The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard’s June 13, 2010 Issue, Part 5 (What I’m Not Saying; What We Have to Give Up)

I think it’ll help if I say plainly what I’m not saying.

1. I’m not saying that all the denominations should all merge into new super-denomination with a uniform worship pattern, uniform organizational structure, and perfectly uniform doctrine. That was Campbell’s idea, but it’s unworkable; at least it is today.

In a perfect world, this is exactly where we’d be, of course, but this ideal wasn’t achieved even in apostolic times. This is not the cure for division.

2. I’m not saying that we must all become non-denominational community churches — although there’s a lot of appeal to that model. But we can be functionally united without going that far. And one natural result of becoming functionally united is that our old denominational identifiers will not be our self-identities — so maybe something kind of like that happens. But that’s not essential to the proposal.

3. I’m not saying we in the Churches of Christ must surrender our beliefs on anything — other our legalism and our isolation from our brothers and sisters in other denominations. We don’t have to buy guitars, take communion quarterly, or give up immersion. Uniformity is not essential to unity.

4. I’m not saying that we sit down with other denominations and negotiate an agreed creed. First, it’ll never happen. Second, our members would never submit to such a document — nor should they.

5. I’m not saying that a hierarchy should be created that takes title to our property or compels doctrinal obedience. We should remain autonomous and elder-led. We just shouldn’t be isolated.

But there are some things we have to give up —

A. Competition with the rest of the body. Imagine a man running to win a race whose arm tells his leg that it plans to go faster than the leg! We are not in competition with any true church that honors Jesus as Lord and submits to him in faith. Indeed, if we seem to be getting ahead of them, well, our worldly, selfish attitude only proves how far from Jesus we are.

Isn’t it obvious that we are called to defeat Satan — not people of faith who disagree over how to worship but not who to worship?

B. Ambition for worldly political power. A united church would be the most powerful voice in American democracy. Christians remain a solid majority. The only reason we don’t control the government now is our division. And if we were to actually unite, we’d be seriously tempted to use our God-given unity for selfish ends. We’d rationalize that they are God-given ends, but we’d find it much easier to get the members fired up to protect their own neighborhoods than the neighborhoods of the unsaved. It’ll be a problem because we have yet to learn to live the sacrifice of Jesus.

Jesus showed us how to do this. He refused to turn stones to bread, even though he hadn’t eaten in 40 days. It would not have been a sin to eat some bread. When his fast ended, he really did eat. The sin would be in using powers, given by God to serve others, to serve himself. And Jesus was called to be selfless — a servant.

Just so, the body of Christ, his bride, is called to selfless living. We cannot use the unity that God gives to impose power on the unwilling. We can’t pass laws making church attendance mandatory, because church attendance has no merit if not voluntary. Just so, if we compel the damned to live as Christians, we do God no favors.

This is a difficult area, because government should properly protect all from criminals and work for the good of the community it serves. Therefore, there are some sins that should be illegal — but we need to avoid the temptation to skip the evangelism and let the police make the damned act like Christians.

It gets complicated. We just need to realize that power is given to serve others and that obedience compelled by the power of the state is not obedience as God reckons obedience.

C. Affimation. Many in the Churches of Christ are used to worshiping where their distinctive beliefs are strongly affirmed every Sunday. Many want repeated lessons on baptism because these lessons assure them they are absolutely right and everyone else is wrong. It’s affirming.

In a unified church, we’ll have to find our affirmation in Jesus, that is, find our confidence in his grace, received through our faith, not in the brilliance of our Bible study. We should certainly strive to be brilliant Bible students, but our intellects won’t save us or keep us saved. That’s what faith does.

Worse yet, we’ll be rubbing shoulders and working with people who disagree with us about all sorts of things. And while most will be very nice about it, some will be jerks. We won’t become instantly perfect people. We’ll still have extra-grace Christians! And so we’ll have to get used to being disagreed with. (I suggest raising some teenagers. It’s good practice!)

D. Little pond. In a denominational world, lots of people get to be big fish in the little pond. My blog wouldn’t matter very much in a united church. The great preacher who gets to speak at lectureships all over the country may not get the same number of invitations when he’s outshone by brighter lights in a larger universe.

On the other hand, a united church will need a lot more lectureships. Training will become much more important because the churches will take on bigger challenges. And rather than having a few national lectureships, there will have to be many regional lectureships, because you won’t be able to fit everyone in the auditorium!

E. Challenge. Frankly, 20th Century Church of Christ-ianity was not very hard. It took no great courage to have five and only five acts of worship every single Sunday and to accept for membership only those who complied with a Five-Step Plan of Salvation.

