This month: 183 - The Place of Obedience
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for 172 – Restoring Vision

Discerning a Path for Renewal
In an ongoing search for resources to aid churches in the work of renewal, I found a work from a British author that offers a simple and useful way to reflect on the practices and life of a congregation. Robert Warren, in his book, The Healthy Churches’ Handbook, offers seven indicators of what makes for a healthy church. These seven markers emerge from his research and engagement with a number of churches throughout England, where many churches have suffered decline and are now experiencing renewal. Perhaps these seven markers would be helpful to you in your congregational context?

Here is a brief summary of what Warren learned about healthy congregations:  
1. They are energized by faith. Healthy churches are deeply aware of the presence and goodness of God. Warren declares that “faith is the fuel on which these churches run.”
2. They possess an outward focus. Healthy churches are not focused on internal matters but are fully engaged in their context and the life of their broader community. The gospel matters to the world, and these churches identify with both the joy and the pain evidenced in their contexts.
Click here to continue reading on Mosaic.
NEWS
Ministers’ Salary Survey 2020
We need your help! If you are currently in a paid ministry position at a Church of Christ, please take a few minutes to participate in this year’s survey. Our professionally managed, annual nationwide survey gathers data on salaries, insurance coverage, vacation days and more, in an effort to support churches and ministers. All data is kept confidential and reported as averages only. Please also share this secure link with other ministers who meet this criteria. Thank you! Start survey.
Summit leadership transition
We are pleased to formally announce that David Wray (’67) and Leah (Carrington ’90) Andrews have agreed to serve as co-directors of Summit. Through its long history, this gathering has taken numerous shapes, and in recent years it has grown increasingly collaborative and diverse in its format and leadership. Leah, David and the entire Summit Leadership Planning Team partner with an array of pathway hosts, local congregations and members of the ACU community to shape conversations where life and faith converge in Christ. We invite you to join us in congratulating David and Leah for their new roles, and we hope you’ll join us Sept. 20-23 for “Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Bridging the Divides.” Read more.
Dallas/Fort Worth Equipping for Ministry lunch
Next month we will be traveling to Dallas/Fort Worth with special guest Jeff Childers (’89), who teaches Bible, Christian history and languages at ACU. Jeff will help us explore the topic “Growing Christian: The Transformative Links Between Worship, Faith, and Community.” This is a great opportunity to network with other church leaders and enjoy some great food and conversation. Thanks to Heritage Church of Christ (Keller, Texas) for graciously hosting the gathering. We hope you will join us in Dallas/Fort Worth or in our other stops in Texas this spring. Learn more. Center for the Study of Ancient Religious Texts (CSART) Our friends in CSART are hosting two public events this spring. On Feb. 4, join us for a special event featuring Christopher Hutson, who teaches biblical text classes at ACU and recently published the commentary First and Second Timothy and Titus (Baker Academic 2019). His presentation on “Spirits of Love, Temperance, and Timidity: Spiritual Warfare in the Pastoral Epistles” will examine the rhetorical context of a well-known passage and help us consider the Holy Spirit’s work in the church today. Save the date and join us March 24 for “Biblical Storytelling: Infusing Scripture into the Life of the Church.” Learn more. Becoming a new minister in a small church What does beginning a new ministry role in a small church have in common with marrying into a new family? Quite a lot, according to Wayne Hancock, who ministers at Cross Timbers Church of Christ in Stephenville, Texas. In his Mosaic article, Hancock describes the family dynamics at play in small towns, the importance of relational closeness and the joy of serving a small church. Read more.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Equipping for Ministry: Houston Ministers’ Breakfast, Jan. 27
Spirits of Love, Temperance, and Timidity: Spiritual Warfare in the Pastoral Epistles, hosted by CSART, Feb. 4
Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative Retreat, Feb. 10-13
Equipping for Ministry: DFW Ministers’ Lunch, Feb. 27
Biblical Storytelling: Infusing Scripture into the Life of the Church, hosted by CSART, March 24
Equipping for Ministry: Austin Ministers’ Lunch, March 24
Equipping for Ministry: San Antonio Ministers’ Breakfast, March 25
Ministers’ Support Network Retreat, April 2-5

Do people still argue about whether Taylor Swift is country? My daughter has been a Swifty her whole life so, even though I’m more of a 21 Pilots guy, I confess to knowing most Taylor Swift songs by heart. Her new song “Lover” may turn me into a Swifty yet (it’s such a great song!), but I digress . . .

A few years ago, I remember the great controversy of Taylor’s big move away from country music and into the mainstream. Was Taylor Swift too big for country? Wasn’t her music becoming more pop than country? Wasn’t she grateful for all that country had done for her? Then, in 2014, she released her album 1989 under the label “pop album” and her departure from country music was official. Today she is a bona fide worldwide, mega pop star making it hard to believe that this was ever an issue, but just a few years ago country music was lamenting her and even chastising her for selling out to pop music.

