The present condition in Churches of Christ looks bleak. I have a three-part thesis as to how we got here. It’s more complicated than this, I know, but this informs what I think is (and isn’t) needed at this crucial juncture.
First, Churches of Christ thrived in the can-do era of post-World-War-2 America because we were the can-do church. With our simple, reproducible, rules-based system, we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps like few other religious groups. We grew like wildfire in regions of the United States that were either depressed or rapidly developing.
Second, Churches of Christ crashed when three things happened at once. Our hard work began to produce prosperity but also “works of the flesh.” Members no longer felt the urgency to work so hard. Plus, they were weary and ready to rest—perhaps on their laurels. Our society changed as well, and most of our previous target audience was no longer receptive to a can-do message.
Third, despite some shortcomings, Churches of Christ had been blessed with two positive traits of inner vitality—personal piety and strong Christian relationships. Personal piety began to decline once the wealth of our members increased and the restrictive veil of legalism pulled away. Without personal piety, strong relationships became more cliquish than Christian. As a result, Churches of Christ lost their key elements of interior health.
Churches of Christ are in a troubling place. We’re declining rapidly. Some of our best and brightest young people are leaving and are unlikely to return. And most of us don’t really know who we are or what we stand for in the current landscape of American Christianity.
I deeply appreciate the fact that many leaders in Churches of Christ want to turn from decline back to growth. I respect this tenacity and hopefulness. They are correct in that we do not evangelize or disciple well. Perhaps an influx of new blood will get folks to once again think proactively about matters of faith. In churches that are relatively healthy, this may indeed be the needed cure.
I worry, however, that most of our churches have a deeper problem.
In 1990, I moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia. Less than a year removed from the Velvet Revolution, Prague was spectacularly stunning on the surface. It had avoided the ruinous bombings of World War 2. The ensuing decades of Communism meant very few Americans had ever visited. Walking the streets revealed marvels of medieval grandeur.
I gradually learned a harsh truth. Behind the ancient, sparkling façades were buildings in devastation. The broken economic policies of Communism produced too little revenue to maintain or modernize most buildings. Once Communism ended, the reality of their condition became increasingly clear. Rot and decay were just below the surface.
Beauty on the outside doesn’t mean health on the inside. The communist overlords of Czechoslovakia placed a priority on making things look good. They had wanted visitors and citizens alike to believe that the country was healthy and strong. What mattered most was the illusion that everything was okay.
In the thirty years since the end of Communism, the Czech Republic has received billions of dollars in foreign investment. Little by little, decrepit and decaying buildings have been renovated into modern apartments, offices, hotels and business space. Plumbing, wiring, and gas lines had to be replaced along with adding high-speed internet connections and other contemporary necessities. Buildings had to be retrofitted to meet current standards of safety and accessibility. It’s been an amazing undertaking, but the interior of Prague’s historic center now matches the quality of the façade. Prague is no longer a city where the illusion of health is all that matters.
In Churches of Christ, I hear many stories about churches grasping for a quick fix. They seem to think that a veneer of health will increase numbers which in turn will (they hope) create real health. Start a new program. Hire a young preacher. Overhaul the building. Just fix the façade, and all will be okay.
I disagree. Strongly. We need more than an exterior makeover. Dying Churches of Christ won’t be rescued by the “Church Impossible” team.
The only way forward is for most of us to invest in the interior health of the church. This may or may not result in short-term numerical growth.
Investing in the church’s interior health means to take up the cross and to grow spiritually. Any other proposal is an attempted return to the can-do mentality of a previous generation. The can-do approach is human-centered: “By our might and ingenuity we will fix this thing.” It’s a way of the flesh—a way producing death, not life.
Instead, we need a cross-shaped, Spirit-led path that relies on God’s provision and leadership and that embraces the way of Jesus. Among many others, one text sufficiently demonstrates my point.
Eph 2:11-22 describes how the church is built. It’s a cruciform text, meaning that the cross lies at its center. Here’s the movement of Paul’s passage. He starts by saying that we are divided “in the flesh” (v. 11). Jesus takes us “into his flesh” and brings us together (v. 14), putting to death hostility and division “through the cross” (v. 16). Thanks to Jesus, we all have access to the Father “in one Spirit” (v. 18). All this happens so we can be built together “in the Spirit” as God’s dwelling place (v. 22).
The passage moves from the flesh to the Spirit via the cross. Death and division are only defeated by moving to and through the cross. From the point of cruciformity, Jesus hands us over to the Spirit who takes on the work of building the church. Later sections of Ephesians make even more sense when you understand the centrality of the Spirit’s work in building the people of God (4:1-3; 5:18bff; 6:10-18).
So let’s summarize Paul’s teaching. The result of human striving is division and death. The result of the cross is that we are given over to the Spirit who builds us into God’s dwelling place.
Now let’s sum up our predicament in Churches of Christ. Long story short, we got into our current mess by relying on ourselves. While we were “fortunate” enough to grow in an era that welcomed such an approach, it eventually left us tired, inward-focused and devoid of the Spirit. Does anyone really think we can rescue Churches of Christ by relying once again on our own might and ingenuity?
Instead, I propose these two difficult yet crucial moves. First, take up our cross and follow Jesus. We must learn what it means to live a life shaped by Kingdom ethics. This means to hold the things of this world loosely and to increasingly depend on God to provide. When Jesus said that it’s difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, he was talking about us.
The second move is to live into the Spirit. We must learn what it means that the Spirit of God equips the people of God for the mission of God. We can’t fill ourselves with the Spirit, but we must seek God’s filling instead of fleshly remedies. And we must trust the Spirit to use us to build the church of God.
Without such emphases, I fear that any effort to renew our churches will look like the misguided efforts to beautify façades without investing in livable buildings. Do we have the vision to see what is most needed? And do we have the courage to avoid the quick fixes and instead invest in the church’s interior health?