By Mark A. Taylor
In recognition of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s 150th birthday earlier this year, the North American Christian Convention featured a workshop led by three of the magazine’s contributing editors. We asked each of them to think about hopes and challenges they see for the future of the churches served by this magazine for a century and a half.
The comments below are edited from the hour-long workshop. See the whole session here.
What will be the future of the independent Christian churches? As I considered the churches I’ve seen, I thought of three answers to that question:
Diversify or die—As a guy from the Midwest, I rejoice when I visit the West Coast and see the amazing racial and ethnic diversity the Lord has brought together in some of the churches out here. For example, when I get to visit Shepherd Church where Dudley Rutherford, one of our graduates, preaches, I rejoice to see the little glimpse of Heaven reflected there.
When I go back home to a lot of the churches in the Midwest, I don’t see that, and it breaks my heart. You know that about four years ago, the tables turned, the scale tipped. There are now, every year, more non-Caucasian babies born in the United States than there are Caucasian babies. That’s a wonderful and beautiful thing.
If we want to be a movement on into the 21st century, we have to diversify or die. That’s true for us biblically and missionally but practically as well.
Develop or die—By that I mean, develop the next generation of leaders. I see a vocational leadership vacuum today. As you know, the baby boomer generation is stepping into retirement right now. We’re not even keeping up at replacement levels. More churches call me for names of prospective ministers than I have names to give. And just replacing workers is not enough. We’re supposed to be working for growth; we’re supposed to be increasing the numbers of vocational Christian workers.
Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest field. There’s a generational shift coming even among our megachurch ministers; several of them will be stepping into retirement soon. Who will follow them? The answer to that question will greatly influence whether that congregation will continue to identify with our tribe.
Discuss or die—Let’s be willing to discuss our differences.
I’m a small church guy. I ministered in a small church. I attend a small church in Joplin, 150 folks, some of God’s best saints there. At the same time, I am so proud and so grateful for the men that God has raised up to lead the megachurches in our movement. I count it a joy and a blessing to get to know these guys and see how God is using them.
But I also get to interact with a lot of smaller church guys, and there are some differences—differences in methodology and sometimes even differences in philosophy, how we approach doctrinal issues. Not that any of them are compromising doctrinally, but they may differ in how they approach doctrine.
At times I sense a bit of divide, a bit of a shift between some of the folks in some of the smaller churches and some of the guys in the megachurch. I don’t want to see that potential rift widen any more.
The only way I know to bridge such a divide is through relational context. We need more discussions where we can talk honestly and not label each other and not throw inflammatory words at each other. If we want to remain a tribe, a movement, a connected body of churches, we must keep talking. We can’t let some family member stop coming to the reunion.
As I thought about this topic I thought about my house. I live outside of Philadelphia in a house that was built in 1902. When you restore an old house, as we have done with part of ours, it’s not just about bringing it back to the original condition.
You might strip off the wallpaper that was put up in 1973. You might rip up the ugly shag carpeting to get back to the original nice floors, but you don’t just leave it there, right? You repaint, you polish those floors, you sand them down. It’s about taking the skeleton of the original and making it workable for a new generation.
Sometimes it also means getting rid of some things—that addition that was added that you no longer need, or the basketball hoop installed two families ago.
Process—At a certain point the analogy breaks down, but the idea is that restoration is an ongoing process for every generation. The same thing is true, I think, when it comes to restoring the church. We’re not trying to get back to every facet of the New Testament church, because culturally and sociologically we’re not the same people they were.
Of course, some of the ongoing dialogue about what it means to be the Restoration Movement is which of the things are eternal, which of the things are cultural, which of the things are temporal. Each new generation of leaders must grapple with that. As we do that, we must understand our heritage, which has always wrestled with unity on the one hand and truth on the other.
In case you haven’t noticed, those things are not easy to combine, right? It’s really difficult to hold a balance between unity and biblical truth. It was always hard. It was hard for Stone and Campbell. Stone said, “Let Christian unity be our polar star,” right? This is the same guy who rejected substitutionary atonement. He didn’t really get onboard with the idea of the Trinity. He thought Campbell was kind of a stick-in-the-mud.
And Campbell thought Stone was just out there, right? I mean these guys had significant differences even at the very beginning of what we think of, maybe sometimes idealistically, as the glory days of the Restoration Movement. It was always messy— from the very beginning.
We have to wrestle with that same messiness and we have to do it in our context and we have to be able to dialogue about what that looks like.
Some things make that especially difficult for us. One is that we live in a culture and in a time in which it is possible to avoid conversation with anyone who disagrees with us. We don’t have to have unity because we can seek unanimity and just talk to people who think exactly like we do. It’s possible in every area of life whether we’re talking about politics, religion, or parenting.
We must be intentional about reaching across some of those divides and having some of those conversations and letting them be messy. I’m not the scholar that my brothers here are, but my understanding is that there are differences that Stone and Campbell went to the grave with, that they just never resolved.
