These are musings and nothing more. I do not claim to have the answers.
It is no secret that not only Churches of Christ in America but churches across the board are losing people rapidly. The vast majority of CofCs are congregations of less than 100 people. But this reflects a trend in ALL Christian denominations. The question is why and what can we do about it.
I personally think this “crisis” has been going on throughout my entire lifetime. In 1973 Dr. Tom Olbricht wrote a short article in Mission Journal reflecting on this exodus by the (then) younger people. He wrote “It is no secret that a whole generation born between 1930 and 1950 has become Church of Christ drop-outs. Visit churches in St. Louis, in Houston, in Nashville and you won’t see them” (“Is there a Message?” Mission [June 1973], 357). In 1966 Robert Myers edited a volume titled Voices of Concern: Critical Studies in Church of Christism that reads as if discussing contemporary issues.
Since the late 1960s there has been a “brain drain” in Churches of Christ. Young people by the tens of thousands have given up on church. Some blame liberal universities but that is an easy scapegoat. That is not what they themselves tell us. (See Flavil R. Yeakley’s, Why They Left: Listening To Those Who Have Left the Churches of Christ).
From my own generation, Gen X, there is a huge demographic missing. I have often wondered why I too have not given up. In my case (and most I know) this has nothing whatsoever to do with not loving Jesus and not believing the Bible.
Those departing believed there was no difference between those insisting on taking the Lord’s Supper every week and the culture around them (typically of the South). We were a worldly and very cultural church. We were not becoming either but already were. We mirrored the racial prejudice so rampant and even sanctified it. We often seriously mixed our American nationalism. We were lost in a maze of irrelevancies (institutional controversy, premillennial controversy, instrumental music, versions, clapping, Acappella Vocal Band, etc, etc) with no word on how a Christian should handle segregation, the raging war questions, how address poverty. At the same time churches have often (far more often then we care to admit) been places where predators on women and children have found both protection and victims to traumatize.
In short church offered no word on how to be different beyond claiming dancing, having a beer, or listening to rock would send one to hell. We typically cannot tell the difference between being an American and being a Christian. Or wrapping the cross in the “Stars and Bars” or “Stars and Stripes.”
So they left.
Most did not leave Christianity as such but they did leave Churches of Christ because they felt there was no place for them here. Many have simply concluded that the church is morally bankrupt.
I had a person say the following words to me less than a month ago, “If you want to hear hate towards gays, divorcees, homeless folks, aliens, non-English speakers, unwed mothers, people who have had an abortion, and Muslims then just go to a church.” In my growing up years I could add “Baptists, Methodists, Catholics,” and from the 1990s on, I could add “non-denominational churches” (oh the irony indeed).
What has to happen? Some will say nothing needs to happen. Good riddance! But for those of us who believe something can and should be done, what is it?
First. it is going to take a miracle of grace. It is going to take a miracle of grace for us to be what we are supposed to be. The Holy Spirit must fill us and we must choose to keep in step with the Spirit.
Second. We need to embrace and proclaim in word and deed the Story of God that empowers the Mission of God in the whole canon of Scripture. This means (as I’ve written elsewhere):
- We need to emphasize the life, death, burial & bodily resurrection of Jesus the King of the Jews afresh
- We need to emphasize the life of the Spirit
- We need to model prayer, including lament, in our lives and assemblies
- We need to be people who live and die by the “Jesus Creed”
- We need to model compassion to the disinherited, our churches need to be concerned about the sound doctrine of ministering to the poor as a kingdom requirement, that is we live like we believe in the other Trinity: widows, orphans and aliens are the measure of our orthodoxy
- We need to have consistent engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures as an antidote to the idols of our age
- We need to take the entire Story of God which exemplifies the Mission of God seriously and paradigmatically
- We need to finally believe in the priesthood of all believers and the giftedness of the saints, including women
- We need to recover the spirit of non-sectarian Christianity and the doctrine of unity in our churches
- We need to show how the theme of creation and redemption in Scripture addresses many of the pressing issues of our time from consumerism to racism to creation care
- We need to recover the transnational vision of the kingdom, it is not American
- We need deep emphasis on the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of God’s glorious new creation in the Jewish Messiah
- We need to be a place where singles, single mothers, single dads, and the divorced are not merely tolerated but welcomed as full and valuable citizens of the kingdom
- We need to be a place of safety and healing, a haven, for those who have suffered trauma from sexual, physical, emotional, and mental abuse
- We need to refocus the marks of the church on the marks of the cross, specifically in discipleship
- We need to approach the world around from a posture of humility and genuine love, may the world know what we are for more than what we are against
- We need to recover the truth of Jesus’s words that it is by love that the world will know we are Christians and that love is the litmus test of Christianity.
Third. We need to repudiate the notion that we are righteous, that we have it all figured out, and that we have infallible access to truth or that we have already determined the truth perfectly.
“No one is righteous, no not one!”
I do not see an exception clause to this in Scripture in either Testament. Old “sectarian” CofCs need grace. “Progressive” CofCs need grace. We all need grace.
When I/we confess our sin before the Father we know we are sinners and simply say “have mercy upon us.” When we know we are sinners and our best efforts are but filthy rags, we approach others from the basis of having been graced in order to give grace.
It just may be that Jesus’s words in Matthew 23 are directed not to scribes and Pharisees but to Evangelical and Restoration churches.
Grace is not “easy believism.” Grace is the great equalizer.
Just some thoughts on Manic Monday.