Note for the Reader: This post is a continuation of a series that I started here regarding the future of the churches of Christ. Reading that piece will, hopefully, help contextualize what I say here.
I have to be honest before I fully embark on this piece: I have spent more time editing and rewriting this essay than almost any other work I’ve ever undertaken, even as a graduate student. I love the churches of Christ, and I long for this fellowship that I call home to be successful. I take no pleasure in noting her flaws or thinking about the ways in which she may destroy herself, and that’s manifested itself in the fact that I’ve discarded roughly 7500 words total over the course of writing the piece you’re reading right now. At times, I deleted something because I thought it was too harsh or unfair; in other instances, I discarded things that I thought to be unhelpful or vague. Other times, I got rid of something because I could already hear people saying, “Well, that hasn’t been my experience,” or otherwise missing my point because I wasn’t precise in my writing. My point in saying all of this is that I want to be careful, precise, and straightforward in writing this, because I love the church and recognize that if I’m going to critique the church, then I should do it in a way that is fair, honest, and helpful. With all that in mind, there are three broad, but pointed statements I want to make and try to unpack.
1. Should the churches of Christ “fall,” we will be brought down from within. I recognize, of course, that Jesus Christ declared that he would build his church and that Hell’s gates would not prevail against them, which is, amongst other things, a declaration of the impossibility of Jesus’ mission through the church failing. I also recognize, however, that congregations that seemed to be doing very well have been in mortal danger, even in the New Testament. Consider Revelation 2 & 3, which contain Jesus’ words to specific congregations in John’s day. It is easy to imagine ourselves as Smyrna or Philadelphia, faithful, yet suffering congregations, to whom Jesus says, “endure, for I am coming.” I worry, however, that it is far more accurate to see ourselves more in the congregation at Ephesus. The Ephesian congregation seems to be great in Rev 2: 1-3, and I see some parallels with congregations in the churches of Christ today. We pride ourselves on our devotion to Scripture and our testing of every manmade tradition against what God has said. We have little patience for false teachers, and we can arguably show some scars for our faith (though they would, at least in America, generally be light and small things compared to those our brothers and sisters at Ephesus bore). We are certainly a zealous people as well. However, I worry if, like Ephesus, we have left our first love, if we have lost sight of the proper motive for our dedication to Scripture and the way our zeal is supposed to be shaped and directed. Some balk at the notion that the churches of Christ could ever fail, but I wonder if some in Ephesus rejected the warnings they received about removing their lampstand as well.
We have no direct evidence of what happened in Ephesus in response to Jesus’ grave warning, but I know this: if they did not repent as Jesus instructed, then Jesus assuredly did just as he said he would and that should terrify us. If Jesus is willing to take Ephesus’ lampstand, then we have no reason to think that he’s not willing to do the same for churches today that refuse the warnings he gives in Scripture. The churches of Christ as we exist today will not fail because of people outside the church not wanting “hard preaching” or “just wanting to be entertained.” The churches of Christ, if they fail, will do so because we are unwilling to fully submit ourselves to Scripture, instead holding our opinions and preferences as sacrosanct. We will fail because we are unwilling to roll up our sleeves and engage with the world around us, instead demanding that the world meet us on our terms (an absurd request anyway, given the spiritual deadness of those outside of Christ). If we fail, it will be because we forfeited our lampstand by virtue of loving something, anything, more than we love Jesus. Should the churches of Christ end up relegated to footnotes in church history textbooks, it will be our fault and our fault alone.
2. As a rule, you attract the kind of people that you want to be around. Paul declares in 1 Cor. 15:33 that “bad company corrupts good morals.” While this is obviously true, I think a corollary to this statement is also true, that being that the company you keep says something about you, especially with reference to the kind of people you want to be around. James warns us against the sin of partiality explicitly in James 2, and Jesus frequently lived out impartiality by associating with societal outcasts, be it by eating and drinking with them, or by casting them as important figures in his parables. Yet, when we look around in our own assemblies, we may not act on partiality as such, but the makeup of our congregations reveals something about us. Common sense dictates that no one goes out of their way to be around people that they don’t want anything to do with. Granted, overriding factors can adjust how this aphorism plays out, but those factors only verify the principle in real time. Your friends and associates are a reflection of your priorities, your values, and most importantly, what kind of people you think are worth being around.
