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Archives for 166 – Prepare the Way of the Lord

If you are just joining me on this journey, I want to let you know that this is 6-part series which I have titled “Leadership-Lessons From Blockbuster.”  I know, it’s a weird title.  But I think you and I can see the value in learning lessons from others, especially lessons on how to avoid the mistakes that others made.  I’d like to suggest to you that it might be helpful to read these articles in order as they will build on one another.  But, hey, I won’t know what order you read them!  So if you are a natural-born-rebel, then knock yourself out.

In the last article we looked at the decline of the movie-rental giant, Blockbuster.  For the executives at Blockbuster, the decline took them from hero-to-zero in a matter of just ten short years.  Their decline had absolutely nothing to do with the cultures interest in watching movies, which was what the business was founded on. Instead, it had everything to do with the way the culture was accessing movies, aka- the “method.” For the Church,  I believe we can learn a lot here.  

But before we get to that, allow me to tell you a quick story:

When I was growing up my dad had a large red toolbox that sat inside our shed.  It was filled with all kinds of screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets and the like.  The tools were all Craftsman brand.  I remember going with him to Sears department store to pick out new Craftsman tools and hearing him talk about why Craftsman tools were the best. “They have a lifetime guarantee. If anything ever happens to it, they’ll replace it for free!”  It’s true! In 1927 Sears & Roebuck began selling the Craftsman line of tools with a lifetime warranty: 

If for any reason your Craftsman hand tool ever fails to provide complete satisfaction, return it to any Sears store or other Craftsman outlet in the United States for free repair or replacement.

My dad was right – that is a good deal! And that good deal spoke into the heads and wallets of a a lot of people.  In fact, I think it helped shape a way of thinking which I call the ‘Craftsman philosophy.’ The Craftsman philosophy goes something like this: ‘We have a great design.  It’s so great that it is meant to last a lifetime! If it doesn’t, it means there is something wrong or defective.’  The focus here is that the only reason something would need to be changed is if it was bad or flawed

Someone who tends to adhere to the Craftsman philosophy might make statements like:

“They sure don’t make them like they use to!”

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“I don’t mind change, as long as it doesn’t effect me.”

Do those statements sound like you?  If so, that’s ok! That is a philosophy that you share with a lot of other people.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the Craftsman philosophy… except that people who adhere to that philosophy generally come in conflict with another way of thinking – the “Apple Philosophy.”

As you might know, the Apple Computer Company was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs, Ronald Wayne and Steve Wozniak. Since that time, Apple has continued producing more innovative, quicker and more improved devices.  They are continually working on the next iPhone  – at which time people will run out to purchase because of the latest upgrades and improvements.  In 2018, Apple became the first U.S. company with a market cap of over one-trillion dollars. Yes, you read that right… one-trillion!  They have hit success with something I refer to as the Apple philosophy, which sounds something like this: ‘We have a great design, but we know we can make it better. We will continue to challenge ourselves to improve and develop what we have. If we don’t, it means that we have become stagnant and unable to push ourselves to make things excellent.” The focus here is that change must happen to continue to make things better and prevent mediocrity. 

Someone who tends to adhere to the Apple philosophy might make statements like:

“How can we make this better?”

“When is the last time we changed ________?”

“What have you been reading/ listening to/ watching lately?” 

Do those statements sound like you?  If so, that’s ok too! It’s a philosophy you share with a lot of other people.  

As I have mentioned, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these philosophies, yet, if we are not aware of how these philosophies operate in our life, culture, and even in our churches, we can run the risk of having some serious issues.

The executives of Blockbuster had developed a Craftsman philosophy.  They were a well-oiled machine and sat atop of their industry for a long time.  Their demise happened, however, when they discredited the voice of Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, who encouraged them to take their methods of distributing movies and think about changing it and making it different.  

For the Blockbuster executives, there was no reason to change what was not broken.  They still had customers, we doing well enough financially and needn’t bother with thinking about how the culture was shifting and how that might eventually effect them.

Have I set the stage for you to begin to see one of the issues we are facing as a church? It probably doesn’t matter where you attend church, you can see the two ‘camps’ of people.  Those who don’t want change because, for them, change equates a defect or problem (and as they see it, there is no problem) and those who are begging and pleading for change because, for them, a lack of change means that things have become stagnant and mediocre.

It is likely that you fall into one of these two camps yourself.  

Maybe you are the person who is sick of seeing the articles written about why Millennials are leaving the church and you wonder why we can’t just all go back to how things were in the church years ago.  You might even believe that all the changes the church has made in the past decade or two has actually led to the deceased in church attendance, giving, faithfulness, etc.  You don’t understand why it feels like people are constantly trying to “change things up” at your church with the songs/ order of worship/ ministries/ etc.  These things were good enough for your parents and for you – so why couldn’t/ shouldn’t they be good enough for people today?  Maybe it feels like a constant barrage of “change this and change that” and you just want it all it stop for a minute. You don’t see yourself as stuck-in-your-ways, you see yourself as being faithful to what has been passed down to you.

Maybe you are the person who is so ready for change because, inside, you feel like you are slowly dying. You believe in God but struggle with the idea of the church because, from where you sit, she seems so broken, stagnant or mediocre. You aren’t wanting to offend people at your church, but what you see and experience there is not something you would feel comfortable inviting your friends or co-workers to.  You might be tired of feeling like there is endless ‘red-tape’ to changes in the church, constant pushback to any new ideas, and even the “new songs” your church sings are a far cry from being new.  You don’t see yourself as being a change-agent, you see yourself as wanting to present to church as a relevant source of hope to the world around it.

Often times, when these two camps reside in the same church at the same time if can feel like a divorced couple sharing a house.  There is tension in the air and almost everyone feels it (including your visitors). No one is happy, joyful or really even focused on the mission of “going and making disciples.” They are just trying to see how long they can outlast the other camp.

