3. Strategy: “How will we get the job done?” Leaders re-equip members and themselves with whatever it will take to reach for their new future. They plot and prepare for the step-by-step progress that will make the dream come true.
So is there a vision that would simultaneously —
* Preserve our positive insights in doctrine and praxis (how to do things)?
* Allow us to work to end the competition among and isolation of denominations and churches?
* Allow for the preservation of parachurch institutions that support the work of local congregations, such as seminaries and missions support organizations?
* Be true to the scriptures?
Well, I have a crazy idea. I’m very open to alternatives. I’m still in the looking and listening phase of my thinking. But consider this one.
As I posted some time ago, in the First Century, the churches in one city considered themselves a single church. Indeed, they often had a single eldership over many house churches spread throughout the city. There was no church shopping, and discipline was at least city-wide, not congregation-wide. Nothing would have been more foreign to Paul and Peter than having multiple congregations each offering a slightly different doctrine and competing with each other for members.
What would your city’s churches (not just Churches of Christ) be like if they thought of themselves, together, as the “church in Tuscaloosa” — rather than the Eastside Church in competition with 200 other churches in town. What difference would that make?
Imagine that all the churches of all denominations in your town were overseen by a single eldership? (Not a proposal; just a thought experiment.) What would a wise eldership do differently? Wouldn’t they immediately merge and consolidate many churches that are too small to be effective? Wouldn’t they prevent churches from spending money just to compete with other churches in town? Rather than each church building a gym to compete for new members, wouldn’t they direct that the gyms be treated as common property of all churches in town — and shared?
Wouldn’t they consolidate many benevolence programs, so that the food distribution programs work together in cooperation and encourage smaller churches to cooperate with larger churches so that there are no “full service” churches and “limited service” churches? If some churches could afford youth ministers and others could not, wouldn’t they require the youth ministers of the larger churches to provide services to the teens in smaller churches?
Wouldn’t the churches routinely take communion together? Routinely share a love feast with other churches in their neighborhoods? Swap pulpits? Look for other opportunities to build fellowship among the members of the churches in town? Maybe even borrow Sunday school leaders and ministers of education?
Wouldn’t such an eldership require the churches to cooperate in their mission work? Rather than cooperating with churches in other cities and states to support a church plant, wouldn’t it better if several churches in the same town cooperated? Indeed, if enough churches got together to plant a church, the plant team likely would come from those churches — so the churches would be supporting men and women from their own churches and other churches in town, people that they’ve known for years. Wouldn’t that make sense?
Now, to a degree, we already do exactly this in forming Christian private schools. These are always supported by multiple congregations, and often across denominational lines (unofficially, of course). And if we can trust the other churches in town to educate our children, surely we can break bread with them and share resources and ministries with them.
We also often cooperate in benevolence programs when the program is too big for one church. In my hometown, churches cooperate in a soup kitchen, in a medical clinic, and in an annual community work day. We sometimes swap preachers for one Wednesday night a year, but on a very limited basis.
However, the default model is to work exclusively within our own congregations. For every cooperative program we have, we have 200 internal, non-cooperative programs.
And this isn’t really due to selfishness or narrow-mindedness. Rather, the other Churches of Christ in town are entirely unwilling to cooperate with us in anything. And the Baptists and Methodists think, as we do, in denominational terms. They and we send our missionaries and church planting teams and support colleges and seminaries through their and our denominations. We only cooperate across denominational lines when (a) it’s too big for our own church, (b) churches of our denomination don’t want to help, and (c) it can only be done locally. We’re far more comfortable working with sister Churches of Christ 1,000 miles away than the Baptist Church across the street.
4. Experimental Action: “What are we ready to try?” Members choose the highest priority and closest possibility in their plan and commit themselves to a metamorphosis, one small step at a time until the dream turns into a revised vision or a full reality.
Here’s the step by step seen through a West Alabama lens. The steps would likely differ elsewhere.
a. Teach the church members enough grace that they see penitent believers in other congregations as brothers and sisters in Christ.
b. Encourage organic cooperation. That is, if the members want to cooperate with a non-Church of Christ in town, make it easy for them to do so. Find a way to say yes. Allow the members to get ahead of the leadership. Let the Spirit do its thing as it sees fit.
c. Look for some low threshold cooperative ventures to intentionally join. If there’s a regular meeting of church pastors in town, make sure our ministers join, participate, and become leaders.
d. Put the ideas mentioned here on the table in the pastor meeting or other cross-denominational organization. Ask all the participating churches to consider how the churches in town can become a single church — with different locations and leaders but with a single heart and plan for redeeming our community.
e. Pray and talk and talk and pray. A lot.
f. Encourage the ministers and pastors to broaden the conversation to include their governing boards, elderships, vestries, deacons — all their leaders.
g. Put together a gathering of church leaders from across town where the ideas are discussed, preached, and shared.
h. Be very, very patient. Don’t get ahead of the Spirit. Give the Spirit time to change hearts and minds. Trust God to make it happen.
i. Look for some low-threshold activities the churches can do together — maybe a quarterly joint communion service. There’d be just all sorts of practical issues to sort through, which would make it a great place to start, because everyone would have to get a little uncomfortable just to break a little bread and sip a little wine together.
Churches with a doctrine of apostolic succession would have to get comfortable with ministers without proper ordination (as they see it) serving communion. We’d have to sort out the wine/grape juice split and the leaven/unleavened bread split. Some denominations feel very strongly one way or the other. The place of women in serving communion will be an issue for some. The Churches of Christ won’t be the only uncomfortable ones. And that’s good. To work together, we need to all overcome our own discomforts.