But a unified church would be much more about Christian living than purity of doctrine. And it’s much harder to live a pure life than to have pure doctrine. Sermons will be more about caring for the poor, doing personal evangelism, planting churches, helping people in need — Matthew 25 kinds of things, Sermon on the Mount kinds of things — than why the Lutherans got consubstantiation wrong. It’s easy to feel affirmed when the lesson is on consubstantiation. It’s not so easy when the lesson is about a couple who sold everything they had and moved to the housing projects to serve the poor in the name of Jesus.

Missional Christianity is much harder than doctrinal Christianity.

F. Personal space. In the 20th Century, we considered certain subjects off limits to the preacher. The bedroom was off limits. Preaching on child raising was allowed, so long as he didn’t ask us to give our children to Jesus to be church planters, missionaries, preachers, etc. Our billfolds were off limits — if we made budget. If the church could pay its bills, our money was our money. Retirement was our retirement. Vacations were our vacations. Husbands and wives belonged to us, not to God.

But this faithful presence theology tells us that everything belongs to God, even our choice of spouse and our retirement plans. And “everything” includes our 401(k)’s. They are all God’s.

And that means Sunday morning sermons are going to be a little tougher to sit through.

Now, you may wonder why I assume that a united church will adopt missional and faithful-presence Christianity as normative teaching. Well, the way we unite is by adopting missional and faithful-presence Christianity as normative teaching.

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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24 Responses to The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard’s June 13, 2010 Issue, Part 5 (What I’m Not Saying; What We Have to Give Up)

  1. John says:

    This might fit better under another post, but here it is. Now, this is NOT to start some kind of an argument. I JUST would like to have your thoughts on the following quotes. Has this been your experience?

    "I am well aware of the progressives who are fast moving to evangelical fluff. And I am well aware of the neo-antis who seem stuck in traditions of their own making and trying to enforce them on everyone else. These groups are failing and losing their children in large numbers to the world. The progressives are losing 60 percent of their children to the religious world, and the neo-antis are losing 60 percent to non-participation.

    The mainstream is, however, producing well. They evangelize with love, care for the hurting, reach out to the lost, and train their children. They keep most of their kids faithful to the Lord."
    …………………………..

    "I have traveled much in the last 18 months, and the churches that are growing–without exception–are among the mainstream. They are healthy, loving, working, and devoted to the truth. God will bless such congregations with increase.

    A few progressive churches are swelling but most have seriously declined in the last five years. I know of several that are only a fraction of they had been.

    I believe we are winning this war of ideology. Once progressives reveal what they actually believe and want to do, they cease to attract as they once did."
    http://fellowshiproom.org/2010/01/28/the-state-of

    Me – I am expecting any comments this may generate to be kind and gentle. I know Jay will be a gentleman, I am expecting everyone to be the same.

    With humility, thank you.

  2. Alabama John says:

    John,

    My experience differs. What I am seeing is the very conservative churches are losing members to more progressive churches that are growing.

    This would be more so if there were more progressive churches in our area as many just choose the closest church that is more progressive in thinking and teaching than the conservative church they attend and disagree with. They would like one even more progressive to fit their thinking and real beliefs but its not here.

    Its very frustrating and I hear it all the time that they disagree with what's being preached on many subjects, but have no alternative so they stay and keep quiet until an alternative is presented. How different they talk one on one. I saw it myself how quiet and unresponsive the classes are and how many during the sermons are reading something to not have to listen to the same old "everyone is damned but us" and I mean US as the other churches down the road going both ways, church of Christ included with the denominations equally are all going straight to hell. Impossible fellowshipping.

    This teaching is dying (They call it the assault on the truth) and the reason so many are leaving the conservative churches, especially the young, and this will get worse as time goes on. Why? People are more educated today (thank the internet) and question rather than just be lead by whatever the preacher says. We must have more progressive churches or we will lose the majority to independent churches, or others, any where this false teaching is not present and preached every Sunday.

  3. Royce Ogle says:

    Jay,

    What you are talking about, believers of all stripes recognizing others as brothers who aren't like them, and working together to transform communities is already a reality in many places.

    In the Monroe/West Monroe area, Community Prayer Partners was launched several years ago and people from several different different denominations started to pray together on a regular basis.

    Today, I think almost 100 churches are working on shared goals of trying to reach our community for Christ, ridding the same of crime, drugs, prostitution, etc. and they are doing it together. At least 4 congregations of churches of Christ are included and some of their ministers are leaders in the movement.

