Why Stay? The Ugly Answer

December 28, 2007

If members of churches in the restorationist tradition no longer embrace the basic tenats of restorationism, why remain within that tradition?

I posed this question a couple of posts back, and its one that is worth asking.

For those who consider themselves post-restorationists (as I described in my last post), there is some reason to stay. If you think the movement can still go somewhere, but that it needs to change its perspective on certain issues, you should be welcome to stay and engage in conversation about reform.

However, my suspicion is that most of the people who are uncomfortable with restoration principles are more like me – they are ex-restorationists. For us,the basic issue is one of respect. It is one thing to reject a set of beliefs. It is another thing to remain within a tradition that exists to articulate those beliefs after you have done so. Those who wish to remain in the tradition begin to lose their voice and influence when their numbers are watered down by non-adherents.

There is visible evidence of this within my faith tradition. I would say that – among the churches of Christ – there are numerous local churches that are virtually indistinguishable from a typical independent, evangelical “bible church.” Many even use musical instruments and allow women to assume leadership roles, two traditional markers of identity in the churches of Christ. This understandably creates confusion among outsiders about what the churches of Christ stand for, and it is creating increasing frustration among those who want to continue within the restorationist tradition. Such people are not always mean-spirited or judgmental; they even offer well-wishes on anyone who wants to leave. They simply want our churches to maintain their primary identity within the restorationist movement.

If you no longer believe in what this faith tradition stands for, they say, you need to leave – either change your church’s name or attend a church that is outside of the restoration tradition.

So…why do people stay? Three reasons, all of which are difficult for ex-restorationists (such as myself) to admit:

1. Institutional ties. Many of us are tied to “church of Christ” institutions, particularly educational institutions. These institutions require that their employees and board members maintain membership within the churches of Christ. We do not want to break those ties.

2. Relationships. Many of us have (many) strong relationships, both friends and family, within the churches of Christ. In some cases, family members find it important that we continue within this tradition.

3. Absence of reflection. Some of us simply don’t think about these issues. We just keep doing what we have already done, even though we don’t really believe in the central tenats from which our tradition derives its identity.

For the most part, none of us want to be subversive or disrespectful. But the truth of the matter is that certain principles that are very important to some of our members are slowly fading away because our churches are overrun by people who no longer buy into them.

The question, though difficult to face, is well worth considering: is it appropriate for churches whose leaders do not embrace restorationism to use the name Church of Christ? And is it appropriate to remain within such a tradition for non-theologcial reasons (institutional employment, etc.) when you reject its foundational principles?

I don’t have a complete answer to this, but I’ve been reflecting on it quite a bit during the last few days, and the only valid reason I can come up with is this: one might stay within the tradition for purposes of providing transitional ministry to the members of such churches.

Here is the grim reality. The population of our churches is aging and shrinking every year. The churches of Christ, as we currently know them, will very likely not exist within one generation, and I would not be surprised to see major signs of this decline (e.g., significant churches and/or educational institutions closing their doors and/or changing names) within the next decade.

I often remark that anyone who is thinking about going into ministry in the churches of Christ should be prepared to think of their ministry in terms of hospice care. Since ex-restorationists are about neither continuing nor reforming the tradition, they can only see their role as one of providing comfort and hope to those who are saddened to see the end of the tradition and by helping those who need to move on from these churches (whether by necessity or by desire) to find more vibrant and time-tested spiritual and theological traditions.

Children’s and youth ministers are the most critical. The emerging generations that are moving through our churches today may be lucky to find any vibrant Christian community in an increasingly post-Chrisitan culture, much less one within the restoration tradition. It is important that they learn to have a generous orthodoxy, and that they come to know, respect and accept different belief systems and practices within the Christian tradition. Adaptability – both in theology and praxis – strikes me as the key.

This post is already waaaay too lengthy, so let me stop and summarize: the reality of the situation is that most of the younger generations don’t “buy in” to the restoration tradition. For that reason, it is unlikely that restoration traditions will continue to exist within the lifetimes of our children. Ex-restorationists need to be honest with ourselves and others (particularly, with our churches and with the church-related institutions to which we are tied) about this situation, and we should either transition ourselves into other traditions or at least come to think of ourselves as ministers who exist to assist others in transition.

