Where We’ve Come From, Where We Are, and Where We’re Going
By Ken Idleman
In her book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, Tina Rosenburg sought to determine how to get people to change for the better. She concluded people don’t change simply because they desire to change, or feel guilty, or learn it would be beneficial (such as by quitting smoking).
Instead, Rosenburg argues, people grow and change best in community. She asserts that few things in life are more important in determining the kind of people we become than the group of people with whom we regularly associate.
Our Creator and Savior is the author of this undeniable truth—that life change comes through divine grace, spiritual rebirth, and communal relationships. Perpetual spiritual growth comes through Christian worship, fellowship, and service. Jesus came to earth to reclaim lost humanity by making disciples; he established the church, which is the most effective resource for growing these disciples. If you are in Christ, you have already been added to his church. And, if you are reading these words, you are likely part of a branch called the independent Christian church. These churches are connected to the Vine, Jesus Christ.
The independent Christian church movement is a fellowship of autonomous congregations that are aggressively moving forward to restore the New Testament church of the first century in the 21st century! So, how is this vital mission of world transformation through Christ and his church going? Where are we today?
When I was asked to write this article, I was somewhat reluctant. While I have convictions, I don’t presume to speak for the 2.5 million stateside members of our tribe. But in polling a baker’s dozen of my trusted Christian church leadership colleagues who read and think deeply and who travel broadly, I discovered our observations aligned. So, here is a collaborative “finger on the pulse” of our fellowship in several key areas.
My group of colleagues share a feeling of optimism about the health of our churches today compared with just four decades ago, when 50 of our brotherhood leaders retreated in St. Louis to consider the question, “What Can We Do to Get the Restoration Movement Moving Again?” That meeting resulted in the launch of a visionary new church-planting initiative and a renewed commitment to both unity and evangelism.
In more recent years, our churches have developed more of a conscience about God-honoring excellence, especially in programming, worship planning, and execution. Also, technology has improved our communication. As a result, our leaders, churches, and ministries are more connected. We know each other better. We are helping each other grow as we share best practices and resources.
Research by Thom Rainer has revealed the positive impact of good preaching on the health and growth of the 21st-century church. And I am generally hearing better preaching today in our churches, conferences, and conventions. I wish I could say it is better biblical preaching.
I also believe the shibboleths that have helped to define us as a movement are more relevant today than ever: “We are not the only Christians, but we are Christians only.” “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love.” These representative principles are scriptural and contribute more to our church health than we might think. So, the Restoration plea has become relevant, even “cutting edge” once again.
Independent Christian churches are growing today while many of the mainline denominations are experiencing retrenchment. We are prominent in the list of top 100 fastest-growing churches in America. The three areas of our growth that have been most pronounced in recent years: (1) the emergence of the megachurch; (2) new church planting; and (3) multisite expansion.
In my Bible college days, our flagship church was First Christian Church of Canton, Ohio, which had average weekly attendance of 1,200. Today, that would barely qualify it as an emerging megachurch. (Today, FCC Canton has more than 1,600 weekly worshippers.) We now have churches that average more than 20,000 in weekend worship attendance and annually baptize about 2,000 people or more!
We are no longer an unknown people. Some of the largest and most influential churches in the country have roots in the Restoration Movement. We must be careful to strive for conversion growth, however, and not merely pursue “growth” via the migration of members from other like-minded churches. Are we reaching the lost and unchurched or are we just the next place for church “shoppers and hoppers”?
New church planting is another bright spot in our movement. Three robust church extension funds are using the stored resources of Christians and Christian churches to help our congregations find, purchase, renovate, and build facilities. These funds are helping churches preserve momentum and get to the next level sooner than in the past. Training for church planters is more intentional and specialized today, ensuring a greater likelihood of effective new church plants.
Church multisites and “replants” have become first cousins to the new church plants. Among megachurches, 71 percent now have one or more multisite locations. The explosion of this franchising strategy is fairly new. Taking a long view, it may be a challenge for churches to keep their multisites tethered to the mother ship in identity and programming because of the diversity of needs and the unique cultures represented in the various communities being served. Time will tell.
