Interview with Rick Atchley
As minister of the Word at The Hills Church of Christ, Rick Atchley leads a congregation that has expanded to three campuses in the Greater Fort Worth, Texas, area and ministers to 5,000 people each weekend. The Hills has a background as an a cappella church of Christ, but has transitioned over the past few years to include instrumental worship in most services. Since graduating from Abilene (Texas) Christian University, Atchley has been in the preaching ministry for 33 years and has served The Hills for the past 22 years. He has written several books, including Together Again, a call to a restoration of unity within our unity movement which he coauthored with Bob Russell.
What’s your history in the Restoration Movement?
My family was not from a particularly Christian background, but I had a grandmother who had a stubborn old faith. She’s the reason my father eventually came into the church. As long as I knew, she attended an a cappella church, but shortly before her death I found out her family had attended a church of Christ where they played the piano. When the preacher left they hired a new preacher who preferred not to use a piano, so they stopped using it and that’s how I ended up in the a cappella wing! So many of the battle lines drawn in the past have less to do with serious scriptural study and more to do with who trained you and what church you grew up in.
Would The Hills be considered an a cappella church of Christ or would you simply say it’s a Restoration Movement church?
The second. We call ourselves a “both/and” church, instead of “either/or.” You’ll see on our website we offer two worship options, but most of our services now use instrumental music. We also have one satellite campus that is completely instrumental and we’ll launch another campus this summer that will be completely instrumental.
It sounds like your affiliation isn’t really defined by music.
Our sense of network and fellowship is more with the a cappella churches than the Christian churches. Our staff went to colleges founded by the a cappella churches, and the great majority of our church members with a Restoration background were members of a cappella churches. That’s really the pond we swim in, but we are quick to acknowledge our kinship with Christian churches.
How did you make the transition to worship services with instrumental music?
Moving from only a cappella to instrumental music is a pretty huge learning curve. There are a lot of issues involving sound, acoustics, staging, and wiring, and I’m thankful we had competent people who could handle those issues without needing a lot of input from me. Because we were a fairly large church, we had a talent pool of musicians who were already here. For the most part, we have been able to supply the musicians necessary for our services from our own members.
Did the design of your worship center make a difference?
Most a cappella churches are built for sound to bounce off the walls because you get that great audio sensation of the sound reverberating as you sing. When you start to have bands, that’s a sound you don’t want. So we’ve had to be quite creative in how to get our people to accommodate that reality. We’re planning to remodel our primary worship sanctuary to better accommodate both kinds of worship.
Is there importance or value to a cappella worship?
The people who love a cappella worship would say they have a stronger sense of the priesthood of believers when they worship that way, because they have a stronger sense of actually hearing the other worshippers—theirs is a strong sense of community. With instrumental worship, you’re most conscious of your own voice or of the person with the mic on stage, so there is less of a sense of the community worshipping together. I’m not saying the community is not worshipping together, there’s just less of a sense of it.
Does an a cappella worship service have a different feel to it?
People who love a cappella worship often say there is less of a sense of a concert atmosphere in a cappella praise. My people don’t say that in a pejorative way; if they had a problem with instrumental worship they wouldn’t be here. If you have a bias against a concert feel you might prefer a cappella worship.
Does a cappella singing represent more than the worship itself?
You would probably get a hundred answers depending on whom you ask. For some it’s a symbol of sound doctrine and faithfulness, because they operate on the hermeneutic that if the Bible doesn’t specifically authorize it, it’s not legitimate. That group of churches of Christ is a minority.
How would you say the majority of churches of Christ view the issue?
I think for the majority of a cappella worshippers, it is simply a brotherhood distinctive, a symbol of a treasured heritage. So they keep the practice not because they think it’s wrong to worship otherwise, but because it ties them to a heritage that is beloved to them. In most churches of Christ you won’t hear a sermon saying instrumental worship is sinful. Most churches of Christ are not anti-instrument, but they are pro a cappella. And there’s a difference—some churches sing a cappella because they think it’s wrong to sing otherwise, but most sing a cappella because it’s their preference.
How do a cappella churches handle the music issue outside of the Sunday morning worship service?
Many a cappella churches of Christ use instrumental music for youth and children. They go to conferences, they listen to instrumental music on the radio, they have a great love of instrumental praise, but in their corporate worship they have a great love for their a cappella heritage. Many youth rallies hire bands to perform, and many of our Christian colleges have instrumental concerts. It’s about a preference.
What motivated the addition of a service with instrumental music at The Hills?
