Just Asking: Five Questions for the Restoration Movement
By Jim Tune
I shouldn’t be writing this article. I’ve never seen myself as a poster boy for the Restoration Movement. I’ve never been much of a joiner of causes. My early days as a preacher were marked by zeal for the ministry but ambivalence toward the movement. I’ve changed a lot. This will sound decidedly uncool to my church planting peers, but the Restoration plea as first envisaged by men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and Barton Stone actually quickens my pulse these days.
I’ll be the first to admit that the vision for unity around simple New Testament Christianity has been obscured at times by legalism and harsh sectarian attitudes in our fellowship. The glare of strife and division blinded many young leaders—myself included—to that which was winsome and worthwhile about our identity and platform. This left many younger leaders feeling apathetic, even disdainful, toward both our heritage and our doctrinal distinctives. There was a corrective pendulum swing toward greater grace and a more generous orthodoxy. But I believe now the pendulum has swung too far.
This became evident to me when I was asked to lead a session for church planters on the subject: How do we teach “the movement” in our new churches? I had a dozen preachers in my group—all lead guys at growing churches on the East Coast. Most of the guys had no formal process for sharing “who we are.” Attitudes about heritage ran from ambivalence to hostility.
Martin Luther once wrote, “Softness and hardness are the two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors come.” I think many of our younger leaders today, in repudiating one danger (harshness), have fallen into the other—a sort of open-armed, undiscerning, ecumenical embrace.
Noticing that we have sometimes been outsiders to evangelical inner circles, I am excited about our new levels of cooperation, but I’m not excited about our apparent need for approval. If gaining the approval of the greater evangelical world means shedding sectarian attitudes, I’m all for that. If it means repudiating who we are and what we believe, I’m not at all for that!
As a movement we have nothing of which to be ashamed. We have a fine, albeit imperfect heritage and an important contribution to make to evangelicalism in general. Instead, some leaders bask in the afterglow of an encounter with Bill Hybels or Rick Warren, somewhat like Sally Field on the occasion of her first Academy Award victory: “You like me; you really like me!”
Why do so many Restoration Movement leaders need to constantly look over their shoulders to see if their new clothes are being admired? Let’s just be who we are, present our plea with grace and a smile, and get on with the Great Commission. Surely between the pendulum extremes there is some solid ground upon which we can agree and stand.
Recently I led a session for directors of church planting associations. We discussed a number of timely questions regarding our movement, including how we should address matters of heritage as we plant churches. Our church plants are a prophetic whisper of who we are becoming. The DNA present in these churches will bring forth a predictable result. How do we make sure the best values of our heritage are preserved and perpetuated? I asked the directors to consider the following questions.
Are we really still a movement?
Most of us are familiar with the Glenmary Research Center study that reported the Christian church was the fastest-growing religious movement (after the Mormons) in America in the 1990s. Among our church plants and megachurches there was celebration that we were once again moving. But who is we?
Francis Schaeffer once asked: “What is the use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger if sufficient numbers of those under the name evangelical no longer hold to that which makes evangelicalism evangelical?” Could we not ask the parallel question of our fellowship?
David Wells states that movements must exhibit three characteristics: (1) There must be a commonly owned direction; (2) there must be a common basis upon which that direction is owned; and (3) there must be an esprit that informs and motivates those who are thus joined in their common cause.
We’ve always been a loosely knit, independent bunch. Many of our number would vigorously resist any attempt to define who we are. That said, it seems to me there was a time when there was greater consensus in our movement about a commonly owned direction, even a sense of cause that we rallied behind and owned in a more broad-based way. A commonly owned cause helped fund subscriptions to Restoration Movement publications. An esprit about that cause helped drive attendances at brotherhood conventions to all-time highs. What is our commonly owned cause today? Is there one? I’m just asking.
Can’t we embrace the “unity thing” without dismantling our distinctives and settled doctrines?
One of our earliest slogans was: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” It’s a great statement, but it is more easily read than applied. One of the most tragic breaches in the history of our movement occurred when the Disciples chose to pursue ecumenical unity over and above doctrines held as great and essential by Christian churches and churches of Christ. There is always the danger of interpreting unity as organizational oneness and thereby elevating fellowship over doctrine.
I love the spirit of cooperation evident in our churches today as we missionally engage issues of poverty and justice in partnership with other evangelicals. But we must resist the urge to elevate fellowship over a commitment to the essentials. There is simply no need to discard our formerly settled doctrinal views as we pursue unity. I believe there is a both/and to be found here—we can be both committed to sound doctrine and to cooperation with other groups. Can we be confident in who we are while sharing our message and carrying out mission with others?
How do we function as independents without encouraging free agency?
I love the freedom in our movement. Local autonomy is mostly a blessing. I am spared the vision-squelching oversight and bureaucracy of a denominational structure. This is part of why I choose to affiliate with our fellowship.
“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote. “With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”
If a church or ministry in our movement chooses to, it’s easy for them to operate as a “free agent.” There are church planters who have started independent Christian churches and yet seem reluctant to affiliate with our fellowship in any real way. In an opportunistic sense, our freedom and our current church planting momentum simply make us the best boat to fish from at the moment. If a better boat comes along, some of them might just jump ship!
Our church plants and megachurches would do well to remember that any success they enjoy is due in part to the fact that they stand on the shoulders of men and women who paved the way to create the autonomy and creativity that today propels our movement forward.
Free agents have a self-centered approach to loyalty. They seldom give back. I have no reservations about asking our church planters to subscribe to brotherhood publications, attend our conventions, give back to their church planting associations, and support our institutions and missionaries. Sorry if that sounds legalistic. It isn’t about legalism. It’s about doing the right thing.
How does our current historical amnesia affect the vitality of Restoration Movement institutions? Should we care?
Many church planters see no need to “teach the movement.” This is not limited to new churches. Even in existing churches there is diminishing importance assigned to communicating our heritage with new members and attendees.
It is impossible to value something you don’t know about. If you don’t appreciate where you came from or the values and beliefs that define your family, then you can pretty much live in anybody’s house. There’s really no need for our own family of schools, conventions, publishing houses, and institutions if our own constituency fails to understand the unique value of such institutions.
If megachurches and new churches are a prophetic whisper of who we are becoming, are we making ourselves vulnerable as a movement by not expecting them to preserve and teach the best of our heritage and demonstrate family loyalty?
We were once known as a “people of the Book.” Have we become a people of methodology?
We’ve learned some things about church growth and church planting. New churches are starting larger and growing to considerable sizes. We’ve appropriated some good marketing ideas from Madison Avenue and retooled them to further the kingdom. The megachurch phenomenon has exploded in our movement.
That’s all well and good, but are we becoming a mile wide and an inch deep? Today doctrine is often avoided because it’s thought too deep or too divisive to touch; meanwhile Christian “self-help” books fly off the shelves of church stores and libraries.
D.A. Carson was reflecting on how denominations lose their doctrinal edge when he said, “One generation believes something, the next generation assumes it, and the third generation denies it.” If we neglect our heritage and if we fail to teach sound doctrine, will our legacy be a generation that denies both?
Like I said, I shouldn’t be writing this. I’m one of those progressive church planters, not some wild-eyed sectarian. But I’m also a guy who loves his faith family and wants it to stay together.
Does that make sense? Just asking.
Jim Tune is executive director of Impact Canada, a church-planting ministry based outside Toronto, Canada (www.impactcanada.org).