One of the real television highlights of 2019 was Ken Burns’ epic documentary series Country Music. It’s a riveting 16-hour long investigative history of country music that explores the influences and personalities that helped shape the unique genre. One of the themes that Burns follows throughout the documentary relates to Taylor Swift’s flirtation with the boundaries of the country genre. It turns out, Taylor Swift is but one artist in a long line who have toed the line between what is and what isn’t considered country. Some of country’s most famous artists including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and even, Garth Brooks, all dealt with controversy from an affronted fanbase who feared their favorite artist had sold out.

The early episodes of Country Music describes the roots of country from deep in the hills of Appalachia and to its hillbilly inhabitants. In fact, country music was initially referred to as “Hillbilly music,” and that phrase has appeared endearingly in songs ever since (though the phrase is also used pejoratively). As Burns followed the evolution of this region’s music, I couldn’t help but note the similar trajectory that another hillbilly reality was following during this same era. The more episodes of Country Music I watched, the more I thought about the church tradition of which I am a part. There were so many similarities it was eerie. Country music is hillbilly music, and the Churches of Christ of which I have long been a part, might best be described as hillbilly religion.

They originated in the same part of the country around the same time. They both share simple, humble, rural roots. The emphasis on family values and morals extolled among the pioneers of country music reconcile well with the small, simple hillbilly churches many of those pioneers attended. Both movements were almost exclusively white in the beginning but have always had influential (though underappreciated) interactions and relationships with black, Southern culture. Throughout the history of country music, some of its most successful personalities have had direct relationship with the Churches of Christ (one website claims Loretta Lynn, Don Williams, Randy Travis, and Waylon Jennings to name a few – and I know Dwight Yoakam grew up at the Northland Church of Christ in Columbus, OH where I live).1

2020 seems like a pretty natural year to talk about the idea of vision and looking into the future. Before we get too far looking ahead, though, I think we need to spend time reflecting on our past and provide an honest assessment of our present. Before we consider where we are headed, I think we need to realize where we are now. The Churches of Christ could use our own 16-hour documentary series. We face a lot of the same challenges that country music has. Country music has always been – and will always be in a lot of ways – hillbilly music. In the same way, the Churches of Christ are and will always be a hillbilly religion. And every few decades a Taylor Swift – in the Church of Christ world our Taylor Swift is Max Lucado – comes along and forces to us ask the question anew, “How do they fit into our hillbilly identity?”

Last week I ventured further into the hillbilly world by reading J. D. Vance’s critically acclaimed book, Hillbilly Elegy. As I read J. D.’s story of challenging family dynamics and overcoming the plight of rural America en route to an ivy league law school education, I was again struck by the similarities of my life in the Churches of Christ. Vance’s story of a hillbilly family immigrating to Ohio from the hills of Kentucky sounds like the first-person testimony of almost everyone I’ve ever gone to church with. I don’t know the percentages, but a huge number of the Churches of Christ outside the South are populated by Appalachian hillbilly transplants.

Country Music documents how the music was influenced by Texans like Waylon Jennings and Buck Owens’ Bakersfield Sound from California, but the heart and soul of country always has been Appalachian hillbilly. In the same way, Pepperdine’s Malibu campus and Abilene Christian University have emerged as important institutions in the Churches of Christ, but national gatherings, personalities, and most of the institutional heft of the Churches of Christ are mostly hillbilly people in hillbilly places.

J.D. Vance’s story is truly endearing because he cherishes and embraces the good things his hillbilly upbringing taught him while, at the same time, giving those things the reality check of the corresponding shortcomings of that same culture. The Churches of Christ are in dire need of a similar self-reflection. When I consider the perceived threat that Taylor Swift was to country music, I have seen the same perceived threats facing the Churches of Christ. In the 80s and 90s it was Max Lucado’s rise to prominence in the evangelical world. The last twenty years have seen diversifying church practices that have complicated the question of who is and who isn’t “Church of Christ.” Beneath these, and other, developments, the stubborn concern seems to be a fear of losing the hillbilly legacy.

To be part of a group of churches that have always lacked any kind of national governing body or organizing structure, a local congregation is a critical part of faith identification. Much like the hillbillies wanted to know that it was still “their” music, a lot of members of the Churches of Christ want to know that it is still “their” church. In reflecting on hillbilly culture, Vance writes, “I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.”2 Because my family doesn’t have hillbilly roots, I often feel like an outsider in the Church of Christ culture. I grew up in northern Ohio and no one in my family was from the South or from the hill. However, everyone in my small childhood church up had a West Virginian lineage. Everyone.

