By David Faust
Three years ago I had the privilege of serving as president of the 2006 North American Christian Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Our convention theme, “Together in Christ,” highlighted Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17.
We preached the great unity texts found in Ephesians 4. We sang—with and without instrumental accompaniment—and worshiped the Lord together. We noted the historic significance of the year 2006, 100 years after the U.S. Census Bureau first listed the a cappella churches of Christ as a separate body distinct from the Christian churches. We acknowledged that in a lost and dying world, we can’t afford to quarrel like two lifeguards who get into a fistfight on the beach while a swimmer is drowning in the water.
The Christian Chronicle identified the unity talks between the Christian churches and the churches of Christ as its No. 1 news story for 2006. Victor Knowles called it “a year of healing and a harbinger of hope.” Now that three years have passed, can we identify any lasting results of these efforts?
What Didn’t Happen
Our two branches of the movement didn’t merge in 2006. No one expected them to.
Our disagreements didn’t disappear. We knew they wouldn’t. Our movement encourages liberty of opinion and congregational autonomy, and no one speaks for all of us. Some of our disagreements arouse strong emotions, representing century-long rifts rooted in deep cultural and theological differences and divergent approaches to the words and silences of Scripture. These disagreements won’t go away quickly, if ever.1
Everyone didn’t become friends. In some quarters our divisions continue to spark rancorous debate. Some brothers and sisters, weary of the divisions, have decided any attempts at reconciliation are futile and a waste of time. Sadly, some have found their personal attempts to reach out to brethren on the other side of the keyboard repeatedly rebuffed—a difficult response to understand when the Bible tells us to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3).
What Has Happened
Thankfully we can identify several lasting effects of the 2006 unity efforts.
We know each other better. Because of the new flow of information across the lines of our movement, many of us have discovered capable preachers we hadn’t heard before, helpful books we hadn’t read, quality college campuses we had never visited, dynamic churches we hadn’t known about, and wonderful friendships we had been missing. Even in areas of disagreement, we have gained a better understanding of our brothers’ viewpoints.
We are doing more together. New churches are being planted through the combined efforts of Christian churches and churches of Christ. Our colleges are finding capable faculty members and students from both groups, and our scholars are connecting more than in the past.
I continue to see friends from a cappella churches at conventions and lectureships, where some of them serve as keynote speakers and workshop leaders. Campus ministers, missionaries, Bible translators, and publishers are working together to spread God’s Word.
We are listening more respectfully. More than 1,100 people from 30 states attended the Restoration Forum at Ozark Christian College in September 2007. Another example happened a year earlier, in October 2006, when I was invited to Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee, to participate in a “Contemporary Discussion” with FHU faculty member Ralph Gilmore.
More than 1,000 people—the vast majority from a cappella churches—attended this gathering on a Saturday morning. In the opening session, I had the opportunity to speak plainly about my faith in Christ, my confidence in Scripture, my love for the church, and my heartfelt devotion to the ideals of the Restoration Movement. In the second session, I listed 10 reasons I personally believe it is permissible to use musical instruments in worship and urged that our different opinions about musical instruments should not be a test of fellowship.
Despite the fact that most of the listeners didn’t share my point of view about instrumental music, FHU officials treated me with respect and brotherly love; I was allowed to speak my mind; and I received numerous expressions of gratitude afterward from my brothers and sisters in the a cappella churches.2
Rick Atchley, preacher at Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas, looks back at 2006 and says this:
A lot of positive conversations were generated. Brethren in many towns reached across the street to get to know each other better. I have received countless reports of joint worship services and fellowships.
I think the efforts of 2006 created a greater awareness of some strengths of each fellowship. For example, exposure to church planting in Christian churches has greatly increased interest among churches of Christ. And the efforts helped Christian churches become more aware of some good things in churches of Christ, like the Tulsa Soul-Winning Workshop and the Pepperdine Lectures.
I think the efforts caused some in our movement to reconsider the strengths of our Restoration heritage. My sense is that many in both fellowships need to reflect more on the blessings of our shared history, and 2006 gave some a reason to do so.
What Still Needs to Happen
Significant steps took place in 2006, but there is still a lot more to do.
Victor Knowles observes that “after all these years much education still needs to be done on ‘who we are’ and ‘what we believe and practice.” According to Atchley, “What needs to be done, in my opinion, is more intentional cooperation in ministry opportunities. We’ve had our share of joint worship meetings; now it’s time to meet and serve our neighbors together.”
Atchley gives the following example:
When one of our missionary families at Richland Hills lost some support, I contacted Drew Sherman at Compass Christian Church (formerly Highland Meadows), and they agreed to pick it up. So now our two churches are doing more than our annual preacher swap—we are working together to advance the gospel in Africa.
In fact, Drew and I will be going to Uganda together later this year to explore ways we can expand our mission works. I hope and pray that more kingdom projects like this will be the greatest outcome of 2006.
“Don’t be discouraged when you reach out and someone rebuffs your attempt at friendship,” Knowles said. “And don’t quit trying to reach out because of something that happened 40 years ago. People change.”
As Atchley puts it,
While I think it is difficult to assess all the good that was accomplished, I am confident that Heaven will reveal fruit that we could never have imagined. I can personally say that my own ministry was enormously impacted by the unity efforts from that year, and I get e-mails almost weekly from Christians around the world encouraged by fellowship moments that probably never would have transpired if not for those efforts.
The Lord still calls us to be a movement that shapes America and the world. We must preach the gospel, baptize new disciples, send missionaries to other lands, plant churches, feed the hungry, nurture families, bring dignity and hope to the poor, save marriages, teach children, care for the elderly, and change our cities. But this great mission is not ours to fulfill alone. As we learned in 2006 and continue to learn in 2009, we need to do it together.
1Victor Knowles points out that an unscientific poll of 3,076 respondents conducted by The Christian Chronicle in 2006 asked, “Do you support fellowship between a cappella churches of Christ and instrumental Christian churches?” Fifty percent said “absolutely not,” but 35 percent said “definitely.” In the same poll, in response to the question “What is your position on instrumental music in worship?” 36 percent (1,732 respondents) said “Bible is silent; instruments should not be used,” 30 percent said “Bible is silent, Christians should decide,” and only 15 percent said “Bible forbids it,” while 13 percent said “Bible permits it.”
2The entire “Contemporary Discussion” is available on DVD from Freed-Hardeman University, www.FHU.edu.
David Faust is president of Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University and executive editor of The Lookout magazine.