No, I haven’t been spying on your church.  It’s just clear that these are the two camps the church is facing today because they are prevalent in our society. 

So, what do we do about it? Believe it or not, there is a better answer than just to part and do things our own way.  I believe Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, was on to something when he tried to merge with Blockbuster.  Maybe he was keyed in to a truth that we understand from Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. “The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part.”  The truth is, while it can be difficult and even painful at times, we function best as a body of Christ when we are willing to function together.

Can I give you just a few words of advice and then I will stop meddling? 

Let me talk to those of you who identify with the ‘Craftsman philosophy’ camp.  I see your heart and I understand your fear.  I know that you want to be faithful, so my question is: “Are you being effective in the mission God has given you?”  You have a mission to “go and make disciples.”  But the problem is, the current culture doesn’t seem to be drawn-in by your service, your style, your ministries. Essentially, your “methods” are not helping you achieve the mission.  You and I can remember when the methods were working well.  But, my friend, times have changed! I beg of you not to change the mission, but consider changing the methods.  One of the best ways you can begin is by surrounding yourself with ‘Apple philosophy’ camp folks.  Ask them questions, sit and listen, and don’t get defensive.  When your toes start to curl with the thought of changing things, think about the executives at Blockbuster.  They had the opportunity to join forces with something outside the box that would have helped them grow into the future, but instead, they closed their ears (and the door) to the ‘make it better’ mentality.  Craftsman philosophy camp, if you want your church to grow in the next generation, it’s time to begin turning over decisions to them.  Walk alongside of them.  Encourage them. Support them.  Defend them.  Empower them. You may not always see the need for change, but that is why God placed these people in your path! You need them, and God wants to use the, to help the church reach out and grow into the future. 

Now, for my folks ‘Apple philosophy’ camp. I see your heart and I understand your frustration. I know that you want to make the church a better place, but my question is: “Are you complaining about the church more than you are praying for it?” It is easy to complain when things don’t go the way you think they should, but it is more spiritually beneficial to pray/ serve/ and build up your church!  The truth is, no matter what changes happen with your church it will still be full of broken people and things will never be perfect.  So, if you are waiting for the ‘perfect church’ to come along you are going to be sorely disappointed. I know you hate this word, but be patient.  After all, when Paul describes the church as a body he stated that love was the greatest gift we could possess… and “love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4). That doesn’t mean that you should give up on making the church better.  But it also means that you cannot give up on people. There is a generation before you who paved the way for the ground you are standing on (Hey, some of them even taught your bible class when you were in diapers). Can you view them for more than just “obstacles in the way” of what you hope your church will become?  They are brothers and sisters in Christ.  And, if you take time to listen to them and build relationship with them you might find that they can add significant depth to your own personal walk with Christ.  

As we have already covered, the Churches of Christ are on a decline. But we don’t have to continue that way. It is time to ask ourselves the difficult questions: “Are we more attached to our methods than our mission?  Are we actively measuring if our methods of “going and making disciples” are being effective?  What do we need to do, as a church, to grow as we go in the future?  We need to simultaneously affirm, love and respect those who have paved the way before us while empowering and supporting the next generation to take the baton and move into the future.  

As I have mentioned, this is a 6-part series and I hope you will join me with part 3 coming soon as we will look at the parable of the lost sheep and discover another Leadership-Lesson from Blockbuster!    

I’ll never forget the first time I heard a woman pray in a public setting. I stood in a large room at a kid’s event with my young family and, without warning, a woman who had been giving instructions for the day begin to pray for our meal. I barely heard a word she said. I was in shock that a woman had the audacity to pray in front of my husband, my sons, and the rest of the group. I quickly bowed my head and silently prayed over her. I prayed for her soul and the souls of those in the room and that she would learn and respect Scripture. I left that event disgusted and saddened that we had been subjected to such. I wanted to write her and explain the truth more clearly but I was too angry. That was nearly twenty years ago and somehow, without even realizing it, she became my hero.

Young girl reading

I was still reeling from the prayer when I learned of an incident where a little girl in a Bible class setting was told she couldn’t pray because a three year old boy sat across from her. It stirred my soul and kept me awake at night. How could this be? I went to Scripture to find an answer. 

If we were to take Paul literally in I Corinthians 14:34, then Scripture would forbid this child from praying in class. It would also restrict her from ever speaking in class. Not only would it seal her silence, it would seal her teachers and every woman who spoke in class or sang in the assembly. A woman couldn’t greet another or confess she believed Jesus is the Son of God before her baptism. Silence means silence. Something was amiss. I knew the Lord too well to believe he would cast this precious three year old to Hell for talking to him. So why did the prayer weeks earlier bother me so badly? I delved deeper into the Word. 

First Corinthians eleven told me the church in Corinth had women praying and prophesying. Paul even gave instructions on how they should present themselves when they did. Why was it happening in 1 Corinthians 11 but not in 1 Corinthians 14 or the Ephesian church? It didn’t make sense for Paul to so quickly change his mind on something so important. Although, it made no sense to me, Paul’s readers knew exactly what was going on in Corinth and in Ephesus (as they worshipped in the shadow of the temple of Artemis). It was during this time of study when I accepted the fact that the Bible wasn’t written to me but for me. Since Paul’s letters weren’t always written to set rules for eternity but to solve their current problems, there must be more to this story. And it isn’t always for us to know so why do we cling so tightly to a verse that calls for women to be silent but explain away lifting holy hands (I Timothy 2:8), wearing jewelry (I Timothy 2:9), braided hair (I Timothy 2:9), or being saved in childbirth (I Timothy 2:15)? 

I started to comb the Bible looking for something that would help me through this spiritual dilemma. I needed to know how God felt about women. I saw Miriam, along with her brothers leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. I was intrigued as wise Deborah ruled over God’s people as a prophet and military strategist. I became acquainted with Huldah who prophesied at the same time as Jeremiah and Zephaniah.

