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Memoir recalls mixed memories about Churches of Christ

Memoirs are supposed to inspire and encourage.
They share true stories of how a person overcame great obstacles to become the strong, interesting person he or she is today.
Most of all, they examine a life, so that readers are inspired to examine their own.
A new memoir by Mike Allen, son of prominent, now retired, Church of Christ evangelist Jimmy Allen, has the potential to do all these things, but it ultimately fails.
In “Growing Up Church of Christ,” self-published this year, the author presents a string of snapshots from his life, some almost short enough to be nothing more than a photo caption, all conversational enough to be a blog entry.
Brevity and casual tone are fine, but these memories fail to achieve what personal writing must do: show the significance of the memory in shaping the person the writer is now.
There’s simply not enough examination of each memory to add up to anything meaningful.
Some of Mike Allen’s stories will strike an “a-ha” note of recognition with readers who grew up in a Christian household or went to Bible class and Vacation Bible School, private Christian schools or universities.
Some are funny: Allen recalls his older brother Jimmy singing a hymn as he walked around the house wearing only his underwear and snapping his waistband along with his song. Allen called out, “Ooooh Jimmy! That’s instrumental music!”
Other memories recall the powerful preaching of Allen’s father, how people would stream up the aisles during the invitation song, and sometimes he and other children sitting in the front would get up and stand at the front to give their seats to those who came forward to request baptism or prayers.
Allen presents the memories by topical, not necessarily chronological order. After some background on his family and growing up, he gives a long section of general church memories, then two short sections on church camp and Allen’s education at Harding Academy and Harding University.
The largest section is on “Life and Doctrine,” which covers Allen’s experiences with some of the major aspects of his religion: baptism, instrumental music and women’s role in the church.
There are also topics that apply to many conservative evangelical faiths, such as mission trips, love and marriage, race and rock’n’roll music. He mentions his father’s televised debate with Baptist leaders on whether or not baptism is essential to salvation in a section that explores Church of Christ attitudes toward other denominations called “What about the Baptists?”
Quite a few of Allen’s memories deal with living in his father’s long shadow, which he often seemed to resent. He recalls hearing an inspiring message from his father about how to handle college life and wondering why Jimmy Allen never shared this great advice with his son, face to face. He also admits that he was annoyed when people told him memories they had of his father’s preaching, saying these conversations were tedious.
These two anecdotes suggest that Allen’s relationship with his father merits deeper analysis and could even be one of the reasons he left the Church of Christ, but like many other elements Allen brings up, this is left unexamined.
At the end of each topic are three or four memories or opinions of people who have been or are members of Churches of Christ. Allen only gives each individual’s first name and birth year, and some of the names have been changed to protect privacy. Some of these outside sources have distinct voices and interesting memories that add scope to Allen’s memories, and others don’t add much, if anything, to Allen’s narrative on that topic.
The end result of these meandering memories is that Allen, his wife and their three children leave the Church of Christ and choose to worship at a nondenominational community church. This is part of what makes Allen’s story fail to inspire: he seems to have just given up on the Churches of Christ.
His reasons for leaving are never fully explored. The reader is left with more questions than answers: What does Allen get out of his worship at this church that he couldn’t get at a Church of Christ? How did his family, and especially his father, react when he told them he had chosen to worship somewhere else? What inner spiritual path led him to leave?
Only the externals are covered: conversations he had, actions he took. The personal prayers and Bible studies are not mentioned, leaving the reader wondering what he based this decision on, besides discontent with the local Churches of Christ he visited after moving to a new town and state.
There is some value here, found in Allen’s lighthearted humor, which often hits its mark, and a few vivid scenes that draw the reader in for a moment. But his lack of depth will leave readers unsatisfied and wondering why.
Allen’s blog presents much of the book’s content. Or readers can see a sample or buy the book on Amazon.

KIMBERLY MAUCK  is Reviews Editor for The Christian Chronicle. Contact Mauck.

  • Feedback
    Knew Mike while a USAF officer stationed in England in the mid 90’s…would love to make contact with him again…via email or phone 575.399.2697…plan to get a copy of the book soon for I too grew up Church of Christ…God bless to all…
    Dave White
    Christ’s Church
    Dexter, New Mexico 88230
    January, 14 2013

    I agree with the reviewing editor. I kept thinking there will be a point to all this. I saw more about tensions between Mike and his father than an exploration of “growing up Church of Christ.” Maybe He should treat this work as an outline and go ahead and say what he was afraid to say in print. There is a reason that the book is self-published.
    T. Mark Jones
    Graham Street Church of Christ
    Abilene, Texas
    December, 17 2011

    The reviewer may be mistaking lack of detail for lack of depth. Sometimes it’s the mysteries, those things left unsaid or barely spoke to, that point toward the larger truth.
    Huntsville, AL
    December, 16 2011

    Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
    I will be brief.
    ~William Shakespeare, Hamlet
    “Growing Up Church of Christ” was a refreshing read in my opinion. Michael Allen’s reflections are brief and to the point, however they connected to my own experiences and those of many of my friends.
    Sugar Grove Church of Christ
    Katy, Texas
    December, 15 2011

    I disagree with the reviewer – I really enjoyed reading this book and appreciate Mike’s search for a faith community where Jesus is central over and above institution or biblically-flimsy tradition.
    Wes Woodell
    Lake Merced Church of Christ
    San Francisco, CA
    United States
    December, 15 2011

    Where did the reviewer get the idea that “Memoirs are supposed to inspire and encourage”? There all all kinds of lives, memories and memoirs. Some are written as a form of therapy that will resonate with readers who may share similar experiences. When they look like PR pieces, they are mostly useless.
    church of Christ
    Los Angeles, CA
    December, 15 2011

    I loved this book. As a member who left the Church, and came back as an adult, I understand so many of the author’s feelings, and can see the depth that others may not be able to because of this. There are so many things that the Church could learn from here. The ending left me with the impression that despite the difficult memories the author may have, deep down, the Church is something to have treasured and something that is still missing from his life in many respects.
    Jill Williams
    New Testament Church of Christ
    Springfield, MO
    December, 12 2011

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