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February 12, 2014

Will Churches of Christ Survive the 21st Century? – Part 3 (Jan-Feb 2002)

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by Randy Harris
January – February, 2002
Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

This material was first presented at the 2000 Pepperdine Lectures. Yet I’ve made some crucial revisions, thanks to helpful insights from scores of people. I am grateful to New Wineskins for affording me the opportunity to make one final contribution to the ongoing discussion of our theological identity and future. This article concludes this three-part series, and I now happily leave this important dialog to others.

I hate to admit how inflexible I can be. The plain fact of the matter is that I have a hard time with change. I crave stability in my life. I am one of those people who doesn’t mind spontaneity as long as it is well planned. So in a world where change is the order of the day I want to have some things of which I can be certain.

In a time when it seems that change is driving the life of the church (in some sense it must as the church adapts to the changing culture in order to reach people) are there any certainties we can hold on to? I think there are two. One may be viewed as bad news but the other is the best of all news! First the bad news.

The future of the church will be marred by sin, pride, diverseness, self-centeredness and other assorted shortcomings. You can count on it. The sooner we give up the delusion of the perfect church the healthier we will be. In these days of television preachers who are scam artists and religion used for political purposes, it is important for integrity’s sake that we do not paint a picture of the church that will prove to be untrue.

Biblical scholarship has surely established that even the earliest churches were far from a perfect realization of God’s ideal. Doctrinal error, moral sin, apathy and immaturity were all part of those earliest communities. Two thousand years of church history have given us more of the same. We often want to point to the Catholic Church of the middle ages as the “fallen” church but any fair assessment of the church at any period from any religious tradition yields the same conclusion: We are poor imitations of the divine model. There is no reason to think this will change.

If you are thinking of abandoning one religious heritage for another, there may be good reasons for doing so. But be forewarned that the group you join will be as vexed by sin as the group you leave, for we are all children of Adam.

The response to this truth must be humility, not complacency. The church is called to holiness and the fulfilling of Christ’s mission, and we must constantly pursue this, for we are not just children of Adam but children of Christ as well. Paul makes it clear that sin in the church is a serious matter that must be addressed, not overlooked. It is past time that we face the fact that we have largely become a low commitment group of people. “Cheap grace” is far too often an apt description of our theology.

Thus we must hold in tension the radical call of the gospel and our inadequate response to that call. It has always been this way and it always will be. Imperfection does not keep us from being God’s church, but refusing to acknowledge our sin may. Churches of Christ as a group are not, in my estimation, spiritually sicker than many other heritages, as some who have become discontent with us would allege. At the same time I see little room for feelings of spiritual superiority for we are far from perfect in doctrine, word or life. Humility and gratitude to God is the most appropriate stance.

The second certainty, however, is the source of our hope (not to be confused with optimism). It is simply this: in the fullness of time God will bring to completion what he has started. It is an absolute certainty that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord!

Church ministry can be frustrating and discouraging. I know it must seem to some that years of work have come to naught. It sometimes seems that the future is very ominous. Perhaps you have felt like the description of Satan’s attack in Revelation applies to your situation: Surrounded and under attack!

“When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves” (Rev. 20:7-9a, NIV). But the conclusion of the passage reassures us that the war is short and oh so sweet! “But the fire came down from heaven and devoured them” (v.9). God’s will cannot be thwarted! God’s people triumph through his power!

God’s kingdom existed long before the appearance of the American Restoration Movement to which Churches of Christ are heirs. And if the worst happens and the particular religious group known as Churches of Christ implodes and disappears the universal church of Christ will remain, for our God reigns!

The question of the future of Churches of Christ is not whether there is a future for God’s kingdom but rather whether we will have a part in it. Will we? I am often asked whether I am optimistic about our future and the answer is no, for optimism depends on people. I am, however, very hopeful—for hope depends on God.

The church has done its share of evil over two thousand years, but I find it remarkable that God has used this totally inadequate instrument to do such amazing things! It has always been his design to bring his people into community with one another as they are brought into fellowship with him. We call this community the church, and it has and will endure due to God’s good pleasure. “The kingdoms of earth pass away one by one but the kingdom of heaven remains!” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Part 1 | Part 2New Wineskins

Randy Harris

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