Last 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!) First, 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?
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.”