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?

Before answering those questions, some quick backstory and context for Non-CoCers.

As I’ve written about before, right now there are two streams in the Churches of Christ, a sectarian stream and an ecumenical stream. Historically, the CoC has been very sectarian, believing only those from our tribe to be the only faithful Christians in the world. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else were headed to hell. At its worst that’s what CoC theology represented and communicated. And that is what a lot of people have in mind to this day when they think of the Churches of Christ.

But starting in the 70s and 80s an increasingly ecumenical impulse began to emerge within the CoC, an increasing willingness to see ourselves as a particular stream flowing into the much broader river of Christianity. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else are our brothers and sisters in Christ. This, obviously, is the group of CoCers I identify with.

Now to a second point before we can discuss the future of the CoC. The CoC has been a movement centered around church practices, about restoring a “New Testament pattern” of worship and church organization. The CoC has been less focused upon theology (historically a dirty word in our tradition) than upon ecclesiology.

Now, the most distinctive aspect of CoC church practice, the other big thing we are known for, is acapella worship (voices only, no instruments). This has been such a defining feature of the CoC that we split with the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church over this issue. And as you know, if a church splits over an issue, that issue–because you’ve spilled blood over it–becomes deeply rooted in the psyche and DNA of a tradition. If you spilled blood over an issue that issue has to become a test a fellowship, a boundary that cannot be crossed. For the Churches of Christ acapella worship became that defining issue, perhaps the most defining issue (because of the split) of our movement.

But now, with the rise of the ecumenical impulse within the Churches of Christ, this worship practice has been rapidly changing. Many of the largest and most influential congregations in the Churches of Christ are adding instrumental worship services. My church, the Highland Church of Christ, is now among this group.

Which brings us back to the question: What will be the future of the Churches of Christ?

You can see the issue. If acapella worship was a or the defining practice of our tradition what happens when that practice no longer characterizes our churches? If a Church of Christ goes instrumental what makes us distinctive, say, from the other community or Baptist churches in town that worship with instruments?

Let me frame the question this way. The Churches of Christ have been a movement that has maintained unity via church practices. Each Church of Christ organized and worshiped in the same way. So what holds us together once those practices start to change? If practices have been our organizing core what happens when that core evaporates?

Well, with an emerging diversity of practices we’d no longer have a core, no longer have a consistent expectation of what a Church of Christ might “look like” from location to location. Thus the question: What’s going to be the “core” of the Churches of Christ (if it’s not going to be acapella worship) going forward?

Now, I’m not a fortune-teller and given my limited experience and perspective from within the Churches of Christ I cannot speak for the diversity within the movement or predict how it will all work out in a generation or two. But as I’ve pondered the question “What will be the future of the Churches of Christ?” this has been my answer.

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.

These two practices are the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper and a believer’s baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.

Let me comment on each of these in turn.

What will make the Church of Christ distinctive going forward? This: We are distinct (though not unique) in celebrating the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. But it’s more than that. Our distinctive (though not unique) belief is that the Lord’s Supper is the sole reason for gathering, that the Lord’s Supper can never be skipped. Sermon, worship and just about everything else can be skipped. But you cannot skip the Lord’s Supper. Table is the focal point of our gathering. Going forward my sense is that this practice will continue to define and characterize the Churches of Christ in both the acapella and increasingly instrumental congregations.

So my recommendation to CoC leaders is this: Let’s give increasing attention to our theology and practice of the Table. Our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, how everything we do on Sunday is oriented around the Table, is a distinctive practice. A robust theology informing and supporting this practice will make it even more distinctive. Why go to a local Church of Christ? Because of the weekly welcome to the Lord’s Table, and all the profound theology that will rock your world if you step into that practice.

And if I might be allowed to nudge our theology of the Table in a particular direction let me add this. One of the things I’ve noticed in many Churches of Christ is how in our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper we’ve begun to explicitly articulate a theology of open communion. In ecumenical Churches of Christ you increasingly hear in the Lord’s Supper meditation statements like “All are welcome to the Lord’s Table.”

What is interesting to me here is how our practice has shaped our theology. Given that many of our congregations are large and that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, Churches of Christ have been, by default, practicing open communion. We pass the trays to everyone. No one can keep track of who is or is not taking the Lord’s Supper as the trays are passed, especially in our larger congregations. Week in and week out, we have no idea who is taking communion.

Functionally, and therefore implicitly, communion has been open.

But increasingly what has been theologically implicit in our practice is now being made explicit. “All are welcome to the Lord’s Table.” That’s what is being said in many Churches of Christ. In many places, the Churches of Christ have practiced their way into a theology of open communion.

Is that the future of a distinctive Church of Christ theology? The weekly observance of open communion accompanied by a robust theology of open communion?

I hope so. But if not, the larger observation is what I’m focused on: the distinctive practice of the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper.

The second distinctive aspect that I think will characterize the Churches of Christ going forward is a believer’s baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. I have a post scheduled to come out in November on this topic, but a bit about this practice in our churches.

In the Churches of Christ we don’t say the Sinner’s Prayer. We never ask people to “accept Jesus into your heart as your Lord and personal Savior.” To respond to the gospel we ask people to be baptized by immersion. Simplifying greatly, baptism by immersion is our Sinner’s Prayer.

What this means is that the Churches of Christ, as with our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, are poised to have a very robust and distinctive theology of baptism. If there is a faith tradition that can unpack Romans 6 it is the Churches of Christ.

And as with the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, I think this practice of responding to the gospel in the act of baptism will continue to characterize both the acapella and increasingly instrumental Churches of Christ for a least a generation or two.

So that’s my other suggestion. Along with articulating a robust and distinctive theology of the Table, I think Churches of Christ should articulate a robust and distinctive theology of baptism. We’re well positioned to do each of these things.

In fact, we’re already doing so. More and more we’ve been reminding our members of their baptism, calling them back to the symbolism of that central, sacred and life-defining ritual. Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism.

And the same has been happening in our theology of the Lord’s Table. Our services are becoming filled with the invitation: “This is the Lord’s Table. All are welcome here.”

Which is interesting. These are two defining sacraments of Protestantism. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And here’s a faith tradition, the Churches of Christ–because of its weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper and its practice of baptism by immersion for the remission of sin upon the confession of faith–that is distinctively (though not uniquely) poised to practice these sacraments in ways that open up a rich and deep theology.

I wonder about this. What future are the Churches of Christ practicing toward?

I don’t know. I know I won’t live to see it. But I have a clue. And a hope.

Yes, it’s for these reasons–our practices of Table and baptism–that I have great hope for the future of the Churches of Christ.

[First published at Richard Beck’s “Experimental Theology” blog on October 13, 2014.]