A Church That Makes a Difference (May-Jun 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

by Tim Woodroof
May – June, 1998

This article is the third installment. All three articles will soon be available in book form from Look Press, 800/863-5665

“Effective churches have a sense of purpose. They know why they exist” -Lef Anderson, Dying for Change

Oliver Sachs, in the title piece from his wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, tells of one of his neurological patients (Dr. P.) who could dress himself, eat and carry on a conversation – until interrupted or distracted. Once the flow of his activity was broken, however, Dr. P. would freeze, motionless, staring unblinking into space. Having lost the thread of what he was about, Dr. P. came to a complete stop, forgetting himself and his surroundings. Only through gentle reminders of what he was doing and why could Dr. P. be persuaded to resume his activity.

Movements, like people, can forget themselves. Interrupted or distracted, they can lose the thread which holds their activities together and gives them coherence. One moment you are marching along with a sense of purpose and identity. The next you are sitting paralyzed on the ground, wondering how you got here and where you were going. Something breaks into the flow of our activity and, with surprise, we find that we can no longer recall what it was we were attempting to do.

A movement grows becalmed when it forgets where it is supposed to be going, when its sense of purpose is dulled, when not only the means of getting there but the destination itself is shrouded in confusion. A movement which mislays its mission should expect to encounter times when paralysis creeps over its members and they stand frozen because they are no longer sure what the point is.

The churches of Christ are in such a period today. Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten what we were doing and why. We find ourselves confused over the most basic questions: Who are we? and What have we been called to do? We’ve lost the thread that gives meaning to our activities, and, having done so, we have lost the motivation to continue doing what we no longer understand. We find ourselves paralyzed, not because we are too tired to go on but because we despair of our activity resulting in something that God values.

The purposes we can articulate for the church – borrowed as they are from a prior generation and a radically different world – seem narrow and rote. In quiet and reflective moments, we question whether those goals areworthy of the sacrifices required. Many of us are no longer willing to pour the best of ourselves into the preservation of 19th century modes of worship or doctrinal positions which – in our hearts – we no longer accept or believe to be central. Jesus did not die, nor do we want to live, to ensure that buildings not have kitchens or that music remain congregational and a capella or that a woman never make announcements in church.

The debate over such matters is exhausting precisely because it seems so irrelevant. The world around us is sick and demented. Daily, we watch people being butchered and starved and exploited. Children are growing up fatherless. The greed of nations is devouring entire populations in mindless wars. “Sexual ethics” is oxymoronic and increasingly anachronistic. Politicians are corrupt; priests are perverse; and “there is violence in the land.” It will take something more potent than an answer to the marriage and divorce question to make a dint in this present darkness.

And we know it.

Yet, from some memory older than the restoration plea or even than Christianity itself, comes the notion that the people of God should make a difference, a difference felt at the foundations of our culture. Whatever our purpose and mission, we know that it should be no little thing concerned with the fringes of life. If something is to break into our paralysis and startle us once more into activity, we must find a mission that is worthy of renewed efforts.

On a Mission from God

We can laugh at Dan Ackroyd deadpanning the line in The Blues Brothers, “Ma’am, we’re on a mission from God.” But his satirical seriousness as he utters those words, the implied ridicule of people who actually believe such things, convicts our movement at the very point where we are most sensitive. Do we have such a mission? Is there yet a sense among us that God has called us to be something, to do something, that is unique and world-changing? Can we claim to be on a mission from God and keep a straight face while doing so?

As we ask that question, we are necessarily defining who we are, and what our priorities should be, and what purposes should govern our behaviors. We are deciding where our time, energies and resources should be invested. We are determining the traits which should characterize us and the passions which must consume us. We are not formulating a slogan to put on our letterhead, but a guiding sense of purpose that expresses what we believe to be important to God and definitional for us.

For decades, the notion that we are a “restoration people,” called to “do Bible things in Bible ways,” provided that sense of mission. We prided ourselves on being a movement bent on replicating in modern times the ancient and primitive rites of first century faith and practice. We were consumed with the identification and cataloguing of the early churches’ modes of worship, examples of outreach and cooperation, their structures for leadership, the names by which they called themselves, the ethical standards by which they lived, and the means by which they expressed and maintained community. We believed that by becoming students of the early church and by adopting those ancient patterns of life for ourselves, we could restore the ancient church in modern times.

