I have written now and again on this site that I grew up in and still belong to the denomination known as the Churches of Christ. Some of you are part of that group, but others are not. This post is dedicated to the direction(s) that I see the Churches of Christ heading; some readers may find it directly applicable to their own contexts, but if you’re not from the CofCs, let me encourage you to “peek over our shoulders,” because you might find something relevant for your own tradition.
Now, because those of us within the movement typically know best our home and/or current congregations, you may not be aware that our denomination/movement is actually rather fragmented in some important ways. And because those of you outside the movement haven’t been exposed to it as much, you don’t know it intimately enough to see the rifts.
But consider the following phenomena that are current among congregations in the Churches of Christ:
- Although our founders encouraged us to call ourselves by the “Bible name” of “Christians” or “Disciples,” our movement eventually took on the name “Church of Christ” (also biblical: Romans 16:16). But, it ended up becoming a “denominational name,” which is what our founders didn’t want. For a variety of reasons, some churches are taking the name “Church of Christ” off their doors — and of course inciting the wrath of some who think that move inappropriate. Most, of course, have kept the traditional name.
- One of the hallmarks of the Churches of Christ down through the last 200 years has been acappella worship, not least because there is no mention of music with instruments in the New Testament. However, for a variety of reasons, some churches are including instrumental worship alongside — or even in place of — traditional acappella worship. Many, of course, have not done this, and many strongly reject this inclusion on the part of the churches in question.
- Similarly, traditional Church of Christ worship has not included leadership roles for women, not least because it’s not clearly presented in the New Testament. However, for a variety of reasons, some churches involve women heavily in worship leadership, sometimes in every single role a male may inhabit. Some have not done this, and (you can guess this by now), many strongly reject this move.
- Given what you’ve just read, you won’t be surprised to learn that some churches and individuals publish extensively in favor of preserving very traditional practices and theology. Others, of course, practically repudiate such views.
- And finally, some churches and individuals even take harshly polemical views against a whole variety of topics, including those within the movement with whom they do not agree.
Is there a way to bring these groups together? Is it even legitimate to call these disparate groups part of the same movement? What will be the future of the movement in, say, 50 years? Will the fringe elements fall off, leaving a more stable center? Will the movement ultimately polarize (as has happened occasionally in broader church history), with “liberal” and “conservative” movements emerging? Will the whole thing just come apart at the seams? Honestly, I don’t know, but I am inclined to think that the movement will survive, in some form or fashion. There are so many traditions and institutions that can help tie things together — camps, schools, musical styles, etc. — that it’s hard to see the whole thing dissolving. But… I don’t know.
You might expect the post to end here, but there is one outgrowth of this question that touches me even more directly: how my university fits. Older alumni of our school are, not unexpectedly, typically much more traditional than our current students; this is true partly because of what happens as we age, but it’s also true because the churches are changing. Add into this mix the number of students who come from non-Church-of-Christ backgrounds: while some come from fellow “congregational” churches (many non-denominational or “community” churches are like this), and while most share our relatively conservative theological heritage, most do not share our acappella heritage, and most come from churches with different attitudes toward worship.
So what kind of student should we recruit to our school? Should we focus only on those from our heritage? And if so, what branch? If not, what kind of student should we try to attract? These are open questions, and there aren’t obvious answers. I am very grateful, though, even in the midst of this uncertainty, that we can still encourage students to invest ever more deeply in God’s kingdom and purposes. We can try to mentor them and guide them, attempting to foster a love for God and neighbor.
To come back to our original question, I would say that that is true of our movement as a whole. There is a lot that most of us cannot control (although some of you readers may be in positions of influence). But what we can always do is to seek to be faithful in our local contexts. We can work with our congregations, being patient with the leaders or congregants when we disagree, and encouraging ever-greater discipleship to Jesus. We can embrace our tradition at some times and question it at others, always seeking to “put on love.”
May God bless us all in our kingdom work!
Image credits: http://signs.stewartsigns.com/church_sign_g_street_church_of_christ_2584.jpg , https://joshdowton.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/reconciliation.jpg?w=660 , and http://radiofreebabylon.com/Comics/CoffeeWithJesus.php