By Jerry Harris
Is the independent Christian church taking ground? That depends on how you measure it. One could measure it by the weekly attendance of affiliated churches, because numerical growth is probably the most common measurement of “taking ground.” By this type of measurement, independent Christian churches are advancing like never before.
Our churches fill the lists of Outreach magazine’s largest and fastest-growing churches. Kent Fillinger’s study in our May issue (“Special Church Report Part 1: Megachurches and Emerging Megachurches”) indicates we are building, baptizing, and boldly dreaming like never before. Our mission efforts are also gaining ground as we see the world getting smaller and a new generation of leadership embracing social justice as a bridge to share the gospel.
A calculation of churches’ adherence to Restoration principles, while harder to measure, could also indicate taking ground. It seems that many of the more liberal views of ecumenicism, higher criticism, and denominationalism are in free fall while more evangelical views such as the inerrancy of God’s Word and basic doctrinal principles are becoming more prevalent.
Glenn Stanton’s article last month (“The Myth of Christianity’s Decline”) showcased this reality, and it’s exciting to see! More and more churches are baptizing by immersion, taking Communion weekly, and embracing their nondenominational independence while being a part of empowering networks helping them to do ministry more effectively.
Since unity is a primary desire of the Restoration Movement, one could also measure the shift in attitudes; over many years, our movement endured unceasing divisions, but now, issues are slowly giving in to new relationships forming across previously insurmountable divides.
Evangelicals are talking to each other and cooperating like never before. I am encouraged by increased dialogue we’re experiencing with both our noninstrumental church of Christ and African-American church of Christ brothers and sisters. Even a growing number of Disciples churches are turning away from the dry well of cultural liberalism and returning to their biblical roots.
So where are we losing ground? Ken Idleman’s article in the May issue (“The State of Our Christian Churches Today”) gives important insight into this. While it’s great we are communicating and collaborating with the wider evangelical community, that shouldn’t come at the expense of our doctrinal distinctives. In our desire to be more inclusive and less sectarian, we might find ourselves standing for less and less. History might repeat itself if we refuse to learn from it, and there is plenty that history can teach us about making compromises where we shouldn’t.
Our common efforts were designed to keep us off the curbs and shoulders and out of the ditches of false doctrine. The North American Christian Convention was founded specifically for this purpose, and the 35 Bible colleges that were birthed in the wake of the first gathering were designed to equip preachers and leaders to guide our movement in that purpose. Today, these institutions are being squeezed by declining enrollment and financial pressures that can influence decisions and cause them to drift away from the primary purposes for which they were founded. We must embrace innovation in these institutions while encouraging them to stay true to their calling so that they might continue leading our movement to a bright future.
As for missions, we must remember that social justice efforts must also carry Jesus’ message, or they will produce only educated, healthy, well-fed, and properly clothed people who are headed to Hell. While ceremonies where hundreds or thousands of people are baptized may be exciting, if we fail to follow them up with intentional, relational, discipleship efforts, we are very much like incompetent, immature, and neglectful parents who should have those children taken away from us. We must be vigilant to keep the commitment of our ordination charge from 2 Timothy 4:1-8.
As publisher of Christian Standard and The Lookout, I am excited about the ground our movement has taken, but I am extremely excited about the potential that is right in front of us! Our convictions and the choices that flow from them have never been more important, and I’m convinced that if we put Jesus first and our brothers and sisters before ourselves, God will enable us to reach new horizons never before witnessed in our movement!