By Mark A. Taylor
If you led a workshop on the future of the Restoration Movement, you’d likely mention many positive signs about our tribe. Here are some I included when I was asked to speak on that topic:
• Our churches are doing dynamic ministry, trying new approaches, and succeeding with new strategies. We’re a creative bunch.
• Closely related to the above, our lack of hierarchy leaves our leaders free to try new ideas without needing permission from anyone. And new ideas abound among us. We’re an entrepreneurial bunch.
• Leaders from our group are publishing widely, with almost every prominent evangelical publisher. We’re a prolific bunch.
• Many of these same men and women are being asked to speak for or partner with Bible-believing congregations and ministries of many different stripes. As individuals at least, we’re an influential bunch.
• And, of course, all of us are proud of our success at building megachurches, planting new congregations, and serving cross-culturally around the world. We’re an evangelistic bunch.
But I couldn’t lead such a workshop without expressing some concerns. Two of those I mentioned in earlier posts:
We speak of our tribe, but we look and sound like the rest of the evangelical world.
We hope for influence, but many of our institutions are struggling.
A Third Concern
With this post I want to express a third concern: We lift up unity, but we are seriously separated, if not divided. I say this for at least two reasons:
Some in our fellowship have rejected our fellowship. In the February 6, 2011, issue of CHRISTIAN STANDARD, for example, Brian Mavis quoted leaders in Christian churches who are uninvolved and uninterested in nurturing connections among our group.
A Virginia church planter said the Restoration Movement does not resonate with his people and it is irrelevant to their world.
A church leader in Joplin, Missouri, said his people are “not interested one flying fig” about the Restoration Movement or the Christian Standard, and as a “leader of the church, I couldn’t care less that they care less. . . . Outside of our older members, our people just aren’t interested.”
A California leader said she “enjoys being off the Christian church radar where I have no clue what’s going on within our movement, and they have no clue that I even exist. It frees me to serve out from under the legalistic eye of my denomination.”
Such attitudes, even if held by a minority of our tribe, do not bode well for its future.
Many in our fellowship can’t cope with disagreement. And so they associate only with those who share their perspectives and opinion and criticize or castigate those who don’t. We have tried in CHRISTIAN STANDARD to promote dialogue and stimulate thinking about topics that some readers find controversial. Examples: immigration, race relations, use of alcohol, role of women. Part of our goal was always to prove we can disagree without dividing.
But many among us can’t cope with that. They prefer to hear mainly from those who will repeat their conclusions. It’s a problem that can threaten magazine circulation, but, even more significant, this kind of isolation can undermine the future of a movement.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to see this, especially in America, where our population is more polarized than ever. In every circle, people have descended into echo chambers where they feel safe hearing only opinions that won’t challenge their own. I believe such a description characterizes many local congregations in our movement.
In how many of our churches, especially medium-sized and smaller churches, do we find productive, evangelistic-oriented unity among folks who work side-by-side despite their differences over union vs. management, Trump vs. anyone else, coal vs. climate change, or six-days creation vs. other theories? How many preachers and leaders with firm conclusions on those issues are ready to join hands with fellow Christians in the next community or state who just don’t see things the same way?
Maybe I’m overstating the situation, but it seems to me that more than one doctrinal divide springs from folks who were first culturally divided. The more of these divisions we experience, the less likely it will be that we’ll move forward as one movement.
But not every current cultural trend is working against us. A pervasive anti-institutional mindset in America is the perfect platform for our plea to be Christians only.
At the same time, God uses connections among churches to multiply impact. At the CHRISTIAN STANDARD-sponsored workshop at last summer’s North American Christian Convention, contributing editor Ben Cachiaras spoke about the problem of too much independence:
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.
I don’t believe our movement is stuck. While I’m concerned about the factors threatening its momentum, I’m still hopeful. I’m watching to see how God uses Christian churches and churches of Christ to lift up Christ in the days ahead. Certainly we can do that together better than trying to serve him well as individuals, separated and alone.