This is, of course, the unless-something-happens-to-fix-it version.
* Many conservative churches will decline and die. It’s happening now. The trend will accelerate as the WWII generation dies out. The Baby Boomers are, by and large, leaving.
* Countless children who grow up in these churches, repulsed by the legalism, will leave Christ altogether. That’s been happening for years. It’ll get worse.
* Some conservative churches will hold it together by virtue of excellent preaching and programs, and a moderated works theology. They’ll support the conservative Church institutions.
* In a few places, where the conservative Churches presently hold large numbers, they’ll continue to be strong even though losing members. In North Alabama, for example, the conservatives could lose half their congregations and still have a significance presence.
* These churches will come to be largely held together by family ties, but as members move to other parts of the country for work or retirement, many will seek out other types of churches.
* The conservative churches will no more die out than the non-institutional or one cup churches have. But they will decline in numbers as a whole. It’s already happening.
* The Gospel Advocate and many other periodicals will struggle to survive. There will be a series of mergers of conservative periodicals to deal with a shrinking readership base (again, especially as the WWII generation dies). In 10 years or so, they’ll become Internet magazines because the subscriber base will be too small to support a print magazine. The Firm Foundation is already on its last legs.
* The Christian colleges that try to remain closely tied with the conservative Churches of Christ — or which try to appeal to both camps — will begin to fail. Or become something else. Faulkner will likely be first. Freed-Hardeman, Harding, and Oklahoma Christian will attempt to appeal to those churches remaining, but there won’t be enough support for all three.
* Some progressive Churches of Christ will remain a cappella and will continue to affiliate with Church institutions. At present, this gives them the ability to recruit members from conservative churches. They will still be “Churches of Christ.”
* Other progressive Churches will join with the independent Christian Churches, acting much like Churches of Christ except for having instruments. They may keep the name, but they’ll list themselves in the Yellow Pages as “Christian Church” or “Nondenominational.” They’ll lose most contact with a cappella Church of Christ institutions as they begin to join with Christian Church missionary and church planting societies, periodicals, and universities.
* Others will find the Church of Christ colleges too conservative or narrow and so send their children to seminaries in other traditions, and many will eventually become community churches with largely Baptist theology. Baptist theology gives a nice, simple answer to the baptism conundrum (one that I disagree with), they have congregational autonomy, and they are evangelistically effective. In fact, the Baptists are increasingly ordaining elders, baptizing for remission of sins, and minimizing their Calvinism. It’s an interesting convergence that’s going on.
* Some progressive Churches of Christ will become entirely non-denominational, change their names, and have little to do with Restoration Movement churches (it’s already happening). They will have individualistic theologies and may drift very far from their Restoration roots. They will have little fellowship with other churches of any kind, becoming not only nondenominational but isolated.
* The progressive churches will not create a new denomination, because there is no uniting theology or vision. Nor will we, as a group, merge with an existing denomination. We’ll just drift in different directions.
* Pepperdine, Abilene Christian, and Lipscomb will become increasingly non-denominational. First, they’ll market to the Christian Churches. Soon, however, they’ll test the waters of evangelicalism and surrender much of their connection with the Churches of Christ. After all, if the progressive Churches fail to coalesce as a movement, there won’t be a sympathetic denomination to associate with.
Is this a good outcome?
To some, this may look like an evolution toward the non-denominational ideal we’ve always talked about. And in a sense, it is.
As the conservative Churches will be left behind, this might seem a victory for the progressives. But victory is unity and love, not the death of one’s rival. And so this will be a defeat. It would be far better to bring our conservative brothers and sisters along with us — and to have some idea where we’re going!
Will the fate of the progressives be of any historic value to the Kingdom? Just what will we have accomplished? What is the good being done? Is it good from the standpoints that God measures things? Is it good for unity? Does it show the love of God? Does this outcome help accomplish the mission of God on earth?
It’s not so much that this outcome is sinful. Rather, this outcome just doesn’t take God’s Kingdom anywhere at all that I can see. Surely, we have something to contribute before we close the doors and turn out the lights!
You see, our historic view of autonomy as virtual isolation has always been wrong. Hopefully, we will mature to see ourselves as having a much larger mission and purpose than growing our local congregation through competition with the other churches in town.
It won’t be until we learn not only to cooperate but to do mission as a community of churches that we begin to fulfill Jesus’ prayer for unity.