Big, Sick Denomination: Revisited (Jul – Dec 1995)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson
July – December, 1995

A fresh look at the past is always instructive. That’s why we asked Lynn Anderson to reflect on this sermon delivered almost a quarter-century ago. — Editors

“The world will little note, nor long remember, my opening line this morning,” I reflected, taking liberties with Lincoln’s line, as I wheeled my old Chevy into a parking spot in front of the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, early that Sunday morning in 1973. I was right. The world paid no attention whatsoever. But the brethren! That’s another story. They took plenty of note and haven’t let me forget since.

Of course, in hindsight, that opening line could not have been more carefully calculated to derail the sermon from a fair hearing, especially in the early 1970s when our fellowship was in a gnarly funk. Feelings ran high. Suspicion was epidemic. Polarization threatened brotherhood unity. So, my opening line was disastrous communication strategy, asinine judgment. Nevertheless, this is what I said:

The other day Carolyn and I were driving down the road, when I turned and said frankly to my wife, “You know, the Church of Christ is a big, sick, denomination.” And I meant each word: Big. Sick. Denomination. Her answer startled me: “I have believed that, too, for a long time.”

REACTION

At that point, a corporate gasp of shock swept across the congregation. But, 30 minutes later, most listeners understood that the three words were not an attack, but a lament. They didn’t describe the church as I wanted it, but as I saw it.
They were volatile words, nonetheless, and once outside that assembly, they took on a life of their own. Within days, my three choice words had been lifted from context, framed in hostile editorial comment, and circulated across the country through sermons, journal articles, and scores of church bulletins. Before long, I was “invited” to several area-wide “heresy hearings” in the four corners of America. Ironically, the headline attention from some of the more rabid journals only made me “semi-famous,” at least in some cubby-holes of our little fellowship. In fact, now, over 20 years later, I still get letters challenging me as if I’d just said those things last week! And, when introduced to new people, I frequently hear something like, “Oh, yeah, you’re the guy that called the Church of Christ a big, sick denomination.” (Now you’re beginning to understand why I used the word “sick.’) I cannot imagine why it created such a flap, except, of course, because of those tense and excitable times, amplified by the unusual visibility of the Highland pulpit.
Only a small part of the reaction has been negative, however. A prime positive stroke, for example, came from none other than the late and beloved Reuel Lemmons, then editor of the Firm Foundation. One Abilene lectureship featured a forum where respected leaders in our fellowship fielded controversial questions from the audience. As I heard the story, a preacher stood and asked testily, “One among us has said that the Church of Christ is a big, sick denomination. Brother Lemmons, what do you think of such a statement?” Reuel responded in his trademark Texas twang and dry wit, “I’d say it’s about 30% wrong. We’re not that big!” I happened to walk into the auditorium at that very moment and was greeted by thunderous laughter and a forest of pointing fingers.

THE WAY WE WERE

Obviously, the most inflammatory words were “sick” and “denomination.” Why, our very reason for existence was that “we are not a denomination.” And, we assumed, since we were not a denomination, we were the most “well” religious movement in the world.
In that long-ago Sunday morning sermon, I went on to explain what I meant: that our fellowship, like all religious movements, was crystallizing into an institution. Rather than pioneers following our leader in search of a dream, we had become settlers, defending our turf. Many people “held membership,” but with little concern for vital connection with the living God!

Some simply grew up in a Church of Christ family and probably felt some peer or parental pressure to be baptized at puberty. However, too often no genuine conversion took place, no brokenness and new birth, no trust in God as the only hope, no personal loving relationship with Jesus.

Rank and file “pew warmers” seemed to have lost ownership in kingdom enterprises. To keep doing things “the way we’ve always done” them had become more important than such considerations as Is it biblical? Is it effective and helpful? Does it honor God?

Our dying fire was further evidenced by our numerical decline. Some congregations were growing numerically, but almost none grew by reaching lost and unchurched people. Even some of the “faithful” were having serious second thoughts. Our stuff didn’t seem to be working in their own lives. No wonder they lacked heart for spreading it to the unsaved.

Secularism had us trusting in human resources, money, education, social status, advertising and so on, rather than in God to bring “results.”

To complicate matters, the church was in conflict over race, over the Holy Spirit, even over versions of the Bible. Gentle and good people were being “written up” right and left. Old friends were polarizing against each other. Not a bright hour! People kept on attending church, but they also kept on dying. Was it wrong to call that denominational? Oh, yes, those were nervous times for the Church of Christ.

Then, (as now), I often found myself in a dilemma. How do we encourage people to hang in with the church, without losing our credibility with those who clearly see its shortcomings? When is integrity stretched too thin? Or, more personally, how do I hang in myself?

WHAT STAYED THE SAME

Well, a lot of water has run under the bridge since the ‘70s. We have passed through a decade and a half of relative calm. Recently, however, we seem to be drifting into another gnarly, polarizing mood. Normally stable people are painting one another with a broad brush again, picking lines out of context again, fueling the same kind of panic in turbulent times. Like two decades ago, sin and Satan continue a relentless barrage against all that is authentically of God. Human nature is always human nature. And, today, as in the early ‘70s, we face the ongoing threat of institutional rigor mortis. In the ‘90s, like the ‘70s, divine reality often gets shoved to the margins by secular thinking. We are tempted to marry the spirit of narcissism that drives today’s culture and drift into a secularized religiosity.