I have met plenty of people who grew up in the Churches of Christ culture who also lacked direct hillbilly lineage, but we are definitely the minority. What Vance’s book helped me realize is that the influence of hillbilly culture in the Churches of Christ is pervasive, complicated, and mostly lies beneath the surface. Vance grew up in a small town between Cincinnati and Dayton – not in Appalachia like his grandparents, but the point of his book is that the culture of Appalachia still directly affects their family. It’s in their bones. I have come to believe the same thing about the Churches of Christ. Hillbilly is in our bones.

Perhaps more than anything, the hillbilly story is best understood against the backdrop of upward mobility. Hillbilly music, just like hillbilly religion, began in mountain shacks and extreme poverty. Of all the things that change along the upward mobility track, perhaps the most dramatic is our vision of what is possible. Country music is now a powerful, cultural institution whose stars make millions of dollars playing in front of arenas and stadiums – a far cry from the front porches of hill country. Look no further than the emergence of Nashville as an “it” city with unimaginable growth to grapple with the cultural manifestation of this. This paradox was addressed decades earlier by the sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In a lot of ways, the Churches of Christ have become the Beverly Hillbillies of US American Christianity.

In the Churches of Christ, our scholars attend Harvard and Yale. Some of our churches are among the largest in the country. Our megachurch preachers are among the biggest stars in the evangelical cult of personalities. We have countless millionaires, politicians, sports stars and even a national network news anchor among our number. Our universities’ profiles have been elevated nationally by success in sports. One of our missionary doctors was featured as a person of the year by Time magazine in 2014. This is a far cry from the small country churches where a majority of our people originated. We mostly celebrate this upward move, but it doesn’t come without its share of challenges and growing pains.

Our hillbilly roots can keep us humble. They can remind us of the simple life that God calls us to – even amid a growing bank account and public stature. They can keep us focused on the Bible as a trustworthy guide to our lives. They can maintain the important role of the church in our lives as the community of God’s people. They can remind us of what life was like before political clout and cultural influence, and help us wrestle with the way these things negatively influence faith and ministry.

At the same time, they can also hinder us from following God where he is leading us today. As metroplexes continue their rapid growth and culture becomes increasingly secular, hillbilly calls for the “good old days” will be increasingly a foreign language. As technological advances rapidly alter our daily routines and dominate our lives, the simplicity of hillbilly religion may seem desirable, but it is going to be harder to connect with. As our culture continues to diversify in race and religion, our bleak history of racism and lack of diversity must be confronted head-on.

More than anything, it is well past time for us to move beyond concern for what is and what isn’t “Church of Christ.” Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, and Taylor Swift all proved that their talents and abilities were much too great to be confined to the label of country. As they began producing music that was beyond that label, not only did they broaden the audience for country music, but they also helped further shape the future of what was considered country. Surely, there is a similar mission for the Churches of Christ. While we aren’t making music, we are pursuing mission. My vision for the future of our churches is that we start considering how the gifts God has given us will shape and change the future of the church – reaching new audiences and shaping the future of what is considered Church of Christ into something beauty, amazing, and something our hillbilly forefathers would be proud of.

——————–
Notes:
1 https://www.adherents.com/largecom/fam_church_of_christ.html
2 JD Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (New York: Harper, 2016), 144-145.

Ministers who work with congregations might do well to pay attention to how they begin.  Working with a congregation is much like marriage – it matters how you start.   The following suggestions may be very helpful if you are beginning a new work.  On the other hand, these suggestions may also be helpful even if you have served this congregation for months or even years.