My relationship with the Father grew as I got to know his Son. I watched Anna weep over the newborn Jesus and take another opportunity to praise God in front of all those around her. I saw the look on the face of the woman at the well when Jesus revealed his identity. I have  always been told she tried to distract Jesus with religion from her broken life when he mentioned her many husbands. But what if her heart had been inclined to God? What if wanting to please him kept her up at night? What if she ached for self worth and knew only God could fulfill her desire? What if this is why Jesus sought her out and gave her the opportunity to serve as a missionary to her entire town? 

Why was Mary Magdalene the first gospel preacher? God knew her news of the resurrection wouldn’t hold up in a Jewish court. Why would he grant this beautiful act of servanthood to a gender that had no rights and little value unless he was taking a divine moment to show them how much they matter? Did Phillip’s daughter pray and prophesy only to women? If so, wouldn’t Scripture make this very clear? What can we learn from Phoebe, Junia, and Priscilla and their fervent desire to serve the God of Heaven and Earth? 

And then other questions came to mind. Why can a woman speak while singing from the pew but not from the pulpit? Why can a women ask questions in Bible class but not teach a Bible class with men present? Why is a woman permitted to speak at a Ladies’ Day to men as long as they’re sitting in the audio booth or listening in the foyer? Why can a man read articles written by women but if she were to read them to him, she would be in error?

How is praying, a supplication to our Father in his name combined with gratitude for his favor, having authority or leading over others in the room? Was the woman who prayed that day usurping my husband’s authority? When I dissected the moment, I had to admit that she was not. Tradition had told me one thing. Scripture another. My view of God was tainted with tradition, fear, and a lack of knowing who he is. I had so many questions and was confused by what seemed to be many inconsistencies. I had to ask myself what kind of god I served? Is it a god who delights in confusing us with his Scripture, saying one thing in one chapter and something else in another, just to keep us out of Heaven? Or is it a God who is for us? A God who deeply loves us? A God who wants his children, men and women, to speak his name and proclaim his praises to all who will listen? A God of the entire Bible, not just a verse?

The woman who prayed didn’t attend the same kind of church I did but I had seen her do good things in his name. I had watched how she cared for others. I had heard her speak of hope and Heaven before. She was a godly woman. I thought of the disciples in Luke and could hear myself whining, “Lord, she prayed to you thanking you and lifting you up but she’s not a part of our group! Do you want me to stop her?”  You can almost hear him sigh, “If she’s not against you…” (Luke 9:50).  

God is not inconsistent. Neither is his Word. But we, as his people are, and accepting our faults is not shameful. It’s realistic. We need him. We can seek comfort in the fact that his grace covers our moral failures as well as our doctrinal ones. 

If we are living in the last days, preached by Peter quoting Joel in Acts 2, as I believe we are, then women and men of God have not only have the opportunity but a responsibility to pray and proclaim the praises of the one who called us out of darkness. 

The lady who prayed in front of my family that day, many years ago, proclaimed Jesus in her prayer and ended it in his name. She spoke gospel but it wasn’t good news to me then. As a wise friend once said, “Anytime someone is proclaiming the gospel and it is not good news to me, I am the one with the problem, not the speaker.”

Looking back on that event, I no longer see what I thought was her sin but I do clearly see mine wrapped in my self-righteous, judgemental, false view of God and his Holy Word. I’m glad I no longer see God through those lenses. 

To the spiritual women who continue to call on the name of the Lord for their families, their communities, and the lost, those who so gracefully lift up their voice and speak light and hope into darkness, I thank God for you. You changed me, you encourage me, and you give me hope for the future. 

The Future of the Restoration Movement

            Teddy Roosevelt once said, “I believe that the more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future.” When one considers the great movements of history that changed the world, there is a common thread in many of those paradigm shifts. That thread is a going back to the past to move forward. The Renaissance went back to the Classical era to recover a way of looking at the world that drastically changed middle ages Europe. The Protestant Reformation changed the Western Church by going back to the sources (ad fontes) of Sacred Scripture with the help of the Early Church Fathers to recapture what they thought had been lost.

Currently, the churches of Christ face a crisis as we consider our future in the worldwide Christian movement. We can deny that the house is on fire, but when the attendance patterns are considered in our fellowship, it is obvious that we are in deep trouble. An article found in the Christian Chronicle that was published in August of 2018 entitled, “Can Churches of Christ be Saved?” served as a jolt like a strong cup of hotel coffee for many within our movement. So, what is the way forward?

As a father of three daughters, this question becomes a personal one. I love my heritage, and I want to see a robust Church for them and a vibrant future. I also believe that the Restoration principle is one that is needed. The Restoration is a movement worth fighting for because the greatest part of our heritage is a call to radical discipleship and an unwavering devotion to Jesus by turning to Scripture to challenge all human traditions. I believe the Churches of Christ within the wider Stone-Campbell tradition is worth saving for the following reasons: a deep devotion to discipleship, a high view of the local church, a sacramental view the assembly, the Supper, and baptism, and our history of seeing all Christians as a priesthood of believers. In this article, I would also like to present a theology of many things that we take for granted in the Restoration Movement that would give us more intellectual firepower to demonstrate why our heritage is a blessing. There is a beautiful simplicity about the Restoration Movement that is needed amongst the confusing tides of the consumeristic arms race between many evangelical churches today.

I am hearted to know that many ministers that I have talked to recently feel a sense of urgency when it comes to this topic. They see the need for a clear vision for the future as well as a prophetic call to return to the discipleship that we see in the New Testament. My prayer is that God’s Spirit is stirring within us to waken us from our materialistic, deistic, compromised slumber. The revival of our movement will have to be Spirit-powered, and I believe it will be led by going back to the foundation of Scripture, aided by the wisdom of the church throughout the ages, and understood through the lens of our Stone-Campbell heritage. In this article, I would like to humbly propose the beginnings of a way forward for our churches, and I would like to focus on the following: the perfect storm against us, a renewed ecclesiological vision, and a sacramental view of church life.

