By Chris Beard
I love the Restoration Movement. It didn’t used to be that way. Don’t get me wrong; I have believed wholeheartedly in the principles of the Stone-Campbell Movement since I was a kid. As a minister, I believe the more my congregation reflects the values and principles of the New Testament church, the more effective we will be for God’s kingdom. I’ve always thought I loved the Restoration Movement, but it turns out, for the longest time, I only loved my church.
And isn’t that often the case? While there is no official data to investigate, a quick glance at churches in your area with Restoration Movement roots will most likely reveal that what I discovered about myself is true for you, too: we love our churches and our streams, but not necessarily the movement.
The truth is the Restoration Movement is a wild contradiction of success and failure. Certainly God has used churches from all streams to bring glory to his name. There are wonderful examples of Restoration Movement churches succeeding in our Christ-given mission to “make disciples.” But we can’t ignore the obvious; we are a unity movement that is divided!
Lately there is a renewed interest in restoring the Restoration Movement to a brotherhood of unity. While many voices throughout our history spoke boldly for the renewal of fellowship, the groundswell over the past five years may well be the greatest focus on unity in our movement since its formation. Leaders from all streams have joined in efforts to focus on what we have in common. Events such as the North American Christian Convention and the Tulsa Workshop invited leaders from other Restoration Movement streams to speak and partner in a focus on unity. The dialogue has continued in various forums and lectureships in colleges and other venues throughout the Restoration Movement.
These efforts have been dynamic, God-glorifying, and effective in bringing awareness to the biblical importance of unity. So what has kept us from being restored to a unity movement?
In 2006, William “Chip” Kooi of Oklahoma Christian University was asked about the key to success of the renewed quest for unity in the Restoration Movement. He said, “If we believe in this, we can’t just sit around and wait for something to happen. It really depends on it being a grassroots movement in congregations.”1 It is at that grassroots level we are failing to do our part to renew fellowship with other Restoration Movement congregations.
Despite the wonderful examples set by our leaders, we are failing to put those examples into practice in our local congregations. That is not to dismiss the efforts of churches glorifying God in their pursuit of unity. Many churches are indeed engaging in such efforts; one year ago I began serving as lead minister at a church formed by a 2005 merger of an instrumental Christian church and an a cappella church of Christ. But more congregations must consistently join in unity efforts if we are to succeed in fellowship among the Restoration Movement.
Here are four questions to ask as we work toward restoring unity in the Restoration Movement at the local level:
Do we really care?—Maybe unity and fellowship between congregations in our community don’t exist because we don’t want them to. We may have a general desire for such things, but those desires rarely translate into action within our ministries. Perhaps we don’t envision a valuable “return on investment.” But remember, Jesus prayed for “complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).
God desires more than unity for unity’s sake; he desires unity for a greater purpose. As Edward Fudge said, “Restoration is only a tool that can be helpful in serving God, not an end within itself.”2
If you are a minister like me, you might wonder how to fit the daunting task of building relationships with other congregations into your already overflowing schedule. We may very well need a shift in our priorities, or perhaps we simply need to let someone else take the lead in this effort. Regardless of who fills that role, we need to reflect Christ’s desire for unity within our own congregation by making it a priority.
Do our churches understand?—What kind of understanding do people in our churches have about the heritage of their church? I’m not necessarily talking about how much “Restoration history” we communicate. I would rather my church be versed and practiced in the principles of the Restoration Movement than know the biography of Alexander Campbell. But do our folks know there are churches in the area, and perhaps the same neighborhood, that share those principles and heritage?
I grew up in a Christian church in small-town Oklahoma and was familiar with the principles of the Restoration Movement, but it wasn’t until I spent a year at Bible college that I realized there were three churches right down the street from mine that held the same principles. We can’t expect our congregations to build on common ground when very few people realize there is common ground.
Can we focus on what we have in common?—When I mention to people with Restoration Movement roots that I minister at a merged church, most of the time the first question is, “How did you solve the music issue?” It is a predictable question, because it is human nature to focus on differences rather than commonalities. There is vast diversity, even within our own congregations, so we cannot expect ever to have unanimity across the Restoration Movement. But we cannot let our differences hinder fellowship. This has been central to the unity emphasis brought forth in recent years.
If we are going to build relationships with other congregations, then we must move from philosophy to action. In the past, differences between congregations have been an excuse to avoid fellowship. It’s the whole “we use a piano and they don’t, so we obviously can’t get together” mentality. But unity doesn’t require the complete removal of these barriers, only a shift in focus.
Maybe our preferences regarding music mean we don’t begin with a joint worship service. Fine. But what DO your congregations have in common? Maybe it’s a cause in the community you both believe in. Maybe it’s a school you care about because children from both churches attend. Maybe it’s something as simple as food! (We all scream for ice cream, right?)
Instead of looking at all the reasons we CAN’T get together, let’s find something we have in common and use that as an excuse to fellowship. We can find something if we just take the time to look.
Should we change our approach?—One reason we have failed at building relationships among our congregations is our attempts have too often fallen into the “come join us” category. Then, when a congregation declines to be part of our worship assembly, our fellowship, or our service event, then clearly they don’t desire unity!
What if we took a different approach? What if instead of designing an event to bring churches together, we just went to the other church? What if, as church leaders, we approached other churches without agenda or power play, just a desire to join them on their turf? What if we dismissed our assembly to join them in theirs? I think we would be amazed by the relationship we could build if we only used Philippians 2:1-3 as a guide for our efforts.
And while a compromise on the negotiables might be necessary in certain areas of fellowship with other congregations, our churches should not fear identity loss or doctrinal dilution as a side effect of unity. Unity isn’t about trying to sell our brothers and sisters on our way of thinking. It’s not changing who you are as a church just so you will fit in with someone else. It is simply finding common ground, glorifying God together, and growing from there.
The Time Is Now
It’s time we restore unity to the Restoration Movement. It won’t be an easy or comfortable task. It can’t be accomplished at any convention, college, or forum; it must be done in our churches and in our neighborhoods. It’s time to expand our love beyond our own churches and our own streams, to a love for our Restoration Movement and beyond.
Work toward unity so we may once again be a unity movement. Work toward unity so we can join our brothers and sisters in Christ in love. But most importantly, work toward unity and be one so the world may believe in the One who has unified us!
1Cleyln Brown and Rachel Yeakley, “100 Years of Division: Restoration Heirs Seek to Restore Cooperation Among Members,” The Talon Online, 8 December 2006.
2Edward Fudge, “The Restoration Movement Fulfilled in Jesus Christ,” Bering Drive Church of Christ, 1981, 6.
Chris Beard serves as lead minister with Christ Covenant Church, Beaumont, Texas, a merger of an independent Christian church and an a cappella church of Christ.