I know from some of the comments to prior posts that this is an issue that many of you are thinking about, so I’m eager to hear what you have to say.


Ex-, not Post- Restorationist

December 27, 2007

I pause briefly between posts on restorationism to clarify a point that might be important to a few readers.

I consider myself an ex-restorationist, not a post-restorationist. The difference is between that of someone who decides to abandon a particular path, opting instead to return to the main road, and someone who thinks its important to continue from the current path, albeit in a slightly different direction.

I don’t think there is much of anywhere to “go” from here. I think that we have reached, theologically, a dead end, even though the road may have seemed promising at the beginning. For that reason, I don’t really think of myself as a “post-restorationist”; someone who is ready to “move forward,” albeit in the same tradition. Instead, I feel the need to find an entirely different theological system, one which is more willing to adapt and grow.

That is not to say that I haven’t learned some things along the way. Baptism, for example, is an appropriately emphasized event in the restorationist tradition. I am grateful for the good things I’ve learned and experienced, and don’t intend to leave them behind.

I also don’t think this means that the restoration movement was a useless exercise. Theology needs to be tested in the real world before we know whether it “works” or not. The scout who discovers a treacherous river crossing which is to be avoided at all costs is just as valuable as the one that finds a calm, shallow way through. Both are needed for well-informed travel.

But I’ve still not gotten to the point I want to get at, which is this: if you aren’t a restorationist, why continue in a faith tradition that is based on a restorationist tradition?

Saying Goodbye to Restorationism

December 26, 2007

The American restoration movement is a tradition that began in the 18th and 19th Centuries as a sort-of second reformation. Its basic premise is a critique: it maintains that denominational distinctions cause divisions between Christians, and that unity among believers is only possible if churches follow the pattern of Christianity that was practiced in the New Testament. Restorationists contend that people fell away from the original practices of the church when they set up denominational systems and creeds, and that a return to the pattern laid out in the New Testament is the only way to create unity among Christians.

Three major faith traditions are a part of this movement: (1) the Churches of Christ (of which I am a member), (2) the Disciples of Christ, and (3) the First Christian Churches. The Disciples church represents a more theologically liberal version of the movement. The principle difference between the Churches of Christ and the First Christian churches is that the former do not use musical instruments, having rejected them as not being a part of the pattern that was established in the New Testament.

As a member of the churches of Christ, I used to be – but am no longer – a restorationist. Why the change?

1. The call for ecumenical theology and practice is no longer unique. When the restoration movement originated, denominations tended to make claims of superiority over other denominations. Such claims are much less widespread, now – even among fundamentalists. Many Christians are coming to recognize that there is a larger church that transcends the denominations and they are coming to work together, where possible. Different creeds and practices are less and less a barrier to unity. In that sense, the “message” of the restoration movement is no longer unique.

2. New Testament churches were far from perfect.  Restorationism is based on the idea that the church functioned in a perfect, pristine state after it was first created (and before it was tainted by denominational creeds). But, when it comes to the early church, the New Testament doesn’t portray a picture of perfection. There was in-fighting over worship, disagreement over the role of women, bickering about the procedures for benevolence, contention over doctrine, accusations that leaders were more interested in power and money than ministry, and disagreement about what people had to do to qualify for membership. In short, they looked just like 21st Century churches. Worse yet, absolute answers to many of their disputes are often in short supply, even in Paul’s epistles. With so many flaws imbedded in First Century churches, it is difficult to believe that we should look to them for an appropriate pattern to inform our own practices.

3. Restorationism leaves inadequate room for growth.  Think about Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. Most of them have to do with growth. They involve mustard seeds, wheat, vineyards. God’s kingdom is dynamic, evolving, organic. I am no longer convinced that – just because the Church looked a certain way in 75 AD – it should still look that way in 2007. In fact, Jesus’ own teachings suggest that the church should be anything BUT a static institution, unchanging in its beliefs and practices.

