This month, the Christian Chronicle (the Newspaper written for the global Churches of Christ—Stone-Campbell Movement) began a series called “Big Questions” which is seeking to do its triennial article on the state of the the Church of Christ. I encourage you to go and read the several articles they currently have written here (Big Questions Series) before you read mine. It is important you know the context of some of the following content.
I know the Christian Chronicle wants feedback and seeks respondents on their polls, but somehow, I again missed the opportunity to add my unique voice to their survey. As I read the responses, they seemed to be the usual comments that I typically read about the state of the church, the reasons why we are declining, and the solutions to fix our declining numbers. I commend the people who responded and some of our University and Church leaders, however, I believe I have a different idea about the pulse of the church (universal) and the Churches of Christ (more specifically). Let me lay out where I think we are now and where we are headed.
WHERE I AGREE
I can appreciate the Christian Chronicle’s desire to get a finger on the pulse of the Churches of Christ and they certainly do an extraordinary job putting out a call for our brothers and sisters to respond and give their vision and opinion. It is a lot of work to create a survey and to compile the results in a way that is unbiased yet asks for personal opinions.
I too am a witness to the decline in the church (universal) and see where we in the Churches of Christ are bleeding members. I hear in a folktale way that one congregation in the Churches of Christ close their doors every week. There have been actual numbers done and the Christian Chronicle estimates (based on the book Churches of Christ in the United States) we are declining at about 1.61 percent annually. I am not sure if that is one whole church closing their doors per week, because it doesn’t say the numbers are from one church. But it is a high number of people per year and I don’t want to see it happen anymore.
It’s scary. From my observations, I have seen our decline. My hometown congregation in California which used to boast several hundred members, is now down to about 50 members, sold their building, and rents back the fellowship hall. I have also witnessed local congregations here in the Portland, Oregon area close their doors. We used to have many strong congregations in the Portland-Metro area and sadly, I have been around to watch them close their doors. When that happens I have also witnessed most of those congregants cease their activity with the Churches of Christ and choose to attend another type of church or none at all. They’ve given up on church. In addition, I have even witnessed my Alma Mater, Cascade College close their doors. I know they weren’t a “church” but it hurt my heart the most. I did shed tears for the closing of my dear school of brotherly love. I believe this is one of the reasons the Pacific Northwest Churches of Christ are particularly suffering a large decline in numbers. That “hub” of the Church which brought our congregations together to be unified and work together for the Kingdom is now gone.
I agree with the sentiments of some of the respondents to the survey by the Christian Chronicle about our doctrinal stance. We used to be known as people of the Bible; people of the Word. In the past, if someone would talk to a member of another church tradition, and if one had a question they couldn’t answer, the preacher would be so bold to send you to the local Church of Christ. He would admit, if you want to know more about the Bible, ask them, they know their Bibles! But I fear we were also people so well-versed in the Bible that we would be overly legalistic about what was and was not in the Bible. If it didn’t specifically say it in the Bible, it was not allowed. Ironically, we do a lot of things that are not specifically said in the Bible. And we chalked that up to an inferred statement that we would manipulate so we could save face for our traditions. To many of the people we encountered, that was fishy and they world could see through that ruse. To top it off, we tended to be unkind about it and it drove people away, including our own members, which is where we are today.
Some other respondents in the Chronicle eulogize our congregations because of their desire to look like (said in a looming voice) “the denominations.” GASP! Seeking to grow and to look a lot like the churches that seem to be growing, a lot of the Churches of Christ are adopting different doctrines when it comes to music, leadership, women’s roles, and other doctrines that we are not typically known for. I agree that doing this isn’t necessarily the answer, yet I see this as often as I see churches closing their doors.
I love that the Chronicle divided the generations up to give us their perspective, though I am sure people in each generation were not in 100% agreement. Their responses sounded typical of those that represent each generation and I was not surprised by their words.
WHERE I DISAGREE
In our heritage, you can see the generational divide and their belief about what the church is, where it errs, and where it should be. This is where I tend to go in a different direction in my belief about the state of the church. Though the Chronicle has not made their own definitive statements, my disagreements are with the direction of each generation’s editorial stance. But, as I have said, I am sure that there are some in each age generation that did not agree with their representative voice in the editorial.
I am sure that each generation has their opinions of where the church is and should be. But our task as followers of Christ should be to be as close to what Scripture teaches as possible. I appreciate that people in the under 30 crowd are tired of some of our stanch, divisive claims about doctrine. I can appreciate that people over 60 wanting us to be centered in God’s Word. But in each generation’s responses, I saw where we are lacking as believers.
