Are we really still a movement?
The Standard refers to a definition of a movement as having three characteristics:
- A commonly owned direction
- A common basis on which that direction is owned
- A esprit that informs and motivates those who are thus joined in their common cause
The author, Jim Tune, then says, “We’ve always been a loosely knit, independent bunch. … That said, it seems to me there was a time when there was greater consensus in our movement about a commonly owned direction, even a sense of cause that we rallied behind and owned in a more broad-based way.”
Well, Tune is out of the instrumental Christian Churches, but he could just as well have been speaking of the a cappella Churches of Christ. We are certainly not as much of a movement as we used to be. But then, we haven’t been a movement in over 100 years.
In the early 19th Century, the “commonly owned direction” was a vision for the unification of all denominations. The approach, as outlined in Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address,” was (1) to unite based on faith in Jesus and (2) build common practices based on primitive Christianity. But unity was to be found in faith, not in a common pattern of worship or organization. As Campbell wrote,
8. That as it is not necessary that persons should have a particular knowledge or distinct apprehension of all divinely revealed truths in order to entitle them to a place in the church; neither should they, for this purpose, be required to make a profession more extensive than their knowledge: but that, on the contrary, their having a due measure of scriptural self-knowledge respecting their lost and perishing condition by nature and practice; and of the way of salvation thro’ Jesus Christ, accompanied with a profession of their faith in, and obedience to him, in all things according to his word, is all that is absolutely necessary to qualify them for admission into his church.
This direction led to the assimilation of many existing congregations and even denominations that were delighted to consolidate under this single vision, seeking true unity in Christ. Before the death of Alexander Campbell, the son of Thomas Campbell, the Restoration Movement had rapidly expanded from a single congregation to one of the nation’s largest denominations.
However, after the Civil War, many began to define the common practices as tests of salvation, so that instrumental music vs. a cappella singing became a salvation issue, as did countless other questions. Thus, precisely contrary to the original vision, “a particular knowledge or distinct apprehension of all divinely revealed truths” became necessary to have a place in the church.
For the Churches of Christ, the vision became adherence to a strict uniformity of practice and teaching. Nonetheless, the Churches prospered and grew rapidly for many years, despite their legalism. But during this time, roughly the 100 years from the Civil War to around 1970 or so, the vision of the Churches of Christ was defensive — building up an array of arguments to defend positions that had become firmly entrenched — indeed, unquestioned.
But the Churches were also busy sending missionaries around the world, building colleges and universities, and planting churches. While the Churches were doctrinally static and entrenched, they were actually quite active in spreading the gospel and their own brand of how to do church.
Benevolence was taught as essential, indeed, as part of the “pattern,” but most congregations had only minimal benevolence programs, perhaps a small fund for beggars who came to the door and perhaps a program for distributing clothing to the poor. A few churches, such as the Madison Church of Christ, had much larger programs, but the emphasis was far more on missions than on social services.
In the last decades of the 20th Century, many of the Churches of Christ found that vision increasingly unsatisfactory. In my own experience, the availability of newer, easier-to-read translations caused many to question the truth of much of what they’d been taught. Moreover, as Christian bookstores spread across the country, people became increasingly exposed to differing views and found many alternative interpretations of the scripture more true to the scripture than what the Churches of Christ had traditionally taught.
We now find ourselves in a third phase, having gone from movement, to defense, and now to exploration. A better but less common term would be liminality. “Liminality” is what happens when a group of people experience a radical change in their circumstances, requiring a new understanding.
The Wikipedia says,
The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed — a situation which can lead to new perspectives.
A student freshly graduated from college and moving into the job market is usually in a liminal state. Old habits and patterns no longer work. The student has to learn to no longer think of himself as a college student and re-define himself as an employee.
Sociologists and anthropologists identify ritual as a means by which societies cope with liminality. And this makes sense. You see, for over a century, by offering an entirely uniform way of worship and church organization, the Churches of Christ gave many people great comfort during the tumultuous times of the 20th Century — two world wars, nuclear weapons, the Cold War, etc. It was good to feel connected to something eternal and unchanging — not just God, who really is eternal and unchanging — but rituals that stayed the same at a time when all else was changing.
But now, everything is changing.
You see, the Churches of Christ are enduring two simultaneous liminal stresses. American Christianity in general is undergoing liminality because so much of the country has become non-Christian. Our society, once Christian, is now Post-modern, and all kinds of Christians are struggling to cope with the new reality.
In the midst of this once-a-millennium change in worldviews, the Churches of Christ are questioning many of their defining doctrines. I mean, for 150 years we’ve seen ourselves as the believers who stood for the truth of baptism and a cappella music against all other denominations. Heck — we refused to even admit to being a “denomination”!
Of course, we are also reconsidering our positions on the “5 acts of worship,” the role of women, and many other issues. But most importantly, we are learning that God’s grace is far broader, far more forgiving than we had once taught.
As a result, we know that we’ve been wrong on some things, but we aren’t quite sure that we’ve finished learning all our mistakes. And we no longer see ourselves as the only saved people. Indeed, it seems that we are getting closer and closer to Thomas Campbell’s original vision every day.
And yet … and yet we remain in a period of transition. And as is perfectly natural for a liminal people, some churches and some Christians are changing faster than others. And some seem to have gone too far. And we’ve never been here before so we aren’t quite sure what to do about any of it.
I mean, if our vision isn’t “have the right pattern of worship so we don’t go to hell,” what is it? While many churches are recognizing instrumental, independent Christian Churches as brothers, what about the Baptists? And others?
And so, are we a movement? No, not if by “movement” you mean a people with a conscious direction. We don’t know where we’re going. I sure don’t.
Are we moving? Yes. We are far from where we were 10 or 5 years ago. But we don’t quite know where we’ll be in 5 or 10 years. We don’t even know where we want to be.
But here’s the hard part. For a people who long found solace in an unchanging style of worship, these changes are hard. The world is changing. Christianity is changing. And the Churches of Christ are changing. So it’s hardly surprising that some are desperately trying to return to the past. It’s foolhardy … and quite impossible. And counter-productive. But it’s very understandable.
And to help everyone cope with the new reality, what we really need is a direction. We do. But until now, no one has been talking about it. I don’t think we’re ready to draw any final conclusions, but I do think it’s time for the conversation to begin.
PS — The deeper we get into these questions, the less certain I am of my own ideas. But, me being me and all, I’m going to jump in and answer the best I can, hoping others will pitch in to help start a desperately needed conversation about where God wants us to be headed.