A few years ago I learned that the area in which I grew up has fewer congregations of Churches of Christ than nearly anywhere else in the United States (see Mac Lynn’s Churches of Christ Around the World). I haven’t looked at this book in quite awhile, and I am not sure if it has been updated recently, but Lynn used to include statistics for the most populous counties in the country that did not have a representative congregation of the Churches of Christ. Several of the counties (Putnam and Hancock it seems to me were two) were in northwestern Ohio. This reality meant that growing up, by and large, I was completely unaware of the vast number of congregations like mine that existed in other parts of the country.
One of the most peculiar characteristics of the Churches of Christ have been their incredible uniformity while at the same time complete lack of any kind of national governing or organizational body. As I argued previously in the section on autonomy, our localized nature may be our strongest attribute for effective ministry in the postmodern world. In a world that eschews “the man” and nebulous bureaucracy, the localized structure (or better said: lack of structure) that describes Churches of Christ is of great value, not to mention its biblical foundation. In this last of the five “Hopeful Fruits” for the Churches of Christ ,I argue that our autonomous nature has created a legacy of strong, localized ecclesiological theology, or, more simply put – we have a strong, positive view of the local church. There is a correspondingly negative that has accompanied this strength (a weak concept of the univeral church), but we’ll tackle that at another time.
For the most part, our churches are good at being the church, locally. Now, even as I type that, I admit that I have witnessed much evil conducted in local churches. Our understanding and practice of local church is positive and offers hope . . . it is not, however, perfect – nor has it ever been. While certain theological traditions in the Churches of Christ have led to some very ungodly characteristics in many of our churches, our understanding of what it means to be the local church, in my experience, has been mostly positive. While the individualistic swagger of evangelical soteriology (study of salvation) [which Stanley Grenz so adequately describes in his history and critique of evangelicalism in Renewing the Center] has certainly crept its way into the thinking of those in Churches of Christ, I do not believe that it has to the same as it has in evangelicalism.
The centrality of local theology is perhaps most predominant in the sacramental theology of Churches of Christ. The high place of baptismal theology in Churches of Christ continues to have an important ecclesiological function: baptisms are done in church buildings, surrounded by church families and almost always in public. While often lacking an overt pedagogy of community, the weekly celebration of communion also maintains some emphasis of the visible, local church. We remember the Lord’s sacrifice . . . and we remember it together. This is perhaps taken to the extreme in the celebration of communion with one cup by the one cup churches still in existence. (I understand the doctrinal emphasis of the one-cup churches isn’t necessarily ecclesiological – they opt for pattern theology’s dependence on the example of one cup in Scripture – but the practice cannot help but emphasize the togetherness and oneness of the local church.) I use the example of the fringe one-cup group of Churches of Christ not to say that we should celebrate communion in such a manner, but instead to illustrate how even our most conservative groups maintain a high vision for the local church.
Churches of Christ are good at being the family of God. While I differ theologically with many in our heritage, I think most have a pretty good grasp of what it means to be a church. (Consequently, many think that they have a pretty good idea of what it means to be the church . . . and with that I strongly disagree and see a need for pruning sheers, but we’ll get to that at another time.) Congregations of Churches of Christ pray together, pray for each other, have potlucks and eat together, they share their wealth with the needy, and establish important community missions and projects. We do many good things in our communities and for our local contexts. Any discussion involving a critique of this body of churches must first acknowledge the good that we are. No group of churches is perfect, but equally, I think all groups of churches bring something important to our understanding of who God is (here I still hear the ringing in my ears of Stanley Grenz’s idea of a generous orthodoxy from the book Renewing the Center that I just finished reading over the weekend), and ours is no different.
By limiting our hopeful fruit to five, I am in no way claiming to present the exhaustive list. I think that Churches of Christ have positive fruits in other regards: some of our churches have been on the forefront of youth ministry since its inception (Steve Joiner’s graduate thesis from ACU on the history of youth ministry in Churches of Christ is a good look into how long we’ve been at it). Winterfest is a premiere youth event attended by over 10,000 people in Gatlinburg alone and has expanded to Arlington, TX. NCYM has grown into a nationally respected youth ministry training event. Dudley Chancey is a visionary and has done much for our churches in this area. Our colleges, by and large, are incredibly healthy and vibrant. Lipscomb, ACU, Pepperdine, and Harding have all grown and established themselves as world class institutions, with Lipscomb and Abilene Christian especially moving forward in the academic world. These schools continue to grow in their influence and stature in the world of academia. As long as these schools maintain a focus on training church leaders, the future of Churches of Christ will continue. More could be said of our theology of baptism and communion – our unique perspective on both maintaining areas of great theological value for the broader Christian community.
But all is not bright for Churches of Christ. As I’ve noted in each of these sections, our hopeful fruits all have an accompanying reason to be concerned. Call them viruses or attacking foreign insects, there is reason to believe that the Churches of Christ as we know them need some work from some pruning shears. Over the next several posts, I’ll offer some areas in which I believe the Churches of Christ must address as our tradition has developed some unbiblical obstacles to the Gospel that have become problematic for our ministry to the postmodern world.