Book Review and Reflection: At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge by Jack R. Reese

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By Stanley E. Granberg

December 19, 2021

The review in this article is in regular text. My personal reflections are provided in italics.

“What will be the future Churches of Christ?” This is the question Jack R. Reese considers in his book At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge (Eerdmans, 2021), More starkly, the question Reese asks is, “Do these churches have a future (p. 42)?”

I was a bit shocked to discover at Harding University in 1974 that I had grown up in a mission field. I was born in Seattle where my first church experience was at one of the oldest Churches of Christ in the region, the Northwest Church of Christ. My experience of our fellowship was of smaller churches, mostly below 100 attenders, but they were vibrant and active. By the time I left for Harding University in 1974 a good number of congregations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho had grown to attendances of 200, 300, and even 400 people. The spiritual dynamic was strong, and the future was one of growth.

Reese writes At the Blue Hole as a hopeful, honest retrospective of the Churches of Christ as a movement. Today, many individual congregations are facing the question of their future. They look back wistfully at a golden age in their life, often in the 1980s and perhaps the 1990s, when their congregation was full of families and displayed a dynamic congregational life. But today, they are facing their mortality as they see an apparently unstoppable decline in attendance and the graying of their remaining members.

Reese also takes a wistful look back, only at the level of Churches of Christ as a movement. This is a perspective few church leaders have the breadth of experience or abilities to do. Reese draws from his personal experience of ministry in local congregations and as a professor at Abilene Christian University to give us the gift of this bird’s eye view of the movement that birthed and sustains our congregations today. The parallel he infers is that the health and vitality of the movement at large both reflects and portends the health and vitality of our individual congregations. So goes the movement, so goes your congregation.

I moved back to the Pacific Northwest in 1996 to teach Bible at Cascade College in Portland, OR. Cascade was one of the handful of small schools in our fellowship, existing as an outpost at the geographic fringe of our range of congregational distribution in the U.S. By 2003, through research I had students do on the growth/decline of their home churches and my personal observations, signs of a definite decline in our fellowship were evident. Cascade College closed in 2006, unable to find the finances or the students necessary to support it from a declining regional fellowship.

Our Current State

Reese sets the stage of Blue Hole with a look at the current state of Churches of Christ. Our movement has been in a slow decline since at least 1990. Using work that Stanley Granberg (myself) and Tim Woodroof did that extrapolated existing trends into the future, our membership could decline from 1.1 million today to barely 250,000 in 2050. Congregations will reflect a similar decline, dropping from 12,237 in 2016 to about 2,800 in 2050. Reese’s conclusion from our research and his observations is that, as an influential movement, Churches of Christ are dying. To be clear, no matter what Churches of Christ do, they will not likely recover their former stature or prestige. . . If our churches keep doing what most of them are now doing, they are going to die (pp. 47-48).” This is the “edge” for which Reese prepares a elegy for Churches of Christ.

The heart of Blue Hole is Reese’s belief that Churches of Christ possess hidden, forgotten resources that we can draw upon to reset our current trajectory. He finds these resources in the stories of our shared family history.

Reese explores numerous stories out of our history that include personalities like “Raccoon” John Smith, James Garfield, Samuel Robert Cassius, Silena Moore Holman, and Walter Scott. But he dwells on three stories that he thinks reflects three significant turning points where our fellowship made a decision to choose one road and leave another behind.

I agree with Reese’s conclusion about the dimming future of Churches of Christ. Near twenty years ago, Gailyn Van Rheenen and I, both working from a mission perspective honed in Kenya, resigned from our teaching posts at Abilene Christian University and Cascade College. Gailyn formed Mission Alive and I started Kairos Church Planting. We felt an imperative to mobilize within Churches of Christ the urgency and the means to plant a new generation of churches that would be strategically poised to extend the gospel into the twenty-first century.

I believe our fellowship missed the wave we could have caught twenty years ago that might have brought renewal and life-giving energy back into our churches. At that time, our resource base was largely intact, and congregations still exuded a sense of liveliness that was reasonable for unchurched people to explore. I experienced this at the Vancouver Church of Christ where we had an engaging Alpha program that helped unchurched people explore the meaning of faith in Jesus; many were baptized and found a place of belonging at that church.

That is not the situation today. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the region where I grew up and have recently moved back to, there are almost no churches of Christ in Oregon, Washington, or Idaho that are as strong or vibrant as they were thirty years ago. Churches that were once major points of fellowship strength are now small remnant bodies rattling around in shells of buildings too large for their ability to sustain.

