Hopeful Fruit #5 – Strong Theology of the Local Church

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.

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Helpful Fruit #4 – A Tradition of Pacifism

It was a trip to Columbus, OH that sealed my fate as a pacifist. I live in Columbus now, but at the time I was living, working, and going to school in Nashville, TN. I was working for a church in Nashville and had been invited to join a couple other former Buckeye residents to their yearly trek to the Ohio State – Michigan football game. I’ll spare you the details (Buckeyes lost, John Cooper fired . . . really, really cold), but the connection to pacifism had to do with the car ride back to Nashville from Columbus. Two friends from church invited me, and one of the friend’s brothers also came and provided our transportation.

Our foray into politics began while we were overnighting Friday at a friend’s house and the topic of the recent election came up. Somehow, (I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but if it was anything like most political conversations I’ve taken part in with Christians, the beginning presupposition of everyone present being a registered Republican probably played a role), the other men found out that I had voted for Al Gore. This (absurd, in their eyes) reality, opened us up to a weekend of political conversation and debate.

Even at that time, I had my suspicions about the benefit of a Christian being involved in the political process (even the less evil democratic political system), but had continued to meddle in the quasi-liberal-slanted perspective of my upbringing. Attending a private Christian school in the South immediately placed me in a smaller minority than the ethnic minorities at the not-long-ago-segregated campus of my alma mater.

It takes approximately six hours to drive from Columbus to Nashville, and that Saturday, after the game was over, our six-hour commute was solely focused on politics. The conservation moved from light joking about the parties, to the serious concern they had over my vote . . . and as I came to find out, my soul. The most tense moment came when the driver challenged anyone to, “Name one good thing Bill Clinton did for this country!” As a college student, that was pretty easy to do because the former President had help sign into legislation a huge college education assistance program that I had benefited from. “He had gotten me a few extra thousand dollars to attend college.” Sounded like something good to me. Turns out, my traveling companion did not see this as in any way “good.” His response began sternly, and grew louder to the point of a yelling crescendo, “It’s my money and I worked my ass off for it, and why should I be paying for your college tuition?” The car sat in silence for quite awhile. Finally, as the tension began to lift a bit, I tried to make the point that I really had no dog in the fight. I wasn’t card-carrying for anyone. My point was simply to force my companions into considering the biblical texts that didn’t easily jive with their political views. “What about Acts 2 and 4 where the Christians met together and sold all they had and shared all they had?” I asked. “And how does the Old Testament practice of jubilee connect with your Right wing political stances?” These were questions they had never been asked before – really, they had never been asked these questions!

I relay this story not to characterize everyone with one broad-sweeping stroke. Certainly, politics are complicated and generalizations are seldom helpful. This experience, however, opened my eyes to the negative side of politics and the divisive and explosive discussions that often result. These events occurred nearly a decade ago, and the United States has grown even more divided along political lines. What a breath of fresh air a church who focused more on kingdom politics than on the tirelessly fallen politics of the nation would be! Never has the world needed the prophetic voice of the church to live out a nonpartisan politic who concerns herself with matters of justice, mercy, and righteousness.

In recent years, pacifism has grown in attention paid by Christian theologians. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw brought some more academic concepts from people like John Howard Yoder and Jacques Ellul to a more popular-level, lay Christian audience through their book: Jesus for President. Other scholars and pastors like Gregory Boyd, Lesslie Newbigin, and a host of others, are receiving wide readership and extensive exposure. As the West continues to broaden its perspective through the advances of technology and mass media, global concerns are becoming prevalent, and for many Christian traditions, their theological structure is incapable of productive dialogue in this setting.

In my years in seminary at Lipscomb University, it came as a huge surprise that this private Christian school with an overwhelming pro-Republican undertone, actually bears the name of one of America’s most important Civil War-era Christian pacifists (and I don’t think this is overstated): David Lipscomb. In fact, it turned out, Churches of Christ have a ripe tradition of pacifism. Lipscomb’s 1913 work, Civil Government, represents what might be one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated documents produced in America on the topic of pacifism. [The full version of Lipscomb’s work is available online here.]

Scholars in Churches of Christ continue to maintain this longstanding tradition – most notably through the work of Lee Camp (Lee has written the very popular Mere Discipleship, and hosts the Tokens program at Lipscomb) and Michael Casey (“the topic about which he was most passionate and which forms the largest corpus of his published materials was that of pacifism in Churches of Christ . . .” from preface of And the Word Became Flesh, essays written in his honor published this year.) Lipscomb University also has faculty member Richard Goode who teaches in the history department who has been especially formative in my experience, even in my limited interaction with him. In short, the pacifist tradition in Churches of Christ is alive in well . . . at least in the academy.

