We come now to a challenging turn in the road. Imagine a Church of Christ that is well on the road away from sectarianism (the idea that everyone else is damned) and toward a healthy understanding of the Spirit and grace, but which insists on retaining its Church of Christ identity by being exclusively a cappella, keeping the denominational name, having no praise team, limiting the role of women, and engaging in fellowship only with other Churches of Christ.
There is a sense in which this congregation is doing extremely positive things for which it can be justly proud. It’s teaching a healthier gospel, a healthier doctrine of the Spirit, and doing many good works in the community. And it’s growing — but almost entirely by being a better Church of Christ and so attracting many Church of Christ transfers.
I’m not at all happy to say this, but my view is that the growth will end once this church has finished pulling dissatisfied members from the orbits of surrounding Churches of Christ. Someone will notice that baptisms are almost entirely the children of existing members. And the leadership will realize that to be evangelistically effective in today’s culture, the church cannot be a better but nonetheless sectarian Church of Christ.
What should the leadership do? I know of two approaches worth considering. The first is to lovingly lead the congregation away from its traditional identity toward evangelism and mission. The techniques are dialogue, love, and patience to persuade the members to give up their attachment to traditional Church of Christ identity markers and to instead adopt a more missional, evangelistic vision.
The second is to work with the congregation to transform its understanding of the gospel to an even greater extent, to go from a narrative of individuality and hence individual salvation to a communitarian, kingdom gospel — a bigger gospel.
I’ve seen plenty of congregations attempt the first approach with varying degrees of success — from highly successful to utter abandonment of change. I’ve not seen the second approach even attempted, but I have to say the track record of the first is not that good on the whole. There are success stories to be sure, but I’m not sure that even those churches that have transitioned effectively from a traditional Church of Christ identity to being more missionally minded have actually found great evangelistic success.
There are very few studies, and it’s hard to measure these things. I’ll be interested to hear what the readers have to share about their own experiences.