WHAT CHANGED

Some of today’s issues, on the other hand, differ sharply from those of the ‘70s. Just a few examples: then we debated over the Holy Spirit. We were just discovering (or was it rediscovering?) the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit at the same time a new charismatic movement sent shock waves across all denominational lines. Our fellowship really got spooked when one of our “golden boys,” Pat Boone, “defected” from us to the charismatic movement. Calm discussion of the Holy Spirit was rare in those days. Now, calm discussion is rare over things like styles of worship and the role of women in the church.

Then, we may have been too sectarian, arbitrary, arrogant.

Now, we may not value theological soundness highly enough.

Then, we had a clear message and mission (albeit sometimes sectarian and legalistic).

Now, we are in the process of rethinking our core message and redefining our target.

People often ask, “Lynn, would you still describe today’s Church of Christ as a big, sick denomination?” Yes and no. Denominational mindsets still dog us today, but some take a new spin. For example: Some “neo-conservatives” among us have, for the most part, long since conceded that the Church of Christ is a denomination. Yet, paradoxically, they are now the self-appointed protectors of “our heritage,” in spite of the fact that much of what some want protected is not really typical of our heritage and tradition. While we could definitely use more respect for our heritage and tradition, what some seem to want preserved are not really traditions of our American restoration heritage, nor from the Bible, but rather from classical Christianity of later centuries and ancient Christian tradition.

WHAT DO I HEAR YOU SAYING?

Do I think the church spoken of in the Bible is a denomination? No! Of course not. But it was big. And, in many situations it was sick. Do I consider “our brotherhood” (non-instrumental Churches of Christ) a denomination? Yes. But, not always “sick.” In fact, I feel a fresh spirit of reformation, and new Restoration Movement afoot these days, which floods us with hope.

Well, do you embrace denominationalism? No. Oh no. I embrace Jesus. And brothers and sisters in Jesus scattered throughout most denominations. And I embrace my local church which, even with its many imperfections, is a local expression of the body of Christ. But, I understand that having one’s name on the computer printout is not necessarily the same as having it written in the “Lamb’s Book of Life.”

Nevertheless, I believe restoration is alive and well. And I believe it is headed around the turn into better days. It is thriving in and out of Churches of Christ. Restoration is a passion of all who are part of the real church of Jesus Christ, made up of all men and women in covenant relationship with God, through their faith response to the gospel.

We may not all see things exactly alike, but we do all want the same thing! I often hear cries these days that sound like “back to the Bible,” “restoration of the core essence of New Testament Christianity” and “unity in Christ upon the basis of Scripture and Spirit.” The cry comes from many quarters: Community churches, Bible churches, World Congress on Evangelism, Promise Keepers, Precepts, and Bible Study Fellowship, to name a few. Plus, of course, in seminars and lectureships and journals among Churches of Christ. I celebrate this trend with a full heart.

WHERE TO FROM HERE

In spite of our current “spasms” among the Churches of Christ, we are becoming a kinder, gentler fellowship and, at the same time, a fellowship more passionate about things that really matter. Things like:

    1. Picking up the Cross: May the long shadow of the cross fall over all of us, not only as a symbol of hope for lost sinners, but also symbolizing an attitude of heart, a lifestyle of costly discipleship.

 

  • Returning to our knees: When the watching world will say of the Churches of Christ, “Those are the people who pray.”

 

 

  • Worship renewal: When our awakening encounter with the Holy One overflows into authentic and meaningful worship. Worship renewal could revitalize us, if indeed it really is worship renewal and not merely cloning new formats or tinkering with technology and contemporary music.

 

 

  • Compassion and justice for the poor. When “justice rolls down like water and righteousness as a mighty stream,” evangelism can flow naturally and credibly.

 
The good news is that we see these things already happening! For example, in the congregation where I worship, as in many across the country, we see a growing army of singles and young married couples more focused about their faith than many in the parents’ generation. My own children put me to shame! This generation really cares. They are creating accountability groups, Bible study groups. Many of them tithe 10% off the top of their earnings before they write any other checks! They go into marriage with far more preparation and maturity than their parents’ generation. They minister among the poor in the inner city. They are leading their peers to Christ. Many are simplifying their lives to free up time for relationships, reflection, and ministry—and to free up money for ministry. This generation takes worship seriously and will not tolerate careless preparation and ho-hum leadership. And do they pray!

Well, brother Lemmons, I guess we are still not that “big.” But we are less “sick” and becoming once again less “denominational.” I love my heritage, warts and all. I have no plans to leave it unless the day should come that it should hinder me in being faithful to God and in extending fellowship to all of God’s children. And I don’t expect that.

The editors of Wineskins asked me, “What would you say to today’s church, two decades after the infamous “Big, Sick, Denomination sermon?” Frankly, for the most part, I would recommend the same course I did in 1973. I have a file stuffed with letters of appreciation and assuring me that those 1973 suggestions helped many people hang in with their faith and with this fellowship.