Handshake of Unity

The first story is the handshake of unity that occurred on New Year’s Eve, 1831, in Lexington, KY. For four days John Allen Gano and John Rogers of the Stone movement and John T. Johnson and Raccoon John Smith of the Campbell movement conversed about whether their two movements could join in peace and common ground to work together. Finally, on Saturday, December 31, in the Hill Street Church in Lexington, KY, members of both movements gathered to hear Raccoon John Smith speaking for the Campbell churches and Barton Stone on behalf the of the movement he had launched years before.

At the conclusion of their presentations, with tears and trembling hands, Smith and Stone extended to one another the handshake of unity to form what we know as the Restoration Movement. Their guiding principle, elegantly modeled in the life of Barton W. Stone, was to choose unity over division and compassion over conflict. Unfortunately, as Reese demonstrates, this story was largely lost under the driving impulse of Alexander Campbell’s search to restore the ancient order of a divine New Testament church. The idea of unity in diversity succumbed to a demand for uniformity.

I was not raised on the idea of unity, unless it was the unity of people from denominations denouncing their religious convictions in order to become “correct” with us. Separation was more the milk I was nursed on. We were to be separate from the denominations (heaven forbid anyone would lump us in the denominational pile). We were to be separate from the world. We seemed afraid that the earth might shake, and the heavens fall down upon us if we were to put a Christmas tree in our building or celebrate Easter with a sunrise service. Those were denominational trappings and as such, were anathema. Instead, we withdrew from exactly those points where the world had at least opened an eye to Jesus.

This idea of separation was so forceful that it morphed into a sense of uniqueness. If we, as Churches of Christ, were not unique among churches in the world then there was no reason for us to exist. I have heard members of our tribe argue that point as the reason not to do almost anything because some other religious group was doing it. It saddens me that our general reputation is that we are the church that is against, against: orphan’s homes and kitchens in the church, against Christmas and Easter, against music in worship and interacting with other Christian groups. These “againsts” are driven by the theological need to be unique, or maybe exclusive.

Peacemaker and the Pallbearer

The second story Reese chose centers around the funeral of T. B. (Theophilus Brown) Larimore in Santa Ana, CA, March 20, 1929. Larimore, born in 1843, bridged the bloody divide of the War Between the States, the conflict that ultimately divided the Restoration Movement into the Disciples of Christ in the north and the Churches of Christ in the south. Larimore dedicated his life to the propagating of the gospel. Estimates are that in his preaching career he may have baptized more than 10,000 people. His spirit was that of peacemaker. At times, under intense attack to choose a side in one of the boiling debates over mission societies, instrumental music in worship, or the employment of ministers by congregations, Larimore’s response was “I shall simply do as I have always done: ‘love the brethren (p. 97).’”

In distinction to Larimore’s spirit of peacemaking was the hard-driving, acerbic Foy E. Wallace, Jr., a pallbearer at Larimore’s burial. Just thirty-two years of age at the time of Larimore’s funeral, Wallace would become the editor of the Gospel Advocate, a platform from which he shaped the values and attitudes of the 20th century Churches of Christ. Through this editorial megaphone Wallace created a new identity for Churches of Christ, one that was disputatious. The pursuit for biblical truth demonstrated by visible distinctiveness from all denominations was used to validate a hard-fighting, contentious spirit propagated within the movement.

The turning point of Larimore’s funeral was the choice between the inviting presence of T.B. Larimore and the contentious personality of Wallace. Churches of Christ exchanged the peacemaking spirit of Larimore for the hard-fighting impulse of Wallace.

There was a time when our theological certainty gave us clear direction and confidence to address the felt-need concerns and questions of our world. This certainty propelled our forebears to take to the Oregon Trail as church planters. Where, as Jerry Rushford described it in Christians on the Oregon Trail (College Press, 1997), our churches sprouted overnight like mushrooms.

As a youth minister at the East Frayser Church of Christ in Memphis, TN one of the elders took me under his wing. I learned during the three years he mentored me that this unassuming, retired welder had helped start four congregations across the northern tier of Memphis. His was a story repeated often across our nation. Somewhere in my lifetime we abandoned that church planting spirit to our history.

For the fifteen years I directed Kairos Church Planting the most difficult and consistent challenge was the need to persuade church leaders that planting new churches was both a biblical imperative and a practical necessity. It was always a fight.

