Churches of Christ: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century

March 31, 2006

Yesterday: a message for those who aren’t members of churches of Christ. Today: a reality check for the rest of us.

A message to my friends in the churches of Christ:

Nancy Grace is not our problem. She is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Our uncomfortable experience in the national spotlight earlier this week was not an isolated incident that will eventually fade away, allowing things to return to normal. It was only the beginning. Possibly, the beginning of the end of our fellowship of churches.

A few of our leaders have been warning us that this was coming. The world is changing. People don’t know who we are or what we are about. And when they do find out, they aren’t going to like it.

The questions that are being asked by Nancy Grace – and a lot of other questions – are not going to go away:
Why aren’t women allowed to participate in leadership and worship?
Do you think that God is going to put everyone who doesn’t agree with you (or with Christians generally) through eternal torment? Even people who live good lives?
Why are those with gay and lesbian sexual orientations excluded from your churches?
Why are all of you white?
Why don’t the other denominations like you?
You say you love everyone, but I don’t see you doing much to “help” people, other than those who look and act similar to you. Why?
Do you really believe all of those stories in your bible?
Isn’t the bible sexist?
Do you think God cares about global warming?
Do you care about people with AIDS?
What was Jesus really like? Do you even know?

If our effectiveness during the twentieth century was defined by our ability to answer abstract, theological questions, our effectivness during the twenty-first will be defined by our ability to put our theology to work, responding in tangible ways to the larger social and political issues of our day.

If we offer sixty year-old answers to questions like these, expecting that sensible bible-oriented banter will impress people, we will be treated the same way as Rubel Shelly on Wednesday night. And we will ultimately be tossed aside into the margins of our culture, written off as a crazy cult.

The time has come for a serious dialog about the questions that people are asking us, reexamining everything in the light of a fresh understanding of scripture and of the nature of Jesus. We no longer have the luxury of coddling those among us who are determined to keep everything – our teachings, our organizational structures, our practices, our worship and bible class formats – frozen in the 1950s. We no longer have the luxury of sitting around in bible classes and small groups – recirculating the same tired, old discussions and occasionally bemoaning the fact that we don’t get out in the world and do more. We no longer have the luxury of endless whining about how wrong people were in the way they did things fifty years ago, content that simply by disagreeing with the past, we have somehow gotten our own acts together.

People don’t see the love of God in us. They see a bunch of whackos who are despirately clinging to bizarre ideas that have very little to do with the real Jesus. And in some cases, they are right.

The time has come to finally get serious about discipleship and begin moving into the world to demonstrate the love of Jesus not only for those that we deem worthy of it, but for everyone: every race, every gender, every income bracket, every tongue, every tribe, every nation. In short: during the next fifty years, we must either become more like Jesus or fade into history.

Welcome, my friends, to the twenty-first century.

(Note: I won’t be posting or commenting late Friday or Saturday.)

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Churches of Christ: A Quick Primer

March 30, 2006

I know that some of you are not members of churches of Christ. And I’m guessing that, in light of the recent events surrounding the murder of Matthew Winkler and his wife’s apparent confession to the killing, you are probably a little curious about what we are all about.

I haven’t had a chance to watch any of the Nancy Grace shows involving the churches of Christ, but there have apparently been some accusations that Churches of Christ are a “cult”, and that this murder was somehow cult-related because Matthew Winkler was a minister in the churches of Christ.

Here, in short order, are the facts that I think are most important for you to know about churches of Christ:

1. Churches of Christ are not “cults”, at least not in the popular sense of that word. We do not kidnap and brainwash people. We do not encourage killing. To the contrary, as is the case in all Christian faiths of which I am aware, murder is considered to be a sin. A murder of this nature is virtually unheard of within our fellowship of churches.

2. We are a part of the American restoration movement, a movement that calls people to be “just Christians”, rather than identifying themselves with a particular denomination. Arguably, over time, we ultimately became – in effect – a denomination of our own. However, to this day, all of our churches function independently of each other.

3. During our brief history, we have developed a few practices that make us distinctive from other Christian faiths. Among those practices are: (1) immersion baptism “for the forgiveness of sins”, (2) the exclusive use of singing without instrumental accompaniment during worship, and (3) a weekly eucharist, which we usually call “the Lord’s supper.” Also, women have not traditionally been permitted to participate in leadership roles.

4. Unfortunately, during the mid-twentieth century, most of our leaders became very dogmatic about these distinctive issues, insisting that only those who follow such practices are going to heaven. There were many reasons for this, which I won’t go into here – but this is an admittedly sad part of our heritage.

5. Because of the somewhat voiciferous and dogmatic voices that dominated our fellowship during the mid twentieth century, we managed to alienate most other denominations and their leaders. We kept to ourselves, and told other believers that they were going to hell. It was probably during this time that people began to think of us as a cult. Wikipedia does a good job of describing our traditional, distinctive practices. However, it is a little more thin on the changes that have developed during the last few decades.

6. There are still a few members and leaders that adhere to the teaching that our distnictive practices are necessary for personal salvation. However, many (I might even say “most”) of our leaders and church members have dismissed those ideas as relics of an older age.

7. In fact, a major debate among members of churches of Christ these days is whether some of our distinctive practices – the refusal to use instrumental music in worship being the prime example – should be abandoned. Many of our churches are also reconsidering the role that women should play in our fellowships. Our ability to reconsider and adapt to our understanding of scripture, free from the constraints of formal denominational creeds, is one of the reasons that I continue to be a member of this fellowship of churches.

