An Unfinished Restoration Acknowledged

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By Gary Weedman

I am a fifth-generation member of the Stone-Campbell fellowship of churches. My maternal grandfather’s grandfather was a founding member of a “Campbellite” church in southern Illinois. My maternal grandmother’s grandfather was a founding member of a “Stonite” church nearby. I grew up drinking deeply of the history and aims of this movement. By the time I graduated from high school, I had read much of Campbell’s seven-volume Christian Baptist, which was in our church library (my friends think this explains my lack of social life in high school!).

In seminary I took every course offered by Enos Dowling, the first dean of Lincoln Christian Seminary. This gentle man was recognized as an eminent historian of our movement, and I was privileged to be his student and share memorable discussions over lunch with him. I remember him often saying, “Thomas Campbell restored the ancient book, Alexander Campbell restored the ancient order of things, and Walter Scott restored the ancient gospel.” He would then say regretfully, “No one has restored the ancient life.” This wonderful teacher believed the work of restoration was not over.

I have remembered this view while attending many meetings that focused on the relevance of “the plea.” Dean Dowling would affirm that not only is the plea relevant; it is also unfinished.

Several contemporaries who are not part of the Stone-Campbell Movement apparently believe the work of “restoration” is not finished; they have taken up some aspect of a restoration theme. While most readers of Christian Standard would be uncomfortable with some of their views, we should applaud their desire to return to the ancient church, listen and learn from their perspective, and be willing to engage them in dialogue, adding our own understanding of the need for the restoration of ancient Christianity.

Contemporary Restorationists

I want to mention four.

• One is Dr. Robert Webber, who called himself a “restorationist.” He was a former professor at Wheaton College who was teaching at Northern Seminary, Lombard, Illinois, at the time of his death in April. He also founded the Institute for Worship Studies, Jacksonville, Florida, a nontraditional doctoral program that focuses on worship. He wrote a number of books that have a restoration theme, such as Ancient Future Faith, Ancient Future Evangelism, Young Evangelicals, Ancient Future Time, and The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. His constant theme throughout his writing and speaking was for the church to return to—to restore—the ancient worship, the ancient mode of evangelism, the ancient spiritual disciplines.

He lectured on several of our college campuses, had a number of our students in the Institute for Worship Studies, and in 2005 spoke at the three meetings of the North American Christian Convention. I heard him in Jacksonville, where he chided us a bit about not being as passionate concerning restoration as we once had been. He expressed a fear we may have become too indistinguishable from other evangelicals. He challenged us to keep our voice and work at completing the restoration of the church rather than abandoning the effort. I thought how ironic it was to have an “outsider,” an evangelical—at the NACC, of all places—telling the rest of us, who at times question the legitimacy of “the plea,” not to abandon it.

The major focus of Webber’s restoration effort was on the worship of the gathered church. In particular, he stressed the role of Communion and baptism in the witness of the church. I attended a workshop Webber held in Brownsburg, Indiana. I was sitting at a table next to an Episcopal priest from a nearby congregation. As she was discussing her ministry, I was intrigued by her comments about baptism. I said, “Are you talking about immersion?”

She replied, “Yes.”

Incredulously, I repeated, “You’re talking about immersing adults in an Episcopal church?”

She said again, emphatically this time, “Yes, we have a baptismal pool in our church building.”

I said, “How did that come to be?”

She smiled and pointed toward Webber and said, “Him.” Webber believed this message of the “ancient” faith resonates with our postmodern culture as much as it did to the cultures into which it was born. Thus, he believed it would resonate with denominational congregations seeking to minister to postmoderns.

• A second person is Richard Foster, the well-known author of Celebration of Discipline. He has written another book that identifies him even more strongly as a “restorationist”: Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. Subsequent to that book, Foster established a parachurch organization called Renovaré, advocating “the renewal [restoration] of the church of Jesus Christ in all her multifaceted expressions.”

He, perhaps more than any other contemporary, focuses on what Dean Dowling called “the restoration of the ancient life.” Foster identifies six traditions (“streams”) of the early spiritual life: contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational. He grounds each of these traditions in the life of Jesus and then provides examples both from ancient church history as well as contemporary church leaders. He believes each tradition has a truth of the early church, but none has all of the truth of that church. The goal is to discover what is true about each, incorporate that truth into individual practice, and thus restore the church by one reformed individual after another.

The result is a breaking down of denominational walls that divide the church. By merging the ancient parts of these streams together, a renewal (restoration) of the ancient church is realized.

George Barna is another who has struck a restorationist tone within the last two years. Barna has written more than three dozen books and has led the Barna Group, often quoted for its polling data about the state of religion in America. In 2005 he published Revolution, a book that created quite a rumble within the evangelical community.

Barna is critical of most organized churches. After 24 years of studying the trends of the church in North America, he concludes that the established church has failed. He identifies seven “passions” of the first Christians that must be restored for the church to be what it was intended to be; these are regarding the nature of (1) worship, (2) faith-based conversations, (3) intentional spiritual growth, (4) resource investment, (5) servanthood, (6) spiritual friendships, and (7) family faith. The work of the church, as Barna sees it, is to bring about a transformation in the lives of people with regard to these seven passions.

What led him to this Revolution movement was the startling conclusion that, after several years of researching “churched” people, he found little evidence that their lives were being transformed by their church experience.

Instead, the transformation of these folks in the Barna survey had taken place outside the established church. He contends this is true of all churches—mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic. Thus, the “real” church is something beyond all of the established churches. It is that church that must be restored.

• A fourth effort is called the Ekklesia Project. This group claims “that to call ourselves ‘Christian’ means that following Jesus Christ must shape all areas of life.”* The group includes people from several denominations and is populated by several university and college professors. They say one of their guiding principles is, “We do not accept the ultimacy of divisions imposed on the body of Christ . . . . We seek to restore the bonds of ecclesial unity and solidarity that are always under threat from the powers and principalities of the present age.”*

They also claim

Christian organizations find it difficult to live a life of discipleship in the midst of competition from the thousands of objects, images, and ideals that vie for our allegiance and attention on a daily basis. Living the Christian life in the midst of such competition requires nourishment and strengthening from the Holy Spirit, carried out through koinonia (communion, fellowship) with other persons who find themselves similarly called.*

Thus, the real unity of the church (“ecclesial unity”) is realized as this network of believers holds one another accountable as each strives to be “called out of” the world to live as a disciple of Christ.

Embrace and Engage

There are other persons and movements beyond these four that emphasize one or another aspect of restoration. The point here is not to provide an exhaustive list of such movements. Rather, it is to point out that each view has its own peculiarities and emphases. Each realizes there is much lacking in the contemporary church, a view that was a shared conviction of leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Each believes that the restoration of some aspect of the ancient church must be realized to correct those deficiencies of the contemporary church, another shared conviction of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

I encourage those of us in the Stone-Campbell fellowship not to abandon our Restoration heritage, but rather to embrace it warmly and engage enthusiastically in dialogue with others who acknowledge the evil of division, the inadequacy of some of contemporary evangelicalism, and the value of seeking restoration of the ancient life of the church.

________

*Quoted from the Web page of the Ekklesia Project, www.ekklesiaproject.org


 

 

Gary Weedman is president-elect at Johnson Bible College, Knoxville, Tennessee.

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