By Paul Boatman
Jon Keck is a staff pastor with First Christian Church, Decatur, Illinois, a once-dwindling traditional church affiliated with the Disciples of Christ that has turned around to become a thriving Evangelical congregation.
Introduce us to First Christian Church of Decatur.
This is a growing church that gathers 1,000 Christians each weekend to worship Jesus. We date back to 1833 and have been historically affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. As changes evolved in the Disciples of Christ, we became an autonomous Christian church affiliated with the Disciple Heritage Fellowship. We are growing at the rate of about 18 percent per year, trying to be in the 21st century what I think the church was called to be in the first century.
Where did you come into this?
I grew up mostly without the church. I was baptized in a Baptist church at about age 5, then rarely went to church again for years. I actually came to faith at about age 17 when friends invited me to a nondenominational church with Pentecostal leanings. At first, some of what I experienced scared me, but I was challenged there to start reading and studying the Bible.
That got me into exploring Jesus, so when I got to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, where he calls us to “go and make disciples,” I really believed that call was to me. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but I eventually ended up at Lincoln, Illinois, where I knew there was a “Christian college.” When I sat down with my freshman adviser, Dr. [Walter] Zorn, I began to see that “Christian college” was more than just a school for Christians in general—I learned about the Stone-Campbell Movement and continued my passion for Bible study. J. K. Jones became a great spiritual mentor.
Did that lead you to change churches?
At this time the group that first nurtured me was moving more into what I now see as a “health and wealth gospel.” I struggled because that church led me to Christ and the pastor married us. It was painful, but we had to leave. So in our early 20s we started searching for a church and we ended up worshipping at First Christian.
Early in your Christian walk you encounter a church and a school from two different streams of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. How did you come to understand that movement?
What I have found most enriching from the tradition of the Restoration Movement is the commitment to Scripture. It was through Scripture that I first encountered Christ, and both church and school spurred me on in Bible study. We became a part of First Christian six years ago. I started an internship five years ago, I was ordained here, and came on staff full-time as a pastor soon after that.
Isn’t the church itself on something of a pilgrimage?
This church and Wayne Kent, our lead pastor, were active in the Disciple Renewal movement, hoping to encourage an Evangelical voice within the Disciples of Christ. After nearly 20 years of attempting to influence the leadership to affirm orthodox Christian teaching, the Renewal movement tried to put some basic propositions before the general assembly, declarations that affirm the reliability and authority of Scripture, and the unique saving power of Jesus Christ. When the denominational leadership blocked those declarations, our church and others, concluding that influencing from within was no longer an option, left the denomination. About 10 years ago, Disciple Renewal changed its name to Disciple Heritage Fellowship, a group to support former Disciples churches with similar values.
How do you relate to the Christian churches that read CHRISTIAN STANDARD?
We value our relationship with Christian churches. All of our staff pastors have been educated at Restoration Movement schools. We have had professors from Lincoln and elsewhere teach classes and help us develop an annual Intentional Church Conference here in Decatur. We are trying to learn from like-minded
churches in how they are reaching their communities. Like most Christian churches, we observe weekly open Communion and practice adult immersion. We see baptism as the next step when a person comes to faith in Christ. We will accept into membership a believer who was sprinkled as an infant. However, because we teach that baptism is for adult believers, those new members, more often than not, choose to be baptized by immersion within the first couple of years of worship life with us.
You are aware that the “open membership” issue has been a flashpoint for generations.
It isn’t something we argue about, but it is our established practice. When we talk to anyone from another church we invite them to talk about the richness of their heritage, and we share the richness of our heritage. As appropriate, baptism is a part of that discussion. We focus on Paul’s clear words in Romans 6. Even people who have gone through confirmation as children know they have had nothing that compares to being united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection through immersion. It is beautiful to witness the process.
What do you see as your future relationship with other churches?
I cannot predict that. First [Christian] is an independent Christian church. Our closest fellowship is with other Christian churches, but all Christian churches are in pilgrimage. For example, even with the historic aversion to creeds, most Christian churches have a statement of beliefs on their websites. At a preaching conference at a Christian church in Normal, Illinois, David Moen’s song “Because We Believe” was featured—a great song that sounds like a creed set to music. Everyone thought it was pretty cool. We have three outside advisers who come in to assess us every nine months—Greg Taylor, a Christian Church pastor, Michael Ten Eyck, a Disciple Heritage leader, and Tom Sager, from the Christian and Missionary Alliance. We maintain fellowship with a variety of congregations for the sake of mutual ministry concerns.
Why is this church growing?
We ask ourselves that question. No simple answer, but many factors: Pastor Wayne Kent has led with excellence for 20 years. People see the preaching as biblically solid and down-to-earth. The elders are effective prayer leaders of the church. We are highly involved in our community—for example, teaming with a nearby elementary school through mentoring and tutoring has enhanced children’s performance. We are involved in local missions outreach/service and have mission partners as far away as Kenya. We host a two-hour weekly program on a talk-radio station. The community knows we care about living out our Christian faith right where people live.
As for you and your house?
I am amazed that I get to serve with a great church in my hometown. I just want to be a part of what God is doing here.
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.