In the 1950s and 60s Churches of Christ were one of the fastest growing religious groups in America. There were several factors that combined to make those years a time of rapid growth.
1 – Our worldview was a match with the culture in which we lived. We were modern thinkers, so was everyone else. We valued logic and reason…so did everyone else. We believed scripture was the inspired word of God, with authority and so did many others. We knew how to debate and people were interested in a good debate. At that time a big debate could draw 10,000 people…it was entertainment in its day. It was also a time when lecture and the spoken word was held in higher esteem than it is today…it was also a time when clergy were held in higher regard and with more authority than they are today. In short, our message and method aligned with the culture at large at that time. It is easier to reach people when their values and worldview align with yours.
2 – Certainty about our identity. It is hard to grow a group that doesn’t know who they are. We knew we were Christians and Christ’s Church. How did we know that with such certainty? Many believed that we were able to know that definitively because of our attempt to match our doctrine and practice back to the first century church. Since we know that were Christ’s Church, the thought was, if we imitate them (in their doctrine and practice), that we also will be guaranteed to be the right church since we are doing what scripture authorized. People want certainty and we had it. There is great comfort that comes from being assured that you are right in every way.
3 – Knowledge of Scripture. I remember growing up hearing about the noble Bereans who searched the scriptures daily and how we were to “study to show thyself approved”. One of our deepest convictions and values was that scripture was to dictate the doctrine and practice of the church. We knew the scriptures, we knew our hermeneutic and we were certain about what we believed. There was no equivocation about it or doubt about it….just complete certainty about who we were and about what the scriptures taught to the exclusion of other interpretations and other denominations. We were modern thinkers coming to logical conclusions that aligned with the logical/rational thought process of those we were trying to reach. I don’t know if it was that we really knew scripture as a whole or just really knew our proof texts but that feeling at that time was that we were people of the Word. We knew how to back up what we believed (which is still a very important attribute), even if at times it came out of a questionable hermeneutic…what is not in question was our certainty and our ability to argue and debate with the best of them.
That meant conversion was mostly about convincing people who already believed in Jesus that their group was wrong and that our group was right in all the other matters. If we could out-logic them, which often we could (because we knew our verses and we knew their verses and we had an answer or tract for everything) then we could win them to the Lord’s church out of the denominations. So conversion was not typically of non-believers coming to faith but about converting people who were already a part of other fellowships (already believed in Christ) over to our particular interpretations (most of which I still hold to to this very day). We did this well and we grew in number, rapidly.
Then (almost) everything changed:
We know today that we are not growing…in fact, we are in decline. Why is that happening? The Gospel hasn’t changed…what gives? The world we were primed to convince, whose values and worldview aligned with ours changed all around us. The certainty and logic we had that were at one time so impeccable and certain got deconstructed through the shift from modernism to post-modernism. While the world around us changed we remained, very much the same. As the culture and value systems changed, our ability to effectively engage our culture diminished as we held onto the things we knew should still be working…even though they weren’t. It is like we went from being indigenous ministers to a culture we understood and knew how to engage to being missionaries on a foreign field, still trying to use the methods that worked “back home”. The odd thing was, no one moved physically…what moved was the culture and we were and still are slow to adjust.
Adapting for better…
Over time, some things have changed, some for the better and some for the worse. What has changed for the better,
1 – We gave up on the effort to corner the truth market, adding some grace and humility to our approach.
2 – We became more focused on non-Christians and on looking beyond our walls.
3 – Our doctrine became more practical and applicable beyond topics like authorized worship.
Adapting for the worse…
What has changed for the worse directly mirrors what we had going for us when things were firing on all cylinders,
1 – Lack of scriptural understanding – In giving up that fight to have perfect knowledge and perfect practice, we also lost our reason to turn back to the Scriptures. If we aren’t the only ones going to heaven and the reason we had studied was to prove our brand was the only right brand…then why study? People just don’t know their Bible’s like they used to. I wonder if part of that is because we used to model for people who to study based on how to win arguments (at least that was my upbringing…yours might be different) so once that went down the tubes…we didn’t have any good examples of how to study for actual transformation and real discipleship in a change environment/context.
2 – We lost our certainty. If we were wrong about being so exclusive all these years…who is to say we don’t have some other things wrong? Part of this loss of certainty is where we have successfully managed to become more like the post-modern world around us and was probably the one area where that was least helpful. We do need to be certain about our salvation but proving our salvation is not dependent upon pointing out who else is in and who is out because that is all we knew how to gauge it in years gone by…again, things changed and we didn’t always know how to fill in the gaps that popped up once the once solid portions of our platform deteriorated.
3 – Third, we maintained our worldview and value system at the expense of our story – We lost one narrative without purposely replacing it with a healthier/more biblical one. And so it feels like we have lost our way…like we are struggling to know who we are and how we fit into the broader narrative of scripture and how to effectively connect that to the world in which we live. Once we purposefully took ourselves out of the driver’s seat to heaven (as in the only ones going) we didn’t know how to reconcile our story with the broader story of Christian faith. We could sense that parts of our approach were unhealthy and unhelpful so we rejected bits and pieces of the past but we didn’t know how to develop and embrace a more biblical and Christ-centered value system. In the absence of a new hook on which to hang out theological and ecclesiological hat we put it back on the old one…holding onto the values that got us in a mess in the first place while trying desperately to adopt new, healthier practices. We desperately need people who can help us re-tell and live a better story, not better because it feels better but better because it is closer to the heart of God and the mind of Christ.
What I believe we need within our fellowship is a re-defining of our biblical core values so that we don’t just keep trying to imitate whatever comes down the road but that our practices can be driven from a more Christ-centered approach to discipleship. We need to learn how to understand the world in which we live and how to effectively tie the story of redemption found in scripture to the lives of real people who don’t think or value what people used to think and value. This will be a stretch but if we can navigate this, seeking the Lord’s direction, wisdom and working, then I believe great blessing and renewed growth will take place.