The duplication of the manner in which the earliest Christians “did church” became for many of us the central tenet of restoration efforts. The result of all those years of study and discussion was a real, if informal, consensus about how the first century church acted and how, therefore, we ought to act. Did they take the Supper every first day of the week? That pattern was seen as binding on any church that would be faithful today. Did they have five acts of worship? So must we, and neither less nor more. Did they have elders and deacons chosen on the pattern of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1? We must also have both elders and deacons (never one without the other), and those must be chosen strictly by the standards set out in the pastoral epistles. Did they have love feasts and greet one another with a holy kiss and speak in tongues during their worship services? Well, you can’t take restoration too far!

But, of course, we did. Having gotten the restoration bit between our teeth, it was hard to know where to stop. How many cups did early Christians use for the supper? Was the bread they used one loaf or bite-sized pieces? Where was the biblical authority for a Sunday School or cooperative support for children’s homes or a Missionary Society? Did early churches build church buildings or hire located ministers? Was it proper to erect family life centers and hold marriage seminars and feed hungry people who wouldn’t sit still for a Bible lesson?

It was precisely over such questions that churches of Christ have, for the past hundred years, reasoned and debated and argued. EvntuaIly it was over such questions that they alienated and divided. To the outside observer, all this frenzy about ancient patterns and modem practice seems obtuse and even absurd. What such an observer would fail to understand is the critical assumption we were making even as we split over these theological hairs.

The assumption, rooted in no less a figure than Alexander Campbell, was that if we could replicate the ancient church in modern times the millennium would be ushered in. For Campbell, restoration was no mere tool for getting the church back on track. It would open the door for the return of Christ and the judgment of the world (See Richard Hughes and Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence, pp. 170ff. “[Alexander Campbell] proclaimed in the Christian Baptist in 1825 that ‘just in so far as the ancient order of things, or the religion of the New Testament, is restored, just so far has the Millennium commenced”). If only the first century church could be resurrected, if only all men of good character would join together in practicing simple, primitive Christianity stripped of the accumulated theological baggage of the centuries, the path would be cleared for the promises of God to be fulfilled in toto.

Of course, that was Campbell’s assumption, not ours. As good a millennialists, we could not swallow Campbell’s theories about the end times. But we could (and did) modify his assumption to one with which we were more comfortable. Why was it so important to conform our practice of church to the patterns and forms of the first century? Because when we perfectly restored the first century pattern, we believed we would usher in a revival of first century power and effectiveness. Function would follow form. We convinced ourselves that the power, harmony, fervor, and holiness we were sure we saw in the ancient church would break out afresh in the modern church – if only we could reinstate the pattern they followed. By “doing church” in the same way that the ancients “did church,” we too could become a church that turned the world upside down, changed lives and brought glory to God.

That was always (or at least often) the motive for an otherwise incomprehensible obsession with arcane data of first century church life. We did not study the past because we liked it better than the present. We scoured the past because we saw it as our best hope for functioning effectively in the here-and-now. Copy the modes of early worship and true worship would break out among us. Imitate the methods of early evangelism and the world (or at least the interested) would beat a path to our door. Model our leadership structure and styles after those found in Jerusalem or Antioch or Ephesus and God would bless us with leaders who were leaders indeed!

So captured were we by this assumption regarding restoration that we took matters a step further. Not only would the pursuit of form lead us to function, but only the pursuit of form would do so. Only by discovering and reproducing the modes, methods and practices of the first century church could we have any assurance that the resulting church would produce the fruit God wanted. There could be no legitimate leadership in the church, no trustable vision and divinely sanctioned authority, unless such leadership grew out of the NT pattern of elders, deacons, and evangelists. There could be no legitimate worship, no true praise or pleasing sacrifice, unless that worship matched exactly in form and expression the patterns seen in the early church. There could be no legitimate evangelism unless, first and foremost, the means, methods, and message used by the modern evangelist conformed precisely to the express or necessarily implied example of his ancient counterpart.

Unless the form was correct, the results didn’t count. Thus we found an ingenious way to kill two birds with one Bible. What is our mission? We are the ones who have discovered the key to revival for the church. Because we worship like the first churches and organize ourselves like them and adhere strictly to their ethic and do not practice any unauthorized “innovations,” God is using us to rebuild in these last days a church through which he can freely work.

