By Chris DeWelt
“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us!” —Robert Burns (“To a Louse”)
Many years ago, Carol and I were learning Spanish while temporarily living in Costa Rica and attending a school that specializes in helping missionaries prepare linguistically for life in Latin America. Not long after we arrived, the school’s director invited us to his office to get to know us.
“So what agency are you with?” was his first question.
“We are direct-support missionaries,” I happily replied.
His face turned quizzical, and then he asked, “What church are you with?”
When I said, “Christian churches and churches of Christ,” he tilted his head slightly and asked, “you’re not with the church on the edge of town that says they are the only ones going to Heaven, are you?”
“Uhh . . . no, well, not exactly, but sort of . . .” was my labored response.
I went on to explain to him that we were part of an indigenous American church movement known as Christian churches (but not Disciples of Christ) and churches of Christ (but not the noninstrumental folks, although we like them, well, most of the time).
Then came the slogans (which I continue to use, by the way).
“We believe that we are not the only Christians, but that we are Christians only!”
More quizzical looks.
When he said he came from a Presbyterian background, I smiled and said, “So do we!” (It was not in vain that I had studied Restoration Movement history!)
Still more quizzical looks.
I was young, did I mention that? I was 24 and it was, ironically, 1976, a big year for celebrating independence.
Actually, my interactions with Dr. Coble, the school’s director, and with the many students who were headed to the field, were quite enjoyable as we discussed theology, church polity, and a mutual heart to see the gospel preached in Latin American cities. Everyone did care about those things. Although there were some sizable differences, we clearly perceived a common enemy and a beloved Savior. It brought us together.
Healthy Connection Depends on Interdependence
The history of our fellowship goes back to a 19th– and 20th-century desire for independence. Specifically, this has meant freedom to determine what is best for a particular congregation in a particular setting under the leadership of local elders.
Here in America, we all swim in the water of independence. That water comes from the spring that birthed our nation and enormously influenced not only our culture but all of history (and it will continue to do so).
Independence is not a problem in and of itself. It is right and good to stand on your own feet. To “set out” on your own is a sign that you have moved onward from dependency to the stage of life where you become a source of blessing rather than always being the one in need.
However, while independence is good, it is not the goal. In fact, I would argue that radical independence is something of a myth, but my point here is that health is found in the third (and final) stage of development, true interdependence. It is from this location that connection becomes possible.
The idea of moving from dependence to independence to interdependence is not a new concept. I remember Stephen Covey writing on this subject years ago in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; I also remember teaching similar principles to my intercultural studies students concerning the “three-self” church as stated by Roland Allen in his book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?
Paul exhorted the Galatians to “bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, New American Standard Bible, 1977). What greater burden is there than reaching the lost and encouraging the saved? Jesus literally prayed for our unity for the purpose of the world knowing that the Father had sent him (John 17:21).
Healthy Connection Is Affected by How We View Ourselves and Others
In 1995, Sam Stone (then the editor of Christian Standard) and I surveyed ministers of Christian churches and churches of Christ regarding how they viewed their own movement. Survey results showed that, at the time, our movement was healthier than many had thought. One of the qualitative questions in the survey pertained to the leaders’ views of others that bore the name Christian but were not part of our movement. In other words, how did they see the rest of the Christian world?
The answers reflected a wide range of opinions, as you might imagine. We observed an identifiable point of tension among those answering the question. Several respondents began to answer but then would cut off their response by simply observing, in effect, that those things were up to God. Others refused to answer. I found the responses to be fascinating.
The fact is, our movement has struggled with how to look at others around us who also bear the name Christian. The comments of the leaders we polled were especially revealing of the anxiety many felt in approaching this issue. It may be easier to leave the judging to God, but, at some point, one forms a viewpoint that directly affects connection.
One can have points of distinction and still connect with others. In fact, that is the only way we can connect, for there will always be points of distinction. The issue should then be, What can I work with?
The context of the mission field is often where that connection begins to mean something more than, “Yeah, we should do something about that. . . .” I would contend that until we see ourselves in a missional context, we will do little about connecting, mostly because we don’t have to. Sadly, our subtext is often, “We can function just fine on our own.”
Healthy Connection Requires Reaching Across the Aisle
If we are to be healthy, connection will happen on many levels. Here are a couple of connecting points, along with some ideas for implementation.
1. Connecting with our own sister congregations. Do you work together with other Restoration background churches in your area on anything at all? If you do, then you are unusual.
Don’t wait for your phone to buzz. Make the call! You know who they are and where they are. Don’t say you tried this once and it did not work. We all must do better than that. Here are three ideas for what to say.
- Propose a joint meal. Eating together is the simplest way to build healthy community. I used to joke with the people at the little church where I preached for several years that they should sing, “God be with you till we eat again!” If you need a simple starting point, try food.
- Propose joint times of prayer. I never feel like I know someone until I hear them pray. If you are an elder, tell your brothers you would like to reach out to a sister congregation to get all the elders together to pray. Pray for your city. Pray for the lost people all of you see every day. Pray for wisdom. Pray for the staff and congregations of both churches. Pray for each other. Pray for other churches in your city. Or just sit quietly before the Lord and see what happens. You get the idea. Pray.
- Forgive one another. This is perhaps the healthiest thing a church could ever do. What a shock for the leaders of one church to ask the leaders of another church to forgive them. This is good—and unusual—for many reasons. If you need prodding on where forgiveness is needed, ask the Lord and see what happens. It always works for me on a personal level.
2. Connecting with “other” churches in your community. Healthy connections are seen in the ways we can serve rather than in the ways we are being served (Mark 10:45). Several ideas in the previous point could easily be applied here. If you are worried about doctrinal issues, what better way to discuss them than in the context of bringing healing to your city? Or, even better, in the context of praying together for one another?
- Propose the idea of jointly addressing a known community need. A community’s needs are clear avenues for the love of Christ to be made known. A good starting point is to visit with city leadership. They are usually overworked and understaffed, and most of them care deeply about the brokenness they see. After they recover from the shock of being asked if we can help, most city leaders will have thoughtful ideas. I have seen this happen in an important way in my own community. It can happen in yours. The world is waiting.
- Look around for the “nations that are among you.” This will likely get practical very quickly. We know the Lord cares about the nations, and we know they are here, right now, in virtually every town and village. I believe the Lord has sent them to us. We have seen tremendous community and church connections in our little city to work with refugees and immigrants who are here now. (Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need help in this area.)
- Speak with one voice against injustice. “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6). Guess how he does that. Choosing this path brings with it significant implications, messiness, and undeniable controversy. It is far easier to ignore this subject. But have you noticed that it is precisely that approach that has alienated many young people who have come to believe the church cares only about itself? If you disagree with me, then I challenge you to ask the young adults you know what they think about the relevance of the church. I do not have easy answers, but I invite you to engage.
Health produces creativity. The ideas I’ve presented have helped me in breaking my own tendencies toward apathy and isolation.
May we always be a movement that, knowing itself well, connects with those who seek after the heart of our Savior.
Chris DeWelt served as director of intercultural studies at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, from 1999 to 2021. He has traveled in over 90 countries representing various mission ministries. He currently serves as president of College Press Publishing Company.