13 July, 2024

Reuniting Our Movement

Christian Standard, Features, Movement

by | 13 June, 2024 | 1 comment

By Victor Knowles

In 1962, captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged for Russian spy Rudolf Abel in Berlin. The event was made into the 2015 historical movie Bridge of Spies. In 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game, a record that still stands. In the same year, Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg received 11 Oscar nominations, Marilyn Monroe was found dead of “acute barbiturate poisoning,” and the Cuban Missile Crisis captured the attention of Americans and the world. It was also in 1962 that Standard Publishing in Cincinnati, Ohio, produced what I believe is the definitive book on the history of the Restoration Movement: Christians Only: A History of the Restoration Movement by James DeForest Murch. This was the textbook for my Restoration History class when I was a junior in Bible college, and I devoured every word. 

In his Introduction, Murch wrote, “I see the Restoration movement as a part of the plan of God to preserve and perpetuate ‘the faith which was once delivered unto the saints’ in its purity and power, and visibly to restore the one body in Christ.” But then he added a word of warning: “I believe that unless the movement remains true to the principles and purposes which brought it into being, it has no reason to exist.” I believe both of his astute assessments are still true today. 

Murch defined the three streams of the Restoration Movement in the 1960s as “leftist” (the Disciples of Christ—at that time known as Christian Churches, Disciples of Christ), “centrists” (Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ), and “rightist” (Churches of Christ, a cappella). Today those descriptive terms seem mostly political, but there were valid reasons why Murch used those terms back in 1962. 

Fast-forward from 1962 to 2022. Matt Proctor, president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, wrote an article, “Can Our Churches Continue to Grow and Bear Fruit?” which appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Christian Standard. After restating the purpose of the Restoration Movement in America, Proctor pinpointed three important emphases in a mere eight words: “Christian unity under biblical authority for evangelistic mission.” But then he wrote, “Ironically, this unity movement split into three fellowships, each focusing on one of the three original emphases: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Christian unity, the a cappella Churches of Christ on biblical authority, and the Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ on evangelistic mission.” But perhaps even that threefold description is not as cut and dried as it might seem some 60 years after 1962. The two latter groups are very mission-minded and are strong on biblical authority. And there are tributaries in the three separated streams of the movement who still hold to all three original emphases, albeit some more successfully than others. 

THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH (DISCIPLES OF CHRIST)  

Despite our history of division, the question remains: “Is it still possible to honor our Lord’s prayer for unity and thus carry out his Great Commission?” I would answer, yes, because “with God, all things are possible.” But as Murch warned, “Unless the movement remains true to the principles and purposes which brought it into existence, it has no reason to exist.” Even in 1962, Murch was particularly hard on the Disciples of Christ, now known as The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a full-fledged, ultra-liberal denomination since 1968, whose drift into liberal theology and practice has in recent years turned into a disastrous tidal wave. As a result, their numerical condition has been described as “cataclysmic” and “dismal” (see Dateline, One Body, Winter 2024). Membership of nearly 2 million in 1967 dropped to 277,864—with attendance of 89,894—in 2022, according to The Roys Report (September 15, 2023). Another sad sign of the Disciples’ decline is this announcement in the Winter 2023 Cane Ridge Bulletin: “Regrettably, we will not hold a Cane Ridge Day in 2024 due to dropping attendance numbers and difficulty in finding volunteers and speakers.” 

DISCIPLE HERITAGE FELLOWSHIP  

Disciple Heritage Fellowship, a conservative renewal movement that originated within The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has been trending in the opposite direction, however. Since starting in 1985, DHF has grown their network to more than 150 churches and 170 ministers, according to Rick Grace, the fellowship’s church liaison. “We have heard from an increasing number of congregations new to the DHF orbit,” Grace wrote in an October 2023 letter. “Many are still part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Most want help in trying to navigate being a theologically conservative church in an increasingly liberal denomination.” (For more information on Disciple Heritage Fellowship, write DHF, 3350 N. MacArthur Road, Decatur, IL 62526, call (217) 875-3350, or go to www.discipleheritage.org.) 

CHURCHES OF CHRIST  

Many readers of Christian Standard are probably familiar with the Churches of Christ (a cappella). In 1906 they parted company with the Disciples of Christ and formed a “separate and distinct” fellowship that was noted in the 1907 U.S. Census. At that time, the Churches of Christ had 2,649 congregations, comprised of 159,650 “adherents.” Churches of Christ peaked in 1990 with 13,1174 congregations and 1,284,056 adherents. However, Tim Woodruff and Stan Granberg wrote in a recent report (“A Case Study of Growth and Decline: The Churches of Christ: 2006-2016”) that by 2050 Churches of Christ will be about one-third the number of churches and adherents they had in 1985.  