To this generation I want to say, I hear you. You don’t like when we call ourselves “non-denominational.” We’re a denomination that denies it is a denomination. We’re not though. While Churches of Christ are very similar in our beliefs, we ARE autonomous. We don’t have a governing organization like the Baptists or the Methodists. While we operate separately, we do want to hold our brothers and sisters accountable to Scripture and if a brother is in error, we ARE called to speak to him about it. Paul wrote to so many different churches but held them to a standard even though he was not in charge of their leadership. For us, sometimes that looks like us speaking about a church in our town that isn’t following Scripture. But not always. Sometimes that is perceived as “unloving” or “legalistic”. But, we can also agree to disagree. But that does not mean we are being denominational.
I also read that you just don’t care about some of our core beliefs and doctrinal stances. Sometimes I don’t care either. I am not under the belief that instrumental music in church is sinful. Should we do it though? I don’t think we should. I believe our A Cappella heritage is something we should cherish and should strive to do with excellence. It sets us apart from everyone else. It seems like EVERY church out there has the best band in town and the best coffee. I have visited many of these churches and, to be honest, they are pretty good. But no one sings! What I love about a singing congregation is that we are all singing. Maybe not everyone, but a large majority of us can and do sing. And we can hear ourselves sing. And there aren’t awkward guitar solos as we wait to sing our parts again. As a worship minister, I am striving to help the congregation sing with all the same passion and vigor of those bands. And I think our congregation does it well. We have even had many people come and join our membership because we DON’T have a band. They like that we sing and that we sing familiar songs. They like that we aren’t always introducing a song “I just wrote” or that we don’t drown the congregation out with the volume. I do teach new songs though. I want us to always be learning new songs and singing with excellence so if you are a guest at Southwest you might hear the latest Hillsong or contemporary hymn that our neighbor churches are singing as well as the timeless hymns that ring the truth out in music.
I think you should care. You should care that we are distinct and have a different flavor than the other churches in the community. You should care about your older brothers and sisters who raised you in the faith. You should care about the sister that taught your cradle roll class and helped you begin your faith journey in Christ. You should care about the brother that has believed in the church and her core doctrines for his entire life and has helped build what exists today. Does that mean they are always correct? Of course not, but as young people, please give some respect to those that came before you. If not for them, you may not have faith in Jesus Christ.
Your generation gets a lot of heat. You are striving to be compassionate and love people first. That is commendable. I want to be that too. When I read that you don’t like that we are trying to be “right” over loving people, I am also with you. But may I ask this: Can I have both? Can I be right AND love people? I know that postmodern thinkers don’t like when someone makes a claim as definitive truth. Especially when it means that someone might have to let go of their poor theological stance. It hurts me when I have to take a stance that makes someone feel bad. But we must stand for truth and for God’s Word. I love people so much that I want them to understand why I believe what I do. Thank you for being loving and compassionate, but I would like to challenge you to seek truth in all you believe and teach. I believe we can have both.
This is my generation; my peers. I remember when we were the newbies on the block and how we were ruining everything and were going to be the downfall of society. For my generation, we want compassion and to not be legalistic. I grew up watching legalism win over love. Not all the time, but enough that it made my generation want to walk away. My gen also sees politics as a divisive way to build doctrine. With all the legalism and Americanism, we are driving away potential converts. I agree. I don’t want to drive people away with bad manners or using the 2nd Amendment as one of the new Commands of Christ. It’s not. Neither is any Amendment to the Constitution. And, let’s not be one-sided, neither are the policies of the Democrat party. It seems like my generation leaves this part out when they complain about American policies creating Church polity. Abortion on demand, social justice, and confiscation of wealth is not the Gospel either.
Doctrine IS important. We have to speak to what Scripture says and then live it out and be an example in our world. However, we cannot become so entrenched in politics that we let it lead us. That goes for Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Green, or Libertarian. It also goes for Tea Party, BLM, Occupy, and Antifa. None of these groups define Christ. Christ does. His Word does. But this generation needs to see that it is all worldly, not just the group they don’t like.
The statement that this generation made that stood out to me was that the church resembles little of the church when you were a child. I am going to say this bluntly, but I do not mean any disrespect. I say this in love: this is the generation that is leading our churches today. The churches that are closing their doors. We DID in fact used to be the center of the family. I also watched this generation make sports, music performances, and vacations more important than the church. I watched my friends (your children) skip church because it was “boring.” How many times did you take your family out of town for a ballgame or to the lake to waterski or when you didn’t make the worship service important enough to show up on time? This generation also began taking important doctrines like the role of women in worship and making it sound outdated and evil. I believe this has been one of our downfalls as Churches of Christ and now my generation is taking cues from what they learned. This group now makes up a lot of our University Faculty and is the driver for much of our doctrinal leading…and we are declining. Maybe it is time to rethink the rethinking that has happened at the dawn of the new millennium.
