13 July, 2024

A Time for Hope: A Bright Future for the Restoration Movement

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by | 1 July, 2024 | 0 comments

By LeRoy Lawson 

The problem is, things just won’t stay put. The moment you think you’ve got everything arranged the way you want, the ground beneath you shifts and time passes and circumstances change and there you are, discovering yourself in a world not of your making and, usually, not of your liking.  

So, you dream backwards, remembering when days were brighter and people seemed saner and the causes you believed in appeared impregnable and you were more comfortable. But unfortunately, as I said, things just won’t stay put. And when they don’t, you peer into tomorrow with deepening dread and wonder whether there is any hope after all.   

The Restoration Movement has been my religious home since my youth and, though in adolescence I flirted briefly with rebellion, I didn’t flee. In time I came to terms with this often scrappy, sometimes misguided, but never completely hopeless band of believers. And yet, in my old age, a question persists: Is there hope for the Restoration Movement? It’s usually sighed with overtones of resignation or regret. Over the decades my answer hasn’t changed much. It is yes. And no. 

A Movement That Really Moves 

Let me clarify the “no” first. No, there’s no hope if we are asking whether the movement as we know it today will survive even the next 50 years. It will not—as we know it today. I can speak boldly, because the movement as it was when I was ordained in 1959 has morphed drastically in the years since. And that 1959 expression differed vastly from, say, the 1909 version. And that one would have greatly surprised the pioneers who started the movement a hundred years before. The indisputable fact is that the Restoration Movement has always been moving, ever adapting to the shifting sands of cultural time. We didn’t “restore” or “reform” and then rest from our labors, trusting that once we’d achieved organizational and doctrinal perfection there would be no further alterations. Perfect is perfect, after all. 

Let me be more specific. I assumed our leading institutions in 1959 would still be leading in 2024. Then they began dying on me.  

I grew up in Christian Endeavor because my home church believed it was the best youth organization around. You probably never heard of it, unless you are of a certain age. Though I didn’t know it, CE was in its death throes even then. In its place nationally, Christ In Youth arose. The Bible college I attended is still around, although Northwest Christian College had been Eugene Divinity School before then and is Bushnell University now. But many other colleges that flourished in those days are now dead: Puget Sound Christian College, Midwest Christian College, Cincinnati Christian University, Lincoln Christian University, and St. Louis Christian College (I could go on) are gone.  

We used to gather annually in the grand conclave called the North American Christian Convention. It’s also gone now, succeeded by Spire, numerically a shadow of NACC’s former self. Most of my writing was published by Standard Publishing Company. Gone.  

There have been other hurtful losses, too many of them, but these are enough to make my point. In what I like to think of as my relatively short lifetime, the Restoration Movement has experienced near-cataclysmic losses. Many of these institutions by which we identified ourselves no longer exist or exist in greatly modified forms.  

So if, when we ask whether there is hope for the RM, we are thinking in terms of institutions and agencies and organizations, the answer has to be no. (A good example from my home state of Oregon: In the 19th century, pioneering members of the Restoration Movement planted nine colleges in the Pacific Northwest. Only two of them are alive today, and neither identifies with our movement.) The truth is, there is not now, nor has there ever been, hope for the status quo. I repeat: things just won’t stay put. 

Reasons for Hope 

But despite the losses, the balance sheet still shows a net gain and the principles which fostered and sustained the movement remain powerful—so powerful, in fact, that no attempts to govern its energy have succeeded. It will not stay corralled.  

Let me give you my reasons for hope. You’ll note they are conditional; wishful thinking won’t take us into a prosperous future, but the empowering Spirit of God can. By relying on that Spirit and adhering to the movement’s best principles, I think we can do it. Here they are, then, first the conditions and then the hope: 

If we’ll remember we are primarily a movement, not a denomination. Denominations can write rules to keep everybody who conforms safe inside the borders and to keep the mavericks, malcontents, and other disturbers of the peace out; movements can’t. So, let’s choose to remain a movement, one whose members humbly strive to be Christians only and not the only Christians. If we will, then we have a future. The church at large still needs such Christ followers. 

If we’ll keep our passion for truth coupled to grace; if we, like the apostle Paul, will speak the truth in love—always the truth, always in love—then there’s great hope for us. 

