Around the country, Churches of Christ continue to decline in numbers of local churches and individual members. You can read this article from the Christian Chronicle that provides and explains the data. Such decline raises the anxiety among elders and ministers along with raising questions about the reason for such decline. However, sometimes it seems like some people just want to keep asking the same questions that lead to the same answers.
I haven’t seen a copy of the Spiritual Sword in almost ten years but that changed when someone sent me a copy of the April 2018 issue (Vol. 49, No. 3). Dedicated to the legacy of N.B. Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, the editor Alan E. Highers concludes with an editorial titled “What Can We Learn?” Speaking of the Churches of Christ, which in his sectarian view constitutes “the body of Christ”, Highers writes:
Why have some young people forsaken the body of Christ and moved into a denomination, a community church, or back into the world? In all likelihood they have not heard the preaching on the sin of religious division and the identity of Christ’s church, perhaps in their lifetime. Why have some among us minimized the authority of the scriptures and concluded that instrumental music is marginal and unimportant? (p. 47).
The answers he provides to his own questions are unfounded assumptions. That is, there isn’t any evidence cited to support such answers. In fact, I doubt very much that a thorough social analysis on why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and regard opposition to the use of instruments in Christian worship as unimportant would ever yield the conclusions that Higher’s asserts.
Alan Higher’s and his associates are free to regard as important whatever set of beliefs they want to hold on any issue they like. However, the conclusions that Highers assumes reveal just how out of touch with reality some Christians and Churches of Christ are in this postmodern and post-Christendom American society we live among. There are likely several reasons why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and why people, myself included, don’t regard the use of instruments in Christian worship as sin. I can only speak for myself but whatever the reasons are, apart from the person who has just abandoned following Jesus entirely, they have nothing to do with a lack of preaching/teaching on church unity and a minimizing the authority of scripture. I have read the Bible from cover to cover and have a high-view regarding the authority of scripture. I’ve even preached on the subject of Christian unity and on the authority of scripture, it’s just that I’ve reached a different conclusion about what the scriptures teach on the issue of Christian unity and singing in worship.
However, I’m going to push further and say that by drawing the conclusions which Higher’s does is more a means of scapegoating than anything else. Such conclusions allow local churches to blame those who have left or no longer adhere to the traditional Churches of Christ dogma for their decline. By scapegoating these issues, local Churches of Christ by means of their leaders can then ignore the deeper questions about their church and mission. These are questions that might open their gospel imaginations regarding their own contextual theological praxis, resulting in new ways of embodying the gospel as participants in the mission of God. This may be the biggest challenge facing Churches of Christ: Do local Churches of Christ have the faith to ask different questions that would lead them in a new direction as participants in the mission of God? Alan Highers is only one voice but his voice says “No!” and that is lamentable.
If a local church just keeps asking the same questions and imposing the same answers on those same questions, they’ll end up with the same results. In psychological terms, that’s called insanity. Drawing on a biblical metaphor, it is to remain safely in the water even though Jesus is calling the church out into the water. Until local churches by means of their leaders have the courage to step out into the water, which requires faith rather than dogmatic certainty, continued decline will happen as participating in the mission of God gets lost from the safety of the boat.
So let me suggest that rediscovering how God is calling a local church to participate in his mission requires us to ask better questions that anticipate different answers. Ergo, instead of asking “why someone has become a part of a local community church?”, how about asking instead “how is our church doing in the practice of hospitality and charity towards one another?” That question might lead to inquiring about whether the people in the nearby neighborhoods find a welcoming and friendly environment among us (which can only be answered by asking the people in the neighborhoods). Such questions open space for learning and rediscovering ways as well as opportunities for how the local church might embody the gospel among the neighborhoods and begin extending the kingdom of God into the neighborhoods rather than just continuing in decline.
This is something to think about. However, by all means, let’s quit scapegoating the reasons for why Churches of Christ are declining.