Churches of Christ at a Tipping Point

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Hearing that Churches of Christ are at a crossroads isn’t anything new.  This worn out cliche isn’t even fit for the recycle bin.  Its like plastic used beyond its viability, representing the worn out options of turning left or right.  There is an even older refrain that comes from Jeremiah “Stand at the crossroads and look around, look for the ancient way, the good way and walk in it.”

I have spent my entire life looking for the good, ancient way.  At least six generations on both sides of my family have pursued the Christian walk inside the Churches of Christ.  Church is family for me.

I have noticed that for the most part when some leader announces the newest crossroad (women’s role, instrumental music, cup quantities, or clapping) the choice is between the left or the right, my way or the wrong way.  Our fellowship long ago mastered the ability to pin people down.  We have historically been masters at being right and helping people come to see that fact. Too often our identity in Churches of Christ has been a veiled equating of our view with God’s view and an unwillingness to see the possibility that our view could be wrong.

In addition to the problems of the past are the problems of the present. Today we face a fracturing of American Protestant Christianity.  We live in a technological era where people can remain separate and connected only to the people with whom they chose to be “friends.”  Our circles of conversation are small and our conversations are comfortable, but not real.  Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Email, Google and Microsoft all promise connection, yet in many ways it is a careful division of human interaction.  We are disconnected form actual engagement with real people with real ideas and real implications in how we discuss these things together.

There is a shift taking place and that shift is for the better. We are at a tipping point in this sectarian center-piece of our identity.  More and more of us understand that old sectarian stances are not the ancient paths represented by scripture, but represented our best efforts to follow God at that time.  As time ticks forward and the present becomes the future, we are able to see the strengths and the weaknesses of our movement. Hopefully we can let our history provide us humility and maybe we can give our history grace.

That brings us to a third way that may allow us to break out of an issues-driven identity. I have come to the point where clinging to Christ and becoming his lifelong follower is all I have.  If we are to discover and to maintain the unity Jesus prayed fervently for in John 17, this means I must be able to admit my errors and accept my past so that I can accept others. The tipping point in my mind is our current identity crisis.  This experience is not new.  It is actually the same identity crisis we’ve faced over and over for 200 years.  Is our unity based upon being right or is it based upon Jesus? For two millennia we have offered beautiful gifts to Christianity like weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper, adult believer’s immersion, a capella music, and independent autonomous churches united across the globe.  These are our best traits, but being right about them (or an even longer list) is not a sufficient identity in the world today.

We need physical places to come together and discuss how we may become like Jesus in our present age.  We do not need spaces to come together to announce the new “right thing,” especially if that right thing is anything beyond making of disciples who look like Jesus.  The next right thing is not instrumental worship nor a capella worship.  The next right thing is not spiritual formation versus education, nor female versus male leadership.  These are all important . . . and each will, when wrongly emphasized or twisted, attempt to be so important that they should divide us.  However, none of them is Jesus which unites us.  What we need most is space to talk and humility to accept other Christians with different understandings as children of God.  Then, we can talk about the real need in our churches—how to make disciples of Jesus.

One of the places in my life where this transition has been on display is the ACU Summit. These lectures are a century long, running example of our movement at its best and at its worst.  There have been flashes of people pointing us to God beyond cultural arguments as well as instances of sectarian exclusion, racism, arrogance, and pride.  The entire 108 year venture has been an ongoing conversation about how life and faith converge in Jesus.  These gatherings have intended to glorify God.  For the most part, if we can forgive the pretense, posturing and fanfare that comes with gatherings of people, God has been glorified and we have been enriched as followers of God.

I believe that what we need is the good way, the ancient way in which to walk.  It has not really changed much since time began.  The Ten Commandments were not changed by Jesus, they were deepened.  The great commandments of loving God with our entire being (heart, soul, mind and strength) and loving your neighbor were not invented by Jesus; they were continued beyond the borders of one nationality.  The pursuit of God is still the most significant pursuit for all humans.  The different now is that through Jesus this is both a reality and an ongoing pursuit.  We may now access God, through Jesus, full of the spirit.  This is not mere salvation access, but access to changes our very person into the likeness of Christ.  We must be changed.

So, I will continue to do my seemingly impossible work of bringing Christians together for conversation at the ACU Summit but I will do so only by daily prayer, daily practice of the fruit of the spirit, daily repentance that I am a sinner who needs the mercy of the living God, and daily submission to the Lordship of Jesus.  I hope this begins to change my sense of rightness and increases my hunger for more and more people to see themselves as Christian followers of Jesus.  I will do all this hoping that our movement will no longer be known only as . . . those people who don’t have music or who dunk people or think they are the only Christians . . . I pray for the day when we will be known, recognized by our love and by the ways that our everyday lives look like Jesus.  That is an ancient way that is good and worth walking in.

Maybe Christians can come to be known as the people who fear nothing except God – no idea, no terrorist threat, no financial crisis should supersede our reverence for God.  Maybe Christians who fear God can be known the world over as the people who do not force their way with arguments, drones, troops, laws, and issues . . . but by our willingness to follow Jesus to the cross.  Maybe then the world will label Christians as “the people of love”—the litmus test Jesus gave in John 13:35.

Dr. Brady Bryce

Dr. Bryce is the Assistant Professor of Practical Theology, Director of Contextual Education and Director of Ministry Events at Abilene Christian University.


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