Why I’m (Still) a Member of the Church of Christ

ImageLast week I began asking some friends and acquaintances to share their perspectives as to why they remain a part of the group of churches known as the Churches of Christ.  I have begun receiving their answers via email and will be posting here in the coming weeks – hopefully about two every week.  I very much appreciate everyone’s time and energy spent on this request and look forward to the dialogue that follows (sorry I didn’t interact with the comments from the previous post – that will change). I am going to officially kick the series off today by offering my perspective as to why I stick around these churches.  (Though, full disclosure entails that I share up front that they pay me – so let’s not deny that this isn’t a factor!) ImageFirst, let me offer some broader perspective of who the “we” are that this series is talking about.

Through my years of living and interacting within this Christian tribe, I have determined the best word to describe us is “enigmatic.”  I have a tendency to embrace uniqueness, so I may be overstating it a bit, but my interaction with other Christian groups has reinforced the fact that we are a pretty weird group.  The fact that there even is an “us” is sociologically quirky in itself.  There is nothing determinative that we comprise a unique sociological ecclesial structure. We have no formal denominational headquarters or make up.  We have no clerical or professional order.  We have been anti-credal since our beginning.  Our connections with one another are loose at best.  And yet, we’ve managed to comprise some sense of an identity.  We have our own insider’s language and relative doctrinal consistency.  While there is certainly diversity, it probably doesn’t exist to the degree that we would like to believe.

We have fundamentalist tendencies, at times, but aren’t fundamentalist.  We have the feel of Quakers, but aren’t Quakers.  We often times look like card-carrying Evangelicals, but don’t quite fit that bill either (you can see a treatment of that in the book Evangelicalism & The Stone-Campbell Movement).  We are significantly rooted in the South and throughout the Bible Belt, but have some interesting outliers (like Pepperdine).  Like most “reform” movements, we haven’t tended to play well with others, often leaving us largely isolated from broader theological and ecclesiological conversations.  And, probably no one would argue, we have seen significant changes to this Movement in the past ten to fifteen years.  So . . . why is it that I stick around this enigmatic group?

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While the above cartoonist wasn’t referring to the “Church of Christ” specifically in this cartoon, it certainly resonates with me.  So why choose to stay around here?

I suppose the simplest answer as to why I’m a member of the Church of Christ is that my mom is.  That’s how I was raised.  I’ve never traced the Church of Christ lineage back in my family, but I know it goes through my mom’s family in Lima, OH, and we are one of the only families I’ve met that doesn’t have a Southern connection somewhere.  I’d love to go on some long rant about how I went and tried all other Christian brands and other faiths and found them wanting only to return – but in reality, I think I still find myself here because that is where I am comfortable, and some way, some how, the providence of God has seen fit to form his relationship with me in this context.

Looking at the surface, it’s easy to argue for providence.  I grew up in a tiny Church of Christ in Defiance, OH – the only one in the county.  There is a quirky little chart in Mac Lynn’s compilation of Churches of Christ (the 2000 version is the most recent I have) that shows the most populous counties in the U. S. without a Church of Christ.  The list contains about 100, and of those 100 you’ll find Williams, Van Wert, Henry, Putnam, and Shelby counties in Ohio, and Adams county in Indiana  – each of these counties are within 60 minutes of where I grew up.  The two Churches of Christ in Defiance and Paulding counties (my mom now goes to Paulding) are the only Churches of Christ in a six-county area of Northwestern Ohio.  You can imagine that we might have been a little backwards.  All the same, some way, some how, God chose to place me in this quirky little group and has formed my faith in him here.

The Defiance Church of Christ had their 50th anniversary celebration a few years ago and they had some former ministers come back and speak at a special weekend event.   I wasn’t invited.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never been invited to speak there since I’ve started working again in Ohio (that goes back to 2003).  We’ve never spoken of it, but I think they realize that we see things quite a bit differently.  Some of the leaders (read: men) see that as threatening, and so – it is what it is.  I’m not bitter, but I think it is a good testimony to the acrimonious environment that governs many churches in that area.  I attended Lipscomb University between 1997 and 2003 and worked for a Church of Christ in Nashville, TN, and was exposed to the other end of the Church of Christ spectrum.  Suddenly, I was living in an area that had a Church of Christ in every nook and cranny of the city.  I worked for the West End Church of Christ for about four years while I was there.

