At first, joining an a cappella church of Christ was like attending a family reunion of second cousins on your father”s side. Sure, we had kin in common; we definitely shared ancestral roots. The potluck spreads were every bit as good””that lovely “table” where everyone can find a seat. Still, we were enough different to feel awkward around our rediscovered family.
Raised in independent Christian churches that do use musical instruments, I”d nevertheless been taught that churches of Christ shared the same vision of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. In college, and in the years before marriage, I had worshipped with a cappella congregations.
Churches of Christ have their own Bible camps, Christian colleges, missions methodology, conferences, and respected teachers and scholars. Growing comfortable with the vocabulary and landscape takes time. But after seven years of worshipping and serving in several capacities at Red Bridge Church of Christ, our family is past the newbie stage.
The churches of my upbringing share a strong family resemblance to our Restoration cousins, but there are definite differences””some we don”t like but have made peace with, others we”ve come to see as strengths that could add vigor to the entire family tree.
Three trends, in particular, vitalized the Midwest congregations in which I worshipped and served. I cannot attest that these trends exist in all churches of Christ, but they are practiced widely.
The boys are trained to leadership. One of the first things I noticed in these churches of Christ was that couples serve together in ministry areas that primarily have been the purview of women in my own church upbringing.
It is not uncommon to find the nursery staffed by a husband and wife team. In the toddlers” class, you”re likely to see a husband wiping water off the playground slide and roughhousing with the more active children, while his wife monitors the more timid. In Vacation Bible School, many of the dads dress in costume and perform the Bible skits. At camp, a couple might create the meals.
Men of all ages, from college-age to retirees, interact with children, help prepare food and clean up after hospitality events, and mentor teens who come from fatherless families.
What my sons have learned by this example is that church isn”t just women”s work, and that servanthood is characteristic of leadership. What”s more, when husbands work alongside their wives, their hybrid giftedness models a strong Christian marriage.
Young men seem to be trained into service and leadership quite deliberately. From around fourth grade through high school, they are integrated in the worship hour. They serve Communion and collect offerings, distribute attendance books, and offer prayer. They read Scripture from the pulpit and pray over the minister before his sermon.
A robust, masculine spirituality grows from this early integration. Men seem quick to serve in all aspects of church community, not begrudging in their participation.
The elders lead, the ministers serve. In churches of Christ, the ministers usually prefer not to call themselves pastors. In fact, in some bodies, the lead or senior minister is still referred to as evangelist, acknowledging his primary functions: to exhort, teach, and evangelize. It may seem a narrow job description, yet it puts a premium on the adept handling of the Word of God and frees the minister from having to be a generalist, good at all things.
Many churches in the broader Evangelical world seem to have a ministry staff that resembles a corporate management team, with a high-profile pastor fulfilling the role of CEO and the elders functioning as a board of directors. The latter seem to hire, fire, and expect outcomes, but are not so much accountable for the day to day.
Not so in churches of Christ. The responsibility is on the elders for setting the direction of the church, upholding their vision, planning initiatives to encourage and equip, identifying which ministry areas need support, and providing spiritual counsel.
The minister can be an enthusiastic promoter of this vision. Yet the growth and sustainability of the church is not dependent on the charisma of one strong personality or one man”s ideas, but rather on that of several men handpicked by the congregation because of the transforming work of God evident in their individual lives.
In the churches of Christ I”ve attended, the elders have a higher-profile role even in the Sunday worship service itself. They collect the prayers, pray over the needs, and communicate regularly from the platform.
In contrast, I attended an instrumental worship service recently where every pastor on staff appeared on the platform during service, but not one elder. It felt dramatically different.
Worship is everyone”s “calling.” The absence of instruments obviously suggests a different kind of worship, but one that has surprising advantages. Worship is more broadly defined than music. On average, much more Scripture is read aloud in churches of Christ I”ve attended than I”ve experienced elsewhere. Often the congregation reads aloud in unison from Scripture projected on the overhead screen.
In our church we have a large number of international college students, mostly Asians, who are being discipled among us. Recently we”ve started the practice of having a Scripture read aloud by a student in his or her native tongue””usually Mandarin Chinese””followed by an English reading of the same passage by another congregational member.
Everyone is expected to sing, to practice the vocabulary of praise, and almost everyone does. The idea that music should be primarily stewarded by people who are musically gifted doesn”t have traction here. You sing whether you have talent or not.
The songs themselves are written to be sung by a group, not simply unabridged versions of contemporary radio music. The repertoire itself is not constrained to hymns, though we sing several. Many modern choruses and praise songs have been arranged for part harmony, often by the Tennessee-based ZOE Group, a worship renewal ministry with roots in churches of Christ. We also sing some pieces that I”ve heard only in churches of Christ””melodies so beautiful I wish they could be exported to everyone.
The songs can be intricate. Many are written in rounds (yep, just like in elementary school music class), or have parts that are echoed by the men and women to each other. Learning this music can be challenging. The words are provided on a screen in our church, but the music notation itself is still provided in the bulletin for those who read music.
At Red Bridge, a worship team of strong singers sits in the first few pews and uses microphones so the congregation can clearly hear the harmony of part singing. Oddly enough””perhaps because we can hear each other better without instruments””nearly everyone develops the ability to sing in tune, even harmonizing somewhat intuitively.
Singing a cappella increases a sense of oneness with others. A little messy at times, it is always intimate. I find it reminds me that God receives our worship, not just as individuals, but as one body, a bride.
This summer The Christian Chronicle quoted Darryl Tippens, provost of church of Christ-affiliated Pepperdine University: “A cappella music should be a bridge to all sorts of people in our culture. And if we find it”s a barrier, we”re doing it wrong.”
I”ve seen that bridge.
The year after we joined Red Bridge, we learned of an annual youth conference held in a local hotel the week after Christmas. The week after Christmas, I thought! Prime family time, and a postholiday hotel expense””what”s up with this? Another odd church of Christ thing? I shrugged.
A couple of years later, I chaperoned the event. On the last day, a portable swimming pool was set up in the lobby of the Embassy Suites so young people could be baptized. All the other teens stood along the four levels of hotel balconies overlooking the open lobby and began singing in harmony, their naked voices adorning the building”s expanse.
Below, old lives emerged as new. Hotel guests drifted from their rooms to watch, called out by the youthful singing and caught up in the emotion of immersion. A first glimpse of resurrection for some.
I was grateful, once again, for a different way of doing things.
Years ago, two bodies emerged from one heart and lost their love for each other. I regret that we do not miss each other more or seek each other”s companionship. In the body where we worship, even among our close-knit friends, there is little curiosity about instrumental independent Christian churches. In some church of Christ fellowships, there exists something closer to caution, suspicion, even doctrinal rejection.
Perhaps that is true of both branches of the family, though more often I”ve seen from instrumental churches a kind of mystified condescension: “How can they do church without instruments?”
We can look different and still be blood brothers. To learn from the better natures of ourselves would be the fullest expression of our Father”s image.
Teresa Schantz Williams is a freelance writer living in Kansas City, Missouri, where she serves with Red Bridge Church of Christ.