Think about the makeup of your own congregation and the company you keep religiously. During worship on Sunday morning, are you surrounded by people who look, think, and act just as you do? Do the people filling the pews every Sunday resemble the kind of people in the neighborhoods around the church building? Are people from all walks of life welcome, really and truly? Do we harbor expectations of people cleaning themselves up and meeting our standards (not the Bible’s) before they can show up? We sing “the Gospel is for all,” but I wonder at times if we really believe that. Every Christian, myself included, has to be willing to honestly ask themselves something like the following: “At both a personal and congregational level, what kind of people do I reach out to with the Gospel? What kind of people do I want to worship with? What kind of people would I prefer go somewhere else?” Honestly answering these questions will serve as a useful, and potentially unnerving, diagnostic for where our hearts are at both in evangelism and church life in general.
3. What you win people with is what you win them to. This has been stated numerous times by various people (I’ve seen it attributed to Kevin DeYoung and Kyle Idleman, as well as seeing Bob Hyatt saying it without attribution) and there’s a certain power to it. Paul Washer has made a similar case, noting that if you use carnal means to draw people in, you’ll draw carnal people. Both are true and both unsettle me deeply, but the first has more effect on me. The churches of Christ have historically decried “carnal” lures (entertainment, giveaways, fancy meals, etc.,) but I worry if some have not used altogether more destructive lures and drawn people away to unhealthy and perilous places. What we are called to win people to is obvious, even banal; Jesus and his teaching ought to be what we guide people to, per the Great Commission. The question naturally arises, however, of whether that is what people are being led to. Perhaps the easiest way to diagnose this is to ask a person what their idea of a Christian is, and not just in the sense of what makes a person a New Testament Christian. Ask them not just about key doctrines, but about various expectations and “unspoken rules.” Take note of what gets a person most incensed too, and you’ll be on the right track toward finding what it is that they care about, or more accurately what they were taught to care about. I worry that, if we’re honest, what has happened for so many Christians is not just that they’ve been led and won over to genuine faith in Jesus Christ, but also to an extra-Biblical set of requirements borne out of someone else’s opinions and preferences. In a worst case, it may not just be opinions and preferences they’ve adopted, but also caustic attitudes. Behind the fire-breathing dragon that many Christians resort to being is a preacher or evangelist that blasted them with fire first.
While these may be most applicable to the thinking of hardline and harsh conservative/fundamentalist types, this phenomenon is also applicable to other instances. If we bring our children into the church on the wings of shallow Bible lessons, and we continue to give them shallow lessons even as they grow up and become Christians themselves, we have little reason to be surprised when they become adults who not only know very little of the Bible, but also care very little about it. If we bring people in on flimsy or whimsical preaching, we ought not act hurt and offended when that is what people continue to expect and want. Whether our error has been too far on the side of soft and unfulfilling spirituality or harsh and destructive legalism will vary from one individual or group to another, but this notion is worth bearing in mind. When we urge people to become Christians, what are we calling them to and how are we calling them? While exact methodology can differ in healthy and God-honoring ways, our central aim ought to always be to call people to faith in Christ and living for him, nothing more and certainly nothing less. Anything else is a death warrant slowly signed and laboriously sealed, saving no one and heaping condemnation on ourselves for preaching a false gospel.
These three points, as I see and understand them, cover every substantive threat that the churches of Christ face today, at least in part. If we as a tradition that strives to be the church as God intended are to have success at all in this day and age, we’ll have to seriously contend with these three points in both our personal and congregational efforts. With all of this said, I’m reasonably optimistic about the future. The first piece in this series was somewhat neutral, and this piece was arguably negative, but in the last piece, I want to focus on the positive and talk about why I think the future can be bright for the churches of Christ, if we are willing to put our best foot forward and work. If you’ve made it this far, dear reader, you have my thanks, and this is especially true of my readers in the churches of Christ. I hope that this has been a helpful bit of reading for you and that it will start conversations that lead to the church being the best it can be for the glory of God.
Soli Deo Gloria!