The word the Kairos staff used to describe our work with established churches was “wooing”. We had to gingerly, cautiously approach elders, ministers and missions committees with how they might become church planting churches. We could never assume church leaders would be positive. We had to woo them forward, dispel their fears of losing of control, and answer the objections of the inward impulses to take care of their home needs. It was a grinding, dispiriting experience.

It typically took three to five years to woo a church into supporting a domestic, church planting missionary. I was conducting a church planting seminar at a church one weekend when I made this statement about how long it took church leaders to decide to help plant a new church. One of the women in the seminar, a member of that church, thought that was an outrageous length of time. She asked how long Kairos had been working with her church—five years. It was seven years before they began to support a church planter.

Quest to Restore the Golden Age

The third story Reese chose occurred in Memphis, TN on September 10, 1973. The meeting was intended to be a conversation among church leaders concerning the theological directions of what perhaps has been the most influential para-church ministry of Churches of Christ, the Herald of Truth. The participants on stage were Lynn Anderson, preaching minister for the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene which sponsored Herald of Truth, Landon Saunders and Batsell Barrett Baxter who were the Herald of Truth’s primary spokespeople, and Harold Hazelip as convener.

The public presentations were to focus on questions of congregational autonomy and how much congregational cooperation was appropriate to support a national ministry like the Herald of Truth. But lurking under the surface were more far-reaching questions about the relationship of Churches of Christ to the denominations and the work of the Holy Spirit, whether the Holy Spirit worked through scripture only or was a personal, empowering independent presence in the life of a Christian.

While the Herald of Truth provided the convening reason for the Memphis meeting, Reese proposes that the deeper issue was that of truth and truthfulness. Since Alexander Campbell, Churches of Christ had identified with a search for a golden age, a restoration of the ancient order of a divine, primitive church. For many in that Memphis meeting, Churches of Christ were the expression of that restored ancient order. Churches of Christ were considered the embodiment of the truth of God in scripture. Once this fellowship’s organization, practices, and polity had reached the point of full restoration, any deviation or change from that “divine” pattern could no longer be or represent truth. Change was heresy.

Where Reese identifies significant turning points in the first two stories, what he offers from this third story is that it did not result in a turning point. There was no sense of resolution. Yes, there were trickles of adjustments about the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, congregational cooperation, and ideas about what a restored church looks like. But overall, Reese identifies a sense of wariness that settled in, increasing the isolation between diverging groups and churches. The Memphis meeting in 1973 could have been a significant turning point. It offered the opportunity for introspection on our movement’s attitudes, behaviors, and values. We missed it.

There is a fatal flaw within a movement whose primary impetus, going so far as making it our named identity, is to be a Restoration Movement. As a student at Harding University and the Graduate School of Religion, the stories of Campbell, Stone, Walter Scott, and others were enthralling. These men were spiritual lights navigating the dark waters of biblical confusion. The idea of restoring a golden age church was a heady brew.

The flaw of being a Restoration Movement is that it keeps our sight focused on what lies behind. It is hard to walk into the future backward. Identifying as a Restoration Movement ties us to a phantom ideal that is near impossible to change. If the ideal church did exist at some point in history, as if let down on a sheet from heaven in full and perfect form, then to make any change is a sin.

One evening I met with four elders from the home church of a young church planter. They had raised, nurtured, and taught this man. He grew up among them. Yet they were refusing not just to financially support him, but even to recognize his work as being part of our fellowship. They agreed that the people he would reach would never come to their church, or a church like theirs. Finally, I asked them if they understood that if this man did not go, people he could have reached might lose their opportunity for salvation and heaven. With tears in their eyes those elders said they understood, but they would rather those people go to hell than for them support a church that would not be just like theirs. Sometimes a golden age perspective is fool’s gold.

Suggestions for A Future

Reese contends that, as a movement and as individual congregations, Churches of Christ have reached a point of consequential choices about our future which we cannot sidestep. Reese also professes that our historical Blue Hole offers us resources for addressing and choosing the path our future will take.

