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Beyond the numbers, an identity crisis?

Many Churches of Christ define themselves 'by what they are not,' survey respondents say

When asked about their concerns for the future of the fellowship, many respondents to the Chronicle’s survey said they fear that Churches of Christ are losing their distinctiveness as a body of believers with thorough knowledge of Scripture.

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“The main reason I believe the church is declining is because of an identity issue,” said Laura Shields, a member of the Oxford Church of Christ in Mississippi.

Many churches in the fellowship define themselves “by what they are not” — nondenominational and non-instrumental, for example. This leads to legalism and isolation, Shields said.

As practices and beliefs diversify in their pews, are Churches of Christ in the midst of an identity crisis?

The Chronicle shared highlights from the survey with ministers, ministry trainers and professors at universities associated with the fellowship and asked for their reflections:

Bobby Green

Bobby Green

‘Our mission was very simple at one time: convert the lost. And ‘the lost’ was everybody who’s not Church of Christ,” said Bobby Green, minister for the Charleston Metropolitan Church of Christ in South Carolina. “Now we’re more grace-oriented. We’re not quite sure who’s in and who’s out.”

Green, who has preached for 20 years, studied at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., before earning a Master of Divinity degree from Amridge University in Montgomery, Ala.

The uncertainty he senses in churches creates  “good and bad fear,” he said. While Churches of Christ tend to be less legalistic than in days past, “we’re so afraid of being judgmental that we err on the side of caution, concerned about running someone off. We’re not evangelistically aggressive, and I think we should be.”

Click here to read more from Bobby Green. 

Mark Blackwelder

Mark Blackwelder

Postmodern thought that rejects labels and categories plays a role in the confusion, Mark Blackwelder director of the Graduate School of Theology at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., said.

At the same time, “as members of Churches of Christ have sought to position themselves non-denominationally, we have sometimes done exactly the opposite. By our own definitions, we have argued that we are not a denomination (no headquarters, no creeds but the Bible, no humanly devised name, no super-congregational leadership organization). However, we often speak of ourselves denominationally (‘I’m Church of Christ’) or define ourselves in terms of what we are or are not (lists of the things that ‘we’ do or don’t practice).”

Click here to read more from Mark Blackwelder.

Doug Foster

“In my opinion, we may be experiencing an identity crisis in Churches of Christ, but it has been going on for as long as 50 years and is part of an identity crisis that much of western Christianity is undergoing,” said Doug Foster, professor of church history and director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University in Texas.

Click here to read more from Doug Foster.

Monte Cox

Monte Cox

Monte Cox, dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., said he can see why some would see what’s happening today as an identity crisis he doesn’t necessarily agree.

“I prefer to see it more positively as a ‘reorientation’ in which we are learning to focus on Jesus as the center of our faith rather than on the boundaries that separated us from other Christ-followers,” Cox said. “That reorientation can be disorienting. If ‘we’ were defined by the boundaries in the past but want to be defined by our allegiance to Christ above all else, how do we see the boundaries now? Which distinctives do we cling to as biblical imperatives and which ones do we attribute to tradition? In some quarters, even raising the question smacks of unfaithfulness.

Click here to read more from Monte Cox.

Dottie Schulz

Dottie Schulz

‘There has been a culture shift in our nation, and it affects the church,” said Dottie Schulz, missionary care specialist for Missions Resource Network, a ministry based in Bedford, Texas.

“I know there are those among us who express that they wish things would get back to normal. My reply is, ‘This is the new normal.’ The younger generations do not care what the name is on the church building. They want to be with a church that is making a difference in their neighborhoods and in the world, who will mentor them and hold them personally accountable.”

Click here to read more from Dottie Schulz.

NEXT: A fellowship’s true founder

PREVIOUS: God defines what a Church of Christ is; we don’t, say survey respondents over age 60

Filed under: Big Questions Big Questions identity crisis National What is a Church of Christ

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