My journey within the Churches of Christ went through the usual season of disillusionment, in my early 20’s, as I was finishing college and beginning my ministry at Alum Creek (where I am now).  The church in Defiance has some extreme dysfunction – dysfunction that extends well beyond the Church of Christ name.  It took me awhile to separate the two.  All churches have dysfunction – few would argue against that point.  Allowing myself to sift through the dysfunction and find the salvageable pieces has led me to a reinforced confidence of why I stick around “our” churches.

The greatest thing I learned in the church of my youth was a love for the Bible.  I was taught to cherish and learn all I could about the Bible.  And I did.  I remember diligently reading the Bible on my own even though that was never modeled in my home.  I loved learning the stories – we didn’t start regularly attending until I was close to 11 or 12, so I had missed out on all the VBS-like stories everyone had learned.  That steadfast commitment to the Bible has always stayed with me.  I may not agree with alot of the conclusions my faith mentors promote, but I diligently share in their high view of the Bible.  It’s hard to find a Church of Christ that doesn’t hold a high place of Scripture.

I don’t think we have the corner on the Bible, like I used to, but I think that we do well upholding the Word of God as precious and unique.  I like that it gives us a reference point that many denominations lack.

I resonate well with our view of the sacraments (though we would never call them that).  Communion and baptism are so central to the story of God, and I appreciate our theology of these two.  I’ve had to wrestle a bit with our baptismal theology, and I’m probably not able to unilaterally endorse the exclusive salvific focus that we tend to have – I still think it is so essential and see great benefit in a perspective that emphasizes believer’s baptism over infant baptism.  The weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is being re-discovered by many denominations – it’s nice to be part of a group that has practiced that for a long time.

There are few Christian groups that live out the Reformation doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”  My doctoral paper this month is going to be in this vein.  I believe that we may be living in a time when this doctrine will come more fully to bear than ever before – and I believe that churches like ours have an easier time assimilating this idea into practice.  While I would never want to give up the unique calling that I have as a vocational pastor/minister, too many Christian groups have created a chasm and the professionalization of ministry has created a new nuance between clergy/laity that I hope we can continue to avoid. The Churches of Christ may have a tendency to not fully appreciate gifted preachers, teachers, and writers, but we have been able to leave a place for most everyone at the table of leadership (except women . . . which many of us are working on . . .)

I’ve already rambled on way more than I’ve allotted my guest columnists in coming days so I should wrap up here.  The greatest attribute I see in the Churches of Christ and what keeps me most optimistic is our autonomy.  As the missional conversation of the past decade has emphasized a focus on local contexts, our churches should be fully equipped to jump right into this.  While groups like the Southern Baptists are autonomous, they carry with them the baggage of the denominational hierarchy and bureaucracy (it’s not that that is all bad, but for the sake of this perspective, it’s more of an obstacle to local ministry) our churches are truly “locally owned and operated.”  The more we can embrace that self-identity, the better prepared we will be to engage in ministry.

In the end I see the people and congregations I have been a part of within the Churches of Christ like good parents.  They haven’t been perfect.  They haven’t always made the right choices.  They aren’t always going to affirm the direction that I choose to go.  But they are largely the reason I am the way that I am.  The positive seeds of a high view of Scripture, the emphasis on simple worship (Richard Beck calls acappella music “theologically weird” – I love that image), the autonomous structure, the Anabaptist tendency towards pacifism, the radical insistence on the priesthood of all believers – these are all values I have learned from my Church of Christ parents.

That doesn’t mean everyone espoused those beliefs.  That doesn’t mean that each of these views was articulated.  But it’s alot like the influence of my real parents – sometimes they articulated what they wanted to impress on me, sometimes it was implicit, and often they didn’t even realize it when they were doing it or what it was they were impressing upon me.  I have taken what they have given me, and I am living out my faith as best I know how.  It wasn’t always evident growing up, but I think most of the folks who I attended church with wanted more than anything else for me to have a relationship with Creator of the Universe.  Like a parent who is left to watch their child blaze his or her own trail and pray that they have done what they were supposed to do, I believe that those within the Churches of Christ are in a good position to do  the same – “Let’s pray that we have given them what they need to live into the kingdom in his or her own way.”

Why I’m a Member of the Church of Christ

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!

Hopeful Fruit #1 – The Autonomy of Churches of Christ

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.