From Reese’s three stories he offers the following six resources from which Churches of Christ might gain direction and draw strength at this current inflection point in our history:

  1. Unity as the wellspring of grace. The desire for unity is a desire for peace. Reese asserts this gift is not gone, but it will be difficult to recover. The beginning of that recovery must be the confession of our sins of pride that have been so hurtful.
  • Restoration and life. In our quest to recreate a biblical golden age the Bible became for us a book of case law rather than the heart address of God to the life of His people—all His people. To let the Bible work in its true form as God’s address to people, couched in the forms and contexts in which it was written, will release its life-giving waters to us again.
  • Reasoned Inquiry. Our fellowship has been characterized almost from its inception by the pursuit of higher education and a commitment to critical inquiry. From this heritage, we should be expected to think and to interact with others in thoughtful discussion. Such discussion should lead to respect for differing opinions.
  • An Ear for Harmony. A cappella singing requires us to listen to the voices around us. Reese thoughtfully says that our a cappella singing is a spiritual discipline rooted in listening, not for the purpose of establishing conformity, but for creating a living harmony of differing voices. This tradition of a cappella worship has the capacity to teach us to live in harmony with others rather than in division.
  • Living Generously. Generosity is the discipline of hospitality in practice. Mercy ministries are intended to bring goodness into the lives of those less fortunate. However, their greatest impact is often within our own hearts as we learn what it means to live compassionately towards others.
  • Apocalypse Now. Reese describes apocalyptic living as living from the vantage point of the end times. To live apocalyptically is to live as God intends, counter-culturally to the forces of a world resisting submission to God. To live apocalyptically is to commit oneself to a life of holiness and opening the door for the Holy Spirit into our midst.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In Blue Hole Reese presents us with an informative and compelling telling of events in our communal past that were significant turning points, points at which our fellowship made choices that changed the trajectory of our history—sometimes for good, sometimes for worse. His challenge to us is to accept that we stand at another of those great turning points. We can continue down our same path, or, as Reese prompts us, we can draw upon the resources of our heritage that provide a reason to hope for a future better than the one we currently face.

One of the characteristics about our fellowship Reese did not address is that we are a movement more comfortable with thinking than doing. I believe our time for reflection and thinking is thirty years behind us. It is time for us to act. There is at least one action that every church can, and must do, if we are to expect any future different than the one we are currently pursuing.

  1. Some churches must close their doors. Today our movement landscape is littered with thousands of churches in the final stage of their life cycle. Their golden days are past. They served their generation well. But they no longer connect or have relevance to the world and communities around them. Many of these churches are hanging on because of our mistaken theological perception that we are “the only right church.” Our golden age, restorationist interpretation forces us to ask, if our Church of Christ closes, where will people go to church? The people around us have already answered. They are not coming to our churches.

Many churches that need to close, refuse that choice, hoping for a heavenly miracle of revival. What they should do is to reflect on their stewardship responsibilities. The question they need to answer is, how will we use the capital of faith God has provided us, the financial resources in our lands and buildings, to promote His good kingdom work? It is sad for a church to close, but it is not a shame. It becomes a shame when a small, remnant group demands the resources God has given them be used to sustain the church of their past until their last member dies and those resources disappear, useless for the kingdom.

Churches that are at the end of their life cycle can and should gift their legacy forward by supporting the planting of new churches, the sending of missionaries, and supporting life-giving churches and ministries that raise the glory of God through their good works. God has already provided Churches of Christ with the resources we need for a good future if church leaders would show courage, transition their churches out of old and too large buildings, and use their capital for the sake of the gospel.

  • Churches that are still healthy and vital must be launch pads for God’s kingdom work. The question they must answer is, will we look beyond ourselves to inspire and support kingdom advancing works?

There is a strong propensity in churches to spend their money on themselves. When a pinch is felt, it is often the mission aspects of the church that are cut first from the budget so that the children’s ministry can be supplied, or a youth minister hired to keep our young ones engaged. Self-service only churns a short time before it curdles into selfishness. The spiritual discipline of generosity must again be accepted as a birthmark of our movement.

  • New churches must be planted. New churches are the Research and Development arm of Christianity. New churches have the ability to creatively engage and adapt to the swirling tides of culture in ways and with speed that established churches cannot. These new churches will be birthed out of the healthy, vital churches of group 2 and could be financed by the forward-looking generosity of churches that close in group 1. Without both groups 1 and 2 contributing to the planting of life rejuvenating new churches, the benefit and gain of these new churches will be lost, and our fellowship will continue to dwindle away.

I am thankful for the work Jack Reese has done for us in At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021).

It feels appropriate to end with the words of the Revelator, He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 3:21).

Jack Reese holds degrees from Abilene Christian University, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Iowa (Ph.D. in theological studies). Reese has co-authored or written: The Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of Churches of Christ: (2002), The Body Broken: Embracing the Peace of Christ in a Fragmented Church (2005), and In Search of Wonder: A Call to Worship Renewal (2010). He has 25 hymns published in Timeless: Ancient Psalms for the Church Today (2011).

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