Reflecting on “The Future of Churches of Christ: Table & Baptism”

theLordsSupperI’ve been pondering Richard Beck’s excellent post “The Future of Churches of Christ: Table & Baptism.”

Richard writes,

In my opinion, if the (ecumenical) Churches of Christ want to maintain a distinctive and coherent identity going forward they should increasingly focus upon articulating a robust and distinctive theology as it pertains to two specific church practices which I believe, unlike with acapella worship, will continue to characterize the movement for the next few generations.

This is truly a thought provoking observation. And I have a few thoughts.

First, I agree, except I think Richard has it backwards. We should not start with the idea that the more ecumenical Churches of Christ need to maintain a distinctive identity. Distinctiveness is not necessarily a good thing. Rather, we should start with the points on which we are distinctive and then ask whether they merit the price of being in some sense a separate movement.

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10 Predictions About the Future of Churches of Christ

It is nearly impossible to make accurate predictions looking ahead for churches of Christ. I don’t believe everything I am about to say will happen as I describe it, I do hope that in dreaming and discussing these things that some principles will be highlighted along the way that I believe will be a big part of the future of church culture, practice and doctrine in the years to come. Let us know what you think…which of these do you think get pretty close, which miss the mark entirely and what would you add?

1 – The power of story will result in renewed interests and openness: A renewed and intensified interest in story will bring a new generation into a deeper connection with the history of the church post first century. As we realize more and more that there wasn’t a vacuum in history between 70AD and the 1800s there will be a greater interest in the broader history and movement of the Christian faith and how we tie/tap into that. More and more churches of Christ will embrace things like the liturgical calendar. That same drive will also put us more in touch with New Testament narrative (the Gospels & Acts). It will also result in a shift in emphasis where Paul is brought in as a supplement or support to the Gospels rather than the other way around (which has traditionally been the case).

2 – A greater de-centering of authority in already autonomous churches. In a world where everyone has a voice and authority structures are interrogated with regularity there will be a flattening of the authority hierarchies that will spread our responsibilities and purposes over more people rather than isolating it among the privileged few. This will impact everything from gender roles to decision making and doctrine (see #8 below). Without an overarching denominational structure Churches of Christ can and should be more nimble to make needed adjustments looking ahead. The question is, will we as a whole?

3 – Re-thinking “church”: A generation is already rising up with more interest in Jesus than the church. The question is, how will that affect our expressions and definitions of “church” over the next 30 years? How much of our view of church is due to tradition, boxing up biblical expressions into orderly and controllable shells of what God intended and how much of our view is actually based on what we see in the New Testament? How do we take who they were and what they did and apply that to our context so that we aren’t robotically imitating someone else, while still respecting and following the teachings we do have. The focal point and access point will shift moving away from a church-centered (ecclesio-centered) approach to Trinity-centered (theocentric, Christocentric and Pneumacentric) and what flows out of that will be church rather than making church the primary access point to the Trinity.

4 – Universities and churches will compete against para-church ministries for “talent”: More and more, young ministers are faced with choosing between traditional routes to and through ministry vs non-traditional routes. Para-church/non-profit ministries are becoming more and more popular as they require less investment to participate in and get you into ministry much more quickly than most universities can manage. These organizations are flexible and efficient and that is often more attractive to young people than investing 4-8 years into education to begin ministry. In other words, it is more attractive to young people to dive right into a group that is already set on meeting a particular need or transforming lives than to jump into an established church that is calcified and inoculated against such things where one of the primary goals would be the hard (decades long) work of culture change in the local church that has no promise of ever happening.

5 – A move to simplicity & efficiency: Churches are going to have to simplify everything from ministries to giving/budget in order to better justify what they are doing in a world that is in a competition for dollars and minutes. People don’t want to see 80% of their giving go to overhead.