The challenge before us as ministers within the tradition is to bridge the gap between the isolated tower of academia and the every-day life of the church. In my early years of ministry I see no message as desperately needed in the face of mounting political divisions as this one. At the same time I have experienced the loudest and most acute backlash from conversations in this vein. Nationalism has become the most uniting characteristic of our churches: progressive and conservative churches are equally as likely to sing patriotic hymns in their service and display the American flag prominently in their building.

Certainly, pacifism stands as one of the more hopeful fruits of our tradition. It is also, however, one of the most challenging in teaching and discussing. It is widely said the two topics to avoid in public conversations are politics and religion. What this topic does is jump head first into them both. When it comes to our political allegiances, Churches of Christ are as guilty as any other Christian group of losing our way. It is important for us to rekindle the thoughts and ideas of our pacifist forefathers . . . and be reminded that these are not novel ideas – as the accusation sometimes is made. Not only is there a great history of pacifism within the broader Christian church, closer to home, Churches of Christ share in this rich tradition. We must learn to not be afraid of talking about politics, but we must reframe the conversation. We must overcome the unnecessary obstacles that we have placed in front of those who differ politically and open our minds to a new political reality, a politics of the kingdom of God.

This is not a call for being anti-political (a charge I have been accused of). Quite the contrary, this is a call for a renewed orientation, for allowing God to set our political agendas instead of our governments, and for realizing that our politic is our life, not our vote. We must allow our political agendas to be caught up in the vision of God, not the latest candidate to ascend to power. May Christ grant us some sanity when it comes to charged political matters. May he grant us the confidence and vision of the prophets to speak the Word of God. Those of us in Churches of Christ stand in a great tradition to be able to do so, may we be bold in taking up that calling.

Hopeful Fruit #3 – Populist Insistence of the Priesthood of All Believers

One of the marks of the Protestant Reformation, of course, has been the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. As a direct result of a priesthood that had become thoroughly corrupt and overly powerful, believers found life and hope knowing that Scripture was for all and shouldn’t be reserved for the most educated and annointed. There are few groups of Protestant groups that have realized this as significantly as the Church of Christ.

I always find some humor in explaining to pastors from other denominations how our churches find their ministers. When you really step back and think about it, it is quite humorous . . . and yet, somehow strangely, refreshing. In a postmodern world where skepticism abounds and trust of “The Man” has all but deteriorated, it seems as though this tenet of our churches just might push us through a difficult transition. It seems to me that outsiders will be excited to know that our ministers are not the product of some denominational appointment or designation, but that this is who the local congregation chose. There is a great connection with our populist emphasis and our insistence upon autonomy.

I find myself talking out of both sides of my mouth on this topic. On the one hand, I am encouraged by our desire to level the playing field of interpretation and leadership. Regardless of education, background, or perceived expertise, everyone pretty much comes in on a level playing field. This is overstated, a bit, obviously, in that we still maintain some hidden or unwritten “weights” based on family demographic in the congregation (more prevalent families often have a more vocal place), socioeconomic bias I’d like to think we are free of, but are just as susceptible as other groups to injustice there, as well as racially and culturally. However, finding no perfect system, we may just have something to offer here.

I am writing these words as the Sarah Palin circus has come to town. They are expecting 5,000 to 8,000 to attend the Columbus-area bookstore where she’ll be promoting her book. The Sarah Palin political entry last year has proved to be an interesting example of the power of populist appeal. Regardless of your political leanings, you can’t help but find something attractive to the “normal person” who takes on “the Man.” This is the heart and soul of Palin’s attraction. She speaks for all the soccer and hockey moms – her now famous self-identification. And the response? A great outpouring of support (at least in the Midwest and Southeast . . . she’s not surprisingly avoiding the coasts in her book tour – now there would be some interesting events!) In any case, I bring Palin up here because she illustrates the power of the populist voice still today. People like the story of the underdog. They like to think that no office is too big for the common folk.

