Adapting the Churches of Christ to a World that Has Changed

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.

38 Responses to Adapting the Churches of Christ to a World that Has Changed

  1. Mark says:

    You always do great work, Matt. Another excellent post with fair-minded insights. Thanks.

  2. Rusty says:

    Matt great thoughts. Appreciate you for thinking through this and sharing.

  3. Rob Eby says:

    I have grown up in the C of C, and my experience was/is similar. In fact, I am working on teaching a class at my church this fall along the lines of “What is the Bible good for?” We seem to have given up Command, Example, and Necessary Inference, but I don’t think we have replaced it with anything other than what feels good, which scares me.

  4. Hank says:

    I’m with Rob. Today, as a whole, we have entirely lost our identity. Many CofCs not only refuse to take pride in and defend our heritage, they are instead embarrassed by and apologize for it. Today, we not only refuse to convert the Baptists, we envy them. Today, when we speak of “our fellowship”, what does that even mean? We are so scattered now it seems impossible to talk about “us”, “we” and “our”. I mean, “we” even have female preachers now I hear?

    In my opinion, while it may have been possible to make adaptations to “the churches of Christ” as a fellowship in the past, today, that ship has sailed.

    We can no doubt make God pleasing churches within our own congregations but the “Church of Christ” as it used to be, is over. There are just too many members of “Churches of Christ” who despise “Churches of Christ’s” (you know what I mean). It would have been easier perhaps if they would have left the name when they went and left everything else that came with it. Again, in my frustrated opinion.

    Meanwhile, I try and get back to fixing my own self ;)

    • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

      Thanks for chiming in Hank…I am 100% committed to helping our fellowship and being more than proud of our roots. I think we still have a voice that has much to offer…we just need to continue to stretch and grow and seek the Lord…just as we always have and always will need to.

    • Mark says:

      I don’t think they Despise the cofC. I think they just don’t see why a 6-week sermon series on baptism is really necessary.

      Yes, there are female cofC ministers now, and they are quite good. They are offering refreshing new ideas and an improvement in sermon quality.

      Some congregations can be reformed and changed. Others will never change. That is just a fact of life.

      • Hank says:

        I believe many members do despise the CofC. At least, every thing the CofC was know for (the absolute necessity of baptism in order to be saved, the non existence of female preachers, and every other doctrine/teaching that made us distinct).

        As far a a “six week sermon series on baptism”, I have never heard of such a thing. But, I do believe a “one week series” every year or two would be helpful. The 400+ member Church of Christ that I attend is full of members who either deny the biblical teaching of baptism or have NO idea what that is.

        As far as changing congregations, that is my point. The ones that have changed all of the “qualities” that made the CofC the CofC (no more insistence on immersion to be saved, instruments in worship, women preachers, etc.), why do all of that and still claim to be “us”? It just confuses things. And causes undue tension.

        It would be akin to a “Calvary Chapel” singing a capella only and preaching baptism instead of teaching the “Sinner’s Prayer”. Once they did that, they would be sued for calling themselves a “Calvert Chapel”.

        • Mark says:

          It sounds like you are advocating for a heavy handed hierarchy dictating the terms. This was done for a long time by the editors of certain periodicals. It caused a lot of the problems being paid for today. No denomination with a hierarchy can keep every church towing the official line for very long.

  5. Hank says:

    God pleasing “changes” (not “churches”) within our congregations. Oops

  6. Have you read _The God That is There_? I’m right in the middle of it now. It came out about 10 years before you and I were born but it’s still pretty relevant in the sense that theologians are the last to catch on. Hence by the 1960s the evangelical church was left behind by a society that had moved to a point of despair and the church didn’t have a clue how to address it.

    That said, I think the church as a whole (speaking from a broad evangelical perspective) is better off than we were 25 years ago in terms of understanding the culture, yet I think churches of Christ in particular are slower, not so much to adapt but to understand and figure out how to join the conversation.

    I think what’s important is understanding the Modern and now postmodern man (and whatever comes after postmodernism; I think the art world may already be past it) and having an answer. I know postmodernism doesn’t like “metanarratives” but what else is there? _Story_ is what makes us connect as humans.

    • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

      I haven’t read that but it sounds interesting. We are definitely getting better in some areas while still possibly throwing out some perfectly good things along the way.

  7. Mark says:

    Any time you get a lot of people under the same umbrella (church, family, business) there will be some you don’t like. Some will cause problems. In families, there was always one uncle that had a drinking problem and may have done a little time. There wasn’t much you could do about it.

    When the Hebrew people left Egypt on the night of the Passsover of Exodus those people did not get to enter the promised land. Not even Moses entered although he got to see it right before he died.

    Some of the problems in the cofC came from the periodical editors who were self anointed, de facto bishops. These editors called down moderate churches and drove everyone to the right. Today, few want to go fight the battles of long ago.

    Move on. Make some changes. Put things back together. Don’t blame the community church movement, after all, the cofC was nondenominational first. Part of the problem now is bad church leadership and excess baggage. Go read Jay Guin’s wineskins article on elders and why most aren’t liked or respected. The little bit of Timothy and Titus that is used when elders are needed does not really explain the rest of the need. You need people who will be respected, not just who pass the litmus tests.

    • Hank says:

      “Some of the problems in the cofC came from the periodical editors who were self anointed, de facto bishops. These editors called down moderate churches and drove everyone to the right.”

      That is true.

      “Go read Jay Guin’s wineskins article on elders and why most aren’t liked or respected.”

      We need to then be careful in anointing Jay (or anyone else) “de facto bishops” calling down moderate churches and driving everyone to the left.

      The only difference might be that now, the driving would be electronically ;)

      • Hank says:

        In many ways, men like Jay Guin are the new “David Lipscombs” (editor bishops), of the progressives.

        I mean, what would be the difference? If one was wrong, surely the other is as well…

        • Mark says:

          Jay Guin does not mandate a church take a particular stance nor does he call down individual congregations. He also allows rebuttals on his blog. The editors of old did not allow rebuttals in their publications.

        • Hank says:

          “Jay Guin does not mandate a church take a particular stance nor does he call down individual congans. He also allows rebuttals on his blog. The editors of old did not allow rebuttals in their publications.”

          My point is that he relentlessly criticizes (evaluates) traditional/mainstream/conservative/historical “Churches of Christ”. He writes articles like “What Churches of Christ Must Do To Be Saved” . No doubt, thousands of people read him and are influenced by his writings. People quite him and and recommend people on other blogs, to read his articles.

          Sure, he allows comments from anybody. But, he does reserve the right to edit and restrict certain comments/commenters.

          He is very similar to the “bishop editors” of old. Just more technologically advanced. In fact, he often quotes those men himself. He has learned from them. We all have..

        • Hank says:

          “Jay Guin does not mandate a church take a particular stance nor does he call down individual congregations. He also allows rebuttals on his blog. The editors of old did not allow rebuttals in their publications.”

          Hi Mark. I replied already to this but am on my cell and it doesnt appear to have gone through. My apologies tivall if I repeat myself

          First of all, I enjoy reading Jays blog. I have spent more hours on it than I’d actually like to admit ;)

          My point is that, in my opinion, he is very similar to the “editor bishops” of old. He has likely thousands of readers who are influenced by him. He relentlessly “criticizes” (evaluates) the traditional/conservative/mainstream/historical CofCs. He writes articles like “what must the Churches of Christ do to be saved” and he goes on to criticize the general thinking and practices of the traditional “Church of Christ”.

          And again, he has thousands of readers who look up to him, quote him, and recommend others on other blogs to read his articles. Just like people did with Lipscomb back in the day. Only, instead of leading right, he leads to the left.

          Sure, he allows comments and “rebuttals”, but he reserves the right to edit the comments and restrict the commenters as he deems necessary. Its easier for him that way than it was before the computer.

          But surely, they are quite similar to each other. I mean Jay often refers to and quotes the bishop editors himself! He has learned a lot from them. We all have…

        • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

          I don’t believe Jay does much of any moderation of his comments. The beauty of the online community is it becomes a conversation rather than something in print that is received by tens of thousands that then offers little room for discussion.

