A couple of years ago, the satire website Babylon Bee wrote a humor piece about empty churches being converted into Spirit Halloween stores (HERE). As we approach Halloween, I have seen Spirit Halloween stores popping up everywhere in our city.
Then I was surfing the web this last week when I came across the picture you see here in the article. A church in Ohio was actually being leased out as a Spirit Halloween. I checked to see if this was fake. This was a picture of University Baptist in Ohio. It’s real. This is satire becoming reality. It’s not one of “ours” but it saddened me and got me thinking about the state of my own beloved churches of Christ and our significant decline over the years. While this church in particular isn’t a “Church of Christ” it is a church closing her doors. I can really only speak to our Restoration Movement churches because they are who I identify with. I know our people.
It has been said that a church of Christ closes her doors every 6 days. I have heard that statistic for years. Recently the number went up to 2 churches close their doors every week. I have been actively stating (affirming what a friend preaches in his own church) that I will not allow this to happen on my watch. I will not allow our churches to continue to decline and close our doors. I believe that this may be something that cannot be fought.
You see, yes, I can do all I can to be actively promoting the purpose of the church and why we need her. I can be a proponent of church attendance and preach the necessity of gathering and assembling together—why it matters. But, if churches are going to close their doors, then they are already moving that direction—intentional or not.
Let me explain.
Our movement has had some issues the last 50 years or so. Well before I was born, we were having issues with our polar extremes in the churches of Christ. On one side you have the traditional, legalistic extreme. “We are the only ones saved” because “we are reading the Bible and going by what it says” and everyone else is being stubborn, prideful, and ignoring the “clear” commands, examples, and necessary inferences in how we run our Sunday morning assemblies and what we teach in our doctrine.
On the other side, you have the progressive extreme who is “redefining” the orthopraxy (the way we “do church”) for Sunday mornings, opening up leadership to women, expanding the egalitarianism of Jesus to include openly sinful behavior, and allowing more freedom in our doctrine where the text isn’t as clear, as well as affirming people who are proud of their sinful lifestyles. These churches are insulting the historical Christian faith as dead and misogynistic.
And because of these extremes, members are fleeing our churches.
People are looking for the truth. And we absolutely must teach it and stand for the truth. But our members are also looking for the GOOD news of Jesus and grace. No longer do our members want to proclaim who is in (the saved in heaven) and who is out (the unsaved) when we are talking about those who are practicing Christianity. At the same time, our members do not want to accept open and willful sinful behavior as being ok. Our members want biblical preaching. They also want to be able to express joy in worship, read good literature about the Bible and how we live it out without censoring anyone who doesn’t write it and use the words we use or who may not be a member of the Churches of Christ. No longer do our members want to say “it doesn’t matter” when it comes to our singing or our sacramental expressions. It does matter. But our members aren’t willing to draw lines in the sand over it.
I’ve read two books recently about these things. Ironically, they are speaking my language when it comes to these doctrinal divides but they aren’t from the Churches of Christ. Gavin Ortlund of the Gospel Coalition wrote a wonderful book on what he calls “doctrinal triage” in the church. His book is called Finding the Right Hills to Die On. In this book he calls church leaders to think about Primary doctrines, Secondary, Tertiary and even Fourth level doctrines. Not once does he say our doctrine doesn’t matter. Much of it informs our practice. However, he does say at some level, we have to decide that some doctrines are not issues that we need to set up as lines in the sand of salvation. We CAN disagree on these things. As the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 14, these are opinions—disputable matters. And we should not divide over them.
The other book is called When Doctrine Divides the People of God by Dr. Rhyne R. Putman. In his book, he promotes looking at unity in diversity and how we have spent a lot of time dividing over disagreements. He is encouraging grace in our disagreement while still maintaining truth in our teaching. He calls Christians to have unity even with genuine disagreements.
As I worked with college and young adult ministry, this is something I witnessed. Our young adults are weary of our arguing over disputable matters. Our millennials and Gen Z are done with judgment about who is saved and who isn’t within the realm of evangelical Christianity. I mean, I know Gen X and Boomers who are done with it and have been for decades. Because of this, they are not just fleeing these disputable matters. In many cases, our fighting has pushed them to abandon healthy teaching too.
It’s time for Churches of Christ to grow in love and unity over the disputable matters—if we can even agree on those. We have too much infighting over these things and our kids are fleeing the church. Not on my watch!
If we truly want to worship in spirit and in truth, we need to realize that a lot of us are not teaching the truth, but our opinion and preference. And we are not filled with the Spirit. It might be A spirit, but it isn’t the Holy Spirit. It’s a spirit of divisiveness, a spirit of legalism, a spirit of timidity, or a spirit of worldliness. It’s a spirit of darkness that Jesus came to free us from.
I am afraid that if we do not, the satire will continue to become reality and our churches will close their doors. And they closed because we won’t preach the good news. I am afraid that our closed churches will become Spirit Halloween stores…or worse…be demolished. Let’s wake up.