Churches face ‘identity crisis’
In a manner of speaking, Churches of Christ used to be that way.
“We were a franchise church,” said Steve Sandifer, pastoral care minister at the Southwest Central church in Houston. “If someone said song 728b, you knew what that meant. The order of worship was very similar. We had our own unwritten liturgy that showed up in prayers. Even many of the buildings came from the same plans.”
Visit one of the nation’s nearly 13,000 a cappella congregations today, though, and you might not know if the church sings from shaped notes in a hymnal or words flashed on a big screen.
Men only might pass the communion trays, or women might join them. The King James Bible might be preferred, or Scripture could be read from The Message.
In the past, Churches of Christ were distinguished by belief in church autonomy, baptism for forgiveness of sins, weekly Lord’s Supper on Sunday, public male leadership, plurality of elders and a cappella singing, said David Duncan, pulpit minister at the Memorial church in Houston.
“Now, some congregations have given up most, if not almost all, these distinctive characteristics,” Duncan said.
Neal Pollard, minister of the Bear Valley church in Denver, said: “Most tragically, there is often dramatic diversity even on the points of who is lost … and who already is or isn’t our brother or sister. There was a time when these matters were commonly understood and taught.”
In the last quarter-century, America as a whole grew at a rate 20 times faster than Churches of Christ. While the nation’s population jumped 32.2 percent, church membership increased only 1.6 percent since 1980, hitting 1,265,844, an analysis by The Christian Chronicle found.
Many church leaders point to an “identity crisis” as congregations endeavor to grow the church in the 21st century.
“Our congregations are struggling with issues that at one time we didn’t,” said Dennis Billingsley, a member of the Walnut Street church in Cary, N.C. “At the same time, we have to be careful that we don’t believe that ‘just because we have always done it this way,’ other methods are not acceptable.”
On the other hand, Dale Jenkins, minister of the Spring Meadows church in Spring Hill, Tenn., said most congregations have held to solid biblical convictions and maintained their identity.
“I think to call it an identity crisis when a handful of congregations have jettisoned biblical authority is overkill,” Jenkins said. “The truth … is that, for the most part, we have a wonderful understanding of autonomy. … While I may not like what congregation ‘X’ does or their approach to a decision, we rarely break fellowship.”
ECUMENICAL OR EXCLUSIVIST?
A generation ago, Churches of Christ taught that they were the true church and that others were hell-bound, Sandifer said.
That made evangelism easy, he said — if a person were not a member, then he or she was a target for baptism.
“In the ’70s, we began to discover grace,” Sandifer said, “and many began to acknowledge that there were others who just might get into heaven. … We did not have an evangelistic strategy or method that was grace-centered.”
In recent decades, many members have expanded their view of the church.
“I think the concept of ‘one church’ has a much broader meaning than we have often argued in the past,” said Jeff Foster, minister of the Cortez, Colo., church. “I do not see a ‘model church’ in the New Testament. On the contrary, I see a lot of diversity, founded on the principle of the lordship of Christ and his death, burial and resurrection.”
Keith Brumley, minister of the Northtown church in Milwaukee, said many younger members “are less concerned about maintaining the status quo of Church of Christ orthodoxy.”
At Ohio Valley University, even students who attend Churches of Christ increasingly don’t check that as their religious affiliation, said James Johnson, president of the Vienna, W.Va., college.
“Instead, more and more of them are writing in ‘Christian only,’” Johnson said.
For some, the concern is that in the quest not to be sectarian, members have become too accepting of denominations and lost their evangelistic zeal. Others counter that the desire to be non-sectarian has produced a super-sectarian fellowship.
John Knox, preaching minister at the Granbury, Texas, church, suggests that the church as a whole is experiencing “spiritual adolescence.”
“We have grown beyond certain narrow and legalistic mindsets to a large degree, but we are uncertain of ourselves,” Knox said. “Where do we go from now? It is an identity crisis, and it is every bit as scary as adolescence can be for a teenager.” But he stressed, “We always have an ongoing responsibility to be faithful to the biblical text at all stages of spiritual growth.”
ALIKE OR DIFFERENT?
While today’s differences seem pronounced, churches always have dealt with divisive issues. After breaking from instrumental congregations, churches faced disputes in the early 20th century over individual communion cups, Sunday school classes and paid preachers.
In the mid-20th century, issues included whether church money could be used to support orphanages and if individual congregations could send funds to a “sponsoring church” to oversee mission work.
Melanie Morales, a member of the Southwest church in Amarillo, Texas, grew up in a Texas Panhandle town that had eight or nine Churches of Christ. Each congregation, Morales said, believed its specific way of doing church was right.
“If I base my salvation on the fact that I go to a church that does not have a praise team or a children’s minister or classrooms … then anytime a season of change comes, it’s really going to mess with my head,” she said. “However, if I base my identity and salvation on Christ, who is forever constant and never changing … I am still confident and assured of my salvation no matter what.”
People in “alike” groups tend to notice differences in their own group and see similarities in other groups, said Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark. For example, a Church of Christ member might view all Baptists as alike even though there are 38 separate Baptist denominations, he said.
“I would not minimize the problem of divisions … among the non-instrumental fellowship,” Yeakley said. “But when informed observers from other religious groups look at us, what amazes them is that 75 percent of our congregations … are similar enough to one another that no significant barriers to fellowship exist among them. They regard this as a remarkable degree of unity, given that we have no formal written creed and no central denominational organization to impose conformity.”