          To be fair, some of the editors of old did allow room for discussion even on the most controversial topics like women’s roles…see this article from Wineskins about the discussion between Lipscomb and Silena Holman in 1888…it is fascinating – http://archives.wineskins.org/article/the-new-woman-aug-1992/

  8. Mark says:

    “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.”

    Matt wrote the sentence quoted above. I concur. For too long, the letters of Paul were used to proof text. Book chapter:verse. They were almost weaponized since they were quoted so heavily and rapidly. The “why” was never mentioned. For all the sermons I sat through, I never remember hearing about what was happening in Corinth that led to I and II Corinthians. The same goes for Thessalonica, Galatia, etc.

    Just this month Naomi Walters preached a sermon, which I read on her blog, on Colossians that had the background material on Colossae. I finally figured out what led to part of the letter.

  9. Here are a couple of anecdotes for your consideration:

    1) My daughter attended a youth retreat a couple of months ago here in Brazil. All went well, except that a guest speaker gave a talk about how it is wrong for Christians to have tattoos or piercings (presumably other than the customary two ear piercings most adult women in the West have). I’m told some kids left the talk. It created quite a controversy. It is EXTREMELY common here for young people to have multiple piercings and a tattoo or two. Is this really a “Bible issue”?

    2) Recently men from the Churches of Christ in my city attended a men’s retreat elsewhere. One of the speakers talked about unity and made if clear that there can be no cooperation where fundamental beliefs differ. Instrumental music in worship was the prime example, along with churches having women in leadership positions.

    I’m sorry, is the Church of Christ trying to be irrelevant, exclusionary and just plain weird?

    One more point:

    The world is turning to atheism. If the observable evidence weren’t enough (age of the universe, evolution, etc), the inability of Christians and other theists to coherently articulate their faith and defend it on logical grounds puts the final nail in the coffin.

    • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

      This is why William Lane Craig has done so well lately…he has been able to adequately articulate from the evidence (based in scripture, philosophy, etc) solid reasons from faith.

    • Darin says:

      This post absolutely breaks my heart…….

    • Mark says:

      “One of the speakers talked about unity and made if clear that there can be no cooperation where fundamental beliefs differ.”

      I have seen this extended to if any belief differs including the presence or absence of a kitchen. I have seen it where members of cofC A in a town did not ever go in the door of cofC B 3 miles down the road except for a funeral.

  10. John says:

    We simply knew our proof texts. Most members, and practically every preacher, had WHY I AM A MEMBER OF THE CHURCH OF CHRIST, and NICHOLS POCKET BIBLE ENCYCLOPEDIA, and we knew them well. In fact, when I began to change and I thought something was wrong with me I would read WHY I AM… over and over, thinking, “I need to get it back!”

    And, the truth is, most others knew the scriptures more than we gave them credit for. We just ignored it when it did not suite us. When someone else quoted scripture we would simply come back with, “But you’re not rightly dividing the word of truth”. That was quite convenient.

    Much of our preaching was the “scripture machine gun”. Others who did not use that method were ridiculed.

    But the religious world did not fear us the way we told ourselves they did. Some keep claiming they are feared. Nothing you can do about them; they will continue to make their bombastic claims. Those who are growing will just have to leave them behind. The territory ahead, however, can look quite frightening; but the adventure keeps us from becoming too comfortable and too sure of ourselves.

  11. Hank says:

    Matt, I read the article you linked, By C. Leonard Allen. In my opinion, he made Lipscomb’s objection to women preaching to be based upon his (Lipscomb’s) alleged male chauvinism more than from any Biblical instruction. I don’t recall Allen giving a single one of the Scriptural objections of Lipscomb, only references to his supposed and unfortunate view of the inferiority of women. I don’t believe that Lipscomb (and virtually 100% of every other preacher/Bible scholar back then – both within and without the restoration movement), objected to women preaching because of societie’s view of women. As opposed to the will of God.

    For, when any of those men gave their reasons for prohibiting women to preach, they were always from the word of God. Not from their belief that women were in anyway inferior.

