by Phil Sanders, BNc Advisory Board member
Recently the Tennessean, a newspaper in Nashville, Tenn., ran an article entitled, “Churches of Christ drop isolationist view, work with other faiths.” The author, Bob Smietana, featured the changes taking place at Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tenn.
Smietana interviewed associate minister Doug Sanders, who repeated a number of progressive charges made against mainstream churches of Christ.
“In the Church of Christ, we had all the answers. And if we had the answers, that meant everyone else didn’t. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it, but that’s the way it was,” Sanders said.
Sanders noted that Otter Creek had taken a more progressive approach to Christianity and had left the “traditional” beliefs and practices of the Church of Christ. Otter Creek uses instruments in worship on Sunday evenings and through the week. They also hold “a vespers service on Wednesday night, with chanting and a liturgical Communion service.” Otter Creek is also well known for offering line dancing classes to the community.
Otter Creek, like Woodmont Hills in Nashville and Richland Hills near Ft. Worth, Tex., has moved seriously away from the practices of most of the churches in Nashville. They fellowship as members people who were not immersed as adults and cooperate with other religious groups in charitable efforts.
Glenn Carson of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society suggests that congregations like Otter Creek are creating a fourth stream of the Restoration movement, “distinct from Churches of Christ and other groups.”
Lee Camp of Lipscomb University feared this group would become “become plain vanilla evangelicals.”
Dan Chambers of Concord Rd. Church of Christ in Brentwood said he felt they had basically surrendered “the whole Restoration idea.”
Rubel Shelly, president of Rochester College in Michigan, says Churches of Christ will have to adapt in the future or lose their effectiveness.
“The notion that people in the 21st century are going to find their identity in a particular denomination is getting and more unlikely,” Shelly said. “If we ever had the luxury of being divided at every nuance of belief, we are losing it in this culture.”
Shelly, Sanders and others in the progressive movement have jumped ship for the culture of our time. They accused churches of Christ of thinking they had it all right. This is a misunderstanding. The question among churches of Christ is not so much who is right but rather what is right.
Christians have no right to progress beyond the words of Christ or to participate with those who do go beyond them (2 John 9). Jesus defined true disciples as those who “abide” in his words (John 8:31-32).
If we allow culture to dictate our faith and practice, then we have replaced Christ as Lord with our culture.
While Paul sought to identify with the cultures in which he lived (1 Cor. 9:19-23), he kept his focus on standing in the apostolic traditions which he received (1 Cor. 11:1; 15:1-3). Whether among pagans or Jews, Paul understood that he was under the law of Christ. Even though removed a generation out of Palestine and called to a fleshly and pagan culture at Corinth, he did not create a “reimagined” faith for a new generation. He held to what he received (Col. 2:6-8).
Most churches of Christ reject the Pharisaical practice of making laws not found in Scripture (Matt. 15:1-14); they also reject the practice of abandoning the Scripture to follow human religions shaped by culture.
Over a century ago, those who followed the course of the Disciples of Christ were sure the churches of Christ would soon vanish because they did not “keep up with the times.” They were sure the churches of Christ would lose their young people if they did not start using instruments of music in worship.
But the critics were wrong.
From 1906 to 2006 churches of Christ grew nearly eight times larger and have large numbers of young adults. According to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey taken in 2008, churches of Christ have more young adults aged 18-29 than any major religious group in America (22 percent). They didn’t leave but valued simple, New Testament Christianity.
Meanwhile, I’m seeing many of the progressive, fourth-wave congregations flourish for a time and then seriously decline when people realize they have nothing distinctive to offer.
People still want conviction, and young people appreciate a distinctive identity. While mainstream churches of Christ retain most of their young adults (67 percent), the progressive, fourth-wave churches lose more than 60 percent of their children. Most of these children go into community churches.
Whether doctrinally or practically, it is best to hold fast to the divine traditions (1Cor. 11:2).
Phil is minister and associate speaker on In Search of the Lord’s Way, a nationally broadcast television ministry under the oversight of the Edmond, Okla., church.