If we’ll add to our evangelistic passion generous helpings of “the joy of our salvation,” we not only will have a hopeful future, but a joyful one.  

If we’ll employ the gifts of the spirit (prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, etc.) with the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), then we have every hope that the words of Scripture—“and the Lord added to them . . .”—will apply to our movement.  

If we’ll uncouple our religious passions from our political ones, lifting the cross of Christ high above all party or even patriotic symbols, if we’ll understand that partisanship is a powerful source of division whereas the cross is the route to unity, then our movement can remain whole and the font of hope-giving wholeness in a fractured religious world. 

If we will remember that unity does not mean unanimity, that within a united movement differences of opinion are tolerated because individuals are respected, then we can offer proof that Christ does indeed break down dividing walls of hostility. There’s hope for such a people. 

If we’ll remember that Christ sent his followers into all the world to make disciples. . . . In other words, the Restoration Movement exists for the benefit of “them” and not just “us.” Our emphasis on evangelism and mission keeps our focus on others; it encourages us to sacrifice our own comforts for the sake of those who aren’t yet part of us (but we hope one day will be). Isn’t this what Jesus had in mind when he urged us to love our neighbors as ourselves? We want the best for them. 

For all these reasons and more, the young man who stepped into the Restoration Movement in the middle of the 20th century is still here as an old man in the 21st.  

I do recognize that our ways are not always the best. I could write another essay, probably longer, on our many dysfunctions. We have them. And our history is replete with many efforts to “tidy up” the movement; well-intentioned people have fretted anxiously over our open borders, our thinkers of heterodox thoughts, our rogue pastors or churches who don’t toe “the party line,” whatever that is.  

We’ll always have too many self-credentialing pockets of like-minded, culturally similar groups with their (usually) self-appointed gatekeepers. Give them their reign, they argue, and they’ll purify us and define us (define, meaning “set limits on”). Such internal unity efforts have repeatedly divided us; the medicine has usually been more deadly than the disease. But the truth is, we will not be tidied up. 

Perhaps that’s because we shouldn’t be. We are, I repeat myself, a movement, and movements move. Read our history, starting back in the early 19th century with the Campbells and Barton Stone. From that early beginning until today, every effort to corral the herd (or “herd the cats”) has failed. We’ve been squabbling since we were born. That’s why, when I was serving a local church, I took pains to teach the principles of our fellowship—they’re really good—but I wasn’t eager to divulge all the secrets hidden in our history, because our practice has never lived up to our principles. We’re better at advocating than we are at accomplishing, I’m afraid. But our aspirations are worth hanging on to. 

You may wonder how, with all these challenges, I can still assert that I’m hopeful. Let me answer with my personal testimony. I’m still one of us. Even though I’ve never quite fit, I still belong.  

My formal education doesn’t fit the pattern; my political proclivities are not appreciated in some circles; my theological curiosity has sometimes scared my friends. I think aloud, trusting the love of my church family to hold me close, even when they disagree with me. Yet—and this is huge—nobody has kicked me out. And that’s for a very good reason. Nobody can. Nobody has the denominational authority to “church” me. Because—have I said this before?—we’re a movement.  

There’s another, even larger, reason for the hope I have. We’re disciples of Christ, after all, and he promised “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church. We’ve been through discouraging days, we’ve been assailed and ridiculed and been under attack—often for our own sinfulness—but we are still here. Notice Jesus’ language: He’s assuming an active, even aggressive, church, a body capable of breaking through the defenses of hell itself. Truth won’t be defeated by falsehood, not ultimately. Love can’t be destroyed by hate, not over the long term. Partisan politics may triumph in a season, but not forever.  

This essay has been written by a disciple of Christ who is not a disciple of a disciple of Christ. To the best of my ability to live up to this honored slogan, I have “no creed but Christ.” My hope, therefore, is in the Lord and not in any of our temporal, temporary, and thus flawed, organizational structures. Given a chance, our mutual trust in Christ will foster a spirit of tolerance, a readiness to adapt when necessary, and a freedom to innovate, all the while “speaking the truth in love.”  

Yes, there is indeed hope for the Restoration Movement. 

LeRoy Lawson started ministry more than 60 years ago. He has served as senior minister of Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona, and as president of Hope International University, Fullerton, California, among his many ministry roles. 

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