By Mark A. Taylor
Suppose you were asked to summarize the current condition of Christian churches and churches of Christ to an interested but largely uninformed audience.
That was my assignment at the Sunday-evening worship service sponsored by the Stone-Campbell Dialogue in Austin, Texas, October 5.
As I reported in this space last week, I was one of three speakers, each with a similar assignment; the others spoke, respectively, about the a cappella churches of Christ and the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.
Realizing that no one in our group can represent the whole group and no one can know everything that’s happening among us, nevertheless I plunged ahead to share my perceptions about a fellowship of churches I simultaneously love and sometimes worry about. Below is a summary of what I said. Would you agree with my conclusions?
I pointed out that ours is a diverse fellowship. It’s true that 124 congregations reported attendance exceeding 1,000 the last time we compiled the figures (and we know several that size didn’t report to us). We’re proud that three of these congregations averaged more than 20,000 weekend worshippers in 2013.
And many of our congregations are not only large, but also fast-growing. When Outreach magazine published its list of the fastest-growing congregations in America, three from our fellowship were in the Top 10.
But of the 5,500 to 6,000 congregations in our fellowship, the above numbers represent only a fraction. “We have thousands of county seat and suburban congregations of a few hundred or more,” I said in Austin. “And many small churches at sleepy crossroads are barely holding their own.”
The diversity is geographical as well as numerical. “We are a fellowship strong through the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri,” I reported. “But we also have burgeoning new-church-planting efforts in the urban Northeast as well as growing churches in Phoenix and Las Vegas and Southern California and Florida.”
When it comes to numbers, we can only guess. “I’m not really sure how we’re growing in total in the U.S.,” I said. “We don’t have anyone collecting numbers that everyone will report to!
“But I’ve been told that our group has far more attendees around the world than the 1.5 to 1.7 million or so in the U.S. And U.S. churches now support 2,500 missionaries from our fellowship serving today on foreign fields.”
Church planting has become one of the hallmarks of this movement, I told them. And church-planting initiatives among us are part of the reason we support three church loan funds with combined assets exceeding $1 billion.
One visible indication of our church-planting energy is the annual Exponential conference, labeled as the best church-planting conference in America, with 7,600 attendees in two separate gatherings this year. Exponential was started by and is led by folks firmly in our movement, but there’s nothing Christian-churchy about the program, which welcomes church growth experts from throughout Christendom. You certainly wouldn’t recognize it as a Stone-Campbell event. This is typical of another trend among us
It’s getting more and more difficult to determine who “we” are. I told the folks that at least a half-dozen main speakers at this summer’s North American Christian Convention were from outside our movement. I mentioned that the display floors at NACC as well as our upcoming International Conference on Missions include not only vendors but also ministries from outside our movement. And I gave a brief overview of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s annual college report listing some schools whose percentage of enrollment from our movement is in the single digits. “Of the 30 schools in this report, 15 of them reported an enrollment from our movement that was less than 60 percent.
“In a way, our fellowship is suffering from its own success,” I said. “We say, don’t we, that we’re not the only Christians? It so happens that many of the most vocal leaders, many accomplishing the most among us, just happen to believe that. So they are working with Christ followers from many, many groups to perform disaster relief, establish urban missions, adopt under-resourced schools, promote foster care and adoption, fight poverty, learn about missions and church planting and evangelism, and in some cases, even start new churches.
“For these ‘Christians only,’ the issue isn’t unity among the three streams of the Stone-Campbell movement, but unity with everyone who lifts up the lordship of Christ, stands on the authority and reliability of the Scripture, and is committed to sharing the love and truth of Jesus with a suffering world.
“Even as national leaders among us seek to keep these entrepreneurial leaders from our group in our group, we’re thrilled with what so many of them are accomplishing for Christ.”
But these are challenging times. I shared from an e-mail a friend sent me not long ago:
The edges of the movement seem to be heading in opposite directions, and doing so at the speed of light. The glue that used to hold it all together is old and brittle and no longer adequate for the task.
That’s a pretty negative assessment! But perhaps not inaccurate. I acknowledged the suspicion of megachurches by smaller churches and the fact that many younger ministers pay more attention to models outside our movement than those within it.
“And,” I added, “no one can speak about women’s roles, homosexuality, the eldership, or the use of alcohol (to name a few hot-button issues) without receiving a flurry of passionate disagreement—no matter what position he or she takes.”
The big picture, however, is positive. I told the congregation in Austin, almost all of whom were from outside our group, “I say all the above just to show you that our stream, like yours, I suspect, does not always flow smoothly or in a straight line. Nevertheless, I’ve said for quite awhile that these are the most exciting years in my lifetime to witness what’s happening among the Christian churches and churches of Christ.”
I can’t think of a better bottom line than that one. And now I’m wondering if my readers will agree.