Wineskins Archive

December 6, 2013

Outside-in, Inside-out: Growing My Faith by Passing Through the Institutional Church (Aug 2012)

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By Craig Cottongim

In the early 1930’s, between WWI and WWII, my grandmother ventured away from the safety of her people to hear a promise fulfilled. My grandmother lived in Southeast Kentucky. She was from an area nestled deep within the rugged wilderness of the harshest parts of the Appalachian Mountains where muleskinners still blazed trails through the steepest of “hollers,” and people mostly stayed to themselves.

Between the logging-camps and coalmines, my grandmother went out to attend a tent-meeting. The promise promoting the meeting was, “Hear the pure Gospel truth.” Listening to thickly-bearded men with white shirts and gravelly voices proclaiming access to the “one true church” with the simple assurance of salvation through baptism was convincing enough for her; she made the good confession there and then.

As a teenager and a young married mom, my grandmother risked a rift in her family relationships and social circles by breaking rank with her upbringing in the Baptist church. She joined the church of Christ during that tent-meeting. Though her extended family didn’t join her, thankfully she stayed faithful throughout her whole life.

My dad later left that rugged region, in what was described as the largest American exodus, when countless impoverished mountain-folk left the dark and bloody grounds of the Appalachian Mountains to go to the Great Lakes in search of precious jobs. In Chicago, my dad met and married my mom, a lifelong Catholic. After their marriage, our family legend has it they couldn’t agree on which faith to raise their kids in, so they chose to not attend church at all.

So, I had a faithful grandmother, and a handful of stories passed down from my dad about the perfection of the church growing up, but no interaction. I grew up un-churched. In my late teens and early 20’s, my course in life wasn’t too bright, either. After the third time I was arrested for domestic assault and battery against my wife, she filed for divorce.

We were separated for about 6 weeks, but thought we would give “it one more chance.” We also – and this is key – wanted a better life for our two sons at the time. We knew that as parents we didn’t know enough to raise our boys well, so we somehow brainstormed that the church could help us teach our boys all the things we couldn’t.

When the time came for us to find a church, the choice was easy to me. Tammy asked, “Where will we go?” And I said, “My grandmother goes to a church of Christ, and she’s a great lady because of the church!” So we found ourselves in the Naperville church of Christ. A very mainline, institutional church. My grandma, I knew, went to a church where they used the KJV exclusively and kitchens in the building weren’t allowed; so I was a little surprised to see that all churches of Christ didn’t operate that way.

Our time in the Naperville church was awesome. That white-collar church swept us in their arms and loved us – literally loved us into the Kingdom. God moved us to that church, there’s no doubt in my mind.

I remember the first Bible study I had with their preacher at the time, Gary Lambrecht. I told Gary I had no idea if Jesus was a man, an angel or God. Gary handed me a copy of Jim Woodroof’s Between the Rock and a Hard Place and then Gary guided me into a Biblical Worldview.

It was the perfect church at the perfect time for us. We initially went to the Naperville church for our children’s sake, but within three months I was baptized, and within a year of that they had me out preaching in smaller churches in the area … and within about 18-24 months, they sent me off at age 28 to Harding University to really learn how to be a preacher.

Our time in the Naperville church was like a honeymoon. The people there were kind and loving. They taught us the essentials of the faith, it was there I was baptized, I baptized the first person I ever baptized there too, a friend since kindergarten, and there I baptized my wife too. We learned about the Bible and we learned about fellowship there too. It was a truly wonderful experience.

The elders there in Naperville truly shepherded our family too. They invested time and love in us from day one, even until we moved to Searcy. I had several men who stepped up and mentored me hardcore. The women cared for my wife as surrogate mothers. It was an unprecedented time in our family’s life where grew by leaps & bounds.

I truly stood on the shoulders of giants as we left Naperville to live in Searcy. After our time at Harding, I went on to Lincoln Christian Seminary, and there I experienced a paradigm shift of epic proportions. I left Harding thinking that “we were the only ones” going to heaven. I left Lincoln with a wider view of the Kingdom.

A struggle began to tug within me while in grad school. Several sticking points evolved over the course of a few short years. For example, I couldn’t reconcile the stance we had against the use of instruments, by arguing from the silence of the Scriptures. I couldn’t make the 1 Corinthians 13:10 doctrinal perspective fit, the one where I was taught “when the perfect is complete” the gifts of the Spirit ceased, supposedly at the completion of the New Testament.

