Is there an identity crisis in Churches of Christ today?
Is there an “identity crisis” in Churches of Christ today? In other words, do we know who we are and what we stand for like we once did?
Dennis K. Billingsley, former minister, now a member of Walnut Street church in Cary, N.C.: We in the churches of Christ – used to be known as “people of the book.” Sadly, it appears not to be the case. In the past if you visited a congregation with the sign out front that said “Church of Christ” you reasonably knew what to expect.
That is no longer so. Our churches are “struggling” with issues that at one time we didn’t even have problems with. At the same time, if have to be careful that we don’t believe that “just because we have always done it this way” – that other methods are not acceptable.
Are we non-denominational, anti-denominational or are we becoming a denomination? Perhaps many of our churches no longer know?
Greg Brewer , member, Wilkesboro, N.C., church: Many of our congregations do not know who they are or where they belong. They want to be like the rest of the world and sacrifice the truth and doctrine for popularity and reaching the masses.
Keith Brumley, minister, Northtown church in Milwaukee: I think we know who we are mostly. But more and more of us are less concerned about maintaining the status quo of “church of Christ” orthodoxy and seeking simply to be “Christians only.” It really is a harkening back to some of the earliest Restoration Movement ideals.
Shaun Casey, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and member of Fairfax, Va., church: Asone wag put it, there are only three things left that all members ofthe Churches of Christ agree on: 1) There are three sacraments: theLord’s Supper, Baptism, and attendance. 2) There are at least twomembers of the Trinity. 3) There will be a collection on Sundaymorning. This is an identity crisis. The only chance for an emergingconsensus will be forged from the ground up and not by a top downimposition. Before there can be resurrection there must be crucifixion.
Ron Clark, Oregon church planter and former minister, Metro church in Gresham, Ore.: Some would say yes. I say no. I think that the identity crisis we face is similar to the one is Acts. In Acts there are those in the church who only accepted Hebrew as a language (they were the ones who would have thought the Apostles were drunk in Acts 2). They were not interested in reaching the uncircumcised. This is seen in Peter’s resistance to sharing with Cornelius (Acts 10) and his friend’s criticism for doing so (Acts 11:1-4). I think that when Paul came to Jerusalem in Acts 21 (and of course earlier in Acts 15) the Jewish Christians would also seem to have felt that there was an identity crisis.
However, the Greek speaking Jews (who were seen as open to Greek culture, etc.) were the ones who drove the outreach. People like Stephen and Philip, and those scattered (Acts 8; 11:20) were not afraid to speak to the uncircumcised. Luke emphasizes that Paul and Barnabas, and later Paul’s team, were led by the Spirit to foreign lands and cultures to present Jesus. This “Antioch” church was different but I don’t believe they saw it as an identity crisis.
Unfortunately it is the Antioch church that seems to evangelize the world, not the Jerusalem one. I think that today the same holds true. While we need Jerusalem churches and Antioch churches the point is that one will reach the lost and one will work with people like themselves. We need both however but this is not an identity crisis. It is a challenge to evolve as a movement.
Charles Cook, instructor at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas, and director of Focus Northeast/Northwest domestic mission program: In the 50s we knew who we were, the “identity crisis” became real for the churches of Christ following the social/sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. Today, most of the Boomers and Busters do not know who we are.
Jeff Foster, minister, Cortez, Colo., church: Yes, there is an “identity crisis.” But, again, there are so many different groupings within Churches of Christ that it is extremely difficult to speak in a collective sense. I think it is passÃ© to speak of “our movement/fellowship,” and I do not think that is necessarily a bad thing. I think the concept of “one church” has a much broader meaning than we have often argued in the past. 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.
Hugh Fulford, author, gospel meeting speaker and part-time preacher for LaGuardo church in Wilson County, Tenn.: Many of us do know who we are and what we stand for, but, unfortunately, as already indicated above, many do not. They have lost the Biblical sense of congregational autonomy and have wanted to depend on “our” colleges and universities, especially the Bible Departments, to set the agenda for congregations. We have, in far too many cases, become proud of “our” schools, journals, majestic edifices, and thus of our “standing” in the community. Many, who never understood the concept of undenominational Christianity to begin with or who thought that such a concept was too narrow, have now become elders of congregations and board members of Christian universities and have used their wealth, power, and influence to “change the church into a denomination among denominations.” In my judgment, it is going to take a major change in thinking, brought about by strong Biblical teaching, to ever correct this lamentable situation.
