The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard Weighs In (First Question)

cooperation.jpgAs I mentioned in the last post under this topic, the Christian Standard has asked 5 questions about the future of the Restoration Movement. This first is —

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.

Movement period

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.

Entrenched period

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.

Liminal period

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.

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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7 Responses to The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard Weighs In (First Question)

  1. Joe Baggett says:

    George Barna and Robert Wuthnow have basically said movements are dead. The only significant phenomena in the religious landscape of America are the community church and it is not a movement but a phenomena. Almost all of them where started by people from conservative evangelical backgrounds but they are only loosely associated with each other if at all and bear no formal ties to any major denomination. It is very hard to track this phenomenon as they have not filed with the Census Bureau for a specific religious status. However anyone one can see there are thousands of them popping up everywhere. They are mostly made up of exasperated conservative evangelicals and mainline Protestants. We will never again see a movement such as the reformation or restoration in America resulting in subsequent denominations like the Southern Baptist or church of Christ. Why you might ask? America is in the postmodern era and will continue to because Christianity in general has lost the culture war and does not know how to fight it. In 1992 Oz Guinness and Flavil Yeakley said that Postmodernism would be gone in about 10 years. Well it is still here, bigger and badder than ever! The only churches that will survive and grow by making disciples of all people are those who learn to engage our postmodern culture not through political or sociological force but by developing relationships with the lost unchurched and dechurched! The restoration movement means nothing to our mission field of Postmodern America. The future of the so called progressive churches of Christ will hinge on their ability to continue what they have already started to do; questioning everything and making decision based on the new or different conclusions they find.

  2. Alan says:

    I think we are at least two movements. Perhaps one could be classified as a progressive movement. Another could be a "movement" (maybe an anti-movement) reacting against the progressive movement.

    In liminality, it is natural to have some segments moving farther in a given direction than others. Usually the ultimate consensus destination ends up not being the most extreme of the trial destinations.

    Being "doctrinally static and entrenched" is not inherently a bad thing. I hope we are static and entrenched about the resurrection of Jesus, about atonement, about Jesus being Lord. There are other things that belong on that list. But our list has been far too long.

  3. Helez says:

    One of the saddest things to me is seeing the deep and very real fears of our older, more "conservative" members coming to grips with the changes going on in our churches. I can imagine myself in their shoes, and it must be terrifying… all they know is "get it right or go to hell", and "there is only one church (us)." It's as bad as watching people who believe they are losing their jobs or their homes, the fear is so real… yet if you try to comfort them by providing a different perspective, they can't accept it – you become part of the problem of "change", and their fears only increase.

    I wish I could offer more comfort… usually I hear something along the lines of "I don't know what will happen to The Church in the next few years." My only response is that Jesus himself promised that hell would be overcome by the church. It seems to help a little, but I'm afraid some of them don't quite believe it.

  4. Jay Guin says:


    I certainly agree with Barna and Wuthnow if what they mean is the denominations are dying. The idea of organizing around minuscule disagreements in doctrine seems to be comatose and near death.

    Rather than new denominations, I think we'll see a lot of what's already happening: experimentation and conversation. It's not a bad thing although it's disorienting.

    We need to get over the idea that someone will invent the perfect way to do church and we'll all get on board. It won't happen in my lifetime — or my children's.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    From email (name withheld) —

    Dear Jay,

    I have very much enjoyed reading your articles on issues facing the churches of Christ. I have long struggled with the fact that I see fruit in the lives of those outside of the church of Christ. I don't know how to attribute that to anything other than the power of God transforming lives. Scripture says good fruit cannot come from a bad tree and we will know his disciples by their love for one another.

    One of the challenges to me has been to reconcile this with the things we teach. I have read the positions of a lot of people on baptism and is it necessary for salvation. All I can come up with is that God said to do it and maybe it is not the most important thing to understand it all. As I have read, the debate reminds me a lot about the arguments over faith and works. I seem to go in circles with it. The only certain conclusions I can reach is that faith is important, works are important, grace is important, baptism is important.

    As I have read and prayed for God to help me with this I have come to see how all the confusion develops. I can see how a person raised in certain faiths can see baptism as a work and how it seems to them that we are trying to add to what Jesus did on the cross.

    One friend of mine from another faith asked me if we thought there was "something magic" in the water. Another conclusion–Judging whether someone is a Christian based on our understanding about baptism may also keep us from learning from them and may keep them from learning from us.

    One thing I have come to believe is that I don't trust in my own or anyone else's understanding of scriptures. I trust in God alone. I will to the best of my ability, as honestly as I know how, try to do what God asks of me and trust in his amazing grace to save me despite whatever errors I have made. I know that sometimes there is rebellion in our hearts that we are not even aware of — that has definitely happened in my life. But from my experience, God gives us all what we need to learn and to humble us if that is the case.

    Also, I appreciated your thoughts about the sin of not paying our preachers a living wage. I have seen first hand the heartache and pain of a preacher's wife unable to buy her children pretty basic necessities and living well below the standard of almost everyone else in the congregation. Sad, sad, sad.

    In your article, you said teaching about grace was the answer to this problem, and I couldn't agree more. We are really missing something very important about grace. I believe teaching about grace would greatly help ALL of our relationships in life!!! Marriages, parents and children, work, friends, everything!!

    Thank you for having the courage to challenge the way we think. All glory to God in the highest!!

    "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, " says the Lord Almighty. Zech. 4:6

  6. Joe Baggett says:

    Jay that is what they are saying.

    Tony Jones in his book "The new Christians" says that the underlying reasons for the emerging churches popping up from the old denominations is to "save their own faith". Yes they reach people who traditional churches do not, but that is not really the reason. George Barna went and polled people who left other older religious groups to start community or non-denominational churches where they would be if they didn't form these new churches, 87% said they would stay home before returing to their previous older denomination.
    i know exactly what you are talking about. I worked at a church when i was younger that has since closed down. It was exactly as you say a dream had died. They just wanted to wait until the last person died and close the church.

  7. quentin says:

    These are sobering realities that I have been wrestling with for several years. I am comforted that I am not alone. Thank you for your work.

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