Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

Hope Network Newsletter: Why Stay? (Jan-Feb 2001)

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by Lynn Anderson
January – February, 2001

After dinner, a circle of friends sipped coffee and listened politely while I unpacked my mission: encouraging leaders among churches of Christ. Then Randall probed pointedly, “Why invest this much energy in the church of Christ? Hasn’t this whole ‘restoration’ idea proven itself a well-intentioned but failed experiment?” Randal is by no means the only person I’ve heard ask a question like this.

I understand the questions. While I feel deep emotional attachment to churches of Christ, still I have at times despaired we could ever have a credible and impacting voice in our world.

However, I have chosen to stay. I must admit that part of the reason I stay is that the Church of Christ is my family, the place of my best memories. But that is not the main reason I have stayed. Nor do I stay because we are “the true church” or “the only Christians.” Nor because we are all there is to “the restoration movement.” I believe a Great Spirit of “Christians only” and “Back to the Bible” is flourishing far outside our diminutive fortress.

Why then do I stay? Partly because I have found no answer to the haunting question, “to whom shall I go?” All denominations and non-denominations have their own viruses. So leaving my heritage would not take me away from problems. Besides, I sort of know my way around our place.

However, the central reason I remain deeply immersed with churches of Christ is this: I believe in our movement. No, I don’t endorse all our Shibboleths. Or ignore our pathologies. But, in its deepest bosom, our movement still holds an immensely worthwhile ideal, a dream worth awakening among all believers. As Brad Small told me today, “The restoration plea is rock solid. When you stand before a group of people and say, ‘we will be bound only by the written word of God, as best we understand it. And in our faltering way we want to imitate Jesus’ ministry,’ people love that. People from every denomination in town come for that because that’s what every believer wants.”

Brad should know. His congregation began in 1995 with thirty-four people. Now average attendance is 900. Of the 600 adults (besides hundreds of children) that make up the church, 400 have been baptized there. In fact, 158 were baptized in 1999 and 2000.

Ah, yes. Despite our foibles, there is still a lot right with us!

True, at times we’ve been locked in a sectarian fortress mentality. Yes, here and there we’ve cultured a crippling strain of legalism. But those do not represent the majority of churches of Christ. And this is not by any means our future.

On the contrary, I believe we are getting back on mission. Back to the Bible. Back to the principles and power of the early church, not merely the patterns. And forward to dialogue and partnership with all who seek to follow Jesus and feed on his word. Forward into the dreams of God.

My work takes me to many places, especially in recent years. And I meet monthly with groups of church leaders across the country (now more than 150 daylong meetings). In conferences I have interacted, at least at some level, with leaders from more than 2,000 congregations in the past five years. My sampling indicates positively to me that despite admitted foibles, flaws and foolishness, there is a lot right with us. A few examples:

Worship renewal
The critical eye may see only cosmetic touch-ups in our attempts to “renew worship.” Sure some “renewal” may be only superficial faddishness shaped by “consumer” appetites. But in my experience, these are exceptions.
The larger worship renewal among churches of Christ is authentic and substantive. Hundreds of congregations are “inviting God back” to the center of the church. I see churches hungry for encounter with the majesty and holiness of the Almighty God of sovereign splendor. I see thoughtful planning going into worship. More use of the Psalms. More biblical preaching. Thoughtful emphasis on Communion. More helpful formats. And more.

Prayer renewal
God is also being invited back into the center of daily life-focus as well. Our well-oiled church programs often produce anemic results at best. But, this is driving us back to God. Only God can change lives and build churches. We are turning to him with less arrogance and more passion.

Two examples: I recently visited a church where Wednesday evenings are authentic “prayer meetings.” At one point, hundreds huddled in circles across the auditorium in prayer. At other moments, people streamed forward to pray with the elders and their wives, or to kneel side by side at prayer benches. Many congregations are moving in similar directions.
And, each group of church leaders with whom I meet monthly spends at least a half hour of every meeting in prayer. Almost everywhere I find Christians praying more than ever in my memory.

Grace message
The biblical grace message is returning to our churches like wild flowers after spring rains. Not that legalism is unique to churches of Christ. Most fellowships are plagued by their own brands of legalism.

Note this: The past decade gave us three key books on grace: Max Lucado’s In the Grip of Grace was prompted in part by legalism in churches of Christ. But Chuck Swindoll’s The Grace Awakening and Phillip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace were prompted by legalism all across Christendom.

Legalism seems to be inherent in human fallenness. So that, while the grace message may well have been proclaimed in many churches our fallen, sinful, religious ears may have been unable – or unwilling – to hear it. Consequently each perceives his or her own heritage as uniquely legalistic. I hear persons of nearly every denomination voice anger at their religious roots!

Having said that, we cannot deny our own brand of legalism. Although we spoke the word of grace, some of us still dutifully tried to work our way to heaven. We beat ourselves up for our chronic failure. And we inflicted huge masses of “un-grace” upon one another.

But for at least two decades now, in most of our congregations, we have heard and internalized God’s marvelous grace. And as we receive more grace, we are extending more grace to others. This grace is also inching us out of sectarian isolation, into honest, humble interaction with the larger Christian community.

Leadership renewal
Some time back, several ministers from churches of Christ spent a day with Lyle Schaller, (respected resource person on church development). We specifically asked him what we “look like from the curb.”

Schaller said, “About your polity. You expect your groups of elders to lead in a visionary way. But groups have never been able to lead. Every major move of God was led by a person.