I love my older siblings in the faith. It was hard to read what they were saying because I could feel the legalism of the past emanating from their words. Many of the quotes written were about semantics in the language. Instead of answering the questions from the survey, there was a lot of examination about the questions themselves. I get it; words matter. The way we speak of something also helps define it. But it was this generation that also drove people away by doing this semantics game with new believers. Many in this generation caused the church splits I lived in and that harmed more than solved. I was part of a church split as a child. It was the Baby Boomers and the over 60 crowd that seemed to be the cause of most of the strife. My family ended up going back to our original church because we saw the divisiveness go with us in these older members.
I love you but the legalism has to end. Instead of questioning the questions, this generation should seek to examine themselves and why they choose to hold onto unbiblical doctrines for the sake of “speaking where the Bible speaks” and then speaking where it is loudly silent. This generation isn’t speaking where the Bible speaks inasmuch as the millennials aren’t. I implore you to allow some changes or we will continue that spiral into closing more doors.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Here is what I believe: The Churches of Christ can grow. I believe it and I see it. I am witnessing it in many ways. We had an intense discussion about Easter Sunday where I serve. Where will we fit all the people? We had 629 last year across 2 services. This year we are only having one worship service. We had 605 in one service and had to fit over 600 chairs into our auditorium which normally has only 540 chairs. I like having this kind of dilemma. Not enough space to fit all the people is a good problem.
We can grow in the Churches of Christ. But in order to grow, we are going to need to make some changes; some obvious, some not so much.
1.) Let’s stop fighting about things that don’t matter. I have seen people argue about the color of the things we bring into the church. The chairs, the song books, the carpets, the color of the wall paint…ugh. We often joke that this doesn’t really happen anymore, but it did just last week and people’s feelings got hurt with all the complaining about the wonderful new paint job the walls got. I have also seen us tell people that are hurting how much their attendance is lacking, focusing more on going to Sunday assembly or Bible class than on their spiritual lives. I’m not saying attendance isn’t important, but when life crisis is happening, we can do a better job of prioritizing.
2.) Be a welcoming church. Every single one of our churches believe they are “the most welcoming church out there.” Don’t take this the wrong way…but…I have only been to 1 church in my life that I thought was truly living up to that phrase. I won’t tell you where because I don’t want anyone to feel bad but you can probably guess it isn’t your church. We need greeting ministries that make grandma’s house feel like prison. Seriously. We need our greeters to run to the doors and open them and give everyone who is coming in the biggest welcome they have ever had. It needs to be a Prodigal Son style welcome.
Roll that red carpet out. Have them greeted with handshakes and ask them about their lives. Ask them what ages their kids are and ask if you can take them to class. Have a coffee ministry available and offer them a warm drink. Invite them to have lunch with you and you pay for it! Follow it up with phone calls and emails. Hand them or send them information about small groups, weekly activities, and calendars. Bring them a gift thanking them for their visit. Here’s the key: don’t make everything about the church. Ask them if there is anything you can pray for them this week. Ask them if you can help with any kind of service project in their life. And everyone in the congregation needs to be a “greeter”. If your only greeters are the 4 or 6 people that take turns every week then you aren’t as welcoming as you think you are. This church I am thinking about did all this for us and we didn’t even live in their state! But we still talk about it. We felt like their family member that had been missing and returned home.
3.) Take care of your building. This might seem superficial, but a rundown facility will make people run. Mold, dirt, urine, and smelly buildings can be harmful to people with allergies and sensitivity to their surroundings. Yes, people should be there to worship God and be focused on the spiritual, but even the most spiritual among us can be distracted when their senses are being bombarded. Paint that lobby, make it nice, clean up the clutter around the building. Get inspired! Go visit other churches in your area and see how they have their lobbies and classrooms decorated. See what they do to promote activities and sermon series’. Be willing to spend a little money to make it happen.
4.) Treat your ministers right. Your ministers are your most valuable asset. When you knock them down for not preaching on your favorite Bible verses or argue that their lessons are “too topical” or “too exegetical” you’re only causing them to go into despair. If you complain about the songs not being your favorite, you’re knocking down all the prayer and thought that went into planning the song service. Pay them properly, give them vacation time, give them a sabbatical, and complement them. Don’t overload them with the project you think is the most important but be willing to let them make decisions. With a plurality of elders, they could end up with 7-10 pet projects depending on the size of your eldership but have to wait to make a decision on what is most important because they have to wait for the leadership to tell him what he is allowed to do.
Also, listen to them. They have trained in ministry for years to do this. Let them use their knowledge and experience to help guide the congregation and leadership.
