In the last several months there have been several dozen blog posts and articles in coC journals about the decline both of the number of churches and membership. The Christian Chronicle has done a good job of examining the raw data available and raising some relevant questions as to why this trend is real.
I have read letters to the editor, blog posts, and listened to on line sermons, each with some suggestion about how to stop the downward spiral. Most of what I have read only touches upon symptoms and does not address the heart of the problem.
Last night I listened to a message preached by John McCord to his people at the El Campo church of Christ in El Campo, Texas. I invite you to listen to this young man’s sermon. John McCord is one example of a preacher who has decided to no longer facilitate the falsehood of legalistic teaching. This is an example of someone with the courage to bring ethics into the pulpit along with his Bible.
All of the hand wringing and ideas about how to be more relevant, develop better programs, and become more attractive to our communities are all exercises in futility unless the root of the problem is addressed. Shoddy and sometimes even dishonest Bible scholarship is our greatest problem.
The recent uproar about 21st Century Christian not including congregations in their directory that had one or more instrumental service on Sunday highlighted a shocking truth. Today, almost 25% of the members of churches of Christ in the United States attend a congregation which has at least one service on Sunday where singing is accompanied by musical instruments.(I am sure there are others the keepers of the gate to heaven have not discovered yet) This is not the problem. The awful truth is that many of the remaining 75% don’t believe the 25% is going to heaven because they have the dreaded “instrument”. This undeniable fact gets at the root of the decline of the numbers of congregations and members. Many educated, thinking people simply dismiss this sort of nonsense as silly and either move on to some other church of Christ or quietly leave the church tradition of their ancestors.
Why should we expect people to be drawn to or stay in a church that teaches you are in danger of hell fire if you don’t agree with what they teach, and what they teach can’t be supported by the Bible? Almost every member of our churches has a computer at home and within a few clicks of a mouse they can tap into the wisdom of trusted theologians on any given subject and quickly decide if a teaching is Biblical or a myth.
We must devote ourselves to honest interpretation of the scriptures and lay aside the traditions of men if they are not valid. Each of us will do so at great risk but it is worth the effort. Christian discipleship is not for the thin skinned and faint of heart. If you set out to be loyal only to Christ and the word of God you will become the target of zealots whose security is not in Christ but rather in what they do, the system they have endorsed, and the religion they are committed to.
To be what God wants us to be, without regard to the numbers or our critics, we must get back to the basics of the Christian faith. We must become a people of the Word whose lives have the flavor of an authentic, vibrant faith relationship with Jesus Christ. Every area of our lives should reflect our devotion to the Son of God and our unconditional surrender to His will. We must become known as people who love each other unconditionally, who hold each other accountable, who look out for the interests of others, and whose mission on earth is to make Christ known.
True disciples of Jesus are known by how they love. They are not known by how they worship, by what sign is over the door where they worship, or by what their church history is.They are known by loving each other and by loving even their enemies and by so doing loving God.
We must stop pretending we have it all right and everyone else is wrong. We must stop being church centered and become Christ centered. It is high time the Restoration Movement churches are restored to the faith of our fathers without all the trappings of man made religion. It is a life or death matter.