“On the other hand, your congregational polity does not empower ‘a person’ to lead, even though that person may be gifted and trained in leadership. This frustrates everybody – leaders and elders. And it dooms your churches to grow no larger than a committee of amateurs can manage, part-time! Most church elders have to work 50-70 hours per week in the marketplace. So even if they might have the gifts and the expertise for leadership, and even if it were possible for groups to lead, these men simply do not have the time to build flourishing churches.”

Ouch and Amen!
In our times however, elders in hundreds of churches are moving away from micro-management, permission withholding/granting, and status quo maintaining. They are moving toward building persons through shepherding, mentoring, and equipping. They see that “job one” is building persons rather than running organizations. They see that every Christian is a minister. And they are discovering that when members get equipped for ministry, then each part works properly, and the body builds itself up in love.

What is more, in church after church, elders are empowering a person – with leadership gifts and training – to lead. This frees up elders to shepherd, and frees up the leader to lead. This huge paradigm shift is of infinitely greater strategic significance than tinkering with the look of the assemblies. And churches are finding it both biblical and effective.

Relational ministry
We are re-learning that most life-change happens, not through programs or sermons, or seminars – but through authentic relationships. Most people come to Christ that way, grow spiritually that way, and learn ministry skills better that way.

Redemptive community
We are beginning to “Escape from Church, Inc.” as Glen Wagner would put it, and are returning to real community. Thousands of God-hungry church folks are weary of walking in and then out of large assemblies, without any real connection with brothers and sisters in Christ. They long to be “the body of Christ” again; to experience the church as a family rather than as organization. Growing interest in small groups may be evidence of this hunger. Participants see them as recovery of New Testament koinonia, fellowship of the Spirit. Churches across the land are moving this direction.

Missional churches
From the ’60s through the ’80s, churches of Christ lost much of their sense of mission. Doubtless multiple factors contributed to this: backlash against Crossroads/Boston; inward focus of the boomer era; fighting over internal issues; soul-softening affluence; cultural pluralism; antiquated outreach strategies, which are ineffective in reaching the post-modern mind, to name a few.

However, the ’90s saw a rising passion for evangelism. Again multiple factors contributed: more effective outreach strategies, inspiration from the evangelistic succes in the exploding community church movement, revival of spiritual passion in the church generally. And more. Here are several evidence of this rising sense of evangelistic urgency.

First, a number of our older, and larger churches that had plateaued or begun to decline, have experienced amazing turnarounds. Many churches twenty-five years old and older, are experiencing evangelistic growth far beyond anything from the 1960s through the 1980s. Some that saw few baptisms for decades have experienced as many as 50, 90, even 200 or even more baptisms per year.

Second, we see growing numbers of new church plantings. True, some 80% of new church plantings fail. Some for lack of financing. Some from inadequate leadership. Or ineffective methods. Or because they were born out of protest against the status quo, rather than out of a sense of mission. Possibly the most common cause of failed church plantings is that the core people spend too little time nailing down their plan. Then after the “point of no return” they fall into confict over differing expectations, and the new church either implodes or gridlocks toward slow death.

The good news, however, is that new church plantings are usually much more evangelistically effective than older, more established churches. And not only are we planting more new churches these days, but we are learning the value of thoughtful planning. So I fully expect that success rates will go up – which will in turn spawn more church plantings. Right now many small and not very visible churches, are experiencing wonderful evangelistic success. Some churches of 100 to 300 are baptizing as many as 20, 40, 100 persons a year to Christ, and doing a great job of equipping them for productive ministry.

Most important of all, evangelism is being recognized as much more than merely telling people about Jesus and getting them baptized. It is a process of bringing them to Christ, to maturity in Christ, and to full use of their gifts in the body of Christ. Evangelism is then measured in changed lives and in the growth of healthy churches, not merely the number of baptisms.

Running deeper, not just broader and faster
Possibly the most important trend I see these days is that churches of Christ are running deeper, not just broader and faster. Although missional action appears to be on the rise, at the same time we seem less inclined toward mere activism during some previous eras of evangelistic fervor. Hopefully this is because we are maturing as a movement. As our theology becomes more biblically balanced, we seem to rely less on human machinations and more on the grace of God. I think we are less impressed with the rewards of our own efforts, and more enchanted with God. Rather we seem drawn these days to wisdom figures of quiet depth than to oratory, academics, and accomplishments. We feel less glib in the face of complexity. We are growing more comfortable with ambiguity. And we are learning to stand in wondering awe before mysterium tremendum.

A new generation of leaders
From the start many gifted, well-trained and faithful leaders blessed our movement. But, with all due respect for former generations (after all I am now part of “former generations”), never in our history have we had the number of well-trained God-impassioned, culturally aware, globally thinking preachers serving among our churches. The preachers of this generation pray more and unpack the scriptures more skillfully than did we. Fred Smith of the interdenominational Leadership Network, once said of the Church of Christ ministers he had met, “these guys are some of the brightest and the best.” A few of the “brightest and the best” stand in the limelight pulpits of flagship churches, but a lot more serve effectively in small, out-of-the-way congregations.

Even more encouraging, armies more are on the way. Enrollment of students headed toward ministry is at an all-time high in most of our graduate Bible departments.

However, while the news is mostly good these days, our hope does not lie with emerging leaders. Nor effective elders. Nor effective strategies. But we are confident that our plea is still valid and compelling: just to be Christians, guided only by the written word of God, called to imitate the ministry of Jesus. Our hope is in the hands of “the sovereign God of all Hope,” who is “new every morning” and “works wonders tomorrow.” We are merely tools in the hands of the One who rose above historical trends and cultural circumstances, and promised, “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Anderson

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