Why Do Churches of Christ Have Hope and a Future? - Part 1: A Reawakening to Ancient Faith & Practices Such as Baptism & the Lord's Supper

 

If you have been following the Church of Christ blogosphere, you may have seen the last two posts that I wrote on "Why Churches of Christ are Shrinking:"

Part 1: A Left-Brained Fellowship in a Right-Brained World

Part 2: Failure to Understand that It is an Increasingly Unchurched...

Part 3: A Misplaced Identity and a Failure to Truly Believe in Grace

 

The first post went viral, with 26,500+ views already so far--which is a bit ironic, as I rarely blog on assembly issues--I am the missional outreach guy! But I do think that we have to acknowledge this issue, for it is affecting our mission. Hopefully I have some credibility on this--not just substituting worship for mission--as I am constantly calling the church to go out and make disciples. (The issue addressed in the post goes far beyond just assembly issues, but does consider them.) The second post, which is on thinking like a missionary, is more what I usually address (and the first post comes out of this type of thinking). I am glad to see that the second post is growing too, with 4500 views so far.

 

As I said in the first post, I love our fellowship. I was shaped by it, came to faith in it, and was raised in a Church of Christ family that has Church of Christ roots on both sides going back generations. And despite the challenges that I am addressing in the first series--and they are great challenges--I want to give some hope for the future. First of all, God is always at work, and therefore there is hope. There are incredible, individual stories of people coming to faith that give us great joy. Here is one of those stories that we showed this past Sunday. It is a story of a Christian woman, Kelly Weatherford, who prayed for 13 years for her husband, Charlie, to become a Christian. And after going through the Story of Redemption, he made this decision and was baptized. Kelly tears up as she tells this story--and if it doesn't bring tears to your eyes, well, I will be surprised.

But I want to address some of the positive cultural forces that give hope to our fellowship's future, the first of which is the cultural appeal of ancient faith and practices. Postmoderns are jaded from the recent past and skeptical/pessimistic about the future. In fact, most of postmodern thought, with its disregard for the scientific worldview and reason, can be attributed to the atrocities of the 20th century. In World War I, all of Europe went to war--each ostensibly fighting for God and country. The result? Europe abandoned religion altogether. In World War II, "reasonable" men and women committed terrible atrocities, killing millions of Jews--even using evolution and survival of the fittest--and racism and eugenics--to justify their actions. Knowledge and science did not solve the world's problems. They were used to commit even greater atrocities. The atomic bomb was dropped, killing hundreds of thousands. 

 

Then, in US history, the 1970s was filled with scandal. Not only was there bad hair, bad clothes, and generally bad music (Led Zepplin not withstanding). There was bad politics, with the impeachment of a  president, and, in the minds of many, a bad war. This eroded public trust in the government, a trust which has yet to be regained, breeding skepticism and cynicism. (This still comes out in Baby Boomer films about the CIA.)

 

Then, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s there was AIDS. Perpetual war and political scandal. Jimmy Baker. The sexual abuse of children. Virtually every institution was looked upon with disdain. Then, there was 9/11, which ripped apart our feeling of security, and caused many to question all religion, as this attack was committed by religious extremists. Many point towards this event as helping to further increase the rise of the "New Atheism."

 

Gen Xers (of which I am one) grew up in this world, and our generation is very much tied to postmodernism. We never have expected to have Social Security or Medicare, knowing that the Boomers dwarfed us and that the math did not add up. We were the most aborted generation ever, and there just were not enough of us to ever really have a voice. Our generation paid for the "liberation" of the 1960s, as our parents one after another decided to get divorced when they hit mid-life. That is a primary reason why so many of us waited so long to get married (not my wife and I, but our generation), because there was a fear that we would end up divorced too, like our parents (not my parents, but our generation's parents). And recently, the Great Recession has not only caused many to lose their jobs. It has also caused the Milennials to face the prospect of maybe never getting a job that can pay off their school loans.

 

All of this makes younger generations very skeptical of the future. They don't believe that they will have it as good as their parents. Just look at all of the Apocalpytic films out there. They are endless. We are all going to die from global warming, or robots taking over the earth (Terminator, Matrix), or nuclear war (The Day After), or disease (Outbreak, I Am Legend, The Stand), or aliens (V, Independence Day, Alien, Disctrict 9), or Mayan prophecies (2012). In Nicholas Cage's movie, Knowing, the cryptic sign that is finally deciphered is "ee"--which stands for, "everybody dies." And literally, everybody does die on the earth, except for two children, who become a type of new Adam and Eve, in a Noahic type story, where no one else on earth is worth saving.

 

So if the recent past stinks and the future is hopeless, what does that leave? Hopelessness and despair, which is where a lot of people are. But, in cultural terms, it does leave the ancient past. 

 

Why are people interested in the ancient past? Partly, there is a counter-cultural appeal to a simpler time. There is also the idea that anything that has stood the test of time is worth holding on to. (This is probably one of the reasons why there are now more adult conversions to Catholicism than probably anytime in recent memory, despite all of the bad press--it has been around a long time and has a lot of long standing practices.)

 

So today there is quite a bit of interest in ancient, time-tested beliefs and practices. One church ministry series is called "Ancient-Future," with the idea that the ancient path is the path for the future. Does that sound familiar? Our call to "ancient" Christianity, to the early church, has some cultural appeal. Not our recent history, which includes a mix of good and bad (like church splits). But the ancient church.

