Re: Why Churches of Christ are Shrinking

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I recently figured out how to get people to read my blog!  Two blog posts recently addressed the flagging fortunes of my tribe and got massive amounts of feedback – Good, bad and ugly.  So all I have to do is talk about the Churches of Christ disappearing and the readers will come!  🙂  I wanted to make some remarks about both posts so here goes:

Last November Joe Beam wrote an interesting article where he defines a series groups most people in a Church of Christ fit into. This upset some people, raised some eyebrows, but on the whole created some dialogue, mostly good.
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I am not sure a new set of labels helps things but what I took out of the article is that, generally speaking, the extremes have shut down the dialogue, with all the groups in between.  I think Beam is spot on there.  There has been a decline, it seems,  in our capacity to hear and talk with each other when we don’t agree, particularly when it comes to speaking to people at either extreme.  This has been my experience for the past 10 years.  It seems like we as a fellowship are losing the ability to talk to each other (Left, Right and Centre).

No matter how you read the Bible, Jesus makes it clear that unity is primary for us moving forward as a fellowship.  We aren’t going to agree on lots of things but Jesus still invites us into dialogue with each other.  It must break God’s heart that we can’t even talk about cooperation with other church groups, innovations in worship, women’s role in public worship, communion practices, etc.  One extreme or the other is so outraged, or so hurt, that they won’t even talk . Here’s what I wish:

  1. I wish we could recognize that, for some of us, these issues are intensely painful to discuss.  It’s going to be slow going so can we be gentle with each other? It’s going to take a long time but can we lovingly wait for each other and take the place of the servant? We might not agree but surely we can love each other anyway.
  2. Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all my sin – all of it.  And that includes my theological sins.  All those things I am wrong about: praise team, cooperating with other denominations, women making announcements before the closing prayer, etc . As God as my witness, with a clear conscience I have supported these things and even  if I am wrong I am still forgiven.  God’s grace is abundant and true.  God will forgive me for these things and he will forgive you too.

The second blog post that caught my eye is related but different.  James Nored wrote a post yesterday on the Missional Outreach Network website titled “Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking?” I may be over simplifying here but what he says is that a 21st century culture is looking for a more experiential worship service. That’s true. 20’s and 30’s don’t just want to hear 5 hymns, a reading, a prayer, communion and a three part sermon. They want a multisensory experience so that means the lights may be dimmed; there might be a video that sets a theme for the day’s worship. They may need to get up and participate at some point. What Nored is saying is that 20’s and 30’s aren’t going to fight about this. If they are part of churches that refuse to do these things they aren’t going to debate and proof-text resistors, they are just going to leave.
You can say that they are being childish and inconsiderate, whether you’re right or not, Nored’s suggestion for moving forward misses the point. Nored suggests (I am over simplifying here) that we need to have more experiential worship services. Use video and lights more, make things more visually appealing and more experiential. I don’t disagree. Those are helpful for reaching 20-somethings but this isn’t why Churches of Christ are shrinking.
I am reluctant to make sweeping generalizations because no matter how you qualify your statement there are going to be some Churches of Christ that defy your categorization. And the truth is that our tribe has not cornered the market on declining denominations. Churches everywhere are hurting. I will go “big tent Christianity” on this and say, in general, churches are shrinking because we have forgotten the gospel.

We have forgotten that we are loved by a God that treats us better than we deserve. When we consider a worship style as an unforgivable sin we have forgotten how it is that we have been saved – by grace! If not having a praise team is necessary for right standing before God then it is your stance on praise teams that saves you – not the gospel.

If playing a video in worship that has instrumental music in the background is going to be an unforgivable sin that is charged to your account, then you are saved by your righteous use of media and not the gospel. I am not trying to be trite or offensive to make a point (forgive me if this offends, it was not my intent) but if we are saved by grace (Eph 2:8-10) then no worship practice, or doctrinal opinion can make us inelligible for salvation. If it did then having the right doctrinal opinion would be our salvation and not Jesus.

Many churches have forgotten their first loves.  Look at Rev 2:1-7.  The church in Ephesus was legit.  They were doctrinally sound.  They had great leadership and were diligent in weighing people’s conduct against the word.  But Jesus wrecks them on not having a heart that loves him.

Hip and Funk worship will not satisfy forever.  We need to lead worship with excellence.  Yes.  We need to be effective in reaching people who are more experiential and visual. Yes. But we will be the clanging gong or resounding cymbal with out love (1 Cor 13:1).  Love for Jesus and love for each other

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5 thoughts on “Re: Why Churches of Christ are Shrinking

  1. This was the point the Munroe Hawley was trying to make in his books in the early 90s (particularly, his Is Christ Divided?).
    I say this, not to diminish your point, but to suggest that we’re encountering the same issues that we have been for the last (at least) 20 years.
    I wonder if there is perhaps some more fundamental questions we need to be asking about our belief structures?

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  2. While I completely agree with your more simple take on the issue than that of Joe Beam’s more pragmatic approach, I still think we’re missing the mark. We want to say that if we’re arguing about praise teams or who gets to pass around the ‘emblems’ that these people lack love. But is this what they would think?

    Aside from caricatures of those who nitpick against change—caricatures on the scale of Javert—it is, I think, precisely because of love that people argue about such things. For they, I think, believe they are showing God love by upholding the Lord’s truth.

    This is instead, I think, fundamentally a hermeneutical issue: Who is God? What are we to do in this place and time? What is the church? What is our story? How are we communicating this to ourselves and to others? This is a worldview issue. This is about immiscible frameworks and disparate presuppositions. Why are we in decline? Is it because of a lack of love? Yes and no! Perhaps a misplaced love (on both sides?!)…

    For some think we ought to get smaller. For the love of God we should cut ourselves off from the syncretistic liberals. For some we are not really getting smaller, rather purer.
    How else should I read this month’s ‘Gospel Herald’—for instance with Earle Rattai’s ‘Where has the Church Gone Wrong?’, or in the snippet on page 9 which reprints an article from the ‘Gospel Advocate’ regarding appeasing those with differing views. Both of these articles assume as their starting point that they lie in the center of all that is orthodox, that they have all the answers. For them it is clear that to love God is precisely to argue against all difference and variegation.

    So this is not about love, per se, but about our fundamental understanding of who God is and what He is doing. This is an argument about what culture is and how we are to relate to it. This is a question of story: What is our problem? What is the solution? Where are we in redemptive history? This isn’t about what the bible plainly says, it’s about how we as a community have read it through a very particular lens.

    This is also a question about what it means to be more than slaves/servants but to also be sons of the most high God. I think that most nitpickers have not risen above the level of the slave—and for me this means that while perhaps they have all the right answers they have yet to figure out that they have actually been asking many of the wrong questions.

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  3. (Sorry, I meant James Nored, not Joe Beam, in regards to the more pragmatic approach.)

    You are in the end correct, that if people just remembered what it was like to be forgiven and to be loved when there was nothing lovable about them, then perhaps they would have more grace toward others. But looking around, I’m not sure many have had such an experience. True thankfulness should open our eyes to the gospel working in sometimes surprising ways. But ecclesiolatry instead will blind us from see others as brothers and sisters in Christ, from those who are trying just as hard to be faithful to scripture as we are in these dark days.

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  4. Thanks for your thoughts Ryan. Who is God and what is he all about? That is a good question to attend to. In my Biblical Theology class we’re reading “The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name” and it discusses God’s self revelation in Exodus 34:6-7. How does it change us as a people to seek the one who is “compassionate and gracious slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness; keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

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