The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard’s June 13, 2010 Issue, Part 8 (Painting a Picture)

Imagine, if you will, a community without denominations. Here in West Alabama, for example, imagine that all the congregations of Christ’s church decide to cooperate in all things. They begin with the easiest form of cooperation: benevolence. They begin small, working together by coordinating Celebrate Recovery efforts, food distribution to the poor, and the like.

Leaders from the churches decide to meet periodically not just for prayer and encouragement, but to coordinate and plan their efforts. With over 100,000 volunteers available, they realize that the church in Tuscaloosa is capable of far more than it’s even imagined in the past.

The leadership encourages some of its members to move to impoverished communities to become beacons of light and serve in God’s redemptive mission there. Over time, many are rescued from poverty and addiction, from broken marriages and failed families, and many turn to Jesus. Racial divisions weaken and the town changes.

The volunteers who work most closely with the poor do evangelism, too, of course — and they look for congregations for their new converts. They find themselves more concerned with whether the people they’ve rescued from poverty and brokenness will be accepted, encouraged, and supported than whether they are correctly taught on infralapsarianism. Christianity has a doctrinal element that’s of critical importance, but they learn that love is the greatest gift.

(1Jo 3:14-18 NIV) 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.  15 Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.  16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.  17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

When John explains to us how to know whether we are saved, he asks whether we love — not whether we understand hypostatic union. He also asks whether we have faith, but “faith” is simply faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God — not faith in how baptism works or God’s preferred form of church organization.

(1Jo 5:1 NIV) Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.

When a single mother is killed in a housing project, the church must find suitable foster parents for her children. The volunteers, of course, insist that the foster parents be devout Christians, but they are far more concerned with their ability as parents and Christian role models than their position on how often to take communion.

Over time, although the churches in town continue to meet in separate buildings, with differing worship styles, the Christians begin to think of themselves as part of but one church — not a single congregation under a single eldership, but a single body of the Messiah, united by the Spirit. A big part of the transition is the quarterly communion services in Bryant-Denny stadium (it now holds over 100,000 people). The services focus on celebrating victories that Jesus is winning through the Tuscaloosa churches. Stories are told, testimonies are shared, and people find themselves cheering for churches of different denominations.

Churches begin to merge, as old priorities shift in favor of higher, better priorities, but not all churches merge. Some churches merge but conduct multiple services. Some just merge. It just seems so silly to maintain 200 75-member congregations with barely enough resources to pay the power bill when a merger will allow them to support desperately needed services, to support missionaries, etc. But there remain hundreds of congregations, worshipping and teaching as they understanding the scriptures.

And as the churches grow larger and as the churches see mission to those in need as more important than preserving stale animosities from the post-Reformation European religious wars, they see the need to train up their own members for fulltime ministry and missions. Just as many megachurches already do, they form their own training programs, because the seminaries are teaching a religion that’s 20 years behind the times. The West Alabama churches want ministers trained in what they consider important. And so they start a school for ministry – not just preaching, but counseling, serving in the housing projects, planting churches, feeding the hungry, cooperating with secular and governmental social services agencies, interfacing with local government — a whole host of skills not taught in the typical Christian college.

Meanwhile, the local Christian private schools begin to change their curriculums. No longer do they offer a secular education with devos and Bible classes and pledges of allegiance tacked on. They see the necessity of involving their students in actual works of ministry and teaching them how to understand what they’re doing and how to be leaders in such efforts. They teach them how to plant churches by bringing church planters in as spiritual heroes to be emulated. They teach a religion that expects Christian children to grow up not only orthodox but practicing a lives of selfless love. It’s not enough just to have the right positions on the issues — and the “issues” change as immigration, welfare, racial reconciliation, and environmental concerns become far more immediate than apostolic succession versus congregational autonomy.

The united church organically, naturally, and by the power of the Spirit transforms private schooling, seminary education, benevolence, and missions. The children growing up in the Churches of Christ learn that the assembly is a time to celebrate God’s powerful working in the community, to encourage and uplift one another as they learn a new way of being, and to praise God for inviting them into his family where they can experience such things.

There are, of course, tough decisions to be made. The movement begins with mainstream, evangelical churches with very orthodox views on the Trinity, inspiration, and such. But other churches that aren’t so orthodox want to join their communion — and some lines have to be drawn. Some lines are easy. You must have faith in Jesus, and so non-Messianic Jews, Muslims, and Hindus can’t join. Other lines are more difficult– Mormons, Catholics, and other groups present serious challenges to knowing just how broad God’s grace is.