            To begin with, there are many reasons for the decline in our churches since the 1990s. With the rise of postmodernity, we have witnessed an unprecedented rise in emancipation from all authority, a suspicion of any narrative that claims truth, and a deep ambivalence toward anything traditional. This postmodern view of reality has filtered into the members of our churches and has led to a lack of certitude about anything, especially in matters of faith. Some charge that our fellowship has depended on rationalism to a fault, but we should remember that the Bible does lay out certain things that are to be accepted as true. When the influences of secularism come to bear upon the average Christian, it is almost insurmountable when adherents have no certainty of truth. When one couples this lack of confidence in revealed truth along with a steady diet of shame that the Churches of Christ should have for our past judgmentalism it leads people to ask, “is this heritage worth saving and why does it matter?”[1] The other element arrayed against us on this battlefield is the idol of personal peace, affluence, and comfort. Our members have relegated Christian ethics to a type of therapeutic, moralistic, deism, which makes it easy to chase the dream of personal peace and wealth. Taking into consideration that we lack certitude of truth, feel shame for our past judgmental sectarianism, have truncated Christian ethics to moralism, and drank deep from the American well of comfort and ease we realize we have a daunting task ahead of us in reviving our heritage. Some in the Churches of Christ are feeling the tractor beam pull of the attractional church model and the seeker friendly church model as the only path to our survival.[2] We have a massive hill to climb in just convincing the average member that our heritage is a blessing to Christianity and the answers to their biggest questions and needs are not going to be found in other evangelical fellowships. Research has shown that many other evangelical fellowships are also in decline and have many problems of their own.

            To start moving forward out of this morass, we must reclaim a radical ecclesiology that is fed by Sacred Scripture and understood considering our history. I propose that two things must inform our view of the church. First, we must reclaim the radical view of the church that Paul lays out when he says, “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:10 ESV).” God’s original plan was to use the local church to take down the strongholds of the principalities and powers in the spiritual realm. God did not plan to use parachurch organizations, governmental agencies, or armies to take down the forces of darkness that have hijacked, distorted, and defaced God’s good creation, but He chose the church. This view should elevate our perception of the role of the church and give us a sense of awe and wonder to be a part of God’s grand story of redemption. We need to understand the church as part of God’s Kingdom movement in this world. God’s kingdom has come to bear upon this world and our local churches, no matter how big or small, are kingdom outposts in enemy territory.[3]

Another revisioning of our ecclesiology is the taking on of an ‘exile’ and ‘sojourners’ mindset. One great example of how God’s people should live in a world that is hostile to faith is found in Jeremiah 29 in God’s letter to His people as they went into Babylonian exile. God exhorts His people to build houses in Babylon, have families, plant gardens but poignantly He says, “but seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV).” The example of exile shows us a way forward as to how the church can remain distinctive and holy but at the same time bring shalom to a decadent culture. Just as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remained pure and holy, we can retain our distinctiveness in a sinful generation. At the same time, we can bring blessing, wise counsel, and excellence to our cities and communities just as those faithful Hebrews did in Babylonian exile. Peter seems to make this same argument when he writes to a group of Christians in a difficult situation when he writes, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11–12 ESV).” In this passage, we observe both the exhortation to “abstain from the passions of the flesh” as well as to “keep your conduct among the Gentles as honorable.” There are both the components that we read in Jeremiah 29 in which the church is called to purity as well as being a blessing to those around us through our good works. I believe that without a good theology of the church that is based on the exile model we will continue to compromise with the wider culture as well as base our decisions as churches on our wants and needs. We cannot recapture the radical view of discipleship as we see in men like David Lipscomb if we don’t see ourselves as sojourners in this world.[4] We should revision our churches as places where holiness is celebrated as well as existing for the sake of others. This is a very difficult balance because many times when churches focus on holiness, people tend to become more self-righteous in their attitudes to outsiders. On the flip side of this, when churches get involved in social justice issues, they tend to compromise Christian ethics. The way of Jesus is to be both holy and exist as a blessing to the world around us. We should ask the question, “would this city/community miss this congregation if it were to vanish tomorrow?” The other question we should ask is, “how can we offer the world something like holiness and sanctity when we lack it ourselves?”

I believe one thing that is missing in evangelical Christianity is a sacramental view of the world. I am afraid that what many Christians are sinking into is a type of neo-Gnosticism. I know that Gnosticism was a multifaceted heresy, but one of the common threads of Gnosticism was a rejection of the physical and material world. I have heard people say, “I cannot believe a physical action like baptism could impart real grace or spiritual blessing.” That line of thought would have been comfortable among the Gnostics. In the Churches of Christ, we have had held onto a sacramental view of reality even though we did not have a deep theology as to why we did. I believe our view of the assembly, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism is a needed corrective to the low view of the sacraments in many evangelical fellowships today.

One may ask, “what is a sacrament?” The word sacrament is derived from the Latin term sacramentum, and it referred to an oath of loyalty that one would take. For example, a Roman soldier would make a sacramentum of loyalty to the Roman emperor. An early Church Father named Tertullian used this term about baptism. To the earliest Christians, a sacrament took on two connotations. In one sense, a sacrament such as baptism was an oath of loyalty that one would make to Jesus Christ, but another aspect of the sacrament was the mystery of God’s work in the sacramental action. In other words, God really ‘did’ something in baptism and the Supper. God imparted His grace, His presence, and His future reality for us in the sacrament. Sacraments are forward-looking in that they bring to our present God’s future reality.

An example of this would be when the spies went into the land of Canaan and brought back some of the fruit of the land for the Israelites to eat while still ‘outside’ the land. In the sacraments, we get a taste of God’s new creation that was inaugurated through the resurrection of Christ. In our baptism, we are immersed in water, our old person is put to death, and we are raised up in view of our future resurrection from the dead. In some sense, in our baptism, the gift of our future resurrection comes flooding into our present (Colossians 2:12 & Romans 6:4). In the sacramental view of baptism, we see the emphasis on personal faith and trust in the promises of God as well as God’s actual impartation of those gifts promised.