One reason it is hard to track the numbers with precision is because Churches of Christ in the United States, compiled by Carl Royster and published by 21st Century Christian in Nashville, Tennessee, has not produced a directory since 2018. In an email from Carl (November 3, 2023), he explained: “The pandemic cancelled production plans for the 2021 edition. We are continuing to experience the lingering post-pandemic effects, and the recovery process continues to be slow. However, we are hoping to resume data collection efforts soon with the goal of having a 2024 edition released during the latter part of next year.” The directory is normally published every three years. Data from the 2018 directory lists 11,875 congregations with total attendance at 1,092,182. But that was a drop from 12,300 congregations in 2015.  

“Overall, the status of Churches of Christ in the United States has declined by 6.3 percent in congregations and 9.6 percent in adherents,” Royster said. And that was before the COVID years. Attendance at the median-sized Churches of Christ congregation is 55, according to the latest figures. 

In 2018, the Churches of Christ had 30 congregations averaging more than 1,000 in attendance. The largest was The Hills Church in North Richland Hills, Texas, which averaged 4,658. Well-known speaker Rich Atchley preaches at this satellite church. Atchley has been a key player in efforts to reunite brethren from both sides of the keyboard; he has appeared as a guest speaker at events like the North American Christian Convention and many Bible college programs of the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. On the 100th anniversary of the 1906 separation, Atchley and Bob Russell teamed up to write Together Again: Restoring Unity in Christ after a Century of Separation.  

Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, recently hosted an event that should be encouraging to all who are interested in Jesus’ prayer for unity. Harding shared on Facebook: “We were honored to host more than 40 ministers from churches of Christ and independent Christian churches around the country on our campus [December 5-6, 2023]. They came together to discuss discipleship in an increasingly secular world. Join us in prayer for them as they work to expand the kingdom by continuing to love God and love people.”  

Calvin Warpula, one of the co-planners and participants in the Restoration Forum, responded: “I praise God for these brothers now working toward the same goals we had in the Restoration Forum for seeking greater understanding and discovering ways we could fulfill Jesus’ prayer for unity. I admire Harding University for hosting this event. We need more of this type of dialogue and discussion on a local level throughout our country. Let us all love God more by loving our brethren and seeking peace and unity based on the apostles’ message.” 

CHRISTIAN CHURCHES & CHURCHES OF CHRIST  

I believe the majority of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ are still endeavoring to “remain true to the principles and purposes” which brought them into being as a fellowship separate from the Disciples of Christ when they formed the North American Christian Convention in 1926-1927. Some historians date that separation as 1955, when the first Directory of the Ministry was published, while others put it as late as 1968, when thousands of congregations asked to be removed from the Disciples Yearbook.  

The May/June 2023 Christian Standard included an annual growth report of the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ for 2022. The reported growth rate was 12.8 percent. More than 70,000 baptisms were reported and overall giving continued a three-year growth trend, with 77 percent of churches reporting that their income met or exceeded the previous fiscal year. The report (compiled by Kent Fillinger, president of 3-STRANDS Consulting) breaks down congregations into six groups: Megachurches (2,000-plus in weekly attendance), emerging megachurches (1,000–1999), large churches (500–999), medium churches (250–499), small churches (100–249), and very small churches (99 or fewer). Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, reported 2,074 baptisms.  

Matt Proctor believes one of the reasons for the success of the 4 C’s fellowship is “at our best, the Independent Christian Churches have also been interdependent.” He asked, “How did all this happen in a group with no denominational structure? He answered, “Because a leader saw a need. In our independent fellowship that leader had freedom to act, and in our interdependent fellowship, that leader had the relationships to tap. Someone knew someone else, they all called each other, and they gathered in like-minded churches around a kingdom work. Together, ministry flourished.” He points to ministries like Christian camps, Bible colleges, Good News Productions International, Christ In Youth, and The Solomon Foundation. 

The Solomon Foundation, a nonprofit financial organization, is known far and wide for helping churches in Restoration Movement circles to grow, including a number of Black Churches of Christ (a cappella). (For more information go to thesolomonfoundation.org or call (855) 873-5873.) 

For 14 years I was invited by Dr. Jerry Rushford to act as a liaison between the 4 C’s Fellowship and the Churches of Christ (a cappella) by teaching workshops at the annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures (now known as Harbor) at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. In one of those speeches, I listed 101 things that we were doing together that we would never have thought possible in the “Cold War” years. In another speech, I listed 25 things I’ve learned in 25 years of unity meetings between the two groups. One of those things: “None of us pray enough for unity.” Rubel Shelly said, “If Jesus prayed for the unity of all who would believe in him through the apostles’ message (John 17:20-26), how dare we do not pray for it as well?” 

Together, on our knees, we will find the answer to the question: “Is it still possible to honor our Lord’s prayer for unity and thus carry out his Great Commission?” 

Victor Knowles is founder and president of Peace on Earth on Ministries, in Joplin, Missouri. He has edited One Body Magazine since 1984 and is the author of 32 books, including Together in Christ: More Than a Dream (College Press/Leafwood Publishing). www.poeministries.org  

1 Comment

  1. dennis t reid

    thanks for this reminder, Victor. Thoughts on the cause for division between Christian Churches and Church of Christ? I had it in my mind that the slavery issue was the wedge?

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