Let me begin by saying I love the Church. As a minister I have had a front-row seat to see the Bride of Christ in action. I have sat as a witness to God’s people mourning with those who mourn and rejoicing with those who rejoice. I have seen the hungry fed, the homeless sheltered, the hurting comforted, the repentant restored, and most importantly, the lost saved. This is not to say I haven’t seen the ugly side of overly zealous religionists, but in my experience, the good has outweighed the bad.
I also must say I love the Restoration Movement. I love the principles upon which she was founded. I love the thought of ‘restoring’ the Church to that which God intended her to be. The ‘Movement’ runs deep in my veins. My family’s roots run at least four generations deep into it’s history. Both sides of my family boast preachers, elders, deacons, church planters, Sunday School teachers and missionaries. Even the congregation I serve is one of the oldest in our movement (depending on which local legend you accept either Campbell or Stone preached there and played an essential role in bringing Cool Spring Christian Church into the Restoration family). This is not to boast, this is just to say I have a vested interest in the subject that I am about to broach, a subject that may raise more questions than it answers.
Over the last several months I have read a fair share of articles questioning the relevance of our Movement. Granted, most of them are written by bloggers who are taking advantage of the technology available to them to voice their opinions. Some are unsubstantial, others raise some very good points and ask some very hard questions, all point to a huge problem: we are failing to reach young adults with the voice of our movement. Why is this?
Newer Churches Are Distancing Themselves from Our History
I have several friends and family who are involved in ‘new’ churches and church-planting. While I must admit that most of them are doing some exciting things in reaching unchurched people with the story of Jesus, and I love the fact that they are using their freedom from established traditions to use some unique methods in demonstrating the Gospel in their local communities, there is a disturbing trend among them all: they don’t have any teaching on their Restoration heritage. This not to say that they don’t have sound doctrine, nor is it to say that they are ineffective in reaching the lost or making disciples. What it does point to is that these churches, which are very effective at reaching the 40 and under crowd, are producing members of our Movement who may or may not even know that our Movement exists.
Our Movement is No Longer Distinguishable from other Denominations
I know, I know… eyebrows are arching and blood pressures are spiking, and the old arguments are beginning to escape from the lips of the faithful:
“We have no central governing body like denominations.”
“We have no man-made creeds like denominations.”
“We don’t follow non-Biblical traditions like some denominations.”
To this I would say that while we have no central governing body, the NACC often serves the purpose of one (what else would you call a group of leaders coming together to discuss matters pertaining to their organization?) And whether we admit or not, our movement is rife with creeds. ‘We are not the only Christians, but we are Christians only’ has served as a creed for centuries, as has the shibboleth ‘in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, charity; in all things, liberty.’ Even the battle cry of the Restoration Movement, ‘no creed but Christ!’ has served as a creed, or central teaching, within our movement since the times of Stone and Campbell. As for non-Biblical traditions, while we may not hold them as equals with the Scriptures like those in the Orthodox denominations, and while they differ from congregation to congregation, we cherish them nonetheless (just ask any leader who has tried to lead a church through the transition from hymns to praise choruses, or from one building to another.)
The fact is, while we may not see ourselves as a denomination, those unfamiliar or outside of our movement perceive us as one. While this may show ignorance on their part, it should also serve as a clarion call for us to once again distinguish ourselves as ‘different’ and ‘set apart’ and most importantly, as relevant.
We Are no longer Perceived As a Movement for Unity
Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, independent from each other, sought to restore the unity of God’s Church. This was in response to Jesus’ plea in John 17. Unfortunately, we are no longer recognized as a force for unity. Rather we are known for one thing we are for (baptism) and a plethora of things we are against (Calvinism, Catholicism, Pelagianism and denominationalism, to name a few.) No longer are we the group who was considered scandalous because they dared to practice ‘open communion’ and allowed any who considered themselves ‘Christian’ to partake, regardless of denominational background. Today, a marked legalism and exclusiveness have become the fingerprint of our movement. This has lead to ‘denomination-bashing’ from many a pulpit and a pharisaic pride in our ability to ‘get it right’ in areas of doctrine and Biblical interpretation. In short, we have lost our focus, and as a movement we are flailing about aimlessly, sometimes fighting with each other through blogs and periodicals. This, most definitely, is not the picture Campbell and Stone had in mind when they began our Movement. It is this divisive nature that is alienating many from our cause and driving others from our ranks.