  • Know that the congregation wants you to succeed and do well.  Be gracious and appreciative of what they do.  Know that for the most part, these people are probably doing the best they know how to do when it comes to working with you.
  • Be a student of the congregation and its history.  Ask questions.  Attempt to learn names.  If a pictorial church directory exists (either hard copy or online) take advantage of this tool and review the names of these people.    
  • Get to know the strengths of the congregation.  Ask various people, “What are the strengths of the congregation?  What does this church do well?”  (Don’t worry about asking about its weaknesses.  That will come.)  Begin by learning what this church values.
  • Be quick to be curious.  Be genuinely interested in who these people are and the story of this congregation.  However, be very, very slow to critique.   A critique usually has to be earned and may not be appreciated if given too soon. 
  • Know that upon entering a congregation, people will often tell you things about their lives that they may not bring up again.  “Yes, we moved here after my divorce” or “My husband died suddenly two years ago.”  Listen intently and later make notes.  Otherwise, these details may become a blur within a short time.
  • Credibility has to be developed over time.  A seminary degree may help to get you “in the door.”  However, credibility has to evolve through serving and loving these people.  Pray that God will help you see opportunities to do this in practical ways with this congregation.
  • Get to know each elder and his wife.  Yes, this will be easier with some more than others. These relationships are important.  Many have learned, however, the significance of ignoring these relationships.  
  • Keep a record of what you do (funerals you attend, hospital rooms you visit, lunches/coffee with people, etc.)  For many of us, keeping a complete and thorough calendar is sufficient.  It can be so helpful when you need to know just how many times you have met with someone or how often you have gone to the hospital.
  • What do these people like?  Pro football?  College basketball?  Local high school football, basketball, soccer?  You don’t have to become a raving fan of these teams.  However, if these people were fans, etc. it would probably be helpful to at least know something about their interests.
  • Preaching/teaching.  Be down to earth.  People will appreciate this.  Say something that is helpful, encouraging, etc.  Beware of using seminary language (words that only people who go to seminary would know).  Work on clarity.  These people will appreciate your attempt to be clear and helpful.  Know that many of these people will listen more to what you have to say if you demonstrate a willingness to “get your hands dirty” through practical service.
  • Put your own relationship with God first.  Pay attention to basics such as reading your Bible, prayer, etc. 
  • If you are married, your relationship with your spouse is so important.  Don’t allow the busyness in your ministry to cause you to neglect this person.  There is no one person more important in your life and ministry than your spouse. 
  • Be slow about how you characterize people.  Far too often, I have misjudged people.  I thought early on that certain people would become our best friends.  I was wrong.  In time, others became some of our dearest friends.

Jim Martin is Vice President of Harding School of Theology. Jim spent many years as a preaching minister in Texas before taking on that roll. He has spent many years encouraging and developing ministers both in person and through his writing. You can read more from Jim at his blog God Hungry! Jim also has an email list where you can receive encouragement. There is no cost to subscribe, “Jim Martin’s Encouragement Note

Harding School of Theology is one of our advertisers this month. We encourage theological education and ministry training here at Wineskins. Check out what they are doing well at HST!

So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Romans 14:19

Last month, I had about 12 hours of “windshield time” on New Year’s Eve as we drove from Florida to our home in Alabama. Those long stretches of highway gave me plenty of time to think. Somewhere south of Atlanta, I found myself thinking about New Year’s resolutions and whether or not I even believe in them anymore. Here in my mid-40s, I’ve lived long enough to make (and break) more than a few. And after thinking it over, I’ve decided that I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions anymore, mainly because I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m fairly distrusting of my ability to bring about lasting transformation through resolve and effort. Sure, I could eat better, hit up the gym, and drop twenty pounds, but that’s not real transformation anyway. So somewhere south of Atlanta, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be making any resolutions for 2020.

But somewhere south of Atlanta, even as I was deciding that I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions anymore, I found myself doubling down on my belief in the possibility of transformation — true, gospel-centered transformation. I’m talking about the “I-once-was-lost-in-sin-but-Jesus-took-me-in” kind of transformation. Simon Peter leaving his fishing nets on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Zacchaeus repaying each person he’d ripped off. Saul seeing the light on the road to Damascus. Somewhere south of Atlanta, as the biblical narratives continued to wash over me, I was reminded of just how much I believe in that kind of transformation.

If I were trying to convince you that such transformation were possible, I would submit my own life as Exhibit A. Of course, only I would know the true degree of transformation I have experienced over the decades I’ve spent in apprenticeship to Jesus. But believe me, even though I am far from a finished product, I continue to receive a new nature from King Jesus. Whereas my natural tendencies veer toward selfishness and anger and isolation, King Jesus perpetually offers me a new, better identity grounded in His mercies. I believe in this kind of transformation with all of my heart — so much so that I believe it to be the only hope for any of us.

So somewhere south of Atlanta, as I renounced the whole business of resolutions but affirmed the power of God unto salvation, I found myself asking, “What do I hope God does in my life in the upcoming year?” It’s a broad, open-ended question and I spent a lot of time mulling over my answer.

And somewhere south of Atlanta, a verse came to me, which I attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit. Romans 14:19, So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. This is what I’m praying for in 2020: that God will help me pursue what makes for peace.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called His followers to the work of peacemaking (Matt. 5:9), which I understand to be active participation in God’s work of creating shalom (flourishing) in the world once again. As New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington notes in The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, God’s entire redemptive work can be understood as His effort to bring His own shalom to the earth. Jesus calls us to take up this redemptive work in our own way, to create wholeness and rightness wherever and however we can. That’s what it means to “make peace.”

And somewhere south of Atlanta, as I reflected on the call to make peace, I had an immediate opportunity to test this out. In the midst of these thoughts, my wife engaged me in a discussion that could’ve easily turned into an argument. Honestly, she had some advice for me to consider with regard to my preaching. For all the ways I’ve received a new nature in Christ, this kind of critique is still difficult for me. But even though I defaulted into a bit of defensiveness — at least at first — the call to make peace helped our conversation to flourish rather than stall out. The trajectory of the entire conversation changed when making peace was the goal.