It is easy for us to see the sacramental reality of baptism, but it is a bit harder for us to accept the sacramental nature of the Lord’s Supper and the Sunday assembly. Many people in the Churches of Christ have been influenced by Ulrich Zwingli’s[5] view of the Lord’s Supper. In Zwingli’s view, the Lord’s Supper is simply a memorial service. It is like a funeral service for Jesus that we celebrate on Sundays. I want to propose a more biblical view that understands that the Lord’s Supper is a goal that God has had for us since the fall in the garden. If one were to track through Scripture, there is one theme that tends to manifest throughout, and that is that God’ wants to have fellowship and communion with us. The entire meaning of the Tabernacle and Temple was for God to have fellowship and communion with His people. It was through the eating of forbidden food that man lost shalom and fellowship with God. But in the Lord’s Table, we are being invited back into God’s presence to dine with Him. We can see that the Lord’s Supper is a fulfillment of the sacrifices in the OT. Under the Law of Moses, a worshipper would offer up a burnt offering (Olah/Ascension) that served as a general atonement for sin. Sometimes a worshipper would offer a peace offering along with the burnt offering to celebrate fellowship with God. In other words, the burnt offering achieves shalom with God so the worshipper would celebrate a peace offering (shelem -the verbal form of shalom) to celebrate peace with God. What made peace offering different was that the worshipper could eat from the sacrifice in a communal table with others. The other sacrifices of Israel were consumed by only the priests. One example of this type of offering is found in the story of Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and 70 elders eating in God’s presence on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24. In Exodus 24:11, we read that they ‘saw God’ and ‘ate and drank.’ I propose that the cross of Jesus was our once and for all sacrifice for sin, and the cross completed our atonement. In the cross of Jesus, we see the true Christian altar. The Lord’s Supper is where God’s children come together to eat and drink in God’s presence and celebrate the shalom that we have in Jesus. Jesus is truly present at the Supper as the host, and in the Supper, we are imparted grace because of His presence. Once again, a sacrament is a physical action in which God makes Himself present in our space and time and imparts a blessing.

In the assembly, we also have an intersection of heaven and earth. There are two passages that make it clear that Christ is ‘really’ present when we assemble with the intention to do so in His name. In Matthew 18:17, the Lord demonstrates that the context of his teaching in this passage is for the assembled church that has come together to make a judgment decision about a dispute among followers. In verse 20, Jesus makes the promise that He will be present with us whenever two or more assemble in His name. Even though the passage is about helping settle disputes, the kernel of truth that we can glean is that Christ is truly present in the assembly of the saints. The book of Hebrews takes this doctrine one step further. Why is the assembly sacramental? Hebrews 10:19-25 gives an amazing view of the assembled church when it states, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” This passage is packed full of OT imagery, and I am tempted to tackle some of those themes, but this article is already growing to an unwieldy size! The one statement that will grab many that have grown up in the Churches of Christ is the command not to neglect or forsake the assembly. We tend to equate this concept totally with the idea of ‘mutual edification,’ but we miss what the writer of Hebrews said earlier. One of the reasons given for the assembly is that we are invited into the Holy Place through the work of Jesus. The church assembly is elevated into the inner sanctum of God’s presence. We come with bodies washed through the waters of baptism, just as the high priest on the day of Atonement, and we enjoy His presence. The actual assembling of Christians in the name of Jesus brings about the real presence of Jesus in our midst. Our assemblies have lifted us into the heavenly places where we are invited to draw near in fellowship with our creator.

I want to take a second to show how this concept of supper and assembly work together to help us truly ‘know’ Jesus. As mega churches and evangelical churches slide into ‘evan-jellyfish’ when it comes to worship practices, discipleship, and sacraments let me share with you a fresh picture (from ancient sources!) of how it all fits together. On the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, we meet two followers of Jesus that are despondent. They have heard the teachings of Jesus and know the OT Scriptures, but they still do not understand the cross of Jesus. I find it compelling to look to Luke 24 and Jesus’s appearance to these two followers as a paradigm for our Sunday assemblies. Let me make my point. Jesus appears to these two followers on a Sunday. He walks along with them and explains to them from the Scriptures why He had to suffer. They don’t know Him or recognize Him until He breaks the bread.

Interestingly, Luke constructs Jesus’s breaking bread with these two exactly like his institution narrative in Luke 22 in Luke 24:30 when it says, “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them.”  The most compelling part comes from the report of the two when they say in verse 35, “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Think for a minute what this passage is explaining to us. These two did not know Jesus by just the Scriptures, or the report of the empty tomb, or the teaching of Jesus before his death and resurrection. They finally ‘knew’ who Jesus was when the act of the Supper occurred. It was at the breaking of the bread that they recognized Jesus. We as Westerners have a hard time with this. We think that we ‘know’ Jesus by studying a bunch and listening to multitudes of sermons. I am not saying that study and hearing God’s word is not important; I am just making the point that in ‘doing’ things we come to know things. Luke is telling us that it is the entire action of the Scriptures being expounded along with the table that brought about the ‘knowing.’ Think about how many times in the OT you read of the Israelites ‘knowing’ God through the rituals of their festivals and sacrifices. I believe that the Sunday assembly complete with the Supper is a grand narrative that we are invited into where we begin to really ‘know’ Jesus.[6] Maybe we have not considered how assembling on the Lord’s Day and celebrating the Supper changes us and helps us see Jesus in ways that we don’t fully understand at this time. The assembly and the Supper come together with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We come together in the assembly, the Scripture is taught, our hearts burn within us as we are challenged, we partake at the Lord’s Table and experience his presence, and then we are sent out of the assembly as disciples and priests to minister to a decaying culture. It is also interesting to note that when they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, He disappears. How would the early church understand Jesus’s disappearance? Possibly they understood it to say that now Jesus exists through His church – the body of Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus would be present through the church. The Lord’s Table would be a time to be reminded that we have been given the charge to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Just as the Father sent the Son, the Son now sends us out into the world after we are fed at the family table.