    I'll speak for myself, but I think I'm fairly representative of others. I love some Pentecostal pastors, they don't try to get me to speak in tongues and I don't try to convince them they shouldn't. My Methodist brothers have never tried to set me right on any doctrine, and neither I them. We all agree on the supremacy and all sufficiency of Christ and that is what matters. Not one coc man has given one inch on his view of the Lord's Supper frequency, baptism, or a Capella singing.

    Why can't this sort of joint effort to make Christ known and to transform a community spiritually be done in communities all across America? I think the answer is that "most" coc brothers and others as well think uniformity is necessary for unity. It just isn't true. Unity is only based upon our common union with Christ by grace through faith. On that ground most everyone who calls himself a Christian will agree. Admittedly, many of our own will not agree but there will always be those isolationists who think only they are saved and they will stay to themselves and do little for the kingdom.

    Royce

  4. John,

    The quotes you give reveal an "us vs. them" attitude, even toward other Churches of Christ that is sad. This is even more evident in the entirety of the article than in your selected quotes. Perhaps this national speaker who travels a lot travels mostly among his supporters?

    My experience has been more like that of Alabama John. Many of those in the pew are less dogmatic than their preachers and elders – and they are more open to "reason" than many of their leaders. I suppose the more you have invested in a position, the more fervently you will hold it.

    I definitely see in many places that the more avidly conservative people who speak with passion are given deference. This is not necessarily because others agree with with them, but to keep the peace. I also see those with more irenic, open views keeping quiet to avoid trouble.

  5. John says:

    Alabama John, I am near Winfield. You can click on my name. Where are you, since we are both Alabama Johns.

  6. Tom Forrester says:

    Prison ministry allows one to participate in a small working model of unity where few, if any, are from the same denomination. Inmates don't have a choice of worshipping with a particular church, but rather attend protestant or catholic services. I would not advocate a super church either, but it's interesting to see how men come together when there is need and there are no other choices.

    Christian inmates see the advantage of unity where the daily problems stem from fear, survival, guilt and hopelessness. Men in the prison church must actively look for ways to be united in Christ because the situation is far to serious to squabble over who is more doctrinely correct. These men realize they need to have each others backs, encourage each other and pray for one another. The tremendous need to be lights in such a dark place and to present a united front is quickly realized.

    The point being that where the need is realized, unity comes about. I found the same was true in Vietnam. We banded together with little consideration of the differences of the men in our squad. Perhaps if we better understood the urgency of our situation, we would be more inclined to join with members of other denominations to do a better job of bringing Jesus into our communities and working along side of those we may disagree with.

  7. Alabama John says:

    Amen Tom! Sounds like you have had the experience that changes you. Difficult situations sure make you see things differently dont they! God works in misterious ways sometimes doesn't He?

    John, I am where St. Clair, Blount and Jefferson counties meet. Good to see someone else that is also from the stronghold of conservatism. Good reading on your site. Thank you for it.

  8. JMF says:

    No offense to Phil Sanders, but my respect for him waned greatly when he only posted about 2-3 times in Grace Conversation. He had a platform to read thousands of people that are moving towards "evangelical fluff" and effect them. He didn't.

    As far as Jay's post goes, point E is a good one. Props to any COC preacher that goes and preaches that lesson this coming Sunday!

    Back to Phil Sanders…his posting is filled with assumptions where correct facts are likely accessible. I'm assuming Yeakley has solid numbers on the shrinkage/growth within the various branches of the COC brand.

    And personally, I wouldn't base the viability of the COC on how many preacher schools and preacher students we have. In fact, I just see more preachers as meaning there will be more churches for them to preach at. (More money for preachers) + (more money for additional churches) = less money to serve with.

    Now, if Sanders had said that we are putting out three times as many missionaries as we did 10 years ago, that is credit-worthy.

  9. Garrett says:

    I totally agree that missional Christianity is much harder than doctrinal Christianity. I am proud of the progressive congregations in my area that have taken such a great interest in social justice, serving the poor and underprivileged, and pregnant single mothers in the projects. As the old saying goes, "People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care." It is easy for us to rally around our "perfect doctrine" (especially for those of us raised CoC) and beat others into submission with our interpretation of the Bible, but to truly live out the heart and attitude of Jesus in our daily lives makes us very uncomfortable.

  10. Tom Forrester says:

    What if the doctrine we are so quick to defend included something like this: forgive others 70×7, turn the other cheek, pray for your enemies, do good to those who take advantage of you, be a peacemaker, go the extra mile and other relational topics that Jesus was so clear on? Could it be that much of what divides us is the doctrine where we glory in being "right" and much of what Jesus taught would actually unites us?