And what about all those other churches out there? Well, sadly, the good which they do is tainted because they are not doing it in the right way. Certainly, there are churches which have a powerful ministry of compassion for the poor, but because they are encumbered with a denominational structure, God will not bless their efforts or use them to expand his kingdom. And, yes, there are groups which have stressed the deepening of the spiritual life through prayer and confession; but they are unsound on the instrumental music question, so their spiritual wisdom is suspect. And there are examples in the religious world around us of harmonious fellowship, holy living, sincere worship, sacrificial generosity and dedicated service. All that is wasted on the kingdom, however. Because they fall short on the means, the ends cannot be valid. – All of which might be quite defensible if we could point to the results of our own efforts and show that, in fact, function has followed form for us. If the churches of Christ could demonstrate that our key does indeed fit the lock for effective churches, that after 150 years of pursuing proper form we were finally functioning as the loving, holy, evangelistically fervent, compassionate, worshipful body of Christ envisioned by the apostles, there might be room for boasting about ourselves and discounting the efforts of others.

So what has been our fruit? I want to take nothing away from the good done in our fellowship over the years: the souls that have been won, the lives which have been changed, the sacrifices which have been made, the worship that has been offered. Yet I do believe that enough time has passed, enough effort has been invested, enough lives have been dedicated to the restoration of ancient forms to allow us to ask, “Are we now functioning as the glorious church we want so badly to be?” Has our obsession with NT patterns and duly authorized forms resulted in a more loving and united community? Having struggled so long with issues of church leadership, do we now provide a vivid and compelling model of strong, faithful, visionary leadership for the religious world around us? After all the dust has settled from our arguments over modes of baptism and issues surrounding discipleship, are we turning the world upside down with our passion to save the lost?

Forced to admit that our movement has, in fact, stagnated, that we have divided ourselves into exhaustion, that we have not enjoyed the expected period of explosive growth, that our young people are leaving or at least have discovered no passion for the vision which so captured their fathers, that our worship periods have settled into a stultifying sameness, that our congregations are graying at a rapid rate or dying off entirely, a strange kind of rearguard action is taking place in many quarters. Unwilling to accept that our assumptions about restoration may have been wrong, we are scrambling to find ways to shift the blame. It is not our efforts which have been misdirected, it is the times in which we live! We console ourselves with memories of Jeremiah’s lonely ministry and Jesus’ inability to perform miracles in Nazareth because of the people’s “lack of faith.” We tell ourselves that it is hard to be right, and quote like a mantra “narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Our present struggles have become almost a badge of honor, proving in a perverse way that we are on the right path – it’s just that nobody is interested in the truth any more.

The prescription for the church advocated by those who take this tack is for the church to hunker down, protect its gains, remain “faithful” especially in these difficult days … and (God help us) to do more, much more, of the same thing we have been doing. Then perhaps God will bring the blessing we have all been taught to expect.

The Loyal Opposition

Not everyone, however, is taking that line. Some of us, reviewing the state of churches of Christ at the close of the 20th century, are recognizing that drastic surgery is in order or else the patient may well expire on the table. To do more of the same will result in more of the same, and that we cannot afford. It is time, past time, to do something different so that we can make a difference.

Those voices calling for change will not let us take refuge by circling the wagons against a hostile world. They refuse to shift the blame to a hardhearted culture or an increasingly unfaithful church. They remind us that if the first century Christians had heard Jesus’ words about the “narrow road” in the same way we seem to be hearing them, there would have been no evangelistic push out of Jerusalem, no turning the world upside down. They still have faith that the churches of Christ can find a way to function effectively in these dark times. As a consequence, they are far more willing to call into question the assumptions our movement has made about restoration and to wonder whether there might be another way to “do church” today than focusing on and imitating NT forms.

Many of these “young Turks” are for a wholesale repudiation of past forms and the substitution of new ones deemed more contemporary more in keeping with the modem mind, more attuned to the times in which we live. Plundering the surrounding religious world in a pragmatic frenzy, they are borrowing new methods, fresh approaches, creative ideas. Are our worship services stilted? Change the order, introduce special music, use drama and testimonials, never preach more than 20 minutes. Have our evangelistic efforts bogged down? Host marriage seminars, start a Seeker Service, advertise, advertise, advertise. Do we lack fellowship opportunities in our hectic, driven lives? Start meeting in small groups, cancel Sunday nights in favor of more informal interaction, put coffee and donuts in the foyer.

Everything is on the table, from the role of women to the style and structure of leadership. There are no sacred cows. No tradition is too revered to be above question. Such changes may be painful for a church and threatening to unity, but when the alternative is slow death for the church and certain death for the world, a little pain is a small price to pay for a second chance at new life.

You can dismiss such efforts as mere “faddism” or as a fatal accommodation to the prevailing culture. You can castigate those who advocate these changes as caring little for their heritage or for God’s word. You can even accuse them of being, like Demas, too much in love with this present world.

