On Oct. 13, we posted Kent E. Fillinger’s article “Noninstrumental Churches of Christ Facing Uncertain Future,” which generated much discussion and a number of online comments. Fillinger used Jack R. Reese’s new book, At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge, as a springboard for a statistical comparison of independent Christian Churches and the noninstrumental Churches of Christ—two groups which effectively separated in 1906.
Today, by arrangement with Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., we share an excerpt from Reese’s book—part of a chapter entitled “Peace, Death, Storm, and Fire: Churches of Christ on the Edge.”
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An excerpt from At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge
By Jack R. Reese
Churches of Christ are not an easy group to write about. We are diverse, complicated, and messy. In fact, we have exhibited far more variety over the years than the story we tell about ourselves usually admits. That variety is almost always interesting but not always pretty. Less like an English garden than, say, a Star Trek convention. We may share an overarching theme and a common set of values, but our actions and attributes often seem, well, peculiar to others.
My wife and I recently moved to a new neighborhood, the kind of place where friendly neighbors inquire about where you go to church, in part, we assume, because they care for our eternal salvation but mostly because they’re curious. Our reply—we go to the such-and-such Church of Christ—is generally met with a marked silence after which they typically respond in one of two ways. Some of them say, “You don’t seem Church of Christ,” which we assume is intended as a compliment, though it’s an awkward one at best. Or they say something like, “Oh, those are the churches that don’t believe in music.”
This last remark is usually the one that gets under my skin, though the neighbors never mean it unkindly. My mind sorts through an inventory of possible responses. Sure, our churches historically have been a cappella, but singing is actually music, you see. Church of Christ kids tend to fill their school choirs, bands, and orchestras because they learn to read music in church. (Or at least they used to. That argument is losing force each passing year.) Hey, you think we don’t do music? Why, the Christian music industry in Nashville was started in large part by Church of Christ musicians.
But what good would those sorts of arguments do? We usually just smile and thank them for their interest in us. We understand what they are saying. They’re not trying to be unkind. They’re just being neighborly.
‘THOSE STORIES . . . REFLECT A CERTAIN REALITY’
In his podcast series Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Tipping Point and Blink, twice has made reference to Churches of Christ. I flinched both times I heard it. In the episode “King of Tears,” Gladwell interviewed the country music songwriter Bobby Braddock who, Gladwell said, grew up “Church of Christ, just about the most fundamentalist of fundamentalist Christians.” Ouch. In a later episode, “Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis,” Gladwell interviews Braddock again along with singer songwriter Kaci Bolls. He talks about “how they both grew up in the Church of Christ, the most strict of Southern fundamentalist denominations.”
My reaction each time was, that’s not the Church of Christ I know. I grew up in a loving, generous church, in a Church of Christ family that taught grace. I went to a Church of Christ university that prized critical thinking and that turned out nationally recognized medical doctors, research scientists, business leaders, educators, and public servants. In my field, a disproportionately large number of Church of Christ scholars have taught biblical studies, church history, or theology at some of the most prestigious universities and seminaries in the world. Fundamentalist we are not.
But when I am finally able to set my defensiveness aside and think about it for a moment, Gladwell is also right. The churches he refers to do exist. I know these churches. Their numbers, in fact, are legion. These are kind folks, conscientious believers who take the Bible seriously. They aren’t trying to be mean or judgmental. They just want to be right with God. While they are not the whole story of who Churches of Christ are today, they reflect a significant strain of these churches that might be called exclusivist. In other words, they do not recognize other Christian groups as authentically Christian.
And when I say they are a strain of Churches of Christ, I fudge a little. For much of the twentieth century, most congregations in this group could be characterized this way. They lived in relative isolation, separated by choice and identity from other Christian groups. In other words, Gladwell’s account, painful as it is to hear, has a measure of truth in it. Maybe more than a measure. Before churches in this movement can move forward constructively, they will have to come to grips with the stories told about them by the outsiders they rub shoulders with. Those stories, it turns out, reflect a certain reality.
But within the long and complex history of Churches of Christ, other impulses have also been at play besides the isolation by which we are often known. We have not always been what we appear to be today. There are other stories, other values, other commitments.
‘TEETERING AT THE EDGE’
For example, Christians within this movement once encouraged one another to live as a separated people but not over-and-against other Christian groups. In fact, in the decades after the union in Lexington, most congregations that wore the name Church of Christ sought to unite with Christians everywhere, no matter what name they went by. The separation they sought, rather, was against the values and behaviors of the secular world around them. It was a separation marked by holiness, not exclusion. But this is a stream we hardly recognize today. We have little memory of it.
Churches of Christ, in other words, possess hidden, forgotten, and often rich resources that could serve us well—if we knew about them, if we knew something of our own story. Like a great underground reservoir, our story could bring us wisdom and life. But as long as it stays below the surface unsought and untapped, its most valuable energy will remain largely inaccessible and, therefore, useless to us. . . .
Churches of Christ are teetering at the edge.
Certainly in America they are. Like other Christian fellowships, Churches of Christ are growing in some non-American contexts, particularly in Africa and South America. But in the United States, Churches of Christ are in serious numerical decline.
The total membership of these congregations in America today is a little over a million. Churches of Christ are the thirteenth largest Christian fellowship in the country. But they are in decline and have been, at least externally, for thirty years—since 1990 if not earlier. [see footnote 1]
While Churches of Christ exist in every state and in more than three-fourths of U.S. counties, they are concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. In fact, five states contain more than half of the members of American Churches of Christ—Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Most of the congregations in the United States are small and getting smaller. Ninety-two percent of them have less than two hundred members. The average Sunday attendance nationwide is ninety four. More than half of the congregations in the country average only thirty-four members.
You might need to let those numbers simmer for a minute before moving on. They are sobering. And revealing.
‘THE FUTURE LOOKS ESPECIALLY TROUBLING’
Churches in this movement have historically been rural, but like the rest of the country they have been moving to the city in overwhelming numbers. More than three-quarters of Churches of Christ are now in urban centers. In general, these churches have not adapted well to life in the city. They often seem out of place, disconnected from urban life.
The average age of members across the nation is growing older. Young people are not coming or are not staying. Around sixty congregations a year in the U.S. are shutting their doors for good. That’s more than one church closure a week. And if the present looks bad, the future looks especially troubling. No one knows, of course, what the coming decades will look like. But according to the compelling research of Stanley Granberg and Tim Woodroof [see footnote 2], by 2050 Churches of Christ in the U.S. will have declined to less than half of what they are today. That’s the best-case scenario. When you take into consideration the exceedingly high number of older members in these churches and the comparatively small number of new members being added, church membership is expected to decline from 1.1 million to barely 250,000 in the next three decades, less than a fourth of what they are today. In thirty years.
Smaller congregations will be impacted the quickest—their average membership tends to be older and their critical mass more fragile—but almost every congregation will be impacted. Moreover, the research indicates that the number of Church of Christ congregations in the United States is likely to drop from 12,237 in 2016 to only about 2,800 in 2050, an 80 percent decline.
And that’s just the externals. It’s not always easy to gauge the spiritual life and maturity of a congregation simply by counting heads. Bigger is not always better. But if you think there is no correlation between the dramatic numerical decline of a movement and its future, I have some tickets to the Horse and Buggy Museum of America I would like to give you.
Churches have been given a wakeup call. It may already be too late.
‘SOMETHING MORE HUMBLE, MORE CHRISTLIKE’
But this is no time to throw up our hands in despair or, worse yet, try to construct an elaborate plan to turn things around. Truth be told, the numerical decline of Churches of Christ in America may be the best thing that could happen. As the dire state of these churches begins to sink in, it will become increasingly apparent that we can’t fix ourselves. But here is the good news: God can.
To be clear, no matter what Churches of Christ do, they will not likely recover their former stature or prestige. Nor should doing so be their goal. They will never become again what they once were. Even if rebuilding some version of a once-glorious past were possible, doing so would be both counterproductive and tragic. And attempting it would miss the point. But, congregation by congregation, Christian by Christian, they can become something different, something new, something healthier, something more humble, more Christlike, more faithful.
The rapid numerical decline of Churches of Christ in America is not unique, of course. Church attendance in virtually every Christian group is plummeting. These are the times in which we live. The larger culture is changing massively and quickly. Congregations everywhere are having a difficult time adjusting.
Churches of Christ, however, are facing some particular obstacles. Our longtime isolation from others and the growing polarization within the movement itself have made matters worse. We have historically cut ourselves off from other groups, so we missed what we might have learned in such a dialogue. More than that, we have cut ourselves off from our own story. We are thirsty and don’t know why, and we can’t seem to figure out who to blame for the drought. But see, here is water. Plenty of it. If we looked up. If we were alert to it. We stand at the edge of a great stream, fed by Spirit Waters gushing from the earth, nourished from beneath by vast caverns of unseen resources. People and principles and values from our past, from our own story, could replenish us if we were open to receive them. If we sought them. If we remembered. At the Blue Hole we can find clues about our nature. And our future. God gave us unique gifts there. We may have squandered some of them, but we still have time to reclaim them. If we hurry.
But there is another gift at the Blue Hole, one less obvious, less direct, less intuitive. This gift will not be easy to find. It is hidden. It’s not that God does not want us to have this gift. It’s already ours, in fact. If we claimed it, it would change everything. But in order to receive it, we will have to die. Frankly, death will happen one way or another.
No one said the way would be easy.
‘ALMOST TWO CENTURIES AGO . . .’
Today, in Lexington, on what is now called High Street, at the place where the old church once stood, cars wait in line for the drive-through tellers at a local bank. Doing my best to ignore the withering heat and humidity, I stepped up on the curb and began to walk down the sidewalk, calculating where the old pulpit might have stood, the spot where Barton Stone and Raccoon John Smith shook hands.
I tried to picture among the waiting cars an old building filled with worshipers, arm in arm two communities of faith choosing to become one, seeking together in full-throated song the harmony they had just pledged to one another. But I could hear no singing this day. Just the rumble of car engines idling on the hot concrete. . . .
But it is worthy of note that almost two centuries ago in what is now downtown Lexington, emerging from two distinct groups, a gathering of Christians, our spiritual ancestors, chose peace over conflict, unity over division. There, assembled in what had been an old cotton mill, this new movement of independent churches, including Churches of Christ, found its heart and its voice. Their union was sealed with a handshake, baptized in tears, animated in embrace, confirmed in song, and sanctified at table.
Does this story still have life? Can the song still be sung? Do these churches have a future? Perhaps. But time is running out. Our future may depend on whether, in our search for answers, we are able to detect the unsettling aroma of death.
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1 All of these statistics are from Stanley E. Granberg, “A Case Study of Growth and Decline: The Churches of Christ, 2006–2016,” Great Commission Research Journal 10, no. 1 (Fall 2018): 88–110.
2 Tim Woodroof and Stanley Granberg, “Churches of Christ in 2050,” Interim Ministry Partners, https://interimministrypartners.com/resources, 2019.
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