You won’t be surprised to learn that I have a theory as to why our rapid growth in the first part of the 20th Century came to an end. I think two events corresponded to upset the methods that had worked so well for decades.
First, the 1960s and early 1970s happened — the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, assassinations, Viet Nam — and the new generation learned to distrust human authority. President Johnson bungled Viet Nam. Nixon was a crook. Carter ruined the economy. Young people saw older people fight against racial and sex equality — with riots across the country (not just in the South). The generation born in the 1950s (my generation) grew up unwilling to believe something is true just because the government or some other authority figure said it was true. We decided that we’d find our own answers.
Second, the New International Version was published. When I was growing up, we studied out of the KJV, and most of my classmates in Sunday school could not understand it. I couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t even pronounce it. I mean, what’s a “sepulchre” and how do you say it?
(Phil 3:20) For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
(Eph 4:22) That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;
(Gen 15:4) And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
(1 Ki 3:26) Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.
The Revised Standard Version had come out years before, but had failed to catch on. It was accused of liberal bias (not just in the Churches of Christ) and wasn’t as readable as it should have been. The NASB came out at about the same time as the NIV, but the NIV became the favorite version, in large part, I think, because it uses standard English paragraphing rather than verse-by-verse paragraphing, greatly improving its readability. It is also just plain easier to read.
And so, the publication of the NIV allowed people without training in Jacobean English to actually read and understand the Bible. And a lot of us found out that we understood it in ways that were dramatically different from what we’d been taught. Until then, most church goers relied on the experts — the editors of the Gospel Advocate, the commentary authors, the preacher — to tell us what the Bible said. We hadn’t a clue how to read it ourselves. But after the NIV came out, we all understood — at well enough to wonder whether we’d been taught correctly and so to begin our own studies.
William Tyndale famously said to Bishop John Bell, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest.” I don’t know if that was true when he published his translation of the Bible into English in 1525, but it wasn’t true in the 1960s. It’s true today.
As a result, many of the Churches of Christ periodicals lost their influence. Until then, the history of Church of Christ theology could be easily traced through the pages of the Gospel Advocate, the Firm Foundation, and similar publications. After about 1970, their influence greatly declined. The Churches were equally influenced by books publishing viewpoints that would never find a publisher among the periodicals, and soon, books published outside the Churches of Christ gained influence. I’d bet that The Purpose Driven Church was bought by far more members of the Churches than any book ever published within the Churches.
You see, until about 1970, the Churches of Christ were an authoritarian institution. Foy Wallace, Jr., for example, was able to drive entire congregations and theologies out of the Churches from his chair as editor of the Gospel Advocate. That’s just no longer true. Readership of periodicals is in severe decline — and aging rapidly. Far fewer than half our congregations are significantly influenced by any editor at all.
There are, of course, other theories held by other people.
* Some argue that the Churches lost their momentum by leaving the teachings and methods of the 1950s. But I was there. That’s not how it happened. Rather, many congregations left the Churches over Pentecostalism, because the word-only view was obviously unscriptural and we had no better view to offer. (There is, of course, a better view than word-only or Pentecostalism. But Church of Christ members in the 1970s were unlikely to find help discovering it.) Meanwhile, the International Churches of Christ left because they saw the “mainstream” Churches as too uncommitted to discipleship, especially to personal evangelism. Others left because of the legalism and creedalism of the Churches.
No one left because we stopped having week-long gospel meetings. Rather, we stopped having gospel meetings because no one came. We didn’t stop growing because we lost respect for the editors of the periodicals. Rather, we stopped reading the periodicals because they were plainly inconsistent with the scriptures — especially the heart of God as revealed in the scriptures.
We didn’t stop attending debates because we no longer cared about doctrine. Rather, we stopped attending debates because both sides offered a false theology and our side rarely showed the heart of Jesus. We didn’t stop inviting our neighbors to church because we no longer loved Jesus. Rather, we stopped inviting our neighbors to church because we weren’t sure the preacher was teaching the real Bible.
* Some argue that the division occasioned by progressive Church members (such as me) undercut our evangelism. But —
— We’d been extremely divisive going back to 1889.
— The progressive movement is arguing for unity.
Now, an objective observer would conclude, I think, that greater Biblical literacy and freer flow of ideas is nothing but good. Why did the Churches plateau in numbers while gaining a healthier theology? Well, my theory is that there are several reasons —
* Progressive Churches are, on the whole, growing, and their growth largely offsets the decline of the more conservative Churches. The research supports this observation.
* The most conservative Churches are losing their children because their children are leaving Christianity altogether. This is according to Flavil Yeakley, who is quite conservative himself. The more progressive Churches often see their children attend non-Church of Christ churches when they leave home, but they remain faithful to Jesus. Those losses are offset by transfers joining their congregations from other Christian denominations.
* None of us are particularly good at converting people to Jesus. We’d spent nearly a century converting people to a denomination. We progressives learned that there were serious errors in the old approaches, but we’ve struggled to find a better approach. Old habits die hard.
* The changes in attitudes and power structures resulted in bitter, caustic division. It’s hard to invite someone to visit your church if the sermon is about what worship style God approves.
* We needed time to do some healing. It takes time to assimilate and truly understand the new theology we find in the scriptures. Indeed, we’ve had to spend more time unlearning than learning.
* We hit a leadership vacuum. With the weakening of the old editor-bishop structure, we didn’t know where to turn for ideas and leadership. We still struggle in that area. Some of our publishing houses offered very valuable leadership for a while. Now there’s not much out there now.
* While our church culture was shifting, so was the nation’s. The old authoritarian, KJV approach to Christianity wasn’t likely to convert many in the new Post-modern world, and we had no idea how to respond to a world that didn’t share our understandings of truth, scripture, and God. But this is a problem confronting American Protestantism in general.
As a result, many Churches have grown by attracting Church of Christ members from less healthy congregations. And just lately, some have grown by attracting Christians from less healthy congregations of other denominations. But there’s not been a lot of conversion growth. Some have done a good job of restoring de-churched Christians — people who grew up in a church and left it. We’re still not good at converting those from a non-Christian background.
But the problem has not gone unnoticed in the progressive Churches of Christ or the evangelical world, and new attitudes and approaches are being tried. We are in a liminal state, but we’re learning how to seek and save souls in this culture that surrounds us.