Of course, our history is much more diverse and rich than what I can describe here. Suffice it to say that, like any other protestant denomination, we have our problems. However, it is not really fair to characterize the churches of Christ as a cult.

If you’re new to this blog or to churches of Christ generally, please feel free to have a look around. You’ll find several discussions here that are important in our fellowship these days. You may also want to read from the blogs of some of our leaders, such as Mike Cope, Wade Hodges, and Phil Ware.

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Deconstructing Glamour

March 29, 2006

I continue to be amazed by the thoughtful writing that can be found on the Relevant Magazine site. This week, Relevant is running a piece by Brett Potter on the way the cross deconstructs glamour. Its a very thought-provoking reflection on vanity, the pursuit of beauty, and the way Jesus ought to change the way we think about celebrity culture.

Here’s a sample:

The cross itself is the ultimate deconstruction of glamour—a complete subversion of the very nature of “beauty.” No one would put a crucified man on the cover of People. Yet the cross, ugly by nature as an instrument of torture and Roman imperial control, develops an unearthly beauty when seen as the symbol of God’s forgiveness and grace. This is a beauty more substantial than the illusory ideal held up by our culture; a beauty that cannot be bought. It is this ultimate reversal, Christ’s victory over the way our world operates, that we need to cling to in an age of gloss and glitz.

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Will Wright on Gaming

March 28, 2006

Will Wright, creator of The Sims and the Sim City series, has just written an incredible essay on gaming, creativity, and play. Here is an excerpt:

Society, however, notices only the negative. Most people on the far side of the generational divide – elders – look at games and see a list of ills (they’re violent, addictive, childish, worthless). Some of these labels may be deserved. But the positive aspects of gaming – creativity, community, self-esteem, problem-solving – are somehow less visible to nongamers.

I think part of this stems from the fact that watching someone play a game is a different experience than actually holding the controller and playing it yourself. Vastly different. Imagine that all you knew about movies was gleaned through observing the audience in a theater – but that you had never watched a film. You would conclude that movies induce lethargy and junk-food binges. That may be true, but you’re missing the big picture.

Wow! He has hit the proverbial nail on the head with that comparison. Also, on the future of gaming, he says this:

Games are evolving to entertain, educate, and engage us individually. These personalized games will reflect who we are and what we enjoy, much as our choice of books and music does now. They will allow us to express ourselves, meet others, and create things that we can only dimly imagine. They will enable us to share and combine these creations, to build vast playgrounds. And more than ever, games will be a visible, external amplification of the human imagination.

I love this vision. Its probably a little more utopian than the way things will actually work out (almost sounds like something Disney would have said), but its refreshing to hear a sensible, positive, thoughtful voice such as this coming from the game development community.

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Soulforce is Here

March 27, 2006

I haven’t been on campus today, but I’ve been following, with great interest, the spirited discussions about the Soulforce arrival at ACU on Mike’s and Greg’s blogs.

I am continually puzzled by the way many of us (yes, sometimes including myself) react differently to homosexuality than to other activities that we consider to be sinful.

Why is that reaction so strong?

I’m not asking about whether it is justified or not, I’m just trying to get at the heart of why it seems to be a “different” issue from, say, marital infidelity, premarital sex, pornography addiction, or even non-sexual sins like greed or gossip.

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Reading Scripture

March 26, 2006

As I have made my way through N.T. Wright’s The Last Word and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, I have become keenly aware that I used to be fooling myself about scripture.

I used to think this: Well, other people say this and that about God, but I don’t listen to what other people say about scripture, I just read the Bible.

How naive. Nobody just reads the Bible. We all come into it with all sorts of expectations and presuppositions. Those expectations end up defining what we find.

The characters in Brown’s book see scripture as a collection of writings that were carefully selected by the counsel of Nicaea to quash a certain (and, in their view, more accurate) view of Jesus. They therefore approach all of scripture with the assumption that it betrays a bias against certain practices/beliefs. And its easy for me to criticize those characters because they have such obviously wrong presuppositions about what happened during the infancy of the Church.

But those of us who are good Churchgoin’ folk are equally guilty. Whether we know it or not, we also hold particular biases, views, and expectations relating to scripture, and all of them are influencing us. The most dangerous thing we can do is to pretend like they don’t exist and that we are just taking scripture for what it says.

And I’m not even sure that people are as unaware of those biases as they pretend. As Wright points out, most of the time, when people say they are just reading scripture, what they are really saying is that they think they have it all figured out (or that someone who taught them scripture in the “old days” had it figured out) and they don’t want to be bothered to reexamine any of their ideas.

These days, I’m coming to respect the voices of others who have devoted their lives to studying, meditating on, and living out the truths of scripture. I no longer see scripture as something that was delivered onto my doorstep for me to experience for the first time. To understand it, I must know something about the entire landscape of the Church’s experience with scripture – from Peter and Paul to modern and postmodern writers and thinkers. Having a map of that landscape helps all of us to identify our biases and presuppositions, and provides us with clues about where our journey may go from here.

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Bride of Stupid Marketing Tricks

March 25, 2006

Here’s another one of my favorites: “You deserve this.”

This one is particularly popular on the cable shopping channels. Translated, it really means: “Its okay to be greedy this one time.”

Can’t afford it? Already in too much debt? Wife/husband going to jump all over you for the money you spend on it?

Blow ’em off! Get in their face! You work hard, too. You put up with a lot of crud. They have nice things. You never splurge on yourself. Now is your time. You deserve this. And don’t let anyone else tell you differently.

This ad strategy can bring out the absolute worst in any of us, especially if it catches us at the right moment. It pits us against our better instincts and the people that are closest to us, inviting us to make a greedy powerplay.

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