Sometimes we’re frustrated because we believe unity means that everybody else in the independent Christian churches has to agree with us on every facet. Our essentials need to be the same as their essentials, or otherwise we can’t have unity. I think we need a bigger definition of unity; it doesn’t always have to mean agreement on everything.
Motive—Finally, I believe we need a motive for unity and restoration. The goal is not just getting along or feeling good about ourselves as the independent Christian churches. We need a reason to deal with this messiness between unity and truth because it is a very hard balance to find. Our motive for that is not doctrinal purity, because that was never achieved by anybody. Their goal was evangelism.
We have to wrestle with whether or not we can find that as our goal for unity and for restoration in this century. If that’s not our goal then we need to figure out why we’re so concerned about unity. Because it’s really about reaching the rest of the world for Christ.
We need to be able to reach more people for Jesus because of what we’re doing. Our goal for unity has to be about mission.
Good things—I used to believe everybody knows about all the really good things happening in our tribe. Now I’ve come to see that not everybody does. I go places where there’s a very deep pessimism. Sometimes this comes from some negative encounter a person has had with someone legalistic in our tribe. And they’ve allowed that experience to tell them, “That’s how those Christian churches are.”
But there are many good things happening among us.
I believe it’s still true that our group has more megachurches per capita than any other denomination. And these congregations are reaching a whole lot of people for Christ.
We continue to excel in church planting, and the church planting conference Exponential, which was birthed in our movement, attracts thousands of attendees every year. The growth of global missions is soaring in certain ways as it never has. Our colleges, while they have their struggles, are still putting out tremendous students. CIY is booming off the charts and involving hundreds and hundreds of students every week all summer.
I have conversations all the time with leaders in the denominational and the nondenominational free-floating worlds. These are pastors looking at us and asking, “How can I get in?”
Much of this is because of our open spirit that rewards creative spiritual entrepreneurship. You can try stuff even if it’s dumb. No one can tell you no.
At the same time there’s enough of a network to help you succeed. I have some nondenominational friends who are solo Christians out there with churches that are not connected to any tribe. And they’re desperate for a way to make a bigger imprint. They can’t plant churches or do effective missions work by themselves; they’re free-floating and stuck.
But we have this network where everybody knows many others; we have connections, and those relationships are how churches get planted, colleges funded, and mission still happens.
Concerns—I have several concerns, but they start with the fact that even defining our tribe is difficult. We are not uniform or homogeneous. And many of us are sensing that the cohesive elements that have defined us and allowed us to cohere together are weakening. Some of those were culturally bound or time bound in certain ways.
We don’t have some of the common enemies we used to have. We don’t have some of the institutions that have bound us historically. Our colleges aren’t the unifying factors they once were. This convention isn’t a convention that many people feel is that important. And the magazine whose 150-year anniversary we’re celebrating has seen a decline in readership.
Every movement goes through a life cycle that begins with a need to fill and a problem to answer; then it moves through a bureaucratization stage. The movement will decline after that unless it is renewed.
But the renewal efforts within our tribe aren’t bought into by everyone. There’s no clear sense of who’s going to help lead us collectively forward. This is a tenuousness that has always been part of us but is intensified by our times.
Challenges—Several factors present a crisis that also contains an opportunity.
First, I see us evolving hermeneutically. Everyone loves the Bible, but figuring out what the text actually means and how to apply it today is not something that everyone agrees on. We’re starting to admit that a little more than maybe we did in our earlier days. God-fearing, smart, honest, Bible-trusting, Jesus-fearing people are reading the same text and coming up with different understandings about how to obey it in a way that will be faithful to Jesus today.
We see this conflict in many discussions: women in ministry, creation care and the environment, race, LGBT. My plea is for us not to take our ball and go home every time someone disagrees with us on something we think is important.
And we’re broadening politically. It wasn’t that long ago that someone came up to me at an NACC and said, “I feel like I just attended the Republican National Convention.” And most people liked it that way. Nowadays that’s not true. And when you have a different political frame of reference, it changes how you read the Bible about such issues as poverty or race.
Johnson—Since we don’t have the common enemy that united us decades ago, maybe we’re finding each other to be enemies. We’re creating submovements within our movement—probably not intentionally, but I see it happening. We’re creating dividing lines within our movement on such issues as what women can and can’t do, or the homosexual issue, or even racial concerns.
Some of the people on different sides of these issues consider them very much to be doctrinal essentials. It is black and white. And when people’s perspectives are that different, it can be hard to find common ground.
Proctor—I think Bob Russell used to put it something like this. It’s the soldiers in the barracks that get into fights with each other, not the soldiers on the battle line. They’re all focused that way, together, shoulder to shoulder.
Mark Taylor is publisher and editor of Christian Standard. Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. Jennifer Johnson is a freelance writer, editor, and speaker whose home is outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ben Cachiaras is senior pastor with Mountain Christian Church, Joplin, Missouri.