    The article made it seem like Lipscomb was just chauvinistic and it seemed a little ad hominem-ish.

    It was an interesting read though.

    • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

      The reason I pointed it out was as an example of one editor giving space to a dissenting viewpoint, not necessarily for the content of the dispute or who scored points on who. :)

      • Hank says:

        Well, I guess I was a little “trigger happy”, my bad ;)

        Especially, when you were defending the man (his giving a voice to dissenters).

        Miss you bro!

        • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

          Miss you too Hank…I look forward to the next time I can get to St. Pete and catching up with you guys. We will be at Spiritual Growth Workshop…are you coming to that?

  12. Darin says:

    Couldn’t we start by focusing on the good happening because there will be no changing some and why would we expect them to change? They have “truth” in their minds and those issues ARE what being a Jesus follower is all about. I think the problems you site are not just Church of Christ problems. After spending 7 years ministering outside of Churches of Christ I can tell you the rest don’t have anything better going on, just better gimmicks? I think our simple Christianity is very appealing to people today and we would be well served to ignore what other groups are doing and what a certain hard-line group of CoC teach and be Jesus. Matt I appreciate the article and your heart. People like you are why the Church of Christ still matters. I am more positive than ever but that might have something to do with spending 7 years out and going on 3 back and ministering at a church that is growing. God bless.

    • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

      There is so much positive going on…praise God for that! I think it is important we highlight those things and remember that God is still at work and that we don’t need to live in shame or fear.

  13. Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

    What other components of this issue would all of you like to see discussed?

  14. Mark says:

    You still have the facilities. Make better use of them?

    Need better congregational leadership? Perhaps committees where age, gender, and marital/parental status are not litmus tests and elders who are moderate, hands off, and open-minded. Open meetings. Transparency.

    Perhaps a contemplative service? There is a Baptist church in Virginia that is liturgical and appears totally Episcopalian, except they are autonomous and not under any Episcopal bishop.

    Different types of services? Go liturgical at one service a month. Have the ministers actually conduct a service themselves. Let someone who can sing (easy in a college town where is always a music major or grad student in the group) be the cantor for the service and chant the Psalm. Have the minister read the gospel in the middle of the congregation.

    Where did the cofC get the rule that the preacher can do nothing during the service but preach?

    Irreverent atmosphere? Try to get people to be quiet before the service starts instead of running around like it’s a social event.

    When are most people lost, even those who grew up cofC? IMHO College and soon afterward.

    How to turn it around? The cofC did very well on the mission field where they were nimble and moderate. Missionary couples would have freedom to teach and work with people. Women taught too. Most legalism was not present.

    Perhaps treat the universities like the mission field.

    University outreach used to be done with one university town congregation having a Christian student center. However, the campus minister was not always close to the age of the students and was not always accepting of people who came periodically. Thus, a lot of people gave up and went elsewhere. This did not work too well for getting new people. The students also were told to just come to the regular church service on Sunday morning when most were asleep. Also, you also need campus minister(s) who are young and ideally one of each gender, but the local minister needs to be seen sometimes at the campus ministry events too. College age females are not going to talk to a male minister about certain issues which don’t affect males. The campus minister(s) needs to be aware of how liberal Christianity was at its inception and current liberal political issues prevalent on college campuses. (Jesus probably would have visited Berkeley more than Freed-Hardeman, much to the dislike of the conservatives and ruling elders.) You aren’t going to have just conservative students showing up. I am not advocating for total liberalism, but if you don’t know what social justice is then you are out of touch. This is why you need a separate service for students. Consider having a university service on Sunday afternoon/night (during the term) with dinner (students will even give a small donation to eat) and hold it where students can attend by walking, i.e. university chapel, student union, etc. Let the students of both genders participate. Let the students hear a woman preach. Whoever preaches needs to mention something that people can do, not just by donating money. These students have little to no money, but they have some time and can organize other students and get physical things accomplished like staffing a soup kitchen, distributing blankets to the homeless, etc. You might pick up new people by letting them participate in service projects first before ever expecting them to come to a service.

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