Sociologically, Churches of Christ fit this mold for the religious sects perfectly. We don’t ordain our pastors. The local congregation maintains the criteria and job assignment for the ministers. Worship assemblies are overseen equally by “clergy” and “laymen” (and maybe someday “laywomen” – we’ll get to that into the pruning portion of the posts!) Ministers are generally appreciated and respected for their unique Bible knowledge and ministerial expertise . . . at least generally.
It is here I find myself speaking out of both sides of my mouth. On the one hand I believe the populist appeal of our Movement speaks volumes for how we can traverse the postmodern matrix. However, at the same time, I feel as though it has been one of our most signfiant liabilities. In my ten plus years of ministry, now, I can assert that one of the most challenging aspects of working for churches is leadership. I have taken special interest in leadership in the past three or four years, seeing it as such a glaring weakness of my own, and many ministers I have worked alongside and known. It is tough to know how to lead a church.

However, I believe in the midst of such a populist driven church, the issue is ampiflied. Suddenly, the minister’s voice is watered down, and his significance dulled a bit. “He makes some interesting points, but let’s hear what lukewarm member who doesn’t do anything but warm a pew has to say,” and we have to keep in mind that so and so just isn’t there yet” and those kinds of comments abounds. It seems, from my experience, that the power and influence of a minister in Churches of Christ is truncated even to a greater extent than those in other denominations. This makes the task of leadership extremely difficult and probably says a lot about why our churches tend to remain pretty small.

Again, I see this populist approach as both a potential bonus for our involvement with non-Christians. Realizing the only folks setting doctrine and making decisions and excommunicating members and hiring and firing ministers are those folks you worship right beside on Sundays. However, it has potential risks as this populism can just as easily make us lazy and myopic in our understanding of our role in the invisible church. Group think can (and I think has) set in quickly under populist-driven congregations. Looking around at congregations of Churches of Christ throughout the rural parts of the United States, I think this is exactly what is ailing them.

Hopeful Fruit #2 – The Passion for the Sacred Text of Churches of Christ

Perhaps it is one of the most enduring qualities of the Churches of Christ that we have managed to be unapologetically Bible-focused and Bible-centered, while at the same time remaining outside the limiting circles of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism [Richard Hughes argues that this may no longer be the case for much of the movement in his Reclaiming a Heritage (a great read for any reader of this blog!) ACU Press, 2002 – see especially chapter seven entitled: “Why Restorationists Don’t Fit the Evangelical Mold; Why Churches of Christ Increasingly Do” Another topic for another day]. In compiling the “Heart of the Restoration Series,” ACU Press was quick to release a work centered on the place of the Bible in our heritage [volume 2 in the series is entitled God’s Holy Fire: The nature and function of Scripture, 2002.] Gospel meetings, mission statements, sermons, and classes echo from congregations of Churches of Christ the world over with the message of “Back to the Bible.” Any study taken upon by her students inevitably begins with the question, “What does the Bible say about that?” Stated simply, there aren’t many groups who know the Bible as well as our people do, and to not recognize that as a hopeful fruit would be disingenous and a disservice.

Brightly hanging down from the branches of the Churches of Christ tradition is their abiding love for the story of God. I remember sitting in Bible classes learning the books of the Bible, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles, the chronology of the Old Testament . . . just about everything that’s in those 66 books, we covered it. Bible bowls, Sunday school, lectureships, Vacation Bible School, and Gospel meetings still retain the undeniably Bible-focus even today. From the smallest, most rural congregations to the largest suburban megaplexes among Churches of Christ, these churches love to teach the Bible.

Among members of Churches of Christ, a person’s age, education, and life situation all are considered secondary to how well she or he knows the Bible. Bible knowledge is often directly equated with spirituality – the more Bible you know, the more spiritual you are. Quoting Scripture is sometimes seen as paramount to a spiritual gift. These latter case points illustrate some worms that lay underneath the skin of a perfectly healthy piece of fruit, but shouldn’t take away from the fact that Churches of Christ hold steadfast to the biblical text.

It is widely held that children within Churches of Christ are not learning as much Bible as they did in bygone days. Biblical literacy across denominational boundaries is suffering and the Churches of Christ are certainly not immune to this phenomenon. However, there remains, by and large, an incredible commitment to teaching our people the Bible. While there may be a general laxity in the general audience when it comes to the biblical literacy, it also should be noted that scholarship in Churches of Christ has gained an increased audience in recent years and is more widely respected by the broader theological community than ever before (could this be evidence of an increased Evangelical leaning??)

While the commitment to being biblical and Bible-people should be seen as hopeful fruit, the good fruit has not come without potential worms. Often, in Churches of Christ, the story about God has been elevated to a higher plane than God Himself. Bibliolatry has become the golden calf for many in Churches of Christ – this excessive emphasis on the bonded leather and gold-tipped pages to the neglect of the mysterious Creator and Savior of all that is in existence. Too often we have bound God to the ink on the pages instead of allowing Him the freedom to work apart from the Scripture itself (we seem to have overlooked Paul’s point in Romans 1 all too often).

