The Progressive Churches of Christ: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

progressiveThis discussion began several days ago with two posts (Part 1 and Part 2) pointing out the latest news on the declining numbers in the Churches of Christ generally. We then looked at the state of the Churches of Christ today more generally — considering the dynamics that are fracturing the “mainstream” congregations.

We next turned our focus on the more progressive congregations. We Church of Christ members in progressive churches have a marked tendency to define ourselves in terms of what we’ve rejected and left behind, rather than where we need to be going. That’s entirely natural. But there comes a time when you need to stop licking your wounds and get on with the business of the Kingdom.

This thought led to the “Resolving the Tension” subseries of posts addressing congregations that try to retain a Church of Christ identity while rejecting the theological misunderstandings of the past.  In Parts 2, 3.1, and 3.2, we considered the challenges of creating much-needed change in a congregation. This led to how congregations and denominations are defined by stories, and how change requires a new story rather than a 10-part sermon series on evangelism.

In Parts 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, and 4.4 and the “Your Story” post, we considered how we’ve been preaching a true but incomplete gospel — a story that addresses individual salvation but not the Kingdom, the necessity for the church as a living community through which God intends to redeem the world. It’s not a gospel focused on my individual salvation. Rather, I’m saved to enter into God’s mission. As I am transformed to become more and more like Jesus, I don’t just become a good person; I become a person who follows Christ in his mission as part of the body of Christ, the Kingdom of God. To quote Mark Love once again,

The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess. God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life.

Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole.

Part 4.4 in particular shows how Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2 and Acts 2:38 should be read to teach this bigger version of the gospel. The point of repentance and forgiveness and baptism are that the Kingdom promises of the prophets are coming true. Not only has the Kingdom come, marked by the enthronement of the Messiah and the outpouring of the Spirit, but God’s people will begin to live life in the Kingdom as redeemed Kingdom people.

Thus, the end of Acts 2, where the church in Jerusalem is described, is not telling what rules must be kept to dissuade a distant deity from damning us, but rather is showing the firstfruits of the Kingdom as God begins to fulfill his promises to his people.

So how do we change to bring all this about? Well, it’s hard. It begins with a change in story. Our denominational and congregational stories are told in many ways — and usually in ways not entirely conscious to us members. But with discipline and work, our stories can be changed.

And I think the first step is in how we see the Sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And by fortunate coincidence, these are areas that are squarely in the Church of Christ’s wheelhouse. I mean, we are BIG on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That being the case, we should let these sacraments shape us in the cross-shaped congregations that tell and live the bigger gospel story. Hence, I posted posts on the Lord’s Supper Part 1 and Part 2 and baptism.

In case you’re wondering, the “bigger gospel” theme borrows heavily from the work of N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight. The idea that the sacraments should tell our story as God’s people and shape us to become more like Jesus comes from Stanley Hauerwas.

The next three posts will deal with community formation, in contrast to individual spiritual formation — inspired by Hauerwas as well as Wright’s focus on the community nature of the church.

We’ll then have a couple of posts digging more deeply into the teachings of Hauerwas, especially his critique of today’s evangelical churches.

And then we’ll see where the Spirit leads. I have no idea.

So here’s the point: the Churches of Christ don’t need to disappear and melt into generic American evangelicalism. As tempting as that might be, we can do better. We need to be aware of contemporary criticisms of the evangelical churches that surround us. Believe it or not, there is a need and a place of much of what we’ve always stood for.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are far more important to our spiritual formation — our being shaped congregationally and individually into the shape of Jesus — than most evangelical churches practice. The Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans are right to hang tightly onto the Sacraments as essential and central. And yet they’re practice is no closer to the First Century practice than our own. We can find a way to practice the Sacraments that is true to First Century teaching and that keeps them vital — not because that’s our tradition but because that’s right and needed.

Our strong emphasis on evangelism and gospel preaching also needs to be preserved, but we need to teach a bigger, better gospel that is about more than escaping hell to go to heaven. It needs to address the pain and oppression that so infect this world and that concern so many who are not Christians. We need to know that God’s answer to  suffering and need is more than heaven-when-you-die. God’s Kingdom has already come and is already addressing these very needs.

This teaching has deep roots in Church of Christ soil. John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine have done tremendous work digging through our history to show how very radical we once were. The Churches of Christ once had a dynamic, life-defining Kingdom theology. For example, these posts by John Mark —

David Lipscomb, 1910-1912 (1, 2, 3, 4)

David Lipscomb on the Poor (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

David Lipscomb on the Urban Poor (1, 2).

Tolbert Fanning: Advocate for Peace in 1861 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,9, 10, 11, 12, 13)

And from Bobby Valentine, this wonderful piece: David Lipscomb, James A. Harding: The Mission of Christ & the Renewed Earth

The Churches of Christ also have a strong history of emphasizing the church as community. In recent year, we’ve been bending to cultural pressures to become more individualized, but this is not our history. We have a history of commitment to our congregations, and we need to hold onto this because, as Hauerwas likes to say, the most important thing the church can do is be the church. By becoming a cruciform community that lives the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Corinthian 13 and Romans 12 and Galatians 5 and Acts 2, we place God’s light on a hill. We become salt of the earth, and the lost will be drawn toward Jesus.

Of course, some of that congregational commitment came from sectarianism, that is, the idea that if we changed denominations or even sub-sub-subsets of the Churches of Christ, we’d be damned. And so as we’ve lost our sectarianism, we’ve also lost some of our commitment. Nonetheless, we once believed in the importance of being subject to an eldership — not just in theory but in fact — and serving together as a body.

As we work through all this — and it won’t be easy because change is always hard — we’ll see the need to rethink all sorts of things. Everything has to be placed on the altar before God. Some things will change only in subtle ways. Other things will change dramatically — in ways I can’t even imagine.

And questions such as what name we should hang on our church and whether we use instruments when we sing songs of praise will seem trivial because we’ll be living a better, bigger, truer story that focuses on much larger, harder challenges before us.

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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