But the leaders have the wisdom to adopt no creed, and so they let the Bible answer these questions in terms of faith and repentance, not creedalism. In fact, many people from less orthodox denominations join the good works and worship of the united church — and most gladly lay their positions at the foot of the cross as they see the power of a lived gospel.  And the united church grows.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m naive, optimistic, and unrealistic.

(Mat 19:26 ESV) 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

But if God wants us to be united, well, it must be possible. And if this isn’t the way forward, I’d love to hear a better idea. I’m not interested in the naysaying. It’s easy and cheap to be a cynic (I speak from experience). It’s dangerous to have a dream, because dreams can disappoint. Cynics never have that problem. But what fun is that?

I’ve seen God do some amazing things. And this one has to be easy for him — because he commanded it. We’re just too scared to try. And that’s not his fault.

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  1. We are seeing a glimer of that vision here in Monroe/West Monroe, Louisiana.

    One of our elders, Mac Owen, a former junkie, now godly visionary, brought Celebrate Recovery to our church. Lives were regularly being transformed. Soon he was helping other churches begin CR. Our church helped the largest church in the area, First Baptist W Monroe, get CR started. Now many of our churches are partners in the gospel, in benevolence, and in transforming our community.

    10 Years ago our church and the Baptist church down the road were almost enemies. Now we have a loving relationship, each respecting the other, and each doing everything possible to make Christ known.

    It is possible…

    Royce

  2. What a vision, brother Guin! Would to God that it would spread, catch fire and cover the earth! Keep talking to us . . . seed sown for God's harvest is never wasted.

    Cordially,
    Edward (originally from North Alabama)

  3. Any way I can help facilitate this vision in my life let me know – this is one of my dreams. May more Christians in this city catch your vision!!

  4. I love this vision! In "They love Jesus but not the Church" Dan Kimball makes the comment that people outside of the Church know more about what we don't believe than what we do believe. Royce, I love Mac Owen! I have the same tattoo one my arm that he has on his. I had the chance to meet him and Mary at Saddleback last year that the CR Summit. Celebrate Recovery is a great way to bring Churches together. People are dying everyday due to addictions. Woman are giving up their children that are born addicted to drugs everyday. I feel that if as a Church we start working together to reach folks and show them that 'Churchy' people are no different from them then we will start to see more and more people want to know Jesus more! In Luke 5:31 Jesus tells us that "It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick."

  5. Jay:
    I long deeply for the unity that you write of with passion, and I work toward it too. I rejoice in your deep desire, but not all that you wrote.

    As one comment, this statement surprised me: "Christianity has a doctrinal element that’s of critical importance, but they learn that love is the greatest gift." What is love, Jay? Is love not what I did when I sat down with a friend and read the Word, a friend who had never read the Bible before? How about the example of Jesus as He teaches us to love the Lord, His Word, and one another? And was not His teaching others an example of His love? And were not the apostles loving others when they taught "everything I have commanded you" (Mt. 28:20)? How is "doctrine" separated from Christ-like love?!

    Let me share a concern and part of a vision too, Jay. A vision partially informed by Josiah, Ezra, and Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies. Our nation has a desperate need to read the Word, listen to the Word. Birkerts believes that literary reading is dying in the U.S. The recent NEA studies would seem to confirm (though there is a bit of change of late). Many read bits and pieces of Scripture and by that are deceived into knowing little about Jesus and His teachings (including His teachings as the risen Lord). Or they listen to a sermon like the one I recently heard. 30 minutes of preaching… and not one statement from Scripture. Not one quote. Not even a mention of Scripture. Astounded me.

    So… I wonder what would happen were all the congregations in a city to come together for the sole purpose of hearing the Word of God read. Just read together, listen to the Word together. I have no doubt great things would happen — including oneness of understanding.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

  6. Royce–

    That is awesome that you go to church with Mac Owen!! He is a legend!! He was at our CR meeting a few weeks ago — he and his wife gave their testimonies, and it was amazing. In fact, a guy from out group will be coming to speak at your church here in the near future. You guys are lucky to have him as an elder, IMO.