    Jesus was challenged for breaking orthodoxy by healing on the Sabbath and talking to people of unclean status. I wonder if His unorthodox actions were intended to become our new doctrine. Could it be that ‘judge not lest ye be judged' is to be a part of our personal or corporate belief system? Could it be the intent of Jesus to make loving God with all our heart and mind and loving our neighbor as our self the new doctrine? What if churches united around doctrine that promoted Christians as ambassadors of Christ with concern for building relationships and reaching the lost; belief in feeding the poor, forgiving enemies, showing grace to other religions, not judging or slandering those of another political persuasion, showing mercy to thieves, loving the unlovable, resisting pride and arrogance and we visiting those in prison?"

  11. Tom,

    What a radical idea! Keep talking like that, and you may find yourself on a cross. Oh! That already happened to the one whose radical doctrine you are proposing we get serious about following!

    Jerry

  12. Jay Guin says:

    Anon,

    Thanks. Excellent video and song! (I just love swapping song suggestions.)

  13. Jay Guin says:

    John,

    Phil Sanders is taking liberties with Flavil Yeakley's work Good News and Bad News: A Realistic Assessment of the Churches of Christ in the United States 2008. I bought my copy from the Gospel Advocate. The quotation is from page 24 —

    There was also a pattern in regard to what happened to church members who dropped out. In congregations hwere church leaders selected response "A," "Much more liberal or progressive," or response "B," "A little more liberal or progressive," members who dropped out tended to join other religious groups. In congregations where church leaders selected response "D," "A little more conservative or traditional," or response "E," "Much more conservative or traditional," most members who dropped out have no current religious affiliation.

    Retention rates appear to be higher in congregations that are seen to be relatively similar to other Churches of Christ.

    Yeakley does not favor us with raw numbers supporting these conclusions, just the information in the quoted paragraphs. Yeakley is clearly most sympathetic to the Church of Christ "mainstream" — which I often refer to as "conservative." That's choice "C" — "middle-of-the-road" for a Church of Christ.

    People who leave middle of the road Churches are most likely to attend another middle of the road Church. That's no surprise. Those who leave a more conservative church tend to leave organized religion altogether — which is a truly terrible result! And those that leave a more progressive congregation don't leave Jesus but may attend a non-Church of Christ church. Of course, the progressive Churches are also far more likely to attract non-Church of Christ Christians from other denominations.

    Now, these numbers say nothing about the growth or decline of the progressive and middle of the road groups. After all, the middle of road churches may well be growing by virtue of transfer membership from more conservative Churches or even Churches in other towns. That's not growth. The same can be said of the progressives. The only thing we know for sure from the quoted material is that that Churches self-described as more conservative are in absolute decline.

    Meanwhile, the very same report tells us that from 1980 to 2007, Oklahoma (home of the Quail Springs Church of Christ and their critics) lost more members than any other state — 9,406 members net and 11,011 adherents net. Tennessee lost 5,479 members and 10,187 adherents, meaning they lost LOTS of families with young children! Imagine losing over 10,000 adherents, half of whom are children. That’s just unimaginably bad news!

    Yeakley says that the states where we’re the strongest tend to be the states where we lose the most members. Our growth tends to be in areas where churches are being planted, whereas established areas are in decline, often in severe decline.

    We also now know that the Churches of Christ as a whole are in membership decline. And while Yeakley has not reported this, I've been told by someone who works with him that the decline is among the most conservative Churches and partly offset by growth among the most progressive — which seems obvious from observation, at least around here. My congregation — progressive — has been growing over the last 30 years and is now the largest Church of Christ in town, whereas it used to be the third largest. The moderate and more conservative Churches are losing members. The only middle of the road or conservative Churches that I know to be growing are growing thanks to transfer growth due to urbanization. But that's just what I see here.

    The bottom line is that Yeakley has announced that the Churches are losing members. And while Yeakley doesn't give us the numbers, I'm confident that the thousands of Churches that have closed are not progressive.

  14. Jay Guin says:

    Royce,

    I agree that in many cities this is already in progress. Thanks for mentioning that. I would just urge the churches in those cities to intentionally turn up the unity — by, for example, planning joint communion services and training events — anything possible to help the membership feel and the community see that you are one in Jesus.

  15. Jay Guin says:

    John and John,

    Sounds like the original Dreamland BBQ is about halfway between the two of you. If you are both ever in Tuscaloosa, I'm buying.

  16. Jay Guin says:

    Tom,

    Thanks for that example. As they say, "There are no denominationalists in a foxhole" — or something like that. It's a GREAT point. We define our fellowship by comfort, not scripture. If we're in tough circumstances, at war, doing prison ministry, then that Baptist sure looks like a fellow Christian — because we need him. But when there are plenty of people just like me around, I don't need him anymore, so I kick him out.