I think the primary reason we made the change was we thought it would be a more effective way to reach our community for Christ. There was a missional motivation. We were trying to think like missionaries. The missionary tries to use the language of the culture he’s trying to reach and redeem it for the gospel.
Change is hard. How did you work through that substantial change with your congregation?
In the first place, I had been very clear for many years that we were not going to take an anti-instrument position in our church, so there was no doctrinal hurdle to overcome. When we made the decision, we knew we would have to explain why we were making the decision, so I led the church through some teaching on why we were making the change we made.
How did you tackle that?
I felt like I had to answer two important questions. The first was, “Is worship with instruments biblical?” Even though there were very few people in my church who had a problem, I felt I had to equip them to have this discussion with others. The second was, “Is it expedient?” Just because it’s OK to do something doesn’t mean it’s wise. I felt that I had to make the case that it’s a wise missionary move to incorporate instrumental music as a strategy to reach our community.
Can a cappella worship be a hindrance to evangelism?
A cappella done well can be a powerful experience; done poorly it can have a great hindrance to outreach. But I think those in the Christian church would agree it’s the same for instrumental worship.
Is it just the style of music that defines the churches of Christ, or does it go beyond that?
Our a cappella commitment has been a hindrance for churches of Christ in one way: we’re known more for what we don’t than what we do. Even though many of our churches are active in the community, if you ask people [about them] the first thing they say is, “They don’t use instruments.” It’s a great frustration in many areas that we’re known for what we don’t do. I don’t want the identity of my church to be for what we don’t do.
I know you took some flak from other a cappella churches. Were there churches that were supportive?
I took a little flak in my church—some people left. We probably lost about 200 members because of our move. Some were personally uncomfortable with the move and some left because it created extended family disturbances—they didn’t personally have a problem, but their parents did. We never saw a dip in offering or attendance, so the Lord replaced those people.
How about beyond The Hills?
As far as the broader community of churches of Christ, I took a tremendous amount of flak. I got some of the most poisonous, vile, ugly e-mails you can imagine for several months. It was almost daily. I had websites put up about me. One college had a session in their lectureship to rebuke me. However, the support I received from churches of Christ was much greater than the criticism. Much greater. I would say for every negative e-mail I got I would get five that were positive. It’s just people who are negative get more exposure. People don’t create a website to support you, they create a website to attack you.
I still have more invitations to speak in churches of Christ than I can say yes to. I still feel valued and affirmed and esteemed by my fellowship. The truth is the part of the fellowship that wrote me off after we made the move [to instrumental music] had already written me off simply for fellowshipping with Christian churches and attending events like the North American Christian Convention.
Our move has emboldened other churches of Christ to contemplate making the same move and many are doing that.
What has been the value of building relationships between the instrumental and a cappella fellowships?
There have been several benefits. One, it was good for us just to have an awareness of each other, to recognize our commonalities, and to have greater understanding of some of the strengths of each fellowship. [It was good] to have some of our people know of a wonderful opportunity like the North American to attend. Another has been an effort to call both streams back to the original vision of the Restoration Movement to be a unity movement. Finally, in some cases it has been a way for churches to partner together to accomplish the mission of God.
Have you experienced that kind of partnership?
We have a great relationship with Compass Christian Church, Colleyville, Texas. Drew Sherman and I swap pulpits. Then you have Chris Seidman from Farmers Branch Church of Christ, Dallas, Texas, a church that had a non-Sunday school background. Here are three churches, with three distinct backgrounds, all three of us are partnering together to do mission work in East Africa where none of those traditions make sense.
Do you think the efforts to come together had wide-ranging success?
Some ministers tried to reach out to a cappella churches and were rebuffed. Some churches might have thought, I have better things to do than to reach out to an a cappella church. It may have only been important to some people, but it did do some good and I’m thankful for that. I’ve heard wonderful stories of cooperation that give me hope for the future.
What is the appeal of the independent Christian church to you?
Perhaps the thing from Christian churches that has inspired me the most is Christian churches have shown that our core doctrines and pleas can still be winsome and effective in reaching people. Our high view of Scripture, high view of baptism, belief in local autonomy, governance through elders—these things can still have a powerful, winsome appeal to our community. Christian churches have reminded churches of Christ that we don’t have to be embarrassed or ashamed by the ideals of our movement.
What would be your message to the Christian churches?
Personally, I hope Christian churches don’t just drift into kind of an undefined, ambiguous Evangelicalism that has no real distinct message any more. I think the call to let the Bible be our guide and let Christ be our unity is still a good thing. Our movement is just part of the kingdom of God, but I believe God raised up our movement to strengthen the kingdom of God.
Brad Dupray is president of Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.