5.) Elders, don’t be businessmen. Nowhere in Scripture are elders business leaders. They are there to care for the flock. Listen to your members. Find out what they need from you. Serve your congregations. Love the people. Let them vent. Let them be sad. Rejoice with them! Find out what they like to do. Your job is also to teach. It’s one of the qualifications but if all you’re doing is budget items and pinching wallets to prevent money from going out the door because you never know when the A/C will go out, then you’re micromanaging a failing business.
Also, let’s lead. Many of our congregations don’t know where we are going. They often feel like there is no one steering the ship and casting a vision. Elders keep information close to the vest, they don’t share the things they have been discussing, they don’t include the ministers in on their discussions, then they then wonder why people say there is no direction. Maybe ask your members what they want to see happen. You don’t have to do it, but asking will sometimes give you a clue where your membership temperature is.
6.) Teach doctrine. We need to be better at teaching our congregations why doctrines are important; why they matter. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” works for a kid’s song, but not for a theological explanation for why we do what we do. We can be better. Explain the nuances why we sing A Cappella. Give people good biblical explanations for the Lord’s Supper and why we take it together. Teach that biblical roles for both genders are not based on just giftedness, just sex, or are archaic misogynistic displays for the patriarchy to keep their thumbs on the womenfolk. We have easy to understand Biblical reasons for these doctrines and, for some of them, we need to do some reexamining on why we do them because in many cases we don’t even know why we “do it that way” but we have just done it that way because it is “how we’ve always done it.” Our kids need to know why we do things the way we do them. If you want to know what I mean on this, email me and I will tell you what I think…but teach doctrine and teach it well.
7.) Be present. This is to everyone. If you aren’t part of your church and the activities that take place, you will feel more and more isolated. I can’t tell you how many times people ask for us to be more active and then aren’t there.
“Will you please plan an activity that I may or may not attend? Thanks.”
It seems like many just want the idea of an active church they can drop in on when they feel like it. But if you aren’t there, is there a church? When those activities aren’t planned anymore, you might find yourself wishing your church did more…but they cannot count on you. So, take a leadership role by being at every event planned for your church. Ask where you can serve at the next potluck. Where can you help with the children’s classes? Are you ready to jump in and help with the church service weekend? What are you doing to disciple someone else in their walk with Christ? Everyone needs to be active. If everyone takes but never gives back, then it leads to burnout for the ~20% of the congregation that plan and implement the majority of the activities.
8.) Love each other. Love your friends. Love your neighbors. Love your enemies. We need to love more even when we disagree. Say hi to the people in your church even when they get on your nerves. People need friendship.
9.) Reach your neighborhood. Do things for your community. Your church exists in a neighborhood of some kind. You are not in a bubble. Reach out and see how you can serve your neighbors. Be a neighboring church. Our church used to have a breakfast for the local High School they were feeding 300 kids every Tuesday for years. When that ended, they became the Taco Tuesday church. We now feed 40-50 kids after school every other Tuesday. We also have a weekend where we serve people and do yard work for our neighbors who live around us. There are other things we are trying to offer our community as we seek to be a source of light to our neighbors.
10.) Stop trying to counterbalance the extremes of the past with a different extreme. Every generation tries to solve the extreme legalism or liberalism of the previous generation with another extreme shift. Legalism doesn’t work. Postmodernism is killing the church. Theological liberalism is not working. Extreme traditionalism hurts the church.
We need to be willing to listen to voices outside our fellowship. But we cannot just take their word at face value. We should evaluate all of it through God’s Word. But just because someone is not from our fellowship does not make their voice moot. Their bad theology does. But we have to be willing to listen to others. And it is okay to teach material that isn’t written by Church of Christ outlets. We do need qualified teachers who can discern what is right and what is wrong. I respect authors and musicians from other denominational backgrounds. Do I agree with everything they say? Of course not. I have tried visiting other churches in the past when our family was searching for a church home.
What I have found that even though we have our flaws, the Church of Christ is my family and my home. I believe in our mission and our calling. I know what our issues are and can readily debate them. I stay in the Churches of Christ because I believe we have the best look into Scripture and what God wants for His church. I will defend us when we are unfairly maligned including from among our own brothers and sisters. It makes me sad when we find the specks to complain about when we have logs protruding from our own eyes. I wonder how Christ, the groom, feels when we knock down and are rude to His bride. I will scold us when we are not living up to what Christ has called us to, but I will stay with the Church of Christ because I believe in her mission and our calling as God’s people to serve the Kingdom. Let’s decide today that we don’t want Churches of Christ to decline any longer. We can grow again if we are willing to be level-headed and to strive to reach new people for Christ.