Just as damaging, we have often married our love and emphasis of the text to our love and emphasis of “necessary” antiquated interpretive devices. The thoroughly modernistic hermentuic evolving from Enlightenment philosophy is often valued equal to the text it seeks to interpret. Churches continue to be taught the interpretive system of command, example, and necessary inference both directly and indirectly. The limitations of this foundational philosophy has been exposed over the past several years (see the work of Michael Casey, John Mark Hicks, along with others). Unfortunately, for many in Churches of Christ their love for the sacred text is married to their love for their interpretation of the sacred text. The certainty demanded of foundationalism has created skepticism of alternative voices and a myopic view of the hand of God. As the Churches of Christ engage the world of postmodernism, nothing has been more harmful to her cause than the lack of place for alternative voices and this begins at the table of biblical interpretation.

I believe we must reinvigorate our love and passion for the story of God, and not find ourselves so committed to one interpretive device or another. Instead, we need to find our way beyond the need for certainty and past the place of answers, as very difficult as that is going to be. If we will once again fall in love with the text and, in the spirit of Psalm 119, meditate over it, take it to heart, allow it to sink into our very ethos . . . and allow part of God to be revealed in the text, but not limited to the text. Our churches should be filled with people who love the text and love to learn about the text and engage in long discussions about what the text means. Churches of Christ must become a place where conversation is encouraged and facilitated instead of streamled monologue and uniform teaching dominate the floor. May diversity abound and the unity of the Spirit be what unites us instead of the unity of thought and homogenous hermeneutics.

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.

The Apple Tree in My Backyard

I contacted a publisher about a year ago concerning an idea for a book I had. Nearly a year went by, and I hardly gave it another thought after I clicked send. Lo and behold, this summer I got an out-of-the-dark response that said there indeed was some interest and to start working on a formal proposal. Well, nearly two months have passed and I am no closer now than I was then to beginning anything formal. In the meantime, I haven’t found much time to blog either. So . . . I found myself in my office today trying to avoid going home to my truck that won’t start and my head kind of burned out from typing out leadership material all day long . . . and I thought I would try to work on some of both. So . . . on the Supermetz blog today, I am revealing this proposal that has piqued some interest.

Before we get too carried away here, I plan to be working on something with an extremely narrow focus – particularly within the group of churches within which I work called the Churches of Christ. I have taken many reflections from my years among them and have been asking the question, “Why is everyone leaving?” Now, there is a larger epidemic among all evangelical churches in America, and that no doubt those same problems are contributing to our group just as much. But what concerns me is the large number of friends that I have, strong Christians with many gifts to offer our churches, who are leaving the Churches of Christ to find a place elsewhere. These friends of mine cross the gamut of thought within our churches: progressive, liberal, traditional, conservative, whatever – there are so many leaving for other fields. Why is that? I am setting out to ask that question of folks who, like me, are sticking it out, often times while beating our heads against the wall, but remaining within the tradition which has helped shape my faith most dramatically.

So . . . with that much stated, I would like to post here, some opening thoughts from what, hopefully one day will be an introduction. [Warning: At this point, the post could get rather long, so if you’ve read this far, come back and check out the second half on a future lunchbreak]

My wife and I moved into our house on Main St. five years ago. Like all young married couples, we were excited about this major future-defining purchase that we had made (OK, major understatement). As we considered the number of bedrooms and bathrooms and squarefootage among other house-suitors, I was always drawn to the backyard. Growing up on a sprawling lot in the country surrounded by trees, I knew the metropolitan setting of suburbia was going to be a challenge for me. Sprawling country acreage was never within our financial means, so I settled for a big backyard, and our first house on Main St. has a nice big backyard where I spend as much time as I can.

One of the most striking features of our neighborhood is the trees. There is a sign on our street that decrees Westerville, OH as “Tree City USA.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but what I do know is that we have many large and beautiful trees in our neighborhood. As we visited potential houses five years ago, we saw many houses that were nicer, newer, and larger than ours but few had trees as large as the ones at our house. Directly behind our house is a beautiful silver maple tree that seems to stretch forever towards the sky. It has such beauty that I am willing to ignore the numerous large branches it has lost since we moved in – even the ones that have scraped our gutters. Behind the silver maple is an even more impressive sugar maple – a beatiful sight particulaly in the fall. In the back corner of the yard are two pine trees that shade our hammock in the summer. And just a few feet from one of those pine trees is a large apple tree.