So, what I said then, I repeat now with more confidence.

Here are some of your options. I guess at one point or another I have considered them all.

Option One: Leave the Church of Christ for a fellowship that seems to be more authentic and biblical. I respect the journey of those who have honestly felt they must exercise this option. But so far I haven’t done that and don’t plan to.

First, I don’t want to give up on our mission. Even though decades of drift have nearly buried our dream, at least we still pay lip service to the idea of trying to recapture the essence of authentic New Testament Christianity. And I’d probably find at least as many doctrinal problems with any other fellowship I’ve seen.

Second, every group has its own ecclesiastical quirks and people problems. At least I know my way around some of ours.

Third, a new fellowship would hold no “memories” for me. My sense of continuity runs deep through our heritage, from my parents to my grandchildren.

Option Two: Grow bitter. Mount a platform and publicly rage against our faults. Raging only contributes to more resentment and polarization. Not an option!

Option Three: Retreat from organized religion. Find some kindred spirits in search of freedom and vitality and form a house church.

Problems? First, this approach often exhibits gross self-righteousness. “Me and the other people who are sincere and honest like me!” Also, this would discourage the many in our fellowship who are hungering and searching. It would leave them with even less hope. Besides, a house church can easily become a mere gaggle of malcontents, defectors from a dozen congregations, who have had difficulty getting along anywhere.

Option Four: Give up and go to the devil. I have considered simply quitting all together. Find a good job, make money, watch the grass grow, and exist! Likely that temptation has flitted across the minds of most Christians at some time or other. But, for me, that road might literally lead to suicide.

Option Five: Retreat to the wilderness. I have considered moving back to the mountains of British Columbia and building a little back-country cabin, by a clear stream, away from telephones. Live off the land and stay away from people! Just read good books and feel religious. Sounds wonderful, right? But it is terribly cowardly. Plus, Jesus didn’t call us to escape. He said to pick up a cross and follow.

HERE I STAND

Option Six (This is the option I have chosen, though I follow it only feebly at times). Stay a course of integrity and suffering love. No, it’s not what my flesh wants. But, in the name of God and in the name of reality, for me there really is no other option. I had wanted to believe that somewhere I could find a happy, agreeable group of people—never any conflicts, weaknesses, warts. I would simply love being their shepherd, and they would love their pastor. And we would serenely grow old and go to heaven together. But such is a utopian dream. The first imperfection would be me! Reality never quite fits, never completely works, and doesn’t get totally well. There is no place to run and no place to hide, except in the shadow of the Almighty. The only real option is to stay right where God has put us.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we just sit on the pews and watch paint dry, without ever pushing for improvement, changes, dreams or authenticity.

In choosing to stay, I have not resigned myself to merely accept the status quo. Never. I want to stay and fight! No, not angrily. Not with bullying weapons to sort out people and line them up to “my agenda.” I am talking about the kind of fight that can only be waged with one weapon: the love of Jesus Christ, shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us. Stay and fight lovingly, with an open Bible and an open heart. Allegiance to the Bible? Yes, But to the Bible, not to Church of Christ tradition. Just let the Bible say what it says, whether it sounds right to the people or not. And yet, care and love and smile as we say it, all the while seeking the fruit of the Spirit, through a life that authenticates the message.

However, a warning here. This is not a flower-strewn path. When you get forthright with the Bible, some brothers and sisters may brand you a legalist: “You and your paper pope.” If so, do you turn and slap them? Or do you simply go ahead and love them and reach for relationship with them and keep reading out what the Bible says?

Still other brothers and sisters may say, “You’re a liberal. That’s not the way we’ve always read it out!” (Sometimes the Bible does sound liberal, when it explodes my narrow and tightly held, but merely human, ideas.) Do we lash out at these folks, too? Or write them up? Or do we turn to them, reach out for relationship with them, and keep on reading the sacred page?

Yes! Sometimes people who label you legalist or liberal have been lifelong friends, yet they may turn their backs on you, even misrepresent you. And that really hurts. But Jesus said, “I have come to bring fire on the earth….Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:49, 51).

But “hurting time” must never become “whining time.” “Look! Try to do what is right and you bleed.” We bleed best and most helpfully when no one knows we are hurting. There is nothing more pathetic than a whimpering prophet. One day he has enough courage to be honest, but the next day, he pouts because someone is cutting on him “just for trying to be honest.”

And, yes, it is not easy to absorb the hostility, to stay and fight lovingly with the Bible open, to fight for the right of all to read the Bible for themselves, not demanding that they understand it the same way you do. But I believe what the body of Christ needs now is what it always needs in time of tension and turmoil: models of gracious, suffering love. This is a tough challenge. I wish I could recommend another easier option. But I know of none. “Follow me,” Jesus said.

Twenty-two years have passed since 1973, and today I love the Restoration movement and the church and the Bible and the Lord more than ever. And, more than ever, I am convinced that the only pathway to hope for church leaders is the way of suffering love. And, more than ever, I can see that we must trust Him with the outcome. Look yonder. Light on the horizon!Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Anderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 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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