 

And with this interest in early Christianity and ancient practices comes also an interest in some of our most precious practices, such as baptism and the Lord's Supper. Just watch/listen to the discussion above of prominent church leaders like Matt Chandler talk about baptism--that maybe we should baptize like is found in the book of Acts on Pentecost, the Philippian jailor, the Etheopian Eunuch. Clearly, they are wrestling with this. Many fellowships and individual churches are now baptizing with a very biblical view of baptism.

 

Furthermore, Lord's Supper was not very highly valued in many Boomer-driven churches. The Boomers were sick of anything overtly religious, and so these churches were stripped of religious symbols and many practices and made to look like corporate America. The Lord's Supper simply took too long and was too religious. (I never got the argument that taking it too often would demean its value. Certainly, no one ever argued that about the weekly contribution! :) Now, however, with the stripping of spirituality from the public square, there is a real hunger for the overtly spiritual, particularly those practices that are ancient and filled with meaning. This includes baptism, the Lord's Supper, prayer and fasting, and other spiritual disciplines.

 

So, we would be foolish to abandon these practices. Not only are they biblical and meaningful, but the larger religious world and culture is awakening to their power and meaning. And our fellowship has something to offer on these practices to this world. And if we use the Restoration plea to focus upon these types of practices--not primarily structure or organization--spiritual practices, then we may find that we have a real audience. What was the faith like of the early Christians? What was their prayer life like? What did they think about baptism and how did they practice it? Why and how did they fast? What did they do as they took the Lord's Supper, and why did they take it? How did they share their faith and why did they share it? These are questions which people today may find to be significant to their lives. And we have some great things to share on these questions.

 

We would therefore do well to talk a lot about ancient faith and practices. I find that whenever I use examples from early church history about faith and practice, there is huge interest. Even quotes from Origen and Eusebius--if it is about these things (not much interest in church structure, for instance, but huge interest in faith and practice). Check out this short video by world renowned Christian author and speaker Francis Chan, who questions the sinner's prayer and endorses baptism by going back to the Bible and asking, if all you had was the Bible, what would you believe? Pretty amazing. Of course, his example of reading the Bible on an island still falls into an individualistic worldview, and Scripture should ideally be read and interpreted in community, but still. This sounds a lot like us!

 

Well, the first blog post definitely went beyond my circle of friends and blog followers--I don't have 26,500 friends!--so I hope that this post shows as well the love that I have for our fellowship and the contributions that we have to offer. And if we do some of the things that are found in the first two posts, we may find a willing audience to hear these wonderful, biblical truths.

 

Do you think that these ancient practices have a greater appeal today? What do you think that God is up to with many fellowships and churches coming to value and understand these practices more?

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Comment by James Nored on February 6, 2013 at 1:17am

Thanks, Linda! I am glad that you found them to be encouraging. I appreciate you sharing!

Comment by Linda Frost Branam on February 5, 2013 at 7:13pm

How refreshing the videos were! And how encouraging to see members of the broader Christian community wrestling with these issues and turning to the biblical accounts for guidance. Thanks for highlighting this trend, James.

Comment by James Nored on February 5, 2013 at 10:30am

Thank you, William. I remember that it was 250,000, but put down millions. I was thinking about the estimated 2 million American lives that some said were saved by this, and just juxtaposed this. I have made the correction.

Comment by William Lloyd Cain on February 5, 2013 at 9:35am

Thank you for such an encouraging post. I am looking forward to Part 2. One added note -- I am a stickler for the facts and it bothered me about your comment that "millions" died from the atomic bombs. While the bombs (and results) are terrible, the numbers are less than "millions." As best as my research can determine, about 250,000 died instantly in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that many or more in later months. Terrible? Yes!! But let's keep our statistics honest lest some skeptic dismiss our message because of faulty numbers (and maybe encourage others to do the same). That, too, would be a bad thing.

Comment by Sandy Detherage on February 5, 2013 at 8:46am

I love Jerry's comment about listening to Jesus resulting in more narrative and less "systematic theology." Our life and our message must be from the heart of Jesus!

Comment by Jerry Starling on February 5, 2013 at 8:40am

The more we value the Scriptures, as opposed to valuing the "settled conclusions" of our forefathers in the faith, the more appeal we will have in the world.

As we listen to Jesus - and His apostles - we will teach more with narrative and less with "systematic theology." While there is a place for the theology, we come to know God mostly by looking at Jesus. "If you have seen me," He said, "you have seen the Father." 

If we model Jesus in our lives, we will have more credibility. Our message of reconciliation must be preceded by our ministry of reconciliation, as Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5 where we receive the ministry before we receive the message.

Do the churches of Christ have anything to offer the world? What we've been offering for the past 100 years is not a good diet. Yet if we get back to our roots, there is much we can offer - but not if we insist on damning everyone else to hell as so many have in our recent (and not so recent) past.

Comment by Sandy Detherage on February 5, 2013 at 7:56am

Great appeal: I believe that many people don't want someone else's expectations imposed on them. They are, however, open to simply following what God wants.

What is God up to: God is just doing what God does,...trying to bring people closer to Him, to reconcile His creation to a close relationship with Him.

I am grateful that God has such unconditional love for us. We are "messed up" on our own, excluding ourselves from His rich and deep love. After Paul explains his own struggle with sin, he says, "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!..." Rom. 7:24-25a (NKJV). I believe that people want to have relationship with this kind of God.

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