So this is my prayerful hope for 2020: in the words of the Psalmist, to “seek peace and pursue it,” (Ps. 34:14). The ancient rabbis used this text to speak of the “paths of peace” and it seems as if Paul is echoing this in Romans 14. To walk in love is to journey the path of peace. In these divisive times — and with another election looming in a few months — I can’t think of a better hope for 2020.

Would you join me on the path of peace? In the name of King Jesus, let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.

If you have been in church any length of time and/or enjoy reading books by Christian authors, you have benefited from the fruit of private Christian Universities. Many of us take for granted that the preparation for the sermon on Sunday, the class on Wednesday and even the pastoral work during the week came out of years that the minister spent in graduate education.

If you have been in church any length of time and/or enjoy reading books by Christian authors, you have benefited from the fruit of private Christian Universities. Many of us take for granted that the preparation for the sermon on Sunday, the class on Wednesday and even the pastoral work during the week came out of years that the minister spent in graduate education.

I am not sure where we would be without it. It is the air we breathe and the water we drink. We cannot envision what our churches would be like without the selfless people who commit themselves to instructing in our Universities.

My own story passes through Harding School of Theology. When I decided to go into ministry, they were ready to receive me. My life has never been the same ever since. I use the tools they taught me on a daily basis.

There are fingerprints of influence on my ministry from ACU, Pepperdine, Oklahoma Christian, and others…The influence is both directly from the Universities and their professors and from their graduates.

None of this happens without resources: people and money. I hope you will consider how you might help our universities advance the cause of the kingdom either through giving to them or encouraging people who are capable to go into ministry.

This month our two advertisers were chosen for the reasons above. I approached them about advertising with us because I believe in what they are doing and I want you to know more about their work. If you want to know about their work check out their websites or, better yet, check out their graduates. The fruit is all around us. Wineskins’ authors are a lot of that fruit! We just often take that preparation for granted. Those two universities are Harding School of Theology and Oklahoma Christian University.

Harding School of Theology is still doing great work. They have online programs so you can learn from distance. Check out HST at our Wineskins affiliate link so they know we sent you. Harding School of Theology.

Oklahoma Christian is also doing great work. They recently started a new degree – a Masters in Christianity and Culture. I hope you will check that out as well. We need well prepared, well rounded ministers, thinkers, workers for the expansion of the kingdom. You can check out what is going on a OC here. They are offering a free class toward that degree. See the link for more info.

The vision of the future of our churches need visionaries to help us see a better and brighter future that is rooted in the word of God, connected with culture, and faithful to the ministry and mission of Jesus. These Universities are turning out people and are looking for people who are going to impact the world for years to come. Some of those people are people you know who will need your encouragement and affirmation of their gifts to understand their calling to ministry.

These are programs I believe in and are very important to my life and ministry. I am also thankful that they have chosen to support our work through advertising. Check them out!

I am not sure where we would be without it. It is the air we breathe and the water we drink. We cannot envision what our churches would be like without the selfless people who commit themselves to instructing in our Universities.

My own story passes through Harding School of Theology. There are fingerprints of influence on my ministry from ACU, Pepperdine, Oklahoma Christian, and others…

Anytime we attempt to blend Spirit and flesh the result is all flesh and no Spirit. What that combo produces is theological pornography. Theological pornography is when we put things in the guise of religiousity, righteousness, and biblicality but in reality it is base, crude, and appeals to our worst instincts.

We see people in debate mode, pressing for biblical truth while ripping people’s faces off in the process. Theological pornography.

We see people demean others…put their boot on their neck and have no mercy. Theological pornography.

We see others who objectify their opponents and in doing so feel empowered and entitled to treat them like objects instead of people. Theological pornography.

Still others dominate those around them. They dominate and subdue…all while maintaining their own aloofness and disconnection from real relationships. Just more theological pornography at work.

Some use fear to instill control in those under them, in their own personal hierarchy. Theological pornography.

Some enjoy watching the carnage. They enjoy watching two brothers or sisters in Christ duke it out in verbally or hyptertextually abusive ways – a guilty pleasure. More of the same.

Still others have zero commitment to those around them. Those around them are to be used for their own pleasure and position – just more theoporn.

We have a real problem with this. And it can affect anyone. You can check a few things to see if you are prone to this addiction:

1 – How deep are your relationships? Do they cost you something or are you just receiving while others give?

2 – Do you objectify people? One way to tell…do you consider their needs ahead of your own?

3 – Does submission only go in one direction rather than mutual (Eph 5:21).

4 – Do you lack accountability in the body of Christ? Or are there people who can and will call you on the carpet if you are out of line?