Leroy Garrett, Stone-Campbell Movement author and scholar: Perhaps, especially with our more progressive congregations. This may explain a renewed interest in our roots in Stone-Campbell. The more conservative congregations, which have resisted change, are more assured of their identity, and for that reason, they haven’t changed all that much. Denominations generally are in an “identity crisis” – due to the vast changes in our culture.
Alan Highers, editor of The Spiritual Sword and member of the Henderson, Tenn., church: It would be difficult for some to know who we are and what we stand for when such topics are seldom addressed in the pulpit or the classrooms in many congregations. Religion itself is not at the core of our society as it once was. In past years, people often discussed religion where they worked, students talked about it at school, and neighbors would freely attend a gospel meeting if they were asked. We had to know how to answer questions about what we believed because people inquired about it. That kind of religious inquisitiveness is not as common now, and therefore fewer members feel the need to know these things.
Dwayne Hilty, church planter with Cascade Hils church in Salem, Ore.: My short answer is yes, however, I might question the assumption that we ever fully understood our identity in the past. I believe we had a clear, unified understanding as God’s church, but much of that understanding was filtered through the lens of modernity, producing a self-identity that was deeply intertwined with the foundational principles of modernity.
The flip side is a very positive one in that our movement has been very grounded in an identity that is determined by Christ in that we have placed enormous emphasis on the crucified Christ. Our identity has been deeply influenced by the cross and while some of our understandings of scripture have been misguided at times (i.e., pattern theology), we have held and maintained a very strong identity within the story of God in scripture. We are and continue to be a “people of the Bible” (which is critically important) and have held an incredibly strong emphasis on church as community.
All this to say, it seems like we are amidst an identity-crisis right now, but have a rich heritage in which to dip into. In comparison to other “non-denominational” groups and Christian traditions, we have a very strong self-identity as “the Restoration Movement.” It is this part of our family tree that gives me extreme hope for the future.
Dan Knight, minister of church life, Overland Park, Kan., church: Your question reminds me of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It has to do with determining the speed and location of traveling molecules. If you can determine one, you’ve lost the other. If we focus on who we were and what we once did, we’ll miss it. Another HUP is the Homogenous Unit Principle. It states that people don’t like to cross barriers to become Christians. If we focus on being Christians that have that sweet aroma of salvation that will draw people to us like home made bread, we might have a chance of having a significant identity.
John Knox, preaching minister, Granbury, Texas, church: I do believe there is an identity crisis for certain. Perhaps Churches of Christ in this nation are experiencing Spiritual Adolescence. We have grown beyond certain narrow and legalistic theological mindsets to a large degree, but we are uncertain of ourselves. Where do we go from now? We could be compared to an adolescent who is growing fast, but who is perhaps somewhat rebellious on some days! It is an identity crisis, and it is as every bit as scary as adolescence can be for a teenager.
Rich Little, minister, Naperville, Ill., church : It depends on how you define “we.” Most individual churches know who they are and what they stand for, but it’s impossible to speak for the entire fellowship with a united voice. It seems that most churches believe other churches are the ones having the crisis, not them. Consequently, this overly self-consuming interest has directed our attention away from the people who need us most. If we stand for Christ alone, then we stand united for we all stand for Christ. If, on the other hand, we stand for church check-lists, orthodoxy tests, abiblical traditions, and personal preferences, then we will continue to fall divided.
Mack Lyon, televangelist, In Search of the Lord’s Way television ministry, Edmond, Okla.: Why yes! There is an identity crisis among us! Of course there is! Even our own people don’t know who we are and — well, we don’t stand for anything.
We seem to be afraid to preach and teach about baptism or divorce or a cappella music. There are deacons (will-be elders) who have never heard one sermon about why we don’t sing with instrumental accompaniment in our worship.
