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Churches need grace, tact, sensibility

Erma Williams was one of 645 respondents to The Christian Chronicle’s survey, “A closer look at Churches of Christ in the U.S.” We found her responses particularly thought-provoking, so we share them here in their entirety — with Williams’ permission and a few follow-up comments.

Erma Williams

Williams has worshiped with the Roanoke Church of Christ in southwest Virginia for 26 years. Before that she was a longtime member of the University Park Church of Christ in the Washington suburb of Hyattsville, Md.

She works as a trainer for a publisher of curricula for children’s Bible classes and Vacation Bible Schools. Her job brings her into contact with people from a variety of religious backgrounds — including former members of Churches of Christ. Some tell stories depicting their former congregations as totalitarian and controlling, almost cult-like, she says. It “saddens and breaks my heart all at once.”

She remains steadfast in her love for Jesus and his church, she says, and she prays for Churches of Christ to show the love and grace her Savior has shown her.

What would you say defines a Church of Christ? 

A Church of Christ is an assembly of believers who look to the Scriptures to learn how to be Jesus-centered.

What are some of the significant strengths of Churches of Christ?

There is no central headquarters, but there is a desire to search the Scriptures for answers and not rely on hierarchy. We have the ability to visit any town in America (or the world) and do the “six degrees of separation” game, knowing someone who knows someone’s somebody.

In recent years, Churches of Christ in the U.S. have declined numerically. Why do you think that is happening?

Click to read more from this series.

Distractions. Today we use Google to find answers to everything. Our 24-7 society (think Amazon) says you can get what you want when you want it — at whatever price you want to pay. Why wait until Sunday, much less Wednesday night, to get answers to our religious questions?

At the same time, I believe younger generations question everything we do. They want to know why we take communion each week. Why do we sing a cappella? Why do we not have women preaching? These are questions that make the church uncomfortable, and many of us are unprepared to answer. Too often, we reply with “thou shalt not” instead of saying, “Well, let’s look together at what the Scriptures have to say.”

Jesus didn’t attack his foes. He answered questions with questions. He allowed his audience to discover the answers. That requires patience, not a five-step plan for salvation — or Google.

Why are you a member of the Church of Christ? 

It’s by design and faith. Yes, I grew up in the church, but I took ownership of my faith when I married and moved away from my family and my faith support system.

Marrying a non-Christian made me question everything I did. Seeking answers to my spouse’s questions in the Bible forced me to ask questions, too. I have realized over the years that I was very blessed by my faith foundation but needed the extra little kick in the seat to get me engaged.

My foundation is rooted in a congregation that took extra special care and attention when my family went through a tragic incident when I was young. If it weren’t for them, I’m not sure that I would have had the endurance and desire to be the child of God I am designed to be. They taught by showing me, by loving me, by being Jesus-centered themselves.

What excites you about your congregation? 

My church gets it — gets that we’re all broken, that all have sinned and fallen short. They understand that there are many outside the fellowship that need to be fed physically to be able to be fed spiritually.

There’s no judgment. We all come as we are, opening ourselves to what God desires us to be.

What are your greatest concerns about our fellowship in the United States? 

We must realize that Churches of Christ have a bad reputation in the marketplace.

As a trainer who works with former church members, I am privy to many testimonies of how the Church of Christ has failed them. They recount episode after episode of judgment, unsympathetic leadership, a lack of desire to understand, and — my, oh my — rules they feel they’re being told to follow in order to belong.

“I love the church as much as I love Jesus. I realize on a daily basis that not only am I an ambassador for Jesus, but I’m also an ambassador for the church.”

A friend of mine attended a congregation whose elders marked an X on hymns they didn’t want led during worship because of word choices such as “Holy Spirit.”

At a regional youth and children’s ministry networking meeting, during an introduction exercise, a lady beside me literally scooted her chair away from me when she discovered I worship with a Church of Christ.

Later I learned that her church had ridiculed her and her family when she was a teenager over some issue.  She said her mom cried all the time and withdrew from the church (she had been actively involved in many church activities), and her father became aggressive and distant.

On the flip side, I learned of a congregation that split three ways. The elders were publicly accused of lying and stealing, and resignations were demanded. None of the elders resigned but told each family leaving the church that they would always be welcomed back.

The elders showed grace, leadership and love to people who showed them disdain. Fast forward 20-plus years, and approximately 70 percent of those who left have returned. Many have apologized and become members once again.

We must not only show grace, but also tact and sensibility.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I love the church as much as I love Jesus. I realize on a daily basis that not only am I an ambassador for Jesus, but I’m also an ambassador for the church.

Often, there’s a pregnant pause when I identify myself with the Church of Christ because of our negative reputation and marketing.

I’m proud of my heritage, my lineage and my foundation.

Still, I wish the church had more of a love and grace approach.

Filed under: Big Questions Big Questions Dialogue Top Stories

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