So what are we to do? If we truly care for the Restoration Movement and her original purpose of restoring and unifying the Church we cannot merely stand by and watch as she becomes mired in a swamp of irrelevance and legalism. But how? What is needed, and is it too late?
A Good, Healthy Dialogue
One of the characteristics of the beginning of our movement is that it was founded in the golden age of debate. Campbell made a name for himself as a debater, and our movement flourished. Why? Because ideas were put forth, discussed, tested, compared, exchanged and adopted or rejected. In an age where we can exchange information faster, and more broadly than ever before we should see an exchange of ideas like never before. While this is true in many areas, within our Movement it is exceedingly rare. Usually we read one-sided articles. If we agree with them we file them away, if we disagree, we trash them. If we really disagree we might zip off a tersely worded letter to the editor or author. But there is no exchange. There is no dialogue. There is no debate.
Why is this needed? After all isn’t a debate bad? Not at all! At the beginning of this article I said it might generate more questions than answers. But that is not necessarily a bad thing! When we can have an intelligent, respectful exchange of ideas (and questions) it forces us to grow. We are forced to not only examine what we believe and why we believe it, but we are also forced to examine and test the ideas of others. We are stretched mentally and spiritually. Yet, in too many cases those who have concerns in our movement are shouted down or branded as a ‘liberal’. Within our movement we need to discuss why we exist, what God desires from us, and whether or not we are living up to either standard. These discussions and exchanges may become heated, but it is within that heat that a unity is forged as we search for common ground.
We also need to be willing to exchange ideas with leaders of the denominations represented in our community. If we are to seek unity, then it is we who must initiate the dialogue. How else will they see the values of our Movement if we do not share those values with them?
A Dose of Humility
As a young Bible College graduate I was convinced I had all the answers, and my attitude reflected that conviction. I was quick to judge others, sometimes based on nothing more than their denominational affiliation. As I have grown in my walk, I have learned that people must be, and deserve to be regarded as individuals with individual beliefs that are unique to them. In our movement there is a strong segment that is often labeled by younger ministers as ‘legalists’. My generation often looks at this segment with skepticism because in their zeal for perfect doctrine, they have built themselves altars of pride that mimic the Pharisees who knew the law, but not the Spirit behind the law.
But the ‘legalist’ segment is not the only segment that needs to eat some humble pie. As younger ministers strive to achieve unity and show love to the lost, they at times have been just as guilty of pride as they look at the legalists and say the prayer of the Pharisee, ‘Thank you Lord for not making me like them.’ The result can be a church that is strong on love and acceptance but weak on doctrine.
If the Movement is to be restored, we must strike a balance. In order to accomplish this, both sides need to acknowledge the strengths of the other and the weaknesses of their own approaches. We cannot sacrifice Truth on the altar of unity, nor can we teach the letter of the law of Christ without love for our common man. Rather, as the Scriptures say, we need to ‘teach the truth in love.’
A Focus on Jesus
Campbell believed that unity could be achieved through solid Biblical interpretation. However, if we are to achieve unity we must take it a step farther. Why? Because many denominations think their interpretation is correct and sound. To overcome this we must focus not on the written Word, but on the living Word; namely Jesus Christ. It is Christ who taught us how to make disciples. It is Christ who gave us the example of viewing others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:1-11). It is Christ who pleaded for unity in the Garden and that unity would be based in the fact that we are one with Jesus just as Jesus is one with the Father (John 17:20-26) and that oneness is rooted in a Christ-like love. If we are to survive as a Movement, if we are to be restored, then Jesus is our only hope.