In conclusion, I believe the Restoration Movement is a wonderful gift to worldwide Christianity. The phrase ‘always restoring’ is one that all Christians should embrace, especially when calling Christians to put Jesus back at the center of all things. The view of returning to Sacred Scripture as our only guide to challenge all human traditions and norms is a noble endeavor. In celebrating and reviving our heritage, many things could have been said. My choosing of discussing a renewed ecclesiology and promoting a sacramental view of church life does not mean that I don’t think our heritage as a unity movement is not important. I chose the topics that I did because of the problems that I see in the greater evangelical church and how we are called to be a church that is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant. I propose that the Churches of Christ represent a third way. A way that embraces a sacramental view of the world but also champions personal faith and discipleship with a radical view of the church as exiles and sojourners. It is a way worth sharing with others and saving!

[1] I am not arguing that our past lack of charity toward others is something to be winked at, but I am saying that some have stayed in apology mode for sins of the past generation while we try to minister to a generation that knows nothing of that past. As Rome burns to the ground, we play the fiddle to a small group that know why we are apologizing.

[2] Jared Wilson in his book The Gospel Driven Church challenges much of the tactics and deficiencies of the attractional church model. His book along with Tim Keller’s Center Church are good resources to challenge us to always place the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center of everything we do.

[3] I highly recommend John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine’s book Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding to get a picture of how this radical Kingdom vision fits into our heritage. We have a wonderful history of this viewpoint in the Churches of Christ and we need to reclaim that vision.

[4] To flesh out more fully how a church in exile may look I recommend Richard Hughes’s book Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul and Future of the Churches of Christ, especially chapters four through six.

[5] Ulrich Zwingli was a Reformer of the church that was based in Switzerland and was a contemporary of Martin Luther.

[6] I heartedly recommend Dru Johnson’s work Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology or his more popular book Human Rites to learn more about how rituals and actions in Scripture are connected to knowing and epistemology.

One of the great struggles of bible study is learning to listen to the text without imposing our own ideas upon the Scriptures. The true mark of a wise biblical student is being aware of your own assumptions and when our assumptions are interfering with our biblical exposition. At the risk of painting with too broad a stroke, I have come to believe that our own
unexamined assumptions have caused us to be too exclusive in churches of Christ. I doubt this is a unique to our people but it I believe it is one of our bigger issues. Since leaving full-time ministry for secular construction work, I don’t have the time to peruse our brotherhoods writings as I did in the past. However, I try to read as many facebook posts, bulletin articles, etc
as I can. One thing I notice is how we are prone to taking biblical words and ideas and imposing our own definitions on them before selling them to others as the biblical word of God.

I call this synonymous imposition.

Many of our people interpret the Bible through a series of assumptions. The first is that the Bible is the word of God and I would agree. However, the second step is trying to understand and apply the function of the Bible. Our people, since the time of Alexander Campbell, have assumed that a major Christian purpose is to restore the practices of the first century church. Once that assumption was accepted, it made sense to find a framework to
navigate what to restore and what was subject to flexibility. This whole enterprise is often called hermeneutics, which is a fancy word for interpreting Scripture. The most prevalent hermeneutical method amongst our people has been Command, Examples, and Necessary Inference (CENI). If we can find a command, example, or a reasonable inference from scripture to justify an action, then that is considered authorized by Scripture. My journey has led me to question this method. I can sympathize with commands and examples being guidelines to follow. However, I have long since abandoned inference because it is too subjective, divisive, and exclusive. With that said, I have noticed the tendency to assume that the interpretive method CENI is synonymous or equated with biblical words such as doctrine, biblical, truth, and even word of God.

Permit me to illustrate. Recently, I heard a church of Christ preacher condemn musical instruments in worship as sinful because the “word of God” does not authorize instruments (and therefore their use is sinful). Sometimes I wish those in the audience could call a timeout for discussion. I have a huge problem with the statement that the word of God condemns
musical instruments. If we want the truth and if we want to be biblical, we must admit that the word of God does not condemn the instrument (in fact the word of God could approve the instruments if one believes the psalms are the word of God). The truth is that this preacher used his interpretive method (CENI) to condemn the instrument and he has imposed his own
method onto the scriptures, assuming that the conclusion of his method is the same thing as the word of God. I would disagree for several reasons. First, the method is a human invention designed to aid the interpreter’s assumption that Christians are to restore the first century church’s practices and rituals. Is this really the mission of the church? I’ve always questioned
this assumption considering that most all of the NT literature that we have was written because the early church wasn’t doing things right. Most of Paul’s letters are challenging believers to get back on track so I’m not sure the early church was the utopia that is often assumed or that the
early church was the model to repeat. Second, in reality we cannot restore the early church because of the cultural and time gap. Does God want us to be first century Christians in a twenty-first century world or twenty-first century Christians in a twenty-first century world? Third, CENI is a human created method. The method is a practical solution to the question,
how do we decide what parts of Scripture to restore? In addition to that, Campbell and others expressed concern with binding inferences as a test of fellowship. One of the truly sad realities is how many infer or assume a truth and then bind and draw lines of fellowship not from a specific text or command but from an indirect inference. Think of all the relationship issues that humans have because they make an assumption from an indirect cue. What happens when we make similar assumptions from indirect cues in Scripture? Even more sad, is how some claim their assumptions are the word of God when they are nothing more than the conclusion from a particular method.

Many are simply unaware of this. In fact, it seems most church members have heard such biblical terms like doctrine, Bible, word of God, etc. used over and over and accept imposed definitions as biblical without much inquiry. I can also testify that pointing this out to others in our brotherhood comes at the risk of disagreement, sometimes exclusion, and even
accusations of heresy. I continue to struggle with synonymous imposition. On one hand, I cannot in good conscience hold the position that a human method, with many flaws, is the Bible, doctrine, truth, word of God. On the other hand, I have firsthand experience what happens when you critique synonymous imposition and it can get ugly.