  7. Last weekend was when I really felt like I first connected with this vision that Jay is offering. Since that time, it has occupied a large portion of my brain.

    I led two bible studies this week with about 15 people that aren't ultra-conservative, but are mainstream conservative and thus, still quite legalistic. I've been leading a grace class with them — and though it hasn't been without challenges, it has been extremely fruitful.

    As in, we met for 4.5 hrs last night (a friday night) with several twenty-somethings and one of their parents.

    I concluded the grace lesson with offering this vision. I put it in my terms, but the message is the same. Basically, this is what I told them:

    "Just to learn a more grace-centered message is not enough. It has to change our lives in some way for it to have been effective. Once we understand grace, we've got to know how that makes things different.

    "Here is what I'd like to see: let's join with the other 6 congregations here in this two mile area. Let's work together and commit to making this the most Kingdom-like 4 square miles on Earth. Let's commit to everyone in this 4-mile area having all of their necessities met. Let's commit to caring for our single moms. Let's commit to strengthening our marriages. Let's commit to helping those that need employment find it. Etc.

    "We'll be in charge of single moms. The baptists will be in charge of marriage care. The community church will be in charge of personal needs, etc.

    "No, this is not about convincing the Baptists they are wrong about baptism.

    "Up to now, our plan has been to get everyone 'right' and on board doctrinally — and then we'll set the world on fire.

    "Let's try it Jesus' way. When Jesus came back he asked (I can't remember whom): 'Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.'

    "Let's go in Jesus' order. Let's feed His sheep, and then let's watch how the Spirit blesses us. Maybe the Baptists will learn from us about baptism. Maybe WE'LL learn a little from the AG's about the Spirit.

    "What do you guys think?"

    They were all staring at me, and a girl said: "That is the most amazing idea I've ever heard." Everyone else agreed. Even the ones that are still having a lot of trouble getting beyond "only the COC are Christ's church."

    They were all extremely excited by the idea. They were all willing (including the legalistic parent) to work beside whomever in order to do God's work here on Earth.

    I told them that the reason they feel impassioned about this is because their spirit is being fed. The very idea itself makes your heart leap. We were created for good works — and just like a dog wants nothing more than to do the task for which it was bred — we get pumped whenever we are given a chance to do the works for which we were created. They were excited, and want to see it become a reality.

    Sadly, it won't be a reality, because we won't be involved (as a Church) in this. Too much of a chance that the Baptists do a good job at marriage counseling and they end up getting some new members.

    But I have no doubt that is is what the Spirit is moving us to do. And actually DO IT.

  8. JMF,

    Yes, Mac is a great servant/leader. We are blessed to have his leadership and role model. But, Mac is only one of some very exceptional elders who lead our church under Christ.

    I pray God's blessing for your ministry.

    Royce

  9. I have experienced some of Jay's vision (see my post under part 5 comments) and it is wonderful. But, my experience has mostly been individual and I long for my whole Christian Community to be a part of it. A few have joined me but most still think that showing up for Church 3 times a week, singing acapella and not allowing women to serve communion is Christianity. It is very….sad.

  10. Adam,

    It's really just a matter of someone taking the initiative. Most church leaders are so busy with the day to day they don't have time or energy to worry about what might be missing. (I wonder what it would cost to rent Coleman Coliseum?)

  11. Bruce,

    The world does not and cannot understand that preaching the gospel is love. They don't believe in Jesus! But they understand that caring for AIDS sufferers and the homeless is love. And they might be willing to hear a Bible lesson from someone who shows love in a way they can understand. John explains it plainly —

    (1Jo 3:16-18 ESV) 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

    Just so, in the church, the doctrinal instruction has to be wrapped in love or no one will listen. As the cliche goes — and it's true despite being a cliche — no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. If the only way we know how to show our love is by teaching on views on baptism and instrumental music, we'll be very ineffective — and not very much like Jesus.

    Doctrine is of critical importance — and I've typed, I'm sure, over 1,000,000 words here specifically on doctrine. But doctrine without a sacrificial, selfless, compassionate love is worse than nothing.

  12. JMF,

    That's the most exciting thing I've heard in quite a long time! — not that your leadership won't support you, of course, but that young people raised in legalism remain so filled with the Spirit that their hearts leap with joy at missional teaching. Praise God!

    The next generation is going to do better than me and mine — no doubt — and it excites me.