The Past, Present, and Future of the Restoration Movement (Part 1 of 3)
The Past, Present, and Future of the Restoration Movement (Part 1 of 3)

(Part one of a three-part series)

By Steve Carr

Let me start with the story of two movements. By virtue of reading this magazine, I’m sure you can guess the first one, so I’ll introduce you to the other.

About four decades after the inception of the Restoration Movement, American innovation led to the creation of a game that would quickly become the national pastime: baseball. Abner Doubleday is often credited with creating the game, but historians have virtually refuted this. Regardless of who started it, the history of baseball is robust. It continued to spread rapidly across the United States during the 19th century.

These two movements intersected in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio; both the Restoration Movement and baseball took root here. Quite a few major Restoration Movement events and debates took place in the Queen City. And in 1869, shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball team.

This brings us to 1924, when a minister at a Christian church in town sent a letter to the Cincinnati Reds. He submitted a formal request on church letterhead for a special day at the ballpark. The minister asked for his group to be recognized before the game and between innings. The minister represented the Ku Klux Klan.

Yes, this church, a prominent congregation in the Restoration Movement at that time, asked the local baseball club to host a KKK day. The Reds front office dismissed the request.

Eventually the tension over this KKK issue resulted in a church split. The KKK remnant couldn’t keep the church solvent and it was forced to close its doors. A few years later, their building was torn down, and a portion of the plot was claimed as easement for a new expressway. The rest of the church’s land now boasts a baseball field—located in what is now one of Cincinnati’s African-American neighborhoods.*

Charting the Two Movements

This obscure story, and the intersection of these two movements, makes me think of both the past and the future; specifically, I’m led to consider how we remember what once was and how we determine what lies ahead. Both baseball and the Restoration Movement have rich histories that have been studied and analyzed. The successes of the past lead some to believe these movements have questionable futures.

Baseball, for example, is no longer our country’s unquestioned pastime. Just look at the sports young people of today are playing—fewer children wear baseball gear, and rarely will a kid watch baseball on television.

Over the summer, I attended a major league game in another town. Since it was my first experience in a new ballpark, I paid special attention to everything going on around me. Even though it was a beautiful night, the stands were far short of capacity. There appeared to be a general sense of boredom among the attendees. In fact, the crowd grew most excited that day when a cannon shot free T-shirts into the stands.

Despite being reared on baseball, I can’t say I love the game as I did years ago. Baseball just feels slow, like an institution past its prime.

Similarly, some are concerned the Restoration Movement has become archaic. Our fellowship’s institutions have definitely seen better days, with many of them struggling to maintain financial viability. Talk to younger leaders about how they view the movement, and they’ll likely shrug their shoulders in apathy. It’s not that they’re embarrassed by the Restoration plea, but they’re not convinced it’s relevant in the 21st century.

I’m not a betting man (with all this Cincinnati talk, a Pete Rose reference might be appropriate here), but if I were asked to wager, I’d put money on the future of the Restoration Movement over that of baseball. I don’t arrive at this position because of our glorious past, but rather because our movement is tailor-made for what lies ahead.

What is the Restoration Movement becoming?

While often overlooked, it’s nearly impossible to deny the influence our movement has made on global Christianity. In an era of denominational decay, this little brotherhood is overachieving:

  • Our fellowship boasts some of the largest churches in the United States.
  • Our churches have developed ministry models that are globally adopted.
  • Our ideals—once shunned by outsiders—are now embraced by mainstream evangelicalism.

Yet despite these successes, we still doubt our future; we aren’t sure where this movement is . . . moving to.

This past summer, when the Spire conference was announced as the successor to the North American Christian Convention, I sensed uneasiness among many of the leaders I know. Their trepidation had little to do with the changing of the convention itself but what this shift seemed to signify.

The institutional transition in our movement (whether with our colleges, magazines, or conventions) has been perceived as a harbinger of failure. And we’ve generally responded with attempts to diagnose the cause: Are we struggling because we abandoned biblical fidelity? Did we too closely align with the evangelical movement? Has technological innovation made our ideals obsolete?

But these things miss the point. There’s something deeper at work here—a foundational issue that has gone unnoticed far too long:

 

We don’t really know who we are anymore.

This identity crisis has been decades in the making. The last 100 years of our history featured the forging of influential institutions. We started to define ourselves by these establishments because they were the backbone of our regional networks; eventually, those networks became our identity. But as our institutions started to struggle, our networks eroded, and we became less connected. Despite living in an age of unprecedented technological accessibility, our movement feels further apart.

This lack of fellowship within our fellowship is causing us to reassess the relevancy of our movement. But things aren’t nearly as dire as we seem to think. In fact, we could perceive the potential for a brighter future if we would merely be honest with ourselves.

A BETTER VIEW OF TOMORROW

The problem isn’t our future; our issue, rather, is the way we remember our past.

In his recent book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, historian Yuval Noah Harari suggests that our view of history can fuel negativity. He writes, “This is what is happening all over the globe . . . the vacuum left by the breakdown of [modern happenings] is tentatively filled by nostalgic fantasies of some golden past.”

We have been unduly bound to our movement’s history; we view our yesterdays with rose-colored glasses. Historians refer to this as hagiography—a revisionist’s history of events that idolizes the people and events of our past. Our love of yesterday undermines our hope for tomorrow. If we venerate our history, there is no way the future can ever measure up to it. With this mind-set, we’ll revert to attitudes of skepticism.

This is why the KKK story is so important. For all the good our movement has accomplished, the promotion of this kind of evil is inexcusable. Though it’s an embarrassment we’d prefer to forget, it’s part of our history. Yet we must engage it, because it’s a clear reminder that our movement was never perfect, as we want to believe it was.

Jesus taught his disciples, “There is only One who is good” (Matthew 19:17). Any lack of perfection in those who came before us does not nullify the ideals the movement represents. We can simultaneously respect their accomplishments and acknowledge their flaws.

There’s no reason for us to not be honest about our past. That’s why, in the next two issues of Christian Standard, I’m going to share a few more stories from our history. In doing so, we will see a much more realistic picture of what our movement was, is, and could become.

Only in examining the flaws of our forefathers will we be able to address our own need for repentance and fully rely on Christ.

_ _ _

*The story of minister Orval Baylor, the Richmond Street Christian Church, and the Ku Klux Klan has been featured in sources both inside and outside the Restoration Movement. James DeForest Murch discussed the incident at length in his autobiography, Adventuring for Christ in Changing Times. A web search of “Ku Klux Klan Cincinnati Reds” provides external coverage of this unfortunate part of our movement’s history.

Steve Carr is vice president of ministry development with CDF Capital. His thoughts on the Restoration Movement and ministry can be found at houseofcarr.com.

Read part two of this three-part series next month.

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