Synonymous imposition can take a negative turn when some of our more aggressive fundamentalist brethren accuse other brethren of being false teachers or heretics. I attended Christ’s Community Church in Franklin, TN recently and I was pleasantly surprised at the biblical teaching in this church. They worship with musical instruments, which sounded like a
live version of K-Love radio station. The Bible class teacher taught a very good and substantive class from the book of Jude. The book of Jude centers around false teachers in the early church. I talked to my wife afterward and asked what she thought of the class. We agreed that a good number of church of Christ class teachers would have read false teachers and defined
false teaching through a doctrinal lens—and that we would have been implicated as accepting false teaching because we attended a church with instruments. However, Jude defines false teachers as those who defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones, indulge in sexual immortality, grumble, etc. In other words, Jude defines false teachers as
people who claim to be God’s people but do not practice godly living (in more of a moral sense). The same goes for others uses of the phrases false teachers and heretics throughout the NT. But for too many of our brethren, not accepting a human interpretive method, like CENI, is synonymous with being a false teacher, heretic, or follower of false doctrine. My experience has been that what most biblical authors meant by false teaching is not what we often preach as false teaching.

It is not uncommon to hear someone use CENI to condemn instrumental music and claim something like this:

“Sanctify them through truth, your word is truth…and your word, the truth,
condemns musical instruments in worship”

Or “contend for the faith that was once delivered…and that faith prohibited instruments of music”

Or “the Bible condemns the instrument”

Or “we must mark those who cause divisions and watch for wolves in sheep’s clothing and false teachers who corrupt the church who accept instrumental music”

Whenever I hear such comments, I cringe because it is not the Bible, Scripture, truth, doctrine, or God’s Word that condemns the instrument…it is human words and methods that Scripture has to be interpreted through that condemns the instrument. There is a giant distinction to be be made between a human method and God’s Word. We cannot impose our methods and definitions upon Scripture and assume what we mean is the same thing Scripture means. We must read Scripture and interpreting as it faithfully as we can and imposing our interpretive framework on Scripture and assuming Scripture then supports it is not faithful, it is misguided attempt to speak for God, and above all, it is not the truth!

There’s an obvious problem with Synonymous Imposition. The goal of biblical reading is exposition from the text not imposing our ideas onto the text. If CENI is not used, what would our Scripture study look like? What would our conclusions be? I even wonder if CENI has become an idol for us? Is our faith defined by our belief and faithfulness that Jesus is king or is
our belief and faithfulness defined by who interprets the Bible the same way as we do (CENI)? CENI is not the word of God, it is not the doctrine of the early church, it is not what Jesus meant when he said the “truth will set you free.”

I recently went to the movies with my wife and kids to watch ‘Aladdin.’  The theater was full of young families eager to snack on popcorn, sit back, and enjoy a fun (and nostalgic) movie.  After picking up a few bags of popcorn, some drinks and our tickets, I shelled out what seemed to be a small fortune (hey, we have 6 kids) and we headed to our seats to watch the movie.  Maybe it was the smell of irresistible movie theater popcorn, looking down at my children kicked-back, smiling and having a good time, or the realization that this trip to the theater cost me more than my first vehicle, but whatever, it was a thought hit me, “The movie business has GOT to be raking-in-the-dough!”

It turns out I was right.  

Over $11 billion dollars were spent last year on families ‘going to the movies.’  $11 billion!  That’s like 22 large popcorn tubs at the movie theater, am I right?

Yet, while people were willing to shell-out $11 billion in movie entertainment, I’d be hesitant to give up your day job to enter the ‘movie business’ just yet!  If you don’t believe me, just ask David Cook.  

Oh, who is David Cook?  He is the founder of Blockbuster Entertainment.  In 2000, Blockbuster easily sat atop the video rental industry as the ‘top-dog.’  If you or your family wanted to experience a fun and inexpensive Friday evening at home, you would just swing by the local Blockbuster store, rent a movie or two, grab some microwave movie-theater popcorn on your way to the check-out stand, and you were set.  Everyone who was anyone had a ‘Blockbuster card” which seemed almost as prevalent as drivers licenses.  But, by 2010 Blockbuster filed bankruptcy and as of 2018, there was only 1 Blockbuster store left in the United States (located in Bend, Oregon).  That’s right, hero-to-zero in just ten short years! 

With the movie industry producing over $11 billion dollars in sales, you might tend to think that it would be difficult to not make some money in the movie rental business… and that is where you are wrong.  You see, despite being the leader in their industry, Blockbuster executives failed to understand the wisdom of Solomon: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecc 3:1).  

In 2000, just a year after it’s inception, Netflix founder Reed Hastings met with the executives of Blockbuster looking for a merger – some sort of way to join forces.  The merger never happened.  The executives, despite overseeing a well-oiled machine, overlooked the subtle changes in society that were allowing people even greater access to their wishes from the comfort of their own home.  That decision would cost them dearly. 

You see, the problem for Blockbuster wasn’t that the culture no longer enjoyed movies.  They did…and still do! 

The problem for Blockbuster wasn’t that people no longer were willing to pay for movie entertainment. They are apparently willing to spend about $11 billion a year on them.  

The problem for Blockbuster was that society was changing the way they were accessing movies, and the executives for Blockbuster were either largely unaware, or, they thought that those changes wouldn’t or shouldn’t have an impact them.

They were wrong.  

So why the dissertation on Blockbuster?  I think we can learn some things from them.  And, if we are not diligent in looking at the future of the Churches of Christ, it can experience the same fate.

