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Past editions of the 21st Century Christian directory sit on a shelf in The Christian Chronicle office.
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The pen and the Sword

Three influential publications among Churches of Christ are in transition or on hiatus.

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Readers of The Spiritual Sword, a quarterly evangelism journal, may not have noticed a difference in its October edition — besides being a little later than usual.

But behind the scenes, the 54-year-old publication, widely read among Churches of Christ with a circulation of 21,000 in 96 countries, reached the end of an era.

The theme of the January 2019 Spiritual Sword was “The Sin of Denominationalism.”

The theme of the January 2019 Spiritual Sword was “The Sin of Denominationalism.”

The 73-year-old Getwell Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., which began The Spiritual Sword in 1969 and had overseen its publication since, announced in early October that it would close its doors after Oct. 29.

Though the Sword will live on, taken over by another congregation, it’s just one of several publications associated with Churches of Christ touched by larger trends of church closings and post-pandemic challenges affecting the fellowship.

Gospel Advocate magazine and the 21st Century Christian “Churches of Christ in the United States” directory, both headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., have been on hiatus since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gospel Advocate — which was one of the most prominent journals serving Churches of Christ, alongside the now-defunct Firm Foundation, for most of the 20th century —  was last published in 2019. The most recent 21st Century Christian directory was produced in 2018, though the publisher issued a supplemental statistics sheet in 2021.

Gospel Advocate Company co-owner Jodie Duke attributes the break in publishing by both the Gospel Advocate and Christian Woman magazine to disruptions throughout the publishing industry.

“Supply chain issues, staffing consistency, print companies experiencing timely fulfillment obstacles and postal changes are just a few of the areas that have caused an unprecedented impact on niche publishers and retailers,” Duke told The Christian Chronicle.

Meanwhile, the company — founded in 1855 by Tolbert Fanning and William Lipscomb, brother of Lipscomb University co-founder David Lipscomb — has continued publishing books and curricula.

It plans to resume publishing the two magazines as soon as possible, Duke added, though he provided no definite timeline.

Neighboring 21st Century Christian has faced similar challenges. A directory update planned for 2021 was delayed by the pandemic. CEO Matthew McInteer previously told the Chronicle that sending out surveys at a time when churches were in turmoil likely would have resulted in inaccurate data.

Past editions of the 21st Century Christian directory are displayed.

Past editions of the 21st Century Christian directory are displayed.

The company has been compiling data for the directory since 2003, and it has served as an important barometer of the growth and decline of congregations and members of Churches of Christ.

Since the pandemic, staffing issues, an office move and work on a new website have further delayed a new edition. The publisher’s bookstore has continued to operate, however.

Carl Royster, 21st Century Christian’s operations director, said the publisher plans to begin collecting new data soon, aiming to print a new directory by mid- to late 2024.

Meanwhile, the evangelistic publication House to House Heart to Heart — overseen by the East Ridge Church of Christ in Chattanooga, Tenn., about 300 miles east of Memphis — is taking over printing and mailing duties for the Spiritual Sword.

House to House Executive Director Luke Griffin told the Chronicle everything else about the Spiritual Sword will remain the same, from longtime editor Alan Highers to the printing schedule, availability of back issues and the price — $10 a year in the U.S.

“It is an important resource, and we plan to keep it going,” Griffin said.

Related: Catching up on 80 years of Christian news

East Ridge also will begin conducting the Spiritual Sword Lectureship next year, previously hosted by Getwell the third week of October since 1976 — even up to the final month of the congregation’s existence.

Publications created by and for members of Churches of Christ have long served a vital function in the fellowship — particularly given churches’ autonomous nature — uniting and at times dividing them over doctrinal issues, according to historian John Young.

“In the absence of official governing structures above or outside of individual congregations, periodicals have played important roles in building networks and facilitating the spread of ideas throughout Churches of Christ,” said Young, an expert in the Restoration Movement that gave rise to Churches of Christ and the Christian Church in the early 19th century.

“Of course, they have at times also contributed to, or at least reflected, some of the fault lines within the fellowship; publications perceived as leaning one way or another doctrinally are less likely to be supported by church members skeptical of that direction,” he added. “So, somewhat paradoxically, they can play a unifying role across a portion of churches, while also mirroring divisions throughout the fellowship as a whole.”

For example, Restoration scholar Douglas Foster wrote of the Firm Foundation in “The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement,” that in the years before its final 2010 issue, the publication “understood its role to be primarily one of targeting progressives and ‘change agents,’ especially in educational institutions and highly visible congregations of Churches of Christ.” 

Douglas Foster

Douglas Foster

Evangelism- and doctrine-focused publications, such as the Spiritual Sword, Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation, have dominated the fellowship’s publication landscape in terms of quantity through its history.

Young said even if many of the evangelism publications have been short-lived or limited in their geographic reach individually, if you added them all together, they would represent the largest share of work penned by members of Churches of Christ by far.

Still, other kinds — data-focused, such as the 21st Century Christian directory, and news-focused, such as The Christian Chronicle, to name a couple — have also had their own particular influence over the years, he said. And while Young believes Christian print publications have less influence overall today, as do print publications in general, they still have an important role to play — particularly with the availability and accessibility of digital content.

“Some individual publications may not have the reach that they and their predecessors did,” he added, but “it has never been easier to see, hear or read from a wide variety of perspectives.”

Filed under: 21st Century Christian Christian publications Christian Woman David Lipscomb Firm Foundation Gospel Advocate House to House/Heart to Heart National News Partners The Spiritual Sword Top Stories

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