But those are shallow and unfair depictions. Look a little closer and you will see people who love the church deeply, are devoting their lives in ministry to it, are very concemed about its future, and are desperate to find a way to usher in a revival of health and growth.

It’s just that these people are asking different questions. They are working from a different playbook. They live out of a different paradigm from their restoration forefathers. If you will refrain from dismissing them for a few moments, let me help you understand them.

For a new generation in the church (and for many in the older generation), a decision has been made that function comes first, not form. These Christians are as interested in restoration as anyone. They want to be biblical. They are very concerned with being faithful to God’s will and his word. But, for them, this means that the church must reorder its priorities, keep focused on what is at the core of faith, and pursue the functions of God’s people with a single-minded devotion.

They no longer believe that a restoration of proper form will ensure proper functioning in the church. That belief has been beaten out of them by too many years of experience with churches consumed with forms and oblivious to functions. They do believe that God has called his church to be an incarnational, worshipping, holy, disciple-making community that makes a difference in the world. For them, the only kind of restoration worth pursuing has little to do with resuscitating ancient methods and much to do with recapturing an ancient vision of who God’s people are and what business they are to be about.

Ask them if they are interested in restoring the first century church and they will answer, “Yes!” But ask them what about the first century church they want to restore, and you will hear things like “Their passionate worship,” “Their effective outreach,” or “Their sense of community.” Restoration, for this generation, isn’t about first century forms. It’s about purpose and effectiveness and doing things that matter to God. It’s about what we do, not how we do it. It’s about focusing on core values, not tinkering with matters which are viewed as peripheral and tiny. “Form follows function,” they insist. “Get the functions right and God will provide the forms we need to do His business.”

And they want to be biblical. Only being “biblical” means paying attention to the “weightier matters of the law” rather than being tyrannized by the details. They have seen too many people in the Bible arid in the modem church who have focused on the trees and missed the forest. They realize that “correctness” is not the same as “godliness” – that doing things right is not synonymous with doing right things. Being biblical, for them, means pursuing the same ends as the apostles and the first century church, not using the same methods or adopting the same forms.

In fact, they confront us with a most difficult question. “Who is being more biblical? The church that adopts innovative and creative methods of building a strong sense of community among its members, or the church that is so wedded to particular forms it cannot effectively build loving relationships? The church that encourages a personal encounter with God through music, drama, testimonial, and dialogue, or the church that sticks to traditional worship formats whether or not they help members experience God? The church that is known in its neighborhood for feeding and housing battered women, or the church that is unknown by its neighbors because it cannot find biblical authority for using church funds for such activities?”

This new movement in the churches of Christ is as passionate about restoration as those who have gone before. We are as taken with the power and vitality of the first century church as were our fathers. We, like them, believe that churches in Jerusalem and Antioch and Ephesus and – yes – even Corinth are worthy of our intense study and faithful imitation.

The difference is that we want most to restore the functions to which God has called his people, and are willing to disconnect first century forms from those timeless functions. We believe it is possible to experience again the power and life-changing dynamic of the early church, but only if we are able ‘to find fresh wineskins to contain the gospel that is always new.

We want the chance to build a church that flies. In many ways, that church will not look like the ancient church. It will use forms and methods and approaches that would never have occurred to Christians in Philippi or Rome. It will draw from a contemporary toolbox rather than an ancient one. It will meet modem needs using modem methods.

What that church will have in common with the ancient one is a commitment to being the people God wants us to be, doing the work God gives us to do, living the lives God calls us to live. Our methods will vary, but our goals are the same. Our means will differ, but our ends are identical. Our forms will be new, but the same functions hold for us as for them.

We long for the chance to build a church that flies with the ancient church. From the outset, we confess the church we envision will not fly like its first century counterpart. But in the end, we believe it is a functioning church that is important to God-whatever forms that church adopts.

That is a goal which has, I believe, the power to capture the children of the Restoration Movement. It is an ideal which is bold enough to break into our paralysis and startle us once more into activity. It promises to breathe new life into people who have lost their way and forgotten their purpose. By rediscovering the ancient purposes which have always shaped God’s people in the past, and committing to the pursuit of those purposes in the present, we have hope of remembering what we are about and resuming our interrupted activity.

There is an entire generation in the church which is no longer willing to flap first – or nineteenth – century wings. But if they can be given permission to find wings of their own, you may well discover they are as eager to soar into the heavens as [the apostle] Paul or Alexander Campbell.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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