The Restoration Movement: Its Vitality, Quirks, and Needs in the 21st Century

By LeRoy Lawson

Editor’s Note: The Publishing Committee’s 50th annual meeting this October included rich dialogue, presentations by members of Standard Publishing’s staff, and reflections by several members of the Committee. We’ve decided to publish one of those, because it offers all our readers valuable food for thought.

Quirks?  

NAME—We have a quirky name. What was pinned on us in the 19th century sounds pretty quaint in the 21st. It doesn’t help our cause. In an age attuned to Madison Avenue’s sloganeering, “Restoration Movement” is definitely not the catchiest bit of nomenclature on the airwaves.

I don’t have a replacement to recommend; and if I did, there isn’t anyone with authority to whom I could make my pitch, so I am not proposing that we rename ourselves. But the editor asked for quirks, and this is one, a definitely delimiting one. You can be sure that many of the churches and Christians who have virtually adopted our plea—or are enjoying the successful consequences of our plea—don’t realize their position was long ago articulated by the leaders of something called the Restoration Movement.

Label—Not liberal, not really evangelical, not fundamentalist—As a group we are generally conservative, but not consistently so. In fact, critics could accuse us of not being consistently anything. As Professor Fred Norris has said, “Our distinctive is that we have no distinctive.”

It’s a quirk, but to me an admirable one, because we have room to breathe and freedom to explore and the opportunity to learn to love those who disagree with us but whom we must accept as members of the same large, fractious family.

Attitude—Antipathy to genuine cooperation—We talk the unity game, but we have to confess that competition rules, a testimony to our individual and collective insecurities. We’re our own worst enemy because we constantly compare and compete with each other, often forgetting we’re on the same team.

We’re getting better, though. The recent North American Christian Convention, with its focus on unity between two branches of our movement, was heartening—even though it took us 100 years to take that small, symbolic step. Our historic emphasis on unity has generally been shouted down by our ever-so-human propensity to fragment around personalities, points of doctrine, and petty politics.

Organizational structure—Not hierarchical, yet we have our pecking order—You’ll look in vain to find a denominational structure for our fellowship. We have no headquarters, no duly elected bishops and superintendents, no synods or presbyteries. Yet we have our power brokers. For years, editors called the shots; then college presidents; in some areas, perhaps evangelistic or church-planting associations. Now, beyond doubt, the megachurch pastors are the driving force, and the rest of us are praying they won’t take us on a detour.

State of mind—Still basically anti-intellectual—Our leaders might be characterized, in the main, as a collection of pragmatists, opportunists, and business-school-management types. We participate in the general “dumbing down” of America, even though our founders treasured learning and established academic institutions and understood the difference between training and education.

We pretty much subscribe to the belief that if it works, it’s good. We study marketing and graphics and technology with an enthusiasm we don’t display for philosophy and theology and serious scriptural study. This makes us a ready target for every fad that promises instant success.

Our culture—Basically WASP-ish—Our conventions and for the most part our congregations look pretty white, pretty Anglo-Saxon, pretty middle class, pretty much a homogeneous mix across the country. Thankfully, we are gradually reaching beyond the strictures of our subculture. Our large commitment to missions is paying off at home, if ever so slowly. Increasing numbers of us, though, are restless with our cultural conformity and want our churches to reflect God’s love for the whole world.

Our relationships—The tie that binds—The relational nature of the movement is both our strength and our weakness.

It’s our strength, because we have had to rely on one another in an informal dependency based on merit and ability rather than on structures and bureaucracies and denominational vested interests.

It’s our weakness because the tendency is toward good-old-boy cliquishness and, if we aren’t careful, the tyranny of group think. I still prefer tolerating our weaknesses, though, to enduring the stifling presumptions of powerfully entrenched organizations.

Vitality?  

We don’t need to dwell as long on our vitality. It’s obvious. You know the survey that heralded our growth several years ago. Many of us had already seen evidence that this was no longer the sleepy, sluggish movement of our youth. We batted our eyes, wondering whether we were just wishfully thinking we were seeing movement in the movement. We thought we were growing, but we couldn’t prove it. Then came the survey.

You know the growth of our megachurches as well. We now have well over 100 churches of 1,000 (this year Christian Standard listed 160), with the number climbing every year.

We’ve learned how to build them. After awhile we’ll have to decide what to do with them. Their success raises pride and puzzlement at the same time. We’re glad to see the achievements—achievements far beyond anything we thought possible not so long ago. But we’re a little leery. Can this phenomenon be sustained? Even more important, should it be? Is this the shape of the church of the future, or shall we look elsewhere?

Our vitality is not to be measured just by the number of megachurches, either. We are planting new churches in unprecedented numbers and in unprecedented places.

Then there are our colleges, at their all-time strongest; our evangelistic associations, equally vigorous; our growing missions outreach, which continues unabated if not always with the greatest missiological insight. A visit to the booths at the NACC or National Missionary Convention is proof enough that this is an undisciplined but lively movement.

Our publishing is strong. Not just Standard, but other publishers and church papers and now Web sites and blogs, are spreading the word, and increasing numbers of our people are writing books. The methods are changing, but we are obviously still committed to publishing “the glad tidings.”

Needs?

To REVISIT our purpose—We’ve attained many goals—back-to-the-Bible emphasis, congregational independence, scriptural authority, lordship of Christ. We haven’t been successful in uniting all Christendom, and if we could do it we couldn’t sustain it because we are still dealing with human fickleness. In spite of our gains, however, genuine reform requires constant checking with the standards to be restored; genuine concern for unity demands reference to the givens on which we could and should be united; and the gift of freedom is not to encourage us to “go it alone” but is a passport to personal and collaborative fulfillment.

To CELEBRATE our diversity—No publishing house owns us, no mission agency dominates us, no educational institution defines us, no partisan loyalties direct us, no popular issue can permanently separate us, no traditional or cultural orthodoxy can dictate to us, and no administration can kick us out. We have the freedom to think, to dream, to rebel, to initiate, to create, to kill (organizationally speaking), and even (again speaking organizationally) to rise from the dead. Rather than feel threatened by segments of the movement that strike any of us as less than kosher, we can let time test them because in the end the truth will out.

To REDISCOVER cooperation—In the name of independence we have sometimes failed to appreciate strength in cooperation, virtue in loyalty, and wisdom in compromise for the sake of mission and relationships. We were not called to be hermits; we were called to evangelize; we are on a mission larger than ourselves, and that means, without sacrificing our essence, joining hands with whoever will have us. Remember the apostle Paul’s approach? “I have become all things to all men that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He cooperated on purpose. So must we.

To FORGET about respectability—We have attained it. Now we can forget about it. More important than reputation is relevance—not relevance to the religious world, because that is one of our attainments, but relevance to the nonreligious, the pre-Christian, multicultural world to which we have been sent. That means judging our progress or lack of it not by our standing among Christians, but by our reception among those who have not yet heard and heeded the Word.

LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, serves with the Publishing Committee and CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors.  

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