What didn’t work for me initially was the fact that most of the people I worshiped with didn’t have an ownership of their faith. Let me back up first, initially I saw a few inconsistencies with what we practiced and where we drew our conclusion from. People could recite what the “church” thought, or what their preacher thought, or what their parents believed, but rarely could I find anyone who could really reason-out and outline what they believed and why. We were staunchly opposed to speaking in tongues, and then I read about the Cane Ridge revival. Yet, no one talked about that.

Then, I noticed another rub. Not only were our people hard-pressed to layout why they held their beliefs, when it came time to “change” and adapt, there was a major discontent. Everything seemed to be locked into place. It became apparent that the institution was a self-perpetuating organism. If you attempted to modify the structure, you were pejoratively labeled a change-agent.

And, the hardest part was the judgmental attitude my closest friends had towards those who didn’t subscribe fully to our collective interpretations. The people I loved dearly had an inability to see the validity of “other” tribes. If other people didn’t see eye-to-eye 100% with us, then they were going to hell. This became harder and harder as the years went by.

The more I read the writing of my hero Lynn Anderson, and others like him, and the longer I associated with believers from outside our sect, the harder it was for me to sign-off on the Institutional Church’s stance on doctrinal correctness superseding everything else. Being right, and having the monopoly on truth with a capital “T” seemed to be the vision or mission statement of the people I loved most. The intolerance became, for me, unbearable.

It was hard because I learned so much about God and faith in the mainline Institutional church. I still love many people there and I know they are godly people, but the fact is the world around us has a hard time fitting into the mold of a days-gone-bye atmosphere. When one church I served for seven years let me go, the elders told me I wasn’t a good fit. They were disappointed in me doctrinally on several counts, one being I didn’t champion the brand-name “church of Christ” from the pulpit.

Over the years, I have baptized a little more than 100 people within the Institutional church. Several, many in fact, loved the Lord but eventually became disillusioned with the structure of the Body. I’m not sharing this to be harsh or critical, it merely illustrates the same concept that Tim Woodroof’s book, A Church that Flies highlights: “When you elevate Form over Function, there is a serious problem. Our institutional churches have elevated the way we do things to same level of significance as what we do, and frankly people are rightfully turned off by this.”

The paradox for me is the affiliation of the brotherhood of the institutional church is simultaneously beautiful and poisonously-elitist. The bonds of the ties that bind are so strong, they can’t be ignored, yet the world outside our doors easily ignores us. Again, I am not bitter or angry with the Institutional Church. I had to move forward, personally, and I can’t really go back.

Where we are now: I went from being an outsider, as in I was un-churched, to an insider, as in I was a full fledged member of the mainline Institutional church, to now … I’m an outsider.

I ask myself, what actually makes us different than the Institutional church? To me, it’s mainly our attitude towards adaptation, a looser structure, and outward focused goals that are different. Sure, there are a few other differences too.

We are in a new plant that is for all purposes a church of Christ, but we’ve dropped the name completely. The reason we do not have “church of Christ” attached to anything of ours, such as our website or Facebook page, is due to the negative baggage associated with the name in this region. “Oh, you think you’re the only ones going to heaven…” is a phrase we’ve repeatedly heard, multiple times.

At New Song, we have women offering prayers, reading Scripture, and delivering communion talks. Most everyone wears jeans. We have coffee and donuts and visit for the 10-15 minutes of every single service. We do not have anyone who plays an instrument, but we will play a recorded song to sing along with in the morning assembly, songs that are accompanied by instruments.

We place as much emphasis on fellowship as we do on Study. Our Sunday evening meeting is in a large home where we share a meal every week, and we pray together, and we study topics that in years past were off-limits. We recently went to a unity service with the Independent Christians in our town.

Bottom line, we are reaching people we never could’ve reached before. Without committees or buildings, people are constantly being transformed. People have a sense of the freedom in Christ like what Paul wrote about. And, we authentically experience love and unity. It is refreshing.

Am I still hopeful for the Institutional Church? It is the Body after all, so yes. I hope the great folks I know in the Institutional Church will seek out solutions to the stagnation that accompanies the bureaucracy and committee-laden structures that seem to stifle the growth of the body. I see so many great people who are dedicated in the Institutional Church, but the fallout rate is high too. My hope and prayer is we can build on our heritage and honor our past together by increasing the Kingdom.

One final reflection I feel compelled to share. We’ve learned that Sacred Cows do make great gourmet burgers, after all. For us, everything we do as a church is up for grabs. We’re willing to rethink and study through the doctrines that have separated us through the years. For us, the mission of reaching lost people and being conformed to image of Christ is non-negotiable. Our methods for doing this Christ-centered ministry? Well, it is completely flexible. How have we made this transition? By being vulnerable and transparent with each other, as we all long to be closer to God.

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