6 – Increase of “lay lead” churches: I believe a time is coming when some congregations are going to decide they can take up the ministry of the church with less staff and overhead and more grassroots involvement. With that move to para-church equipping (#4) comes a move toward simple (#5), lay-lead churches. This will be a jettisoning of multi-layer/complicated ministry models and a move toward less age-graded/segregated approaches to more wholistic and intergenerational approaches (think small groups and intergenerational classes and ministries). The more you segregate ministries by age the more hired staff it requires. This is a shift from “ministered to” to “minister with.”

7 – Intergenerational ministry: We will finally see the benefit of getting the generations back together and not be afraid to throw away obsolete ministry structures of the past. This will be driven by a few factors: the demonstrated effectiveness of those who are already doing this well, its simplicity, and the shift from more staff to less and leveraging those new resources toward ministry outside the church.

8 – A healthier hermeneutic will be embraced: CENI is good in some instances but it has its limitations. It also ignores #1 – that genre matters and not everything in scripture was intended as legal code. Christians have more bible study resources available to them on the phone in their pocket that past generations had available to them in print. We need to leverage our resources to embrace a healthier hermeneutic that is fair with the text (think historical-critical approach).

9 – People will move from “church shopping” to “small group shopping”: As views on what church is (#3) change people will be more open to the non-traditional route…that means small groups as independent congregations may become more popular and draw more people than traditional expressions of church.

10 – What is your #10?

 

The Future of the Churches of Christ: Unity through Listening

For thirty years Churches of Christ in the Portland, Ore. area have been coming together once a year for an event called Together with Love in Christ – or TLC. On October 18, 2014 the annual celebration gathered again on the bank of the Columbia River (in a hotel banquet hall), to worship. It is quite fitting that on the thirtieth anniversary of TLC the same number of congregations from the area were represented.

Ignoring the world won't change it.

Ignoring the world won’t change it.

The churches that participated ranged from new church plants to long established congregations, from churches meeting in a small room to churches that fill vast auditoriums and demand multiple services, from churches that embrace the newest songs to churches that sing every verse of songs that were written a century ago.

Together we prayed and sang and communed and fellowshipped and learned. Together we represented the past and the future of the Churches of Christ.

In the past – at the very beginning of the Restoration Movement – the goal was unity. Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott and so many others emerged from disparate churches and denominations to ask some difficult questions about what it means to follow Jesus. They sought to live out, in a radical way, the ideal of unity. Though the quote dates back to the early 17th century, the Restoration Movement took it as a rallying cry: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Yet, despite this past, the future of unity is in some doubt. Differences over what constitutes an “essential” have torn apart congregations and the Restoration Movement, on more than one occasion. Pick your issue: kitchens, instruments, cups, missionary societies, Sunday school, small groups, Sunday night worship, singing during communion, women serving, use of PowerPoint, or what songs qualify as an invitation song. Churches have split over each of these issues and many more than I can recount. Of course this is not unique to the Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement, but it is notable in a movement founded upon the ideal of Christian unity.

I will not pretend to have a panacea for the divisions that threaten to tear the Churches of Christ apart. There is none. It is no easy task, but we were not called by God to an easy life, rather to one of meaning and purpose. I offer up TLC and Portland as an example of how to move forward. Not because TLC happens without conflict, but because it happens despite the conflict. It brings churches together in dialog. It forces us to confront our disunity every time we attempt to unite for one Sunday out of fifty-two.

If we are to move beyond the squabbles that have divided us, if we are to learn to live the ideal of unity in the essentials and liberty in the non-essentials, we must do so through the hard work of love. Love means self-sacrifice, love means patience, love means hope, love means listening to both the weaker and stronger brothers and sisters we have.

The future of the Churches of Christ is not glamorous or easy, but neither was its past. The hard questions and difficult conversations that brought Stone and Campbell and Scott together – despite their great differences – can be our heritage and our future hope. Loving dialog that seeks and promotes unity is our future, if we have the courage.