    So, yes, we need to realize that this life is more about warfare than comfort — and, yes, we need the Baptists and they need us.

    (1Co 12:21-22 ESV) 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,

  17. Mike Ward says:

    Jay,

    The more I read of this very long series (or is that series or series) "The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ" the less idea I have of what you believe or what you are advocating.

  18. John says:

    Jay,

    We are middle of the road where I preach. God has blessed us with 16 baptisms in the past 2 years or so. The age range was 18 – 70. Strangely, our attendance hasn't moved much. Some have gone to other congregations for legitimate reasons, some were coming anyway, and there have been some deaths. So our numbers are about the same. Our attendance is about 80.

    My point is, we should be an example of a middle of the road church that is growing (because of the baptisms). As I write this, I don't remember anyone who has come to us from another congregation.

    Where do most of UCC's members come from? Have you picked up a lot from other T-Town churches of Christ?

    I will remember the Dreamland thing. I think we should make Blake pay.

  19. mark says:

    There are 293 ways to make change for a dollar. A weird fact but a way in which denominationalism can be one. The question is how many different values add up to a universal church? I can see that ministry as a way to accommodate value can bring people together without agreeing. But we would need to understand what it means to be a penny, a nickle, a dime, and quarter, in the kingdom.

  20. Neal says:

    I've enjoyed reading this discussion and I have had thought along these same lines myself. But, I have learned to keep my thoughts mostly to myself in my present Church of Christ congregation even thought it is viewed locally as being somewhat progressive. I don't have a Church of Christ only background having grown up in the Christian Church and dwelled amongst the Episcopalians for several years. But, I have learned from my experiences that Service is a wonderful unifier.

    While attending an Episcopal Church years ago, I began a Prison Ministry. This Ministry usually involves about 8 different denominations and 35-40 various congregations. And, guess what? We all get along wonderfully. It is absolutely a huge positive to have men from different denominations introduce themselves as such on the first night of the ministry. The inmates sense immediately that this ministry is different and the love that we have for each other makes the ministry much more effective.

    I had prayed that God would lead me to more Ministries like this and… He did (You need to be careful praying in that manner). I was led into Drug Rehabilitation and Local Jail ministries which are all multi-denominational. I think my experiences in these ministries might have at least partially led my current Church of Christ congregation into a local jail ministry. I have absolutely loved to watch the men and women from my Church as they minister to the inmates. At last, their long studies of Christian Servanthood have meaning! It's like they have been set free at long last to do God's work. And, the ministry which was started as a Chuch of Christ work, has expanded to involve at least a few persons from other denominations.

    I meet with some men from other denominations in a weekly accountability group. If I am asked about my doctrinal beliefs (baptism, Communion, etc), I explain them and after over 6 years of such meetings, we still meet and love each other. They love jesus as much as myself and they minister in some of the same ministries as myself. Isn't this a better picture of THE CHURCH than running full page advertisements condemming each other?

    Blessings to all…

  21. Anne says:

    Jay, I have problems with basing everything on numbers. Progressive churches are gaining numbers so that equates that progressive churches are correct and since conservative churches are losing members that equates that they are wrong. If that's the case let's all become Muslims because I've read that they are really growing. I think we've begun to take too much stock in numbers, might does not always mean right.

  22. Jay Guin says:

    Anne,

    I entirely agree that numbers can never tell the whole story, but I was replying to claims made by a very prominent preacher for the conservative Churches of Christ. If someone wants to argue from the numbers, he needs to argue with scrupulous accuracy.

    And although the numbers don't tell the whole story, they do tell part of the story. And one thing they tell us is that the Churches of Christ are in absolute numerical decline. At the least, that means we need to get busy evangelizing a lost and hurting world. All this crowing about how great things are while we are in decline is sheer denial.

    The cure for the decline may or may not be a change in doctrine — but doing the same things the same ways is not going to work — and there's a LOT that can change in addition to doctrine. And yet all I hear from the conservative leadership is how great things are as they are. That's not leadership. That's burying your head in the sand.

  23. Alabama John says:

    Amen Jay

    I see more folks from other denominations coming to the churches of Christ that are progressive than ever before.
    Among the conservatives there are more splits and knocking our liberal brethren at the churchs of Christ at practically every location around us and that's a lot.

    I do not see that stopping, only getting worse. When its preached we are the one true church, the question begs "which one?"

    Preachers that are attending and participating in lectureships this year will not agree with something said and so not attend next year.

    How long can the members at large afford to support so many small churches?

    When is the contribution going to be used for some good work like orphans or widows, etc. and not for "fulltime"LOL preachers?

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