This is a real problem. If you don’t think it is, check numbers 1-4 above. This is a deep heart issue and I am afraid moving forward will be difficult until we work on this.

We need to restore our sensitivity. Like addition to sexual porn, we become desensitized to the destructive nature of these things. Things we once thought harsh now seem tame – systematic desensitization of the heart. God needs to put a new hear in us. We need to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in each other. Only then we can we break down the objectification and replace it with humanizing people again.

Lord have mercy.

The present condition in Churches of Christ looks bleak. I have a three-part thesis as to how we got here. It’s more complicated than this, I know, but this informs what I think is (and isn’t) needed at this crucial juncture.

First, Churches of Christ thrived in the can-do era of post-World-War-2 America because we were the can-do church. With our simple, reproducible, rules-based system, we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps like few other religious groups. We grew like wildfire in regions of the United States that were either depressed or rapidly developing.

Second, Churches of Christ crashed when three things happened at once. Our hard work began to produce prosperity but also “works of the flesh.” Members no longer felt the urgency to work so hard. Plus, they were weary and ready to rest—perhaps on their laurels. Our society changed as well, and most of our previous target audience was no longer receptive to a can-do message.

Third, despite some shortcomings, Churches of Christ had been blessed with two positive traits of inner vitality—personal piety and strong Christian relationships. Personal piety began to decline once the wealth of our members increased and the restrictive veil of legalism pulled away. Without personal piety, strong relationships became more cliquish than Christian. As a result, Churches of Christ lost their key elements of interior health.

Churches of Christ are in a troubling place. We’re declining rapidly. Some of our best and brightest young people are leaving and are unlikely to return. And most of us don’t really know who we are or what we stand for in the current landscape of American Christianity.

I deeply appreciate the fact that many leaders in Churches of Christ want to turn from decline back to growth. I respect this tenacity and hopefulness. They are correct in that we do not evangelize or disciple well. Perhaps an influx of new blood will get folks to once again think proactively about matters of faith. In churches that are relatively healthy, this may indeed be the needed cure.

I worry, however, that most of our churches have a deeper problem.

In 1990, I moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia. Less than a year removed from the Velvet Revolution, Prague was spectacularly stunning on the surface. It had avoided the ruinous bombings of World War 2. The ensuing decades of Communism meant very few Americans had ever visited. Walking the streets revealed marvels of medieval grandeur.

I gradually learned a harsh truth. Behind the ancient, sparkling façades were buildings in devastation. The broken economic policies of Communism produced too little revenue to maintain or modernize most buildings. Once Communism ended, the reality of their condition became increasingly clear. Rot and decay were just below the surface.

Beauty on the outside doesn’t mean health on the inside. The communist overlords of Czechoslovakia placed a priority on making things look good. They had wanted visitors and citizens alike to believe that the country was healthy and strong. What mattered most was the illusion that everything was okay.

In the thirty years since the end of Communism, the Czech Republic has received billions of dollars in foreign investment. Little by little, decrepit and decaying buildings have been renovated into modern apartments, offices, hotels and business space. Plumbing, wiring, and gas lines had to be replaced along with adding high-speed internet connections and other contemporary necessities. Buildings had to be retrofitted to meet current standards of safety and accessibility. It’s been an amazing undertaking, but the interior of Prague’s historic center now matches the quality of the façade. Prague is no longer a city where the illusion of health is all that matters.

In Churches of Christ, I hear many stories about churches grasping for a quick fix. They seem to think that a veneer of health will increase numbers which in turn will (they hope) create real health. Start a new program. Hire a young preacher. Overhaul the building. Just fix the façade, and all will be okay.

I disagree. Strongly. We need more than an exterior makeover. Dying Churches of Christ won’t be rescued by the “Church Impossible” team.

The only way forward is for most of us to invest in the interior health of the church. This may or may not result in short-term numerical growth.

Investing in the church’s interior health means to take up the cross and to grow spiritually. Any other proposal is an attempted return to the can-do mentality of a previous generation. The can-do approach is human-centered: “By our might and ingenuity we will fix this thing.” It’s a way of the flesh—a way producing death, not life.

Instead, we need a cross-shaped, Spirit-led path that relies on God’s provision and leadership and that embraces the way of Jesus. Among many others, one text sufficiently demonstrates my point.

Eph 2:11-22 describes how the church is built. It’s a cruciform text, meaning that the cross lies at its center. Here’s the movement of Paul’s passage. He starts by saying that we are divided “in the flesh” (v. 11). Jesus takes us “into his flesh” and brings us together (v. 14), putting to death hostility and division “through the cross” (v. 16). Thanks to Jesus, we all have access to the Father “in one Spirit” (v. 18). All this happens so we can be built together “in the Spirit” as God’s dwelling place (v. 22).

