Putting this picture of Leroy Brownlow’s book on here is probably going to bring an interesting mix of traffic! But, the thoughts of this post made me think of this book. (I’ve actually never read it, but I remember seeing my Mom carry it back and forth to church when I was a kid for her Bible class) You can actually still buy it here. Apparently it sold over a million copies. Impressive.
This (long – sorry!) post begins a series of blog posts I’ll be running that share the name with this book. These posts, however, actually have nothing to do with t he book other than the fact that they share the same name.
This past weekend our church took our annual trip to Gatlinburg, TN for the Mecca-event for the Churches of Christ – Winterfest Gatlinburg. This annual teen conference/youth rally has evolved over the past 20+ years into the largest gathering (by far) organized by the Churches of Christ in the country – not to mention the world. Our group had a great time, and reaped the benefits of a teen conference that is as well-put-together and effective as any youth conference in the country. They really do this well. It’s one of the few events that continues to bring together a denomination/sect/loosely-affiliated-churches that have become increasingly fractured.
Since the hey-days of unity in the 1950’s and 1960’s, congregations known as the Churches of Christ have become more and more fractured and fragmented. I addressed this in my graduate thesis at Lipscomb nearly ten years ago, and it seems that the fracturing is escalating into a breaking apart. Perhaps it is not as easily recognized in some of the strongholds of the Churches of Christ like in Texas and in the Southeast, but for those of us who minister in churches outside of those geographic areas, it is increasingly a reality by which we are impacted.
Which is what makes Winterfest so intriguing to me. There are about 13,000 people that come to Gatlinburg for this weekend. The program is geared towards teenagers, but I would guess that it’s probably about half teenagers and half adults and college students. The number in attendance isn’t as fascinating to me as the number of congregations in attendance – and the diversity of congregations in attendance. That’s not to say that this event isn’t shunned by a large number of Churches of Christ – there are a significant number who do not attend as a matter of principle, but, overall, there is a great diversity of churches that make this trip every year.
My interest in bringing these things up is not to focus on the politics of Winterfest – I don’t have the patience or the time for that. Instead, our trip to Winterfest has spurred my reflection on the current situation in the Churches of Christ. I haven’t spent much time talking or thinking about the collective group of churches of which we are a part, but it’s been a little more pressing on my heart lately than usual. I think the absolute lack of infrastructure, communication, and camaraderie has been weighing on me lately.
Over the next few weeks, I am going to be spending some time unpacking and examining the Churches of Christ. One of our greatest assets has always been our autonomy and our independence. However, it is this same autonomy and independence that has helped proliferate isolated congregations that don’t tend to be good at working with each other (or anyone else for that matter). While the Church of Christ sub-culture remains vibrant (in varying degrees) in the areas surrounding the Church of Christ universities (Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, West Virginia, and to a lesser degree California and Michigan), those of us at churches outside of these areas face additional challenges. I lived and worked in Nashville for several years and understand that these churches are far from one unified machine, but compared to the situation in Central Ohio, those churches look like the Catholic Church when it comes to unity.
So . . . I figured it was time to stop bitching and actually try to do something. If you don’t know me well you may not realize that this entire project is quite contrary to my nature. I tend to live on the fringes of the Churches of Christ – both socially and theologically. I probably always will. I will assert that the single best attribute of the Churches of Christ is our autonomy. So the idea of attempting to bring them together seems a bit counter-intuitive. Here’s where I’m coming from; this is the premise for the entire series that is to follow:
Columbus, OH has over one million residents within the general metropolitan area. I have lived here for nearly nine years now and have worked for a Church of Christ that entire time. There are about 20 other Churches of Christ within the metropolitan area. We hardly ever talk. Ever. The ministers never get together. When someone does attempt to gather them, few participate. I haven’t done a scientific survey (like I said, we don’t talk), but it seems pretty fair to say that overall (and in harmony with the Christian Chronicle article that came out in February), we are not growing. We are actually shrinking. It’s hard to find any of these churches without significant problems – and I’m not referring to some kind of preachy “we all have problems, but God uses us in spite of our problems” – I mean some pretty serious, at the core of the church, dysfunction.
I feel more and more as though Churches of Christ in this area are headed for one of two futures. Some of our churches are going to reinforce sectarian tendencies, elevate a conservative dogmatism, and “batten down the hatches.” These churches will become safe harbors for their members and for members of other Churches of Christ who oppose change. They will never die completely, but most of them will be irrelevant and uninvolved in the larger activities of God in their communities.
The other churches are going to face (or, are already facing) an identity crisis as they come to terms with “competition” from other larger non-denominational, community churches that offer more resources and more opportunities for ministry. Increasingly, these churches are going to be faced with asking themselves how various “distinctives” of their identity as a Church of Christ fit into that congregation’s to their local context. Many of them may consider cutting ties with the Churches of Christ altogether or will be forced to close their doors as they are largely swallowed up by the larger, hipper community churches.
All this has gotten me thinking. Why am I here? Why do I stay within the Churches of Christ? After all, as I stated above, I tend to lie at the fringes anyway, why not find a “better fit”? Do I stay here simply because it is where my paycheck comes from? Why not pursue a job in a larger denomination with more opportunities or a larger church with more resources? Why here? Why these dysfunctions? I know . . . I know . . . I know . . . “all churches have their problems,” “I’m not going to find the perfect church” . . . I get all that. But you have to admit, we have some pretty unique challenges. Why stick around?
These questions got me thinking about a lot of other people. It’s not like I’m the only one who has to wrestle with these questions. Our churches have some incredible followers of Jesus who choose to make the Churches of Christ their home. I’m really curious why that is. Beginning in a day or two I’ll be posting an article called, “Why I’m Church of Christ . . . ” In this post, I’ll share (more concisely than I have here) my answers to the above questions. I really do believe our group of churches have something important to offer the broader Christian family.
Having posted the autobiographical article, I’m going to be soliciting several friends and acquaintances I have met through the years in the Churches of Christ. One thing I am not is well-connected (check out those blogging numbers!), but I think this is a valuable exercise and h0pefully a broad range of folks will participate. I hope that it can help stimulate some conversation among the Church of Christ blog-streams. I will be soliciting folks that you have heard of, and folks that you haven’t. Folks that I went to school with and people who I’ve met in ministry. Folks who I’ve met face-to-face, and others I’ve just seen through their blogs. Folks from all over the country. Whether they all agree to participate – we’ll have to wait and see. My hope is to stimulate some conversation regarding what is the best of the Churches of Christ.
If I haven’t contacted you about sharing your story, but would like to, I would encourage you to do that by sending me an email, or just by leaving it as a comment below and I’ll try to repost it on the main page. I am proud to have my heritage in the Churches of Christ, and I hope I can continue to make a positive contribution to these churches in the future. Please help spread the word of this series of posts to anyone who you think would have a positive voice to share and would find the conversation helpful. Thanks in advance!