others who share our name. We would be willing partners in worship and fellowship at any time and with anyone whose sole aim was to lift up the name of Christ. And we would invite others to the table with no strings attached. We would converse and share, listen and learn. We would be more engaged locally allowing our theology and ecclesiology to emerge from within the voices of people we love and share with and worhsip beside. The oldest and the youngest would have equal say with great theological forefathers who are also part of our tradition. Our conversations would begin with empathy and care instead of doubt and hesitancy.
The future will be bright in Churches of Christ if we can further grapple with this notion of localizing our theology and practice. We can be proud of our heritage when we are about forming disciples instead of creating adherents. That is the duty of the church . . . and far too often we have gotten in the way. There is much to be said for the baggage that denominational structures bring. This post simply touches the surface of what I believe to be our most enduring and important characteristic. We live in a world who is much less interested in the position our denomination takes on homosexuals – though they will make judgments based on that (what edict has been sent down from your ruling body?) than in our local manifestation of the love of God (do you love homosexuals? can I tell that you love them?)
With the emergence of micro-narratives and village theology, the localized, contextual congregation has as much potential as ever. However, in order to embrace this potential, we must learn to listen, open ourselves, and be ourselves: here and now.