4. Restorationism leaves inadequate space for the work of God’s Spirit. Change might be dangerous if we had no guidance. But scripture teaches that God’s spirit will live among the Church and guide it. Why would that be necessary if the church were a static, unchanging institution? Restorationism can cause Christians to become too reliant on old patterns, and – at the same time – inadequately reliant on the movement of God’s spirit in the world.

5. Arrogance.  Not all restorationists believe that they are the only ones going to heaven or that they are a part of the only true Church. However, it tends to lead to a mentality which says that restorationists do things right and everyone else does them wrong. Ironically, this tends to create even more disunity, particularly in an age where ecumenical movements are so widespread.

I am, of course, not the only person who is talking about these issues. Far from it. I know a number of people who are members of the Churches of Christ who hold very similar ideas. Members of our churches often criticize viewpoints of this nature by asking something like this: Why, if you are no longer committed to these principles, do you continue to belong to a restorationist community?

The question is fair and – to be blunt – even valid, and I’m hoping to explore it in a future post.

The Politics of Christmas

December 20, 2007

In the midst of all of the chatter about the so-called “war on Christmas,” I have become intrigued with a theme in the narrative of Luke 1 and 2. Here are some examples.

In the song that she sings during her visit with Elizabeth, Mary says:

[God] has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts

He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted the humble.

In the same Chapter, Zechariah, John’s father, will celebrate that God has “raised up a horn of salvation” in Jesus. He says:

[God brings] salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us….

[God acts] to rescue us from the hand of our enemies

Later, the prophetess Anna, after seeing the young baby Jesus begins to speak – we are told: “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

What fascinates me about this is that all of these characters see the birth of the Messiah as a subversive political event. God will act through Christ, they say, to bring down rulers and deliver the lowly from the hands of those who oppress them. It is an announcement that those who stand in power, and who use it abusively, are about to be reckoned with. This is in fulfillment, of course, to a central – but often ignored theme in the Psalms and the Prophets – God’s “reclamation” of his world by bringing down what is often referred to as “the Nations.”

The means by which this would be accomplished, of course, would have to be fleshed out in the remainder of Luke’s gospel. Jesus would call people to live under God’s reign, refusing to deploy the tools of violence and oppression that are used by those in power. They should also follow his example as a prophetic voice, speaking against and exposing abuses of power in both religious and political institutions.

The first Christmas, then, was distinctly anti-authoritarian in tone, announcing the imminent removal of those who haughtily fancied themselves as in charge. The birth of Jesus was a warning to them that their time was short. God was about to bring them to ruin and lift up the humble.

In USAmerica, where Christianity has practically become a civil religion, the idea that God is acting to remove nations from power has completely vanished from the celebration of Christmas. Worse yet, the notion that Christians as a whole should imitate Jesus in speaking against and exposing the abuse of power in their government is completely foreign to most Christians. We are not known for our pronouncements against oppression so much as our pronouncements against those who don’t like us (the counter-attack against the “war on Christmas” being a prime example).

Any suggestion that the Christmas event might call us to speak into our civic and religious institutions with the prophetic voice (joining with the voices of Mary, Zechariah, Anna, and the like) is not so much controversial as it is simply absent. Christians think that they are in power. And for those who are in power (or at least engaged in a struggle to hang onto it), the undesirable realities of Advent are better ignored than confronted.

That is why I think that all of the hub-ub about the so-called “war on Chirstmas” is a giant distraction. The question that is posed in this debate is whether those in power should acknowledge or ignore the Christmas event, the assumption being that it is a relatively benign phenomenon in any event. But for me, the more relevant question is this: How did the idea of Christmas become so watered down, so de-politicized, that those who are in power do not even consider it to be a threat?

I wonder: if Christians “did” Christmas in the way of Mary, Zecharaiah, and Anna, would a civic celebration of such a subversive event even be a consideration?

The Wonderful Life

December 16, 2007

It happens just about every Christmas. I return to Frank Capra’s Its a Wonderful Life only to discover new meaning, new insights that I hadn’t found the year before.

