Now, one of the biggest reasons we don’t know how to cooperate to accomplish truly large tasks, such as missions, church planting, and publishing Sunday school literature, is the old “missionary society” controversy. A missionary society is just a nonprofit organization through which several congregations cooperate to send missionaries.
When we split over instrumental music in 1906, we also split over societies. It was a mistake. We need to get over it.
Most of us never even heard of the controversy, but it has affected how we think of “church.” We think nearly exclusively at the congregational level. It doesn’t even occur to us to think at a denominational level.
The controversy (and the related non-institutional controversy that reached a head in the 1950’s) left us with a culture where each congregation tends to its own business and rarely cooperates with others. Moreover, as to those few institutions we do have, few congregations feel any real ownership. We’re half embarrassed to be supporting them, and yet we’ve about forgotten why. It’s just the Church of Christ culture.
Well, we need to completely forget about these old fights. The whole society controversy was a colossal mistake. Let me explain.
Before the Civil War, Restoration Movement churches formed many state societies to send missionaries and publish Bibles or other literature, very much in the tradition of the 19th Century’s Second Great Awakening. The American frontier was rapidly expanding, and missionaries and Bibles were desperately needed.
Alexander Campbell himself vigorously campaigned for the Restoration Movement churches to form the American Christian Missionary Society, as a national missionary society. He was its first president. And initially, the Society was vigorously supported.
But soon, doubts began to arise regarding the propriety of such societies. During the Civil War, the Society, meeting in the North with few delegates from the South, voted to declare slavery sinful and to disapprove the South’s participation in the War. Until then, the Society had carefully avoided taking doctrinal positions, especially positions that had no impact on missions.
Once the War was over, the Southern churches became increasingly hostile to the Society, and editors questioned the scriptural authority for such institutions. Soon it became grounds for a division — even though participation had always been voluntary.
After the 1906 split, the a cappella churches were also anti-Society churches. Since then, missions have always been done by a local congregation sending out a missionary and calling on sister congregations to contribute to the effort, always under the oversight of a single eldership. And for a while, the system actually had considerable success. But back then, our denomination, with vigorous periodicals and institutions, felt like a single “brotherhood” and diligently worked together.
But the number of Church of Christ missionaries is currently in dramatic decline. We are increasingly sending people on short-term missions, but we support far fewer full-time missionaries. Why?
Well, we aren’t structured to recruit missionaries very well. And who would you call to find out where we even have or need missionaries?
And we aren’t structured to train missionaries. I mean, no progressive Church would send someone from a school of preaching. So where do we train men leaving a secular career to go into the mission field?
And many of our current mission efforts just aren’t very effective, and we don’t know how to fix them. We have more confidence in our ability to manage local efforts. (For every book on how to do missions, there must be a thousand on how to lead the local church.) Many congregations are increasingly focused on internal and local matters because of the emphasis on church growth in evangelical literature. And missionaries are expensive.
Meanwhile, the independent Christian Churches have never had a problem cooperating through societies. If a church doesn’t agree with a society’s efforts, it doesn’t participate. Or it supports a different society. And the Christian Churches are enjoying dramatic growth because of it.
For example, they formed Stadia to plant churches across the US, and they’ve planted thousands of new congregations in just the last couple of decades. The Christian Churches are growing rapidly, while the Churches of Christ are plateaued, and they credit their planting ministries.
Why don’t the progressive Churches of Christ participate in such cooperative efforts? Well, not because we think it’s sin. Certainly most progressive Churches are beyond such thinking. Nor is it doubt as to their expedience. Rather, I think —
* We are just so attuned to thinking solely at the congregational level, it never even occurs to us.
* We are worried that there may be a few members who object. However, very few remember the old missionary society controversy. I dare say less than 1% of our members ever heard a lesson on the evils of the missionary society, and those who did joined our congregation to get away from such teaching.
* We don’t know how to communicate among ourselves that participation through a society is even a possibility! You see, the Christian Church societies and some Church of Christ institutions have been formed for this very purpose, and we communicate so very poorly that few of us even know it.
Now, we have a few choices.
* We can continue to believe in cooperation but never actually do it.
* We can form our own cooperative societies.
* We can participate in the Christian Church’s existing societies.
* We can participate in similar societies formed by other denominations.
These are not mutually exclusive. And it assumes, of course, that the existing societies would be willing to cooperate with us, which is hardly a given. After all, societies are generally governed by their members, and they may not want to be influenced by the likes of us.
But Stadia has already agreed to begin working with the a cappella churches, which is an extraordinary first step. It seems likely that others would follow suit if asked. And it seems foolish to divide our efforts when we have so much in common with the independent Christian Churches.
We are born of the same Restoration Movement. We have identical forms of church government and worship, except for the instrument. In fact, many of them operate under the name “Church of Christ.” They actually call themselves the independent Christian Churches/churches of Christ. Yes, with a little c. We are just so much alike!
In light of the efforts of Rick Atchley and other to re-unite the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches, this seems a very appropriate step. But it’s not happening at a meaningful pace. Even for the progressives Churches of Christ that have no objection at all to the re-unification, there’s very little participation in the Christian Church’s societies.
And the biggest reason? Well, it’s just a plain ol’ failure to communicate. We aren’t communicating because we don’t have a way to do it. Remember? There are no progressive periodicals to even tell the Churches about the opportunity. We don’t have a meaningful way to talk to each other.
This is no way to run a revolution.
To give a better sense of what I’m talking about, consider the following possible ventures that might be undertaken by a society, that is, a parachurch organization voluntarily supported that those churches that wish to do so:* Foreign missions
* Domestic missions
* Inner city ministries
* Building and managing affordable housing
* Publishing Sunday school literature
* Publishing low cost Bibles for mission work
* Church plantings
* Elder training
* Foster care for children
* Christian counseling, family therapy
* Classes and literature for marriage and parenting
* Classes and literature for financial management
* Retirement plans for ministers and missionaries
* Health plans for ministers and missionaries
* Scholarships for the training of ministers
* Group purchasing for churches
* Low cost health services
* Nutrition programs
Now, you should immediately notice that we already do much but not all of this. We have nonprofits that raise money to do mission work through radio and correspondence courses. They are in every sense a missionary society except the missionaries work from within the US by using modern media.
We have foster care nonprofits supported by churches and individuals, not under the oversight of any eldership.
We have colleges and universities supported by church and individuals with no eldership oversight.
We have inner city ministries with self-perpetuating boards.
You see, we already have societies — lots of them! We just use different names for them. But we have little means of communicating their presence or needs to one another. And every new one faces theological objections until we get used to the idea.
On the other hand, it’s all very hit or miss. No one is concerned to build affordable housing or provide low-cost health services or do inner city missions in most towns. If someone just happens to set one up, we’re proud and might support it, but if it never happens, we don’t miss it.
Those organizations that do exist, however, have self-perpetuating boards of directors and little accountability to their supporters. Most never issue an audit. Most aren’t under any congregation’s oversight, and those that are, have only very nominal oversight.
We do a lot of good this way. But if we were to ever think at a state or national level, we’d do a lot more. If we could learn to communicate more effectively, we’d do a lot more. And if we could figure some way of imposing accountability on our societies — our parachurch organizations — we’d waste a lot less money.