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The Tennessean’s Attack on the Churches of Christ

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Last Sunday Bob Smietana, a reporter for the Tennessean, published a vicious attack on the churches of Christ.  The headline itself was an insult: “Churches of Christ drop isolationist view, work with other faiths.”

The article begins with the same old accusation of “they think they are the only ones going to heaven,” couched in a quote from Doug Sanders, the associate minister of Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood.

When he was growing up, Doug Sanders learned there were two kinds of people in the world.

Those who belonged to the a cappella Churches of Christ, who were going to heaven. And those who didn’t, who were going to hell.

“In the Church of Christ, we had all the answers,” said Sanders, associate minister at Otter Creek Church in Brentwood. “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.”

We haven’t gotten three paragraphs into this article and already it is clear that neither Smietana nor Sanders understands that what makes the churches of Christ special is that they are fundamentally nondenominational. 

When members of the church of Christ speak of their fellowship, they are not talking about some small subdivision of Christianity, such as a denomination.  They are speaking generally of the universal body of Christ.  With this frame of mind, saying the churches of Christ are going to heaven is the same as saying Christians are going to heaven.  The idea that only Christians find salvation is a controversial point of view in its own right, especially when it confronts worldviews outside the Christian faith.  But most professing Christians will insist that Jesus is the only way to the Father (Jn. 14:6).

The churches of Christ were practicing nondenominational Christianity long before it was in vogue.  Today the trend is away from denominations.  In fact, the fastest growing churches in America last year claimed no denominational affiliation.  But many of these independent churches combine biblical authority with cultural norms to form their fellowship.  The churches of Christ are unique.  They arrive at nondenominational Christianity through conformity to the Scriptures, speaking where the Bible speaks, remaining silent where the Bible is silent.

The article printed in the Tennessean reflects this nondenominational approach in an excellent summary of the Restoration Movement.  But then it returns to poor journalism, cherry picking anecdotal hearsay as evidence to demonstrate that the church of Christ is no longer the Bible-based movement of Stone and the Campbells but rather a judgmental, isolated cult filled with bitterness and wrath.

The lowest blow came from an interview with Lee Camp, a Bible instructor at Lipscomb University in Nashville.

Wearing shorts was cause for damnation, Camp said. He recalled going on a youth group trip as a teen and passing a man wearing jogging shorts. “Our preacher said, ‘He looks real nice in those shorts. They’ll look real nice in hell,’ ” Camp said.

The article then reports that Camp is “grateful” for his upbringing in the church of Christ.  If his story about shorts in hell was truly indicative of what life in the church of Christ is like, why would he be grateful for that?  The only explanation that is given is Camp’s admission that most people in the church practiced a “kindler, gentler form of Christianity” than the preacher in his example. 

Could it be possible that he gave a poor example?  Every religious group has its share of zealots.  I can’t help but wonder if Smietana would have printed this story if his article had been about Baptists or Catholics.  There are hundreds of these kinds of stories in all faiths.  Loading an article with one of them to make the subject distasteful is slander’s oldest trick.

Much of the article deals with the church of Christ’s “isolationist” approach to the world.  Sanders points to his work in the Nashville area as a new trend in the church.  But the truth is, members of the church have always cooperated with community leaders, non-profit groups, and even denominations to address poverty, suffering, and natural disaster.

Right now in Haiti, Christians are working with medical personnel, the military, and charitable organizations to bring relief to those who were affected by the earthquake.  It would be impossible to get involved in any other way. 

I have a friend who works for a non-profit organization that promotes familiy values.  He is a member of the church of Christ.  Others on the staff attend denominations.  It is possible that some of his coworkers do not even attend a church.  Nobody is criticizing him for the work he is doing. 

It’s true that most leaders in the church of Christ would shy away from interfaith worship settings, such as a community Easter gathering or anything else that might detract from their devotion to simple New Testament Christianity.  Call it isolationism, but decisions like this are a result of having convictions.  And any group without convictions will eventually fade into oblivion.

The church of Christ is accustomed to bad press.  On the bright side, the exposure given by the Tennessean produces a healthy dialogue.  The best way to view the article is to see it as an opportunity rather than a setback.  The questions raised by the article should afford teachable moments to spread the message of the value of restoring the church of the New Testament.

The Fastest Growing Churches in America

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Every year Outreach Magazine releases a list of the fastest growing churches in America.  This year, the #1 slot belonged to a church right in my backyard: The Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama.

Last year a friend and I visited Highlands’ campus to hear John Maxwell lecture on leadership.  It wasn’t a religious service, but we were able to see from the church’s facilities one reason, at least, that so many people flock to Highlands for worship every Sunday.  I have never seen a church building like the one located on Highlands’ Grants Mill campus.  Large, flat panel television monitors decorated every wall, a bright, well-equipped children’s center was visible, there was a Starbuck’s in the lobby, and the auditorium featured comfortable seating and a first-rate P.A. system.  Every comfort imaginable was provided.

It would be naive, though, to think that comfortable facilities is all that it took to make the Church of the Highlands the fastest growing church in the country.  In fact, a quick glance at Outreach’s list for 2008 suggests another possibility.  Only one of the churches in the top ten is ostensibly affiliated with a denomination.  The rest of the churches wear names like “Elevation Church,” “Triumph Church,” or “The Rock.”  The community church movement has not been shy about its objective of removing the “barrier” of denominational affiliations from the names of their churches.  The strategy seems to be working.

I have made references before to a recent study showing that Americans are losing interest in denominational affiliations. Forty-four percent of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another. The demographic benefiting the most is the one that carries people who claim no religious affiliation. People moving into that category outnumber those moving out of it by a three-to-one margin. These changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.

The churches of Christ once grew and thrived because of a nondenominational spirit.  It is my conviction that the public’s distaste for denominationalism is nothing new.  The success of these community churches once belonged to the churches of Christ.  The reason they are growing faster than we are today is because they are promoting this spirit, while we are talking about something else.

This is tragic because the churches of Christ have a unique approach to Christianity, combining doctrinal purity with a nondenominational appeal.  The community churches may have the nondenominational appeal, but they cannot claim doctrinal purity.  They would rather draw from cultural mandates than scriptural authority.  But the churches of Christ seek to restore the New Testament church, which was neither unscriptural nor denominational.

Take a lesson from the fastest growing churches in America.  People don’t want division.  They’re seeking unity.  Let’s show them what true unity is all about and build churches on the solid foundation of God’s Word.  Growth is sure to follow.

Nondenominational Christianity

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

Studies have shown that Americans are losing interest in denominational affiliations. Forty-four percent of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another. The demographic benefiting the most is the one that carries people who claim no religious affiliation. People moving into that categroy outnumber those moving out of it by a three-to-one margin. These changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.

One of the greatest needs, then, of the church of Christ in the 21st century is a strong sense of her nondenominational character. Here are some practical ways to promote this attitude:

1. Understand the Restoration Plea. Over the years man has adapted the church to every conceivable notion under the sun. There are now hundreds of different kinds of churches in the world. These religious groups are called “denominations” because they wear names that distinguish them from the whole.

This divisive attitude is displeasing to the Lord. Jesus prayed “that they all may be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that thye also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn. 17:21).

The Restoration Plea is a call to follow the New Testament and nothing more. By applying the unadulterated word of God to our hearts, we believe we can be the church Jesus built in the first century.

2. Discard sectarian language. I’m dismayed when I hear brethren say things like, “He’s a Church of Christ preacher,” or, “This is Church of Christ doctrine,” or, “I’m a Church of Christer.” This kind of sectarian language reduces the