One scene in particular haunts me. In this scene, George Bailey, seemingly without the financial resources to provide for his family and community, stands on the edge of a bridge, looking into the water below and – thinking of his life insurance policy – declares:

I’m worth more dead than alive.

Every person who has ever been a major income provider, someone whom others rely on for financial support, knows this feeling. It is the sense that we have no worth to others beyond that which we can deposit for them in a bank account or pay toward the balance of a credit card. That our value is our usefulness to others, and nothing more. Every relationship, every conversation, seems suspiciously to come down to one thing: what can you do for me? Even when people are asking about your well being, there is a sense that the inquiry is only a cloak for another, more self-serving agenda. There is no sense that anyone cares for you simply for who you are.

I think that’s why George Bailey’s story, cheesy though the end may be by 21st Century standards, threatens to draw tears from me almost every year. The despair that came for Bailey as he considered his own death was not well founded. In spite of all appearances, particularly when the pressure was on for him to come through, people did care about him for things other than what he could provide.

But not every provider gets a Wonderful Life ending. I’ve seen the alternative ending first hand. It is more closely akin to that which I imagine Mr. Potter – Bailey’s nemesis – would one day face. I imagine that Potter probably grew old and died, surrounded by bickering family members who constantly positioned themselves for access to the wealth that had accumulated through his life. Money for Potter would become a tool for spite – a means of reward and punishment for those who were willing to put up with his increasingly cranky, eccentric personality in exchange for an opportunity to inherit his wealth. Potter would one day die with wealth and he would be surrounded by people, the very things that you might expect would make him happy. But, in reality, he would be miserable and unloved.

The difference, of course, is that Bailey has invested his life, his talent, his wealth, his whole self, into other people. He hasn’t used money as tool for domination and manipulation but as a way of expressing his love for others. He may not be able to see it at critical junctures in his journey, but he is ultimately going to find that those investments will return the kinds of rewards that Potter cannot even imagine.

Bailey shares something in common with an infamous tax collector that once encountered Jesus. You may recall Zaccheaus as a diminutive man who had to climb a tree to see Jesus, but I am coming to remember him for what he would later declare to the Rabbi from Nazareth:

Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.

Jesus’ response to this declaration speaks volumes to me. Today, Jesus says, salvation has come to this house.

Salvation has come.

Salvation, for Zaccheaus, hasn’t come in some abstract sense that his sins have been forgiven. It hasn’t come because of some pious act that demonstrated a new-found loyalty to Jesus.

Salvation has come to Zacchaeus because he has discovered the secret of life. He has discovered that money can only bring joy when it is given away. It has come because all of those who cross his path from this day forward will themselves get a taste of what God’s new world can look like. It has come because Zaccheaus, too, has discovered what it means to live a Wonderful Life.

During this Christmas season, may Salvation come into your life. May you never despair over your worth-lessness. And may you come to find true joy – joy that is not found in what you accumulate, but in what you give away.

Christmas Cheer

December 14, 2007

If you have the Rhapsody player, you can find a playlist of my favorite Christmas music here. Enjoy…and let me know what else you would add to the list.

(Don’t miss Audio Adrenaline’s take on Little Drummer Boy and the Newsboys’ Adoration – my favorite contemporary Christmas song – they are both really good).

North or South?

December 11, 2007

During the Christmas break this year, our family is taking a trip to the mountains in Colorado. I’ll enjoy the trip in a vicarious sort-of way because its something that my kids have wanted to do for a long, long time. However, when we leave, my instincts will be crying out to go South rather than North.

I am not a fan of cold weather, and when you combine cold weather with increasingly short Winter daylight hours, I tend to become downright grumpy. About this time of year, I begin to long for the beach. I want to put on some swim trunks, a tank top, and a pair of shades. I want to feel warm sunlight on my face and dig my toes into the sand while I listen to waves crashing in. I want to experience tropical days that feel like they will never end. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait a few more months before I get my beach time. And my dream of Christmas in Hawaii will have to be put on hold.

Of course, not everyone is like me. Some of you probably envy our week-long trip into the mountains. Others would rather have a day on the lake, a few days on the golf course, or some extended time on a cruise liner.

So lets hear it. What are some of your preferred get-aways?