Elders are no longer feeding the flock of God as they are charged. And they will give account to God on judgment day for that! In the absence of biblical teaching, apostasy is certain! Calling a church a “Church of Christ” doesn’t make it so. We are a Christian as far as we measure up to what Christianity was in the New Testament. And, a church is a “church of Christ” only as far as it measures up to the one described in the New Testament.
Roger McCown, minister of Brentwood Oaks church in Austin, Texas: Yes there is and no we do not.
Patrick Odum, minister, Northwest church in Chicago: I don’t think we have as clear an idea of what makes us distinct from the rest of the Christian world as we once did. I think that many are coming to faith in Christ in our churches without much — or any —idea of our Stone-Campbell heritage and the reasons for some of our doctrinal distinctives. To the extent that these distinctives have been a source of sectarian pride, this is probably not such a bad thing. We should be bringing people to faith in Christ, and not faith in the Restoration Movement and its doctrinal formulations. However, I would like to se us find ways to communicate our heritage so that our people know what has made us the people that we are.
Dale Pauls, minister, Stamford, Conn., church: Yes, there is an “identity crisis.” But I think we may be mistaken in supposing that previous generations were perfectly clear in knowing who they were and exactly what they stood for. Churches of Christ in my youth, as I recall, were dominated by a relatively small number of influential preachers and editors, and the majority of people left “official” positions on things to them. What the people in the pews were actually thinking was, however, quite another matter. Now, however, we have actually succeeded in teaching people to think for themselves, as both the Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century Restoration movement encouraged, and we have found that people who have learned to think for themselves do not think identically. Churches that grow in our time will be churches that honor freedom in Christ and teach people how they might live and even spiritually thrive in the midst of ever-constant change, increasing diversity, and the undeniable mysteries of life and faith.
Don Petty with Mission Learning Center, Webb Chapel church in Dallas: Identity crisis? You BET! We have forgotten that those baptized believers, added to the Lord’s Church, are peculiar and exclusive. We do not know when we are doing what His word says and when we are not! We do not know His word, and we cannot teach His word. We do not know we are His, that there is a crown laid up for us, and that an eternal mansion awaits us, who believe, trust, and obey His EVERY word.
Robert M. Randolph, minister of Brookline, Mass., church and chaplain of Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Many understand that some of the things we stood for are not as important as we once thought. We used the same arguments to support segregation (It is in the Bible.) as we did baptism (It is in the Bible.) When we changed our views on issues of racial exclusivism, it did not take much for some to question other markers of the “true church”. Our identity tended to revolve around two things: our notions of baptism and our unwillingness to use instruments of music. We are more likely to view our notions today as simply “our notions” than we once were. There is a subtle arrogance present when we present our conclusions as if they were the 10 Commandments. Better to be known as the people who serve others in areas of need and who also practice certain forms of baptism/worship, than it is to be known as people who think that getting it right is a prerequisite to getting to heaven. It does not take much Bible reading to discover that God seems more tolerant of our mistakes than we are.
Mike Rhodes, minister, Pine Street church in Vivian, La.: Yes. The shift from modernism to Post-modernism and the end of the age of reason has impacted all “traditional” religious groups, not only churches of Christ. Doctrinal considerations aside, more people every day seem to think that instrumental music is some kind of m agical formula for captivating the minds of the world and leading them to Christ. However, I look around me and see scores of small, struggling instrumental churches. Instrumental music alone will not convert anyone.
Instead, we need people who are courageous enough to be Christ in our world. This very real crisis is the result of the short-sighted focus of times past of issues pertaining to three hours on Sunday rather than a demonstration of how Christ would walk in our world from Monday through Saturday. For much of my religious life, I was converted to a person or to a particular congregation instead of to Christ and Christ alone. With all the current focus on “change” or “issues” depending on which side of the aisle one finds oneself on, evangelism is neglected.
Phil Sanders, minister, Concord Road church in Brentwood, Tenn.: I believe some Christians and some churches know who they are and others don’t. You can’t expect the nearly 13,000 congregations among us to be carbon copies of each other any more than the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3 were alike. Some were strong in faith, weak in numbers. Some were strong in heritage and without heart. Some were prominent in their society and lukewarm. Some have open doors and some have closed.