The passage moves from the flesh to the Spirit via the cross. Death and division are only defeated by moving to and through the cross. From the point of cruciformity, Jesus hands us over to the Spirit who takes on the work of building the church. Later sections of Ephesians make even more sense when you understand the centrality of the Spirit’s work in building the people of God (4:1-3; 5:18bff; 6:10-18).

So let’s summarize Paul’s teaching. The result of human striving is division and death. The result of the cross is that we are given over to the Spirit who builds us into God’s dwelling place.

Now let’s sum up our predicament in Churches of Christ. Long story short, we got into our current mess by relying on ourselves. While we were “fortunate” enough to grow in an era that welcomed such an approach, it eventually left us tired, inward-focused and devoid of the Spirit. Does anyone really think we can rescue Churches of Christ by relying once again on our own might and ingenuity?

Instead, I propose these two difficult yet crucial moves. First, take up our cross and follow Jesus. We must learn what it means to live a life shaped by Kingdom ethics. This means to hold the things of this world loosely and to increasingly depend on God to provide. When Jesus said that it’s difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, he was talking about us.

The second move is to live into the Spirit. We must learn what it means that the Spirit of God equips the people of God for the mission of God. We can’t fill ourselves with the Spirit, but we must seek God’s filling instead of fleshly remedies. And we must trust the Spirit to use us to build the church of God.

Without such emphases, I fear that any effort to renew our churches will look like the misguided efforts to beautify façades without investing in livable buildings. Do we have the vision to see what is most needed? And do we have the courage to avoid the quick fixes and instead invest in the church’s interior health?

If you don’t feel like going to church, then don’t go…for you.

Go for the struggling.

Go for the broken.

Go for those grieving the love of their lives.

Go for those raising children.

Go for those who haven’t heard from their children for too long.

Go for those who long for children.

Go for those fighting addictions.

Go for those whose marriages are on the brink of disaster.

Go for the kids and teens who are wrestling with adult sized problems.

Go for the college students who are overwhelmed with the paths before them.

Go for the one awaiting test results that have the power to change their future.

Go for the Gospel.

And when you’re there, don’t let anyone sit alone. 

Smile. Shake a hand or give a hug. Talk about Jesus.

The church needs you and once you’re there, God will remind you there is no place you belong more.

You matter.

You are loved.

You are needed.

Tell others they are, too. That’s Church.

Vision: “The goals that an organization would like to achieve or accomplish in the future.” Vision is intended to serve as a clear guide for both current and future courses of action. 

A vision’s effectiveness, whether good or bad, depends on how it is brought together and executed. It is almost, if not completely, impossible for one person to cast a vision for a group. Above all, it must be under the rule of God!  

A vision generalized on the front end can become very specific as it develops. Several years ago I attended a workshop on evangelism in Florence, AL. During one of the sessions Marvin Phillips, a minister from Tulsa, OK,  together with his elders publicly asked God for a vision. They prayed, “God, please do a work through us that is bigger than we are!” Garnett Road Church of Christ, where Marvin preached, numbered 125 in attendance at the time. They subsequently grew to over 1500 souls over the next couple of decades. A serendipity of their vision was the beginning of the annual Tulsa Soul-Winning Workshop which numbered 10,000 at peak attendance.  Their vision lined up with God’s vision to “seek and save the lost.”

Some years earlier, I served with a church in the Midwest with many opportunities to share Jesus but only limited resources. After praying for God’s direction, the congregation  considered possible ways to share their resources. By congregational vote, each possibility was prioritized; those receiving the most votes were funded to the best of the church’s ability. This resulted in unified support in the church family, and a budget that was exceeded for the first time in years. The congregation grew from 180 in attendance to over 300 in two years with 100 baptisms per year. 

The rural congregation I now worship with had dwindled to less than 50 people in early 2000. They considered shutting the doors and scattering to other congregations.  In the words of one of the members, Dr Karen Jones, “We had gotten so legalistic that it made everybody sick. We believed our friends were going to hell, but we were not doing anything about it.” (A two-page article on this church is in the August, 2007, Christian Chronicle.)  The members decided they could either shut the church doors or do something to free themselves from the cold, hard legalism binding them.

A vision was cast! They committed to focus on the hurting, the disenfranchised, the unchurched! Dr. Lou Butterfield, the lead evangelist at the time, decided to emphasize serving others in his sermons. Several women approached the church leaders about beginning a Sunday night class on relevant topics such as sex, marriage, drugs,and debt management. They wanted these sessions to be led in a non-threatening, non-judgmental manner that might lead folks to inquire about the organizers’ faith. They met in a near-by Community Center building rather than the church building.  That number soon grew to well over 100 each Sunday night.