But too often we talk past each other rather than with each other. We decry our opponents instead of hearing them out. We vilify the other rather than learning from them. And this problem is not unique to the Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement. Our society is mired in monologs that play endlessly over one another. It is not only our churches, but our world, that needs what the Churches of Christ have done and, I believe, can do again. Without dialog we are doomed to be alone, for the more we speak and demand that all who hear agree, the fewer and fewer people will listen until we all stand alone and isolated.

The commands of Jesus, the marks of a disciple, are meaningless to a hermit. It takes no effort for a loner to die to themselves or to love their neighbors or to become last or to care for the poor because there is no one else. Jesus’ commands only make sense to those living in community. The Sermon on the Mount is, in many ways, a handbook on how to live in community despite conflict. And, at its core, is the concept of loving each other, not just enough to take care of each other, but enough to listen to each other.

I can already hear the retort: “But if we listen to them, we are approving of their message.” No. No. Did Jesus approve of the Pharisees or teachers of the Law? Did he approve of the Samaritan woman or the rich young ruler or Judas? Yet he listened. He heard. He loved. And out of that listening love, he was able to speak truth to those who would hear him. We are told to speak the truth in love, but I think we miss the importance placed on the last word. Often in Greek the final word is the most important – sort of like using an exclamation point in English – so when you read that we should speak the truth in love, it should look more like: “Love people as you speak the truth!” Love people first. Listen to them. Care about them. Then, if they are willing, speak truth.

The future of the Churches of Christ can be the unity that it boasted in the past if we are willing to die to ourselves, love our neighbors and listen.

 

The Future of Churches of Christ: Table & Baptism

Experimental Theology

By Richard Beck

I had wonderful time at Streaming last week with Greg Boyd and many others. Thanks to Mark Love for putting together, year after year, such a wonderful event.

(BTW, if you’re thinking of pursuing a graduate degree in ministry be sure to check out the missional leadership degree directed by Mark at Rochester College. I show up in that program for a class in year two, helping teach a course on hospitality taught in Durham, NC as a part of a visit to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Rutba House community.)

As you can tell from the Tweet above, Greg and I talked a lot about the Churches of Christ, where we’ve come from and where some of us might be going. This was, in fact, a conversation I had with quite a few people at Streaming.

What will be the future of the Churches of Christ? Given all the changes we are experiencing will there be anything left of the movement in a generation or two? And if so, what is that going to look like? Continue reading

The Empty-Hands Approach to Being a Missional Church

Emil Brunner famously said this in the 1930s: “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” In other words the very essence of the church is to be mission. Just as a fire that is no longer burning is no longer a fire, so too a church that is no longer living out the mission of God is no longer a church.

Unless you’ve been asleep for years and just now woken up, then you should know that Churches of Christ in many places are in grave danger of going extinct. Our churches are already fractured. Some have died or are dying. Others are in denial or shock about what is happening. It’s quite likely that within the next 30 years, we won’t be talking about how to reignite mission in Churches of Christ because there will be nothing left outside a few places in the Bible Belt.

We have some major obstacles that prevent us from seeing the mission of God, much less living it out today in our own contexts. One of our biggest problems is the good old days. The great generation that built our churches and Christian institutions in the 1950s, 60s & 70s are still in control of many churches today. While we owe them all a debt of gratitude just for the fact that we exist, that generation’s instinctual way of “doing church” runs counter to the changes necessary for reimagining and reigniting our mission for the world. Their style of “mission” worked back in the 50s and 60s. They’re not to be blamed for wanting what they know to have been good. But the world has changed. Their ways no longer work as they once did.

To be candid, I think that generation knows something isn’t right. Most of them admit that change is needed. For the most part they are tired and want someone else to take the baton. I feel confident that they are mostly willing to bless our efforts if we can offer a compelling enough vision of the future to win their trust. I’ve been blessed to discover that kind of trust at the College Church in Fresno, but even there I have to play a careful balancing act at times.