Many churches know the Book and stand for what we have historically held, while others are trying to turn the church of Christ into a bad substitute for a denomination. These mindsets are polarizing, and in many communities fellowship has ceased among brethren. Those who believe we must not become denominational will not join hands with those who feel we must progress beyond the Scriptures. In not a few communities the impasse seems inescapable.
I believe one of the greatest needs in the church today is for members to know what it means to be a New Testament Christian, saved by grace through faith and fully committed to the cause and teaching of Christ. Some have taken up padded crosses, convenient Christianity, and a synthetic faith. They don’t know what they believe or why.
Irie Session, former lifelong Church of Christ member who became senior pastor of New Life Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Dallas in October and still teaches a weekly Bible study at the Preston Road Church of Christ for former sex industry workers: I don’t really see an identity crises as such. At least not in the sense of “knowing who we are and what we stand for like we once did.” If there is an identity problem, it is trying to discover how churches of Christ can remain the church of Christ as we have come to know it, and still be relevant in today’s society. This seems to be a big problem. How can churches of Christ continue to preach and teach exclusivity and at the same time, help women and other marginalized groups understand that there is neither Jew nor Greek, Male or Female, Bond or Free, but that we are all one in Christ Jesus?
Al Sturgeon, minister, Ocean Springs, Miss., church: I think there is an identity crisis, which is sad since our identity is purportedly Jesus. There appears to be a growing recognition that the “in vs. out” mentality in religion is tantamount to arrogance, and this newfound humility is causing many to rethink the overall importance of defining “us” by our differences with other people and a new interest in discovering what we have in common. Putting this all together, the “identity crisis” comes more from a growth in humility than anything else: we’re discovering that “who we are” is a group of people who cannot know all the answers, so we must come to “stand for” something other than that. Hopefully, that something will be Jesus instead of a church organizational chart.
David Young, teaching minister, North Boulevard church in Murfreesboro, Tenn.: I suspect there is a pretty deep identity crisis, but I don’t hear as much talk about it as I did ten years ago. Perhaps we have gotten used to it.
Do we know who we are and what we stand for? I’m not sure, but when I hear church leaders call for a return to “fundamentals” — which is, I believe, a way of seeking to clarify our identity—they usually define the “fundamentals” in terms of a cappella music, church structure, frequency of communion, or baptism. This tells me that many of our leaders probably have a pretty solid self-identity, one defined in terms of a handful of structural and formal distinctives rather than, say, a rock solid commitment to follow Christ’s radical call of discipleship, or, a determination to establish a thoroughly Christian counter-culture in America’s secular world.
Robert Wells, minister of Northtown church in Milwaukee: Whether or not we are experiencing an “identity crisis” or not, I don’t know. But I think we need to have one. We need to think less and less about the status of “The Church of Christ,” meaning the listings of which you can find in your phone books, while thinking more and more about the broader church of which Jesus is head. Is my goal as a preacher/minister to build up the local church for which I serve or is it to build up the bigger kingdom of God?
Am I in any way saying or suggesting that the Church of Christ is not important, that we should just close our doors and move in with other churches? No, no, no! The Church of Christ has much to offer to our religious and non-religious neighbors. We offer a heritage of unity, the authority of the Bible, a love of God, and pure, simple worship, among many other things. The world needs the good and true things that we have to offer. We just need to not be prideful, and recognize that some things we have taught and done in the past have themselves gone contrary to our own heritage. For instance, I think we have failed in unity, though we preached it hard; we have occasionally told others to look at the context of what they teach, but have failed to do that with some of our own teachings; and we have preached love, but have too often only shown real love to those who decided to fall in line with us. I include myself at the head of all these “failures”.
Robin Yeldell, house church planter in Dallas: There is an identity crisis. Even preachers coming out of mainstream colleges and preaching schools have no interest in going head-to-head with denominations on issues. They are more interested in keeping families involved through relationships. Doctrine has taken a back seat to programs that meet the needs of members such as social activities, programs for kids, self-help, community service.
March 1, 2007