To further fulfill their vision the church made summer camp for children a priority.  “Any child who lives in our county can go to summer camp for free!” That action became the leading evangelistic tool for a time. One summer they invested $24,000 in these children. Entire families embraced Christ as a result of the summer camp experience.

Because these Christians saw the need to try and combat the rampant drug problem, they began to pray that God would grant them wisdom and guidance in addressing it.  A recovering addict, Shane Goings, started the Jackson County Recovery ministry at the church in 2006. Four years later God used Shane to start Anchor Pointe Recovery Center, a 501-c-3 rehab. It was recorded as a non-profit in 2011 (27-1404321). In 2013 Shane left and Anchor Pointe Recovery resumed as the John 3:17 Ministry for Women. This year-long discipleship program has graduated over 100 women and has 45 ladies in residence today. 

Psalm 118:5 is stenciled on the front wall of the worship center for all to see: “In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and he answered by setting me free.”

Across the auditorium is another sign that states, “OUR MISSION: To nurture and equip the saved while reaching the lost, as we honor God, share Jesus and are led by the Holy Spirit.”

In this post-modern era where concepts like right, wrong, truth and justice are often defined by an individual’s own viewpoint rather than by a single standard of belief, the question arises as to how concepts such as Ultimate Authority, Sin, and Absolute Truth fit into the culture in which we find ourselves. Are Christianity and today’s culture really even compatible as they once were perceived to be, or do the histories of each preclude them from thriving together in modern times?  These are questions facing the Church both today and in the future and guidance is needed to help church members and leaders find answers. 

The Graduate School of Theology at Oklahoma Christian University has developed a new program of study to help Christians as they seek to define just how it is that Christianity fits in their own, unique cultures.

This new program of study started to be developed in 2016-2017 in response to needs that were being shared with the university faculty and staff by prospective students.  While students living in and around the Oklahoma City community (and those who could commute to the OC campus) were being developed for ministry through the existing Master of Divinity (MDiv), Master of Arts in Christian Ministry (MACM), and Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degrees, there was a need for a program that would be accessible to all people, especially those who could not come to the OC campus due to distance or time constraints put on them by their careers or other commitments. This program needed to be 100% online. It needed to be concise and easy to navigate. It needed to be personal and community-oriented. Most of all, it needed to address the questions of how Christianity can fit in today’s ever-changing culture.

A great deal of careful thought went into developing such a program. New courses were developed and elements of existing courses were revised to fit the new vision.  A new orientation module was developed and student feedback metrics were put in place.  Faculty became specially certified for teaching in an online environment.  A great deal of time was spent in prayer for wisdom in this new effort and for the students that it would reach.  Finally, in the fall of 2018, the first cohort of students began their studies in the new Master of Arts in Christianity and Culture degree.  

The program of study takes the shape of being a two-year program made up of twelve courses. Each course is eight weeks long and 100% online. Students take just one course at a time so that they can fully focus on the subject at hand, learning in community with fellow members of their cohort. These students begin and end the program together, challenging and encouraging each other along their educational journey.  In order to address the issues between Christianity and the culture of modern times, the program first lays a foundation of how Christianity has been in conversation with cultures of the past. Early courses focus on how the Bible has been interpreted throughout history and how this history influences how one approaches the text today.  As the courses continue to build upon one another, students learn about the theologies presented in both the Old and New Testaments and how these have been applied over the course of human cultural development since the biblical era. The final classes delve into the topics of secularization and contemporary forms of theology.  Along the way, students have the opportunity to take three elective courses that deal with how Christianity has shaped culture in various forms, such as in art, literature, traditions, holidays, and the rhythms of life. Elective courses also delve into how cultures have responded to Christianity in the wake of significant historical events.  Each course is designed to provide academic rigor while still being accessible to learners from a wide range of academic backgrounds and experiences.

Two cohorts of students have now begun their journeys in this degree program and report great enjoyment and satisfaction with their studies. Students are discovering how Christianity has significantly affected world history around the globe and how it continues to affect history and culture today. They are learning to articulate how their own culture has influenced how they themselves approach the biblical text and how to wisely discern how the text is to be brought into the modern culture as it continues to develop. They are doing this in a community of learners from various parts of the U.S. and even abroad, helping to enrich each other’s experience through the sharing of ideas.  The first cohort of students will be graduating this summer even as we look to add the third cohort this fall.

If you know of someone who would be interested in the new 100% online Master of Arts in Christianity and Culture degree or one of our on-campus degree programs, please encourage them to click the link in the advertisement on this webpage or visit www.oc.edu/gst for more information.

Scholarships are available and the first class for the Fall 2020 cohort is free! We believe that the Kingdom grows and is enriched through education such as that provided by the Graduate School of Theology, so please join us in prayer for our current and future students that they may excel in the good works that God has laid out for them.

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