Let me begin by saying that I both grew up in the Church of Christ and have a deep appreciation for the purpose, heart and direction of the Restoration Movement. I treasure the attempt at unity that the Churches of Christ are founded on.  There are many things that I value as a part of the Churches of Christ.  But with that being said, we, like the executives of Blockbuster, need to heed the words of Solomon and know that, apart from God, there is a season to every activity under heaven.

Much like the fact that people still enjoy, value and spend money at the movies, we do not need to feel threatened that the message of Christ is no longer valuable to our world.  It is extremely valuable! And, even better than that, people still value it, see its purpose and want to be a part of God’s kingdom work in the world today.  The method, however, is seasonal. Like the wise words of Solomon, our methods will have a season or shelf-life.     

There was a time where the methods that the Churches of Christ employed to reach out, share the gospel and bring people to Christ were working.  In fact, during some of the earliest years, the Churches of Christ were among the fastest growing churches in the United States.  But culture and society changed.  And the question is, have we?  

Carey Nieuwhof, a Canadian author/ pastor/ speaker, recently posted about church growth.  In his post, he stated, “What happens if you’re oblivious to the culture around you? If you’re indifferent to the culture, it should be no surprise that the culture is indifferent to you.”

One question that we have to ask is, “Is our culture indifferent to us?” Notice that the question isn’t, “Is the culture indifferent to Jesus?”  We don’t have to ask that question just just because there are plenty of churches which are growing. And, before we dismiss their growth too quickly, most of the growing churches in the United States today are bible based, place Jesus first, are committed to growing disciples, etc.  Unfortunately, the Churches of Christ have steadily declined over the last many years.  I won’t go into all the statistics on the decline of the Churches of Christ in this post, but if you would like some information on the decline of Churches of Christ in the United States, check out the following articles:;

I believe that we, like Blockbuster, have become indifferent to the world around us.  Maybe even worse, we are completely oblivious to them and to our own decline.  And, like Blockbuster, if we don’t take a closer look to see if our methods are ‘hitting the mark’ with the world around us we will become a relic of the past. 

But, here is the good news – it doesn’t have to be that way! You see, Blockbuster had a chance to branch out and grow.  It didn’t mean leaving behind the movie business. It didn’t mean leaving behind everything they had every known. But what it did mean was changing the way they would be in distributing movies. It meant that they would need to learn how the culture was accessing and viewing them.  For Blockbuster, their chance came and went.  They failed to grab it and, therefore, they failed.  For the Churches of Christ, our time is now.  

So, how do we do that?  Well, I’m not an ‘expert’ in church growth … but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn last night. 

Ok, I didn’t actually sleep in a Holiday Inn last night.  But, after almost 20 years of ministry experience and a couple of gut-checks along the way, I have seen a few areas that we should consider as we look towards the future of the Churches of Christ.   

Over the next several weeks I will be posting 5 articles dealing with how we can, in a very practical ways, begin to think and act differently so that we don’t end up like the next Blockbuster  – a valuable item that no one sees as relevant. 

I hope you’ll join me on this journey!

You can read Part 2 here – Dueling Philosophies

By Milton Jones

When Christian Relief Fund drilled a new well in Barwessa Kaptorot, the people living there called it “the second miracle.” This area of Kenya is one of the most desperate in the world when it comes to the need for water. It hasn’t rained there in years. You can imagine how much the community rejoiced with this gift of clean water.

But obviously their response prompted the question from our drilling crew—“Then what’s the first miracle?” The townsfolk believed that they had witnessed two incredible events in the history of their village. The second was water. But the first involved a child named Vivian Jepkoech.

Because of the curiosity of Francis Bii, our CRF director there, and our drilling crew, Vivian was presented before them as the “first miracle.” And thus came the inconceivable story. A primary school girl in their village had been abused by her teacher. And the little girl became pregnant. After the young student gave birth, the teacher was fearful of being charged with a crime and being arrested. As a result, he stole the baby from the young mother. He took the little child to the edge of a three hundred foot cliff. He placed the baby in such a way where she would fall off of the cliff. And she did.

But unbelievably—the little baby landed in a tree on the way down.

As people walked around the community on this day, people kept hearing a noise. They said it sounded like a baby crying. But no one could find a baby. Finally, someone perceived the sound was coming from the cliff. The elders of Barwessa Kaptorot tied a rope around a person and lowered him over the cliff. On the way down, he spotted a baby in a tree. He took the child to the hospital where she survived. An old grandmother decided to raise her since her mother had disappeared and her father had fled (and later arrested).

And now this baby had grown up to be a teenager and was standing in front of Francis and our crew. Yes, the first miracle was Vivian Keptoech. She had been the baby in the tree. Vivian had done well in primary school and excelled on her exams. But because of her poverty, she didn’t have any hope to attend secondary school.

“Have you heard of Suzy Peacock High School?” Francis asked her. This is the exceptional high school of CRF in Eldoret. “You are going to be a student there!” And now she is.


Vivian was recently sponsored by a Christian Relief Fund donor. I got to see her at her new high school. It’s understandable why the people of her village call her “the first miracle.”

You too can sponsor a child like Vivian. Or you could even drill a water well in a famine area where it hasn’t rained in eight years. You could be a part of a “third miracle.”

If you have a desire to help, visit

Milton Jones is the president of Christian Relief Fund.

I had no idea when we selected this theme for July that we would be in the middle of a larger discussion of the big picture of what is going on in Churches of Christ. We have had updates on our numbers and we are in a slow, steady decline. We have had a better picture of our age demographics and we are an aging bunch. We have also had numbers on church planting and it too is in steady decline since the 1960s.

What will it take to move into a bright and vibrant tomorrow?

How can we move forward giving our current state and our resistance to change. Obviously, not all change is good but not all change is bad and some things will need to change or else we will keep doing the same things over and over and expect a different results – we know what that is called and that is how many feel these days.

That is what we will be discussing this month at Wineskins. I hope you will tune in and resource yourself and your congregation and prayerfully consider what we need to be doing today in order to have a better tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

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