But what exactly is the vision that we need? And what is it that holds us back? Metaphorically speaking, we have become prisoners of the institutions that once sustained us. I’m primarily speaking of the expensive and maintenance-hungry church properties and infrastructure that once supported us, and in some cases still do. They create for us an inward-focused anxiety that beckons to the pride of those who built them and cause perplexed bewilderment among those who are young or new. We end up with hand-wringing and nervous members, wondering how to support our growing need for professional worship services and youth ministries. We fret over roof repairs and technology upgrades. We furrow our brows because our marquee is outdated and our website is cumbersome. Preachers spend countless hours on blogs, podcasts and staff pow-wows to maintain and grow what we have. We have coffee bars, slick bulletins and greeters, all to welcome people into our churches—even though they arrive only in trickles, if at all.

But this exhausting effort lacks one major thing. It lacks a sense of the missional call of God to GO and to DEPEND on unknown sources to complete the mission to which we have been called. We are trying to do it all on our own with resources we can quantify. The fire is ceasing to burn, and we wonder why.

Luke 10:1-12 is a foundational text for many who are trying to reimagine and reignite the church’s mission in North America. There are so many things to notice about this text. You could read it a dozen times and focus on different aspects each time. Many communities that utilize a practice called dwelling in the word, a form of Lectio Divina, often use this passage over and over again.

Notice with me several key elements of Luke 10. And let’s compare them to our approach today. First, Jesus sent his disciples out empty-handed. They had no supplies. You might say they will ill-equipped or even unprepared for their mission. It sounds entirely irresponsible to my mind. But it’s how Jesus sent out his disciples: empty-handed. How do we typically approach our communities and our neighbors? Do we display a spirit of humility and collaboration? Or do we act as paternalistic benefactors who believe that we have the answers to their questions? Jesus didn’t send out his followers with tracts, with food for the homeless, or even with plans of salvation. He sent them empty-handed.

Second, you’ll notice that Jesus told them to find a place of peace and dwell there. They weren’t to flit from one place to the next. Rather they were to trust that the first place they were well received was a place to dwell. Our view of evangelism causes us to totally miss Jesus’ instructions. We think it’s our job to create a place of peace that people want to come to. This is the institutional version of church that we’ve inherited: we make a peaceful place and folks will want to come. While it’s true that every now and again someone wanders in and finds that to be true, overall our growth isn’t keeping up with the death rate in our churches. You could argue that our places just aren’t peaceful enough. But I think the better explanation is that we aren’t following the instructions of Jesus. He told his followers to “go on your way” and find places of peace as you go. He was sending them among people who weren’t yet his followers. To make it clear, there are people of peace in our world today who do not yet follow Jesus Christ. We are to go, find them, accept their hospitality and camp out in their lives. Some people think this means you go and hang out among the homeless and underprivileged. If you have a heart for that and the courage to go do it, I applaud you. But it could simply mean that you find a family of foreigners, or Buddhists, or Muslims, or the gay couple on the corner. We are to find people of peace and intertwine ourselves in their lives. How might this transform our institutional concerns? If we obey Jesus in this, I don’t think we’ll sell or desert our church buildings. But it will totally change the function for which we deem them necessary.

Third, Jesus instructed them to bring the Kingdom of God near. They weren’t to disguise the fact that they were emissaries of God’s Kingdom. As a matter of fact, they were to do things that demonstrated God’s love: specifically, “cure the sick,” Jesus said. Do ministry, but do it out in the lives of people in the world. Our church engines are geared for ministry, but primarily on our terms and in our property. The good news of this text is that, even among those who eventually reject the compassionate ministry of God’s Kingdom, our work among them—when actually done among them—brings them closer to the Kingdom. And isn’t that what our mission is all about? To bring the Kingdom nearer to the people around us?

How can mission be reignited once again in our churches? If we start with the simple and empty-handed approach of Luke 10, we just might learn some important lessons. We might learn about our over-reliance on the “stuff” of our church life. We might also learn about the world in which we live. And finally and perhaps most importantly, we might learn about the Lord who sends us out and who provides for us in amazingly abundant ways.