Adam Hill, a friend of seminary and now a professor at Rochester College and minister at the Rochester Church of Christ, has put together a some thoughts on what has kept him in the Churches of Christ.
I grew up in a family full of preachers in the West Texas churches of Christ. I attended a college affiliated with the churches of Christ in middle Tennessee. I now serve as the preaching minister at a church of Christ in Rochester Hills, Michigan, a suburb on the outskirts of metro-Detroit.
Throughout my education and my time in ministry, I watched as many friends who began in the churches of Christ took leave from our tradition all for various reasons that were neither shocking nor ludicrous. A close friend joined the United Methodist Church for a more robust church polity. Another decided to join the staff at a community church that recognized miraculous spiritual gifts. One left to join the Church of God so that she could serve in roles other than the children’s minister, while another embraced the liturgy and tradition of the Lutheran Church. One close friend and his wife aligned with the Episcopalian Church because it reached out to homosexuals. Others left to join churches with instrumental worship. Many of the ministers who stepped away left church altogether. Of course, I do still have some friends who, like me, were raised in churches of Christ and stayed in churches of Christ. Even still, many of them wrestle with how well they “fit” within our tradition on a regular basis.
So, why am I still in the Churches of Christ?
The primary reason I am still in the churches of Christ is because I want to be. I am thankful for this heritage I have. I certainly do not always agree with it, and I often work to change it, but I am thankful for it and want to remain in it. I am stubborn—even in my affection. Wherever I go within our tribe, I can still see Jesus in this tradition, and I don’t want to leave that.
In addition to this, I remain in churches of Christ because it is my family. Family is an interesting thing. Families can be dysfunctional, unhealthy, and hard to love. Truth is: family can be mean as hell sometimes. But for all that I can criticize as negative, hypocritical, illogical and mean, I cannot deny that in my own experiences the churches of Christ have suffered with me and comforted me, mourned with me and cared for me, put up with me and loved me. The churches of Christ have been family to me. When my parents divorced and my family fell apart and I swore off religion… when my wife was very sick and I was cursing God… when one of my close friends died and I grieved openly and angrily… In all of these times of pain and hurt, it was a church of Christ that took me in (sometimes while I was kicking and screaming) and loved me back to God. The church of Christ is my family. And to be honest, I am family to them as well. In spite of my meanness, hypocrisy, and irrationality, I bless them and love them back to God as well. When loved ones die, life is difficult, weddings are celebrated and babies are born, I am able to bring the presence and love of God into their lives. These are my people, they speak my language (most of the time), and they try to live with me and appreciate my rhythms.
After these more personal reasons, I can attest that I also remain in churches of Christ because I think the best part of what we believe is true and relevant. Alongside of this would be the correlate that I am convinced that the worst parts of what we have believed can be corrected and changed. In my estimation, the best part of what we believe provides a faithful and organic witness to our God.
God is the God of mission, and I am proud that we embrace the reality that the church has a mission. It is sometimes quoted: “It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world.” While there are differing understandings of what that mission exactly is, I value that most of the churches of Christ I know have a conviction that we have an urgent call to share the gospel of Christ. At core, our desire for all people to know the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is admirable and true. God is present and active in the world and we bear witness to that reality. The church exists for the purpose of the mission of God, which is the kingdom.
God is the God of life, and I love that our tradition believes in a whole-life commitment to Christ—the practice of piety. We think that real faith looks like something in real life. Discipleship is not fundamentally about words—it is about practice. We do the faith. We believe that every Christian is a minister, and all of us are leading the people of God in participatory worship at all times. Our whole life bears witness to our faith in the gospel that makes a difference not just in our life in the hereafter, but in our lives now. Because God is the God of life, we know that if our churches are not communities committed to giving life to the world around us, we are useless. Grace and love cannot be things we hypothetically or abstractly believe. They are practical realities evidenced by our actions as a community.
God is the God of revelation, and I am thankful that our fellowship has an active submission to the witness of scripture as a living word. The scriptures are the holy tradition of witness to the activity of God in his Son Jesus empowered and revealed by the presence of the Spirit. Any church that attempts to separate itself from the word of God forsakes the most powerful core of our witness. At the same time, any church that attempts to transform scripture into something it is not hamstrings the witness of the church. In our history, I think that at times we have abused scripture trying to make it something that it is not intended to be—we have made it an idol, a rule book, a good luck charm, an individualist ethic, and most often we have read it only for what we find about Sunday mornings when the vast majority of it is about every single day. In spite of these missteps, our submission to the witness of scripture is a strength that helps us grow.
God is the God of redemption, and to this end I believe that we have rightly identified the practices of baptism and communion as central to the life and witness of the individual Christian and the community of faith. I know that at times our view of these two practices becomes too sacramental, or too legalistic, or too simplistic, or to minimalistic, etc. But at its core, the witness of Scripture affirms these as the right practices of the church and of disciples everywhere. Baptism and Communion are powerfully rich full-participation dramas that express the counter-narrative of the gospel. They tell the story of the death of the old order and the rising of the new—a radical restructuring of the community of God rooted in equality and mutual love—and I would rather tell these stories than any other story the world has to offer.
* God is the God of community, and I appreciate the value of our heritage’s commitment to the local church. I believe that the local church is the last, best hope for the community around it, and I love that churches of Christ care about making local churches. Discipleship without community is not only unbiblical, it is practically impossible. By this, I do not mean that church attendance = faithful discipleship. I mean that the God who is eternal community—Father, Son and Spirit—has created us in his image to be in community. Community is not something God likes; community is something God is. To image God as best as we can, our churches must be places that nurture real, loving, God-honoring relationships with one another. This community is the primary context of accountability, mutual growth, sanctification and persevering commitment—i.e. discipleship.
* God is the God of freedom, and one of the things I cherish most about our heritage is our practice of congregational autonomy. Sure, I see what people are saying when they critique our claim to be non-denominational—we do have many of the trappings of denominationalism. However, each of our churches is free to hire who they want, spend their money how they want, and teach what they want. Our local churches are not limited to cookie-cutter uniformity—in their faithful witness to the gospel of Christ, they can and should change and vary given their varied contexts of ministry. Oh, the watchdogs and bullies will come and try to press other churches into conformity, but we must realize what a blessing it is to know that we do not have to answer to any outside group. We can choose to embrace the unity that was our movement’s original impulse. I thank God that each congregation has the autonomy (freedom) to decide the means and methods of living out the life-giving story of redemption for themselves. Being completely forthright, if any one factor explains how I have not been kicked out of our fellowship yet, this is it.
I acknowledge that not all of our history, doctrine, or practice has been healthy or righteous; however, I cannot turn a blind eye to the good that is present in so much of what we have. Amidst the different regional dialects, congregational sizes, and political persuasions that comprise the churches of Christ in this country, I have found the God of life actively transforming lives through the presence of Jesus and the power of the Spirit throughout our churches. We stand not because any one of us ministers comes or goes, but because God is faithful and gracious. I believe more than ever that it is a great time to be the church of Christ.
I embrace the best of what we have. I work to change the worst of what we have. And above all, I trust in grace… because, some of us need it to survive.
 I have seen this quote attributed both to Rowan Williams and Tim Dearborn in published pieces.
Adam Hill is the Minister of the Word at Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, MI. He holds his MDiv from Lipscomb University and is nearing completion of his PhD in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary. You can read his blog at www.asbigastheuniverse.blogspot.com, and follow his twitter @adamhillrcc.