When we first moved into the house, the trees hadn’t been trimmed in many years. My first mowing experience was similar to running an obstacle course dodging hanging branches and low-lying limbs. The overgrown limbs greatly hid the beauty of our backyard. As a matter of fact, during our first year in the house, I didn’t even realize we had an apple tree. Fall came and went and there were no apples on the tree. However, thanks to my pruning, when the next spring came around, the apple tree was full of the most beautiful blooms filling the air with their sweet fragrance. The scent was no guarantee of the apple harvest, however, as the blossoms gave way to small fruit. The fruit never matured, and we ended up with a tree full of rotten half-grown apples. Upsetting to us tenants, but great news for the local squirrel community.

The half-grown apples were a disappointment, but it was encouraging to know that we had made some progress. I was committed to giving the tree constant TLC and to willing it on towards a more bountiful future. And the tree reponsded. Unfortunatley, just as the tree seemed ripe for a large harvest, it was nearly destroyed by Ohio’s first hurricane. (Really, Ohio had a hurricane!) One large gust sent the top-part of the neighboring pine tree right on top of the apple tree I had been caring for. So much for the progress!

This year I have done my best to salvage our apple tree. I trimmed all the branches that were damaged by the pine tree. I cleaned out all the dead branches and limbs. This spring there were but a handful of blossoms, but it looks as though it is going to make it. The handful of blossoms gave way to exactly three apples. Because there were only three, I gave these apples special attention. I did my best to nurture them keeping them free of insects and harm. Slowly, across the summer, all three of these apples matured right in front of our eyes. It was the most beautiful sight – these three apples hanging alone on this large, damaged apple tree.

I want to use this apple tree as a metaphor for the Churches of Christ. The tree has been beat and battered by the weather. It has been split by the storms life has rained down upon it. In the same way, the Churches of Christ have been beat and battered with storms of their own: divisions, scandal, and tension. And these churches have not been left unharmed. Unity has been the chief victim, but there are others. As I sat looking at my apple tree last fall after the hurricane, questions that I have had about the Churches of Christ seemed dually applicable – is she going to make it? Will she continue to bear fruit in the future? Is this the end? Has she finally been beaten into irrelevance? Does she have anything left to offer? Am I wasting my time trying to save her?

It’s important to note here that in my analogy there are other, larger, more healthy trees in my backyard. Sure, they all have their problems: the silver maple has a disease that my kill it one of these days, the pine tree that took out the apple tree is missing its top half, and the sugar maple badly needs pruned. These are the other denominations. There are other, older, solid parts of the kingdom living out the Gospel alongside us. There are also some smaller shoots that have taken root and they that may or may not make it into adulthood – other denominational movements that continue to grow and shoot off from the others. In this analogy I am certainly not concerned that the church is by anyway defeated. This is an intramural dialogue for those of us associated with Campbell, Stone, and the boys.

There are some reasons to throw in the towel and give up hope – any Google search of “Church of Christ” can affirm that. And yet, like my apple tree in the backyard, there seems to me to be a few pieces of beautiful fruit still hanging from the tree, not ready to completely fall to the ground, giving up. This fruit needs nurture and attention. It needs time and care.

In the work that I have proposed, and will be fleshing out here in the months to come, there is some productive fruit still hanging from the group of disciples who call themselves “Churches of Christ.” This group increasingly grows diverse and discussions about them grow increasingly complicated – but perhaps, considering the complicated postmodern matrix of the Western world, that in and of itself is one of those pieces of hopeful fruit.

In the next several series of posts I’ll be addressing what I believe to be the most hopeful pieces of tradition in the Churches of Christ. This work will be divided into two sections: Hopeful Fruit and Pruning Shears. While there may be some hopeful fruit dangling from our tradition, there remains at the same time some major obstacles to our growth that will require pruning. In the coming months I’ll be soliciting fellow ministers who are in a similar place to me to reflect on these areas offering practical and timely suggestions on how we might save our apple trees – if that is in fact what God wants us to do.

I would invite those of you in these churches to post thoughts and ideas about some of the hopeful fruit you see in our movement as well as other harmful limbs that you feel need to be pruned. I am continuing to assemble a group of writers with topics on this issue and would benefit greatly from hearing the ideas of others. I’ll be copying this post throughout on the like-minded group site: Post-Restorationist Perspectives. I hope you enjoy!