MISSIONS AND EVANGELISM
The world has become a much smaller place in recent years. The increasing number of short-term mission trips has produced a more broad-based, missions-literate fellowship. More interest, more involvement, and more human and material resources are being invested internationally these days. Greater commitment to cross-cultural evangelism and growing interest in international new church planting are being shown among the emerging leaders currently preparing in our Bible colleges. An unprecedented number of students are majoring in missions, I am told.
As the heart ownership of missions has become more broad-based, holistic missions—that is, ministry focused on the physical, emotional, environmental, spiritual, and other needs of people—is gaining traction. Doctors, dentists, builders, and teachers are going to the third world in Jesus’ name to make the grace and love of God more real. Missionaries on the field are doing a better job of developing self-sustaining churches and of equipping and empowering indigenous leaders.
Missionaries are also more zealous today about promoting social justice and restoring human dignity, with ministries dedicated to rescuing people from generational poverty and sex trafficking as a method to win a hearing for the gospel. But we must redouble our efforts to be sure the lost hear the gospel and have an opportunity to respond to God’s grace, otherwise our efforts will be merely an exercise in the social gospel.
We can grow our evangelism efforts in at least one area. I hear relatively little preaching and teaching about personal evangelism. Generally, a conscience about witnessing seems to have been replaced by efforts to make church assemblies and the Christian life more attractive. That’s not bad, but we must renew our passion to help people engage in life-on-life disciple making. Our focus must be on making the love and lordship of Jesus what is most compelling.
Some of our Restoration churches are forfeiting doctrinal distinctives to be more inclusive and less sectarian. They might even say doctrine doesn’t matter. The idea behind this seems to be: Since we say we don’t have to agree on everything, let’s not argue for anything. But, as one leader observed, “God hasn’t called us to blend in, but to stand out!”
Ironically, at a time when our higher view of the sacraments—baptism and Communion—is being adopted by both independent and even a few denominational churches, some of our Christian churches are publishing vague doctrinal statements online and omitting baptisms and the Lord’s Supper from their worship services. Today, we see more churches that doctrinally look like us . . . shedding denominational names, becoming autonomous, elevating the purpose and practice of immersion and Communion, training and ordaining elders, and so forth. At the same time, a few of our churches are abandoning these same doctrinal distinctives. So, some churches are passing each other going in opposite directions!
This might be the area of my greatest concern. A significant number of our brotherhood preachers and leaders are going to Heaven or retiring. At the same time, several of our Bible colleges are experiencing declining enrollments and financial pressures that have influenced them to shift their primary purpose away from training vocational church leaders to educating students for secular professions in the marketplace. But in every generation, it is the church’s responsibility to embrace the priority of raising up preachers, vocational leaders, and international evangelists. The churches will be in trouble in a decade or less, I predict, if we do not, with urgency, get back to praying for and calling out our future leaders and supporting the Bible colleges, where our leaders will be best prepared.
In addition, some of our younger emerging leaders tend to idealize their high-profile peers in the evangelical world who are hosting conferences, writing books, recording podcasts, and appearing online, while overlooking the voices that have personified and amplified the biblical convictions and values that have made us who we are.
My tendency is to be a “cockeyed optimist” about almost everything, including the state of our Christian churches today. As my wife has said, “Ken, don’t you ever have a bad day?” So, take my personality into consideration here. While our churches are well, there are cracks that need to be filled! As Timothy Dwight wrote about the Lord’s church in his great old hymn “I Love Your Kingdom Lord”: “For her my tears shall fall; for her my prayers ascend; to her my cares and toils be given, till toils and cares shall end.”
I am committed to living with two Christian churches: the one that is today and the one that can be tomorrow. I challenge you to join me in this commitment.
Ken Idleman served as the fourth president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, was senior pastor for 10 years at Crossroads Christian Church, a megachurch in Newburgh, Indiana, and is presently mentoring pastors as vice president of leadership development with The Solomon Foundation.