12 August, 2022

Can Our Churches Continue to Grow and Bear Fruit?

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by | 1 July, 2022

By Matt Proctor

The movie Apollo 13 tells the true story of astronauts James Lovell, Fred Haise, and John L. “Jack” Swigert. On their way to the moon in April 1970, an explosion left them in a crippled spacecraft 200,000 miles from Earth—low on power, losing cabin heat, flight trajectories off.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

As John Ortberg relates the story in Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, suddenly, these three astronauts needed a community of NASA scientists to save them, and these scientists were not your normal movie heroes—no chiseled good looks or superpowers. They were engineers—full-on nerds with glasses and pocket protectors and limited social skills. (The engineering school my nephew attended had a guy-to-girl ratio of 7-to-1, so the girls had a saying: “The odds are good . . . but the goods are odd.”)

Unlikely heroes indeed.

Then, as now, NASA engineers like their world in perfect order, but suddenly, 50-plus years ago, their tightly scripted moon mission was in chaos. Nothing was going according to plan. They were grasping for solutions, arguing among themselves. Things did not look good.

Flight director Gene Kranz took control.

In the movie, soon after the explosion, Kranz (played by actor Ed Harris) overhears an engineer say to his superiors, “This will be the worst disaster in the history of NASA.” Kranz visibly straightens, squares his shoulders, and replies with a steel-edge, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this will be our finest hour.”

Kranz rallied his team to work together, solving one seemingly impossible task after another. With each success, a new challenge arose, and frustration mounted. But Kranz’s words kept pushing them: “Failure is not an option.”

Finally came the real test—no one was certain the space capsule could withstand the heat of reentering the earth’s atmosphere.

The suspense heightened when, during reentry, the crew of Apollo 13 was out of radio contact for four minutes. Life and death were on the line. The world held its collective breath.

Finally, out of the silence, through the static, a voice was heard: “This is Apollo.” The astronauts were safe.

The movie showed people at NASA jumping up and down. Normally unexpressive engineers started dancing, embracing, and pounding each other on the back.

Then, amid the pandemonium, the camera panned back to Gene Kranz. He was simply standing there, with emotion too deep for words.

And the viewer realizes suddenly that Kranz’s whole life—his work as a scientist, his dreams and labor, his every thought—led up to this one remarkable moment. He could live many more years, grow to be an old man, and do many things, but this was his finest hour.

NASA had lots of smart people, but without Gene Kranz, who knows if those astronauts would have made it home. It took a leader to focus the team. When leadership is strong, an organization flourishes. When leadership is weak, an organization falters.

As John Maxwell has said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”  

The Danger We Face

What will keep our movement healthy?

You probably know the Restoration Movement in early 19th-century America called Christians to leave behind denominational sectarianism (à la Barton Stone), unite under biblical authority (à la Alexander Campbell), and together fulfill the Great Commission (à la Walter Scott). Those three emphases—Christian unity under biblical authority for evangelistic mission—attracted many believers, and the movement grew rapidly.

Ironically, this unity movement eventually split into three fellowships, each focusing on one of the three original emphases: the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) on Christian unity, the a cappellaChurches of Christ on biblical authority, and the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ on evangelistic mission.

So, these days, how is the health of our independent churches? My personal observation: Our individual congregations are flourishing, but many of the unifying institutions from the past have changed or are now compromised or gone:

  • Our annual big family gathering, the North American Christian Convention, is no more.
  • Our flagship periodical, Christian Standard, has dropped in print circulation from 50,000 to 8,000 over the last 20 years and is now developing more online content. (The Lookout has ceased print publication and has become a fully online resource.)
  • News of struggling colleges has become a steady drumbeat: Crossroads (formerly Minnesota Bible College), Cincinnati, Nebraska, and St. Louis are gone.
  • Our largest producer of curriculum, Standard Publishing, was acquired by David C Cook.
  • I’ve preached at state Christian conventions in Iowa, Minnesota, and Arkansas, but those are all now dead. (I’m choosing to believe it wasn’t me.)

While some of these changes can be attributed to societal shifts and the changing needs of people over time, we’re still left with fewer or changing opportunities for cross-congregational fellowship and partnership within our movement.

To be clear: I am bullish on our fellowship’s future. We continue to plant churches, pursue global evangelism, and support strategic parachurch ministries, and our list of megachurches keeps growing longer. (A sharp young noninstrumental preacher recently told me he admired our fellowship’s entrepreneurial efforts to reach the lost. He said, “We have large liberal arts colleges and small churches, while you all have small Bible colleges and large churches. I would trade with you all in a heartbeat.”)

Our evangelistic effectiveness has garnered broad notice, and our simple doctrinal distinctives are now embraced by many outside our heritage. In many ways, the “movement” worked, and it’s still working.

But I do think a danger lurks. My friend Rick Rusaw summarizes it well: “Our churches have never been healthier, but our identity has never been more at risk.” We live in a post-denominational world (a good thing) where churches aren’t chosen out of “brand loyalty.” In the independent Christian churches, we also live in a moment when our unifying institutions are in flux, in decline, or in the grave.

Which means, simply put, we are at risk of losing our fellowship.

Call it a movement, brotherhood, network, or a tribe. Whatever you call it, we risk losing the historical relationship bond among our independent Christian churches—with their secret recipe of Christian unity under biblical authority for evangelistic mission—that has produced so much kingdom fruit.

Congregations once connected to our fellowship (megachurches?) may drift away into the larger evangelical sea, becoming generically nondenominational. Other congregations may stay connected to movements-within-the-movement (e.g., local Christian camps, Christian Church Facebook groups) but disconnect from the larger fellowship. Either way, given the good we’ve accomplished together, that’s a loss.

The question matters: What will keep our movement healthy?

My answer: Everything rises and falls on leadership.

The Leaders We Need

God’s kingdom strategies have always started with leaders. Just look to Scripture. God chose Abraham to begin his people, Joseph to preserve his people, Moses to rescue his people, judges to guide his people, David to establish his people, prophets to correct his people, apostles to expand his people, and pastors to teach his people.

Healthy leaders make a healthy movement. Specifically, leaders committed to Christian unity under biblical authority for evangelistic mission.

Leaders Committed to Biblical Authority keep us from doctrinal compromise.

When cultural tempests buffet, believers are tempted to bend on biblical truth, “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14). We need leaders with Scripture coursing through their veins to teach it boldly, stiffen our spines, and keep us faithful to God’s Word. As I look around our fellowship, I am grateful for a great host of such leaders, champions of biblical truth.

But a question to wrestle with: Where will the next generation of leaders find this deep biblical grounding? So many potential next-generation leaders have been discipled by social media, the public education system, and even the modern workplace to think in unbiblical ways.

For our movement to stay healthy, we must develop leaders—in our youth ministries, colleges, church internships/residencies, elder-training programs—whose minds are so thoroughly drenched in Scripture that they even dream biblically.

Leaders Committed to Evangelistic Mission keep us from mission drift.

The church is both salt and light. In a decaying world, salt preserves goodness, so the church’s mercy ministry feeds the hungry, houses the homeless, and rescues trafficking victims. In a dark world, light illuminates truth, so the church’s evangelistic ministry points people to Jesus. As salt, we keep the world from sliding into a kind of hell; as light, we call the world into Heaven. It’s both/and, not either/or, and I am grateful for our fellowship’s leaders whose churches have embodied the gospel without forgetting to proclaim the gospel.

But a question to wrestle with: Who will remind our next-generation leaders of evangelism’s primacy? Younger evangelicals are sometimes tempted to major in the church’s mercy/justice mission and minor in the church’s evangelistic mission—to lean into expressing Christ’s love and drift from expressing Christ’s truth.

Preacher Clovis Chappell said, “Ministry is a word of many syllables, and it matters where you put the accent.” For our movement to stay healthy, we must develop leaders who accent making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Leaders Committed to Christian Unity keep us from congregational disconnection, which might be the greatest danger our fellowship faces at this moment.

Like LEGO bricks, churches are made to connect with one another. New Testament churches that associate with others in their geographical region (2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:2) share Bible teachers and resources (Acts 8:14; Colossians 4:16), combine offerings for benevolence (Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 16:1), jointly discuss doctrinal and evangelistic issues (Acts 15:1-35), and cooperate in missionary efforts (Galatians 2:1-10; Acts 20:1-6). There’s no denominational hierarchy, but there is kingdom collaboration. At our best, the independent Christian churches have also been interdependent.

Team Expansion, Stadia, CIY, Christian camps, Bible colleges, Good News Productions International, The Solomon Foundation, campus ministries, Rapha House, Pioneer Bible Translators, IDES—how did all these happen in a group with no denominational structure? A leader saw a need. In our independent fellowship, that leader had the freedom to act, and in our interdependent fellowship, that leader had the relationships to tap. Someone knew someone else who knew someone else who knew someone else, they all called each other, and they gathered like-minded churches around a common kingdom work. Together, ministry flourished.

A question to wrestle with: With the loss of some unifying institutions, how do we keep those relational networks strong into the next generation? Kingdom synergy multiplies efforts beyond the sum of individual contributions. (Instead of 3+3=6, it’s 3×3=9.) Like the engineers in Apollo 13, our churches are an unlikely group of heroes, but if we work together, amazing things happen. Like those men at Mission Control, we’ve been given a lifesaving mission, and the stakes are higher than NASA ever faced. If we falter, millions of people perish.

Failure is not an option.

Everything rises and falls on leadership. To keep our movement healthy, we must develop leaders committed to Christian unity under biblical authority for evangelistic mission. When every church in our fellowship has a Gene Kranz to step in and help us work together, we will bring people safely Home.

It will be our finest hour.

Matt Proctor serves as president of Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.

Matt Proctor

Matt Proctor serves as president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.

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