So let’s talk a little bit about the progressive wing of the Churches of Christ. We are in a tough place historically, and it’s time to stop looking in the rearview mirror and start looking more toward the future.
But where to start? Let’s start by looking at how the Churches of Christ presently break down. What sub-denominations are there within the larger Church of Christ denomination?
1. In an important article, Joe Beam breaks the Churches of Christ down this way.
The link is to a 2012 blog post, but the article was first written long ago, at Wineskins 2, 12 (May/June 1996):23-26. That’s nearly 20 years ago, and things have changed.
In particular, those in the middle — the Opens, the Cautious, and the Searching — have moved to the right or the left, so that there are fewer in-between congregations and more that are either exasperated or satisfied. I believe the Zealots are also in decline.
I would see it more like this:
1. Satisfied. Mainly born in the Churches of Christ and happy that the preaching is less damning and yet very comfortable that once a quarter there’s still a sermon on the Five Steps of Salvation, Five Acts of Worship, and a subtle, constant reassurance that we are the only ones going to heaven.
The Satisfieds have learned that others consider it distasteful for them to out-and-out say that everyone else is going to hell, and so they’ve learned to speak in euphemisms: We are Christians only but there may be others going to heaven, too (being those who happen to worship and teach exactly as we do, with a scriptural name and form of organization, but who haven’t yet gotten on the mailing list for the Freed Hardeman University lectureships).
This is the group often called “conservative.” They believe in marks of salvation or tests of fellowship tied to the form of church organization, the acts of worship in the assembly, and the name.
2. Political. This is the in-between church. The category doesn’t appear in Joe’s chart because he’s describing individuals and I’m describing congregations. And many Churches of Christ today are political churches.
By “political” I mean a church where the leaders cannot be honest with the members on vital topics because they are desperately trying to hold two different perspectives together in a single congregation.
Some members are in the Satisfied class and so have no desire for change of any kind. In fact, to them, change is threatening, digressive, and likely to lead to damnation.
But the church has members who are not only Open but anxious to change things up. They see a lack of evangelistic effectiveness and want to change that. They see that every effort to try something new is met is with resistance, so that everything is a fight or a compromise. Nothing is ever done just to be faithful. Every change is evaluated in terms of what horrible extreme it might lead to.
For example, the Freed Hardeman chorus comes by to sing for the church, and the elders feel compelled to dismiss the assembly before inviting the chorus to sing, to make clear that the performance by the choir is not an “act of worship.” When the youth minister introduces the chorus, he invites the congregation to join in and “worship” with the students. He is called in before the elders and chewed out for offending the sensibilities of many of the members. When he asks how singing song of praise to God isn’t worship, the elders don’t address the scriptural issues but the political issues.
The elders realize that a small groups program would be best for the church, but the Satisfied members wish to continue Sunday night worship, and so they ask their members to do both. Or the elders offer a choice, with the result that the small groups members and the Sunday night worship members fight over who gets to have the preacher at their event. The Satisfieds complain that Sunday night worship no longer has as many present. The small group leaders complain because, without strong support from the pulpit, participation is too low. The preacher desperately wants to push small groups, but the elders won’t let him. To the elders, small groups is a concession, not a strategy and certainly not a vision. In fact, the church has no vision because vision implies a desire to achieve goals, and goals imply change.
Purely secondary issues always turn into fights because they are seen by both sides as a proxy for a bigger issue. When a teenage girl participates in a chain prayer in a private setting with boys present, some become outraged having read articles in the Gospel Advocate declaring this a step toward apostasy. Other parents demand to know what scripture prohibits a girl from participating in a group prayer. Other parents want the church to take up a fresh study on the role of women — some pushing toward a greater role, and others pushing toward a lesser role. The girl who led the prayer and her family transfer membership.
The problem with a political church is that the elders can’t simply read the scriptures and follow. They must take into account the reactions of widely differing hermeneutics and a century of barnacled traditions resisting all change because important families are afraid of what any change at all might lead to. Other families are desperate for the freedom to lift hands toward heaven during the worship service, to let their daughters pray in mixed groups, to dedicate their babies — even to sing a song written after 1944. But a new song is seen by some as step in the direction of entertainment — the apostate community church direction.
Political churches are unstable. They are usually held together by a beloved preacher who is a skilled politician, who knows how to give the younger people just enough to keep them happy enough to stay and to never give so much that the older people stop giving.
He calls the Freed Hardeman chorus “entertainment” even though everyone knows it’s really worship. He calls small groups “zone meetings” because we had zone meetings in the 1960s and they were okay. He calls the woman on staff to work with the teens an “event coordinator,” when she is really hired to minister to the girls and so is really a minister. The bulletin is filled with euphemisms and half truths designed to keep it together for just one more fiscal year.
When the beloved preacher retires, the church falls apart because the members were never taught the skills needed to cope with each other’s needs and wants. Rather than learning grace and freedom in Christ, they learned how to negotiate, rationalize, and spin doctor.
The search for a new preacher inevitably leads to a search for a preacher who fits one side’s agenda, and the church finds it hard to find a preacher who wants to be a great compromiser. All the candidates fit in one category or the other, and so eventually one side wins, the other loses, and the members on the losing side drift away.
3. Progressive. The progressive churches are churches that are willing to break with tradition and do things that would be unthinkable in a Satisfied congregation. They might have an instrumental service along with an a cappella service. Women might be given far greater freedom to speak to the church. New songs are sung. The preacher freely speaks from the pulpit about the Holy Spirit’s direct operation on the heart. There hasn’t been a lesson taught against instrumental music in 20 years. Grace and the heart of Jesus are common themes in classes and sermons.
Now, nearly every Church of Christ has some of all three elements. Very few Churches are entirely free of political considerations, and that’s because very few have no members who are Satisfied or Progressive. Of course, Progressive members in a Political or Satisfied church quickly become Exasperated. They push for change and eventually either the church moves a bit in their direction or they leave. Just so, Zealots in a Progressive or Political church push for a return to traditional practices, and they eventually get their way or leave. Or they become Open and willing to reconsider their views. It happens.
There were far fewer Political churches 20 years ago than there are today. Most have had one side or the other gain control, and the other side has either transferred membership or formed a new church.
It’s fairly common for a group to leave a church unhappy, only to find that they can’t effectively form a new congregation because they were more united in their opposition to the old leadership rather than a common vision about how to be a church. Once they leave, they can’t agree on the details — how far right or left to go — and so they scatter, some returning to their old church, some leaving the Churches of Christ altogether. All are very hurt by perceived disloyalties and broken promises.
You see, it’s much easier to see the problems in other people than in yourself. It’s easy to reject the stern, bitter judgmentalism of the far right while wanting to cling to some of the products of that same mindset. That is, we may tire of the preacher damning the Baptists from the pulpit, but we get upset if he plans a joint communion service with them. Sometimes we just don’t like hearing what our beliefs sound like.
And so, sometimes, a progressive congregation finds itself more about what it isn’t than what it is. It’s far easier to reject the old legalism of our youth than to embrace a better alternative. As a result, progressive congregations tend to drift, certain that they don’t want to return to the old ways but unsure of where to go from here.