The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Part 1, Background

elephantintheroom.jpgLately, I’ve been pondering the direction of the progressive Churches of Christ. Where are we going to be in 20 or 30 years? More importantly, where do we want to be in 20 or 30 years?

Now, many congregational leaders have learned of the importance of vision in leading a church. Are we just keeping house or should we have common goals we’re going to work toward as a community? The same principle holds true at the denominational level.

Vision, I believe, is just as important for a community of congregations as for the community that is a congregation. I mean, I just don’t think it’s enough to lead a local church well. We must also cooperate congregation to congregation. If we don’t work together, then the unity Jesus prayed for would be far too abstract. It wouldn’t matter in any real sense. But to do what?

You see, the problem none of us is addressing — the elephant in the room — is who are the progressive Churches of Christ going to be?

[PS — I’m not through with the Third Way series. I just figured we all needed a break.]

15 years ago and today

We need to start with where we are today. And to do this, let’s go back 15 or so years to an article by Joe Beam published in Grace Centered Magazine called “What’s Happening to Churches of Christ?” It’s a great article dealing with the “mainstream” Churches.

He provides this cool chart —


Now, before you try to locate your congregation, here are a few of his definitions–

Exasperateds are so fed up with the conflicts in our fellowship that they want to leave the Church of Christ. They generally view our brotherhood as denominational and feel that the negatives of other denominations are no worse than ours. … They usually aren’t considered Change Agents because they carry no hope for change. They dwell on the verge of leaving us altogether.

I think the Exasperateds of 15 years ago have now left or are leaving. Across the country, there are countless former Churches of Christ or else congregations, newly established by people who came up in the Churches of Christ, that have become nondenominational, rejecting the name and having minimal contacts with Churches of Christ.

(Did you hear the irony? We pretend not to be a denomination, but when someone calls themselves a “community church” or “family of God” or such, we say they’ve “left us.” Left what? Well, the denomination. If a change of name means you’re no longer “one of us,” then you’re a denomination.)

Now, some congregations that have changed their names still think of themselves as Churches of Christ and still cooperate primarily with other Churches of Christ. But there’s a definite outflow going on.

Opens are people who are comfortable with the nontraditional actions and doctrines of Innovative churches. They want to stay in fellowship with the Church of Christ but they put greater emphasis on their own spiritual development than on the judgment of other churches in the fellowship. They are often labeled Change Agents. … They typically don’t see yielding to the demands of more traditional brothers as an act of compromise, but as an act of accepting spiritual lethargy or death.

The Opens of 15 years ago have now made many of the innovations that were being talked about back then. The lessons on grace have taken root and begun to blossom. Members freely talk about working alongside churches of other denominations. If a Franklin Graham Crusade were to come to town, the Opens would either explicitly participate or else approve participation by their members.

While the pulpit may not yet acknowledge the salvation of believers in other denominations, the classrooms often do.

And Opens long ago stopped caring what the Zealots or Satisfieds say about them.

Cautious worry about losing or harming their relationship with people in the Traditional churches. They want new and exciting things, are excited about their own spiritual growth, but have just enough fear of the “innovations” to be uncomfortable and concerned. Certainly not Change Agents, they retreat toward more traditional positions when pushed to make decisions between innovative or traditional actions or beliefs.

I don’t think there are many Cautious churches left. By and large, Cautious congregations have either become Open or else watched their more Open members leave and join or found other congregations. Some of these Churches have made modest changes in their practices — perhaps adding small groups — but they remain doctrinally largely where they were 20 years ago.

Searchers feel that changes have to take place to make the church vibrant but strongly fear making changes that may destroy the “identity” of the church. They like some things they see in Innovative churches but usually aren’t comfortable with moving to those churches.

There remain lots of Searchers, but not many Searcher congregations. Those congregations that were once Searchers have been pushed into becoming Open or Satisfieds. You see, there’s just a lot less ground in the middle than there used to be.

Satisfieds like things like they’ve been since the 1950s.

Many of these congregations still exist, but they are aging. They have a few young couples move in, but they are struggling to hold their numbers as older members die. In some high growth areas that lots of people are moving to, these churches are actually growing. But overall, they are in decline.

Zealots, like their first century namesakes, make strong attacks against everything and everyone they see as a threat to their culture and cling tenaciously to what they call the “old paths.”

There are not so many Zealot churches as Zealot preachers. When a new, gentler preacher is hired, no one complains if the sermons are less about the church down the road than the Bible.

Zealot preachers largely come from the schools of preaching, where they are coached in the error of “liberal” Churches of Christ. Their churches do not grow, although a very few may be attracted by the feelings of superiority such preaching can produce, and some may be fearful of going anywhere else.

There are no published statistics on how various types of Churches are doing number-wise. I can only judge from what I observe. And around here (Alabama), the middle ground is disappearing. Many churches have split. Many new churches have been founded to give a home to Open or Exasperated Christians. In many parts of the country, Satisfied and Zealot congregations are either closing their doors or merging with like-minded churches to cope with declining numbers.

[Next: the progressive / conservative divide and what really drives it]

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Part 1, Background

  1. Alan says:

    The Joe Beam article provides a useful framework for discussing the transition that has been going on in many churches. I'd just add that there is another dimension to the phenomenon. A person that is "Open" on one topic can be a "Zealot" on another. We're probably all Satisfieds or Zealots on some topic (the Bible as the standard; Jesus as the only way to be saved; conversion doctrine; etc.) But in the past 120 years most of us have become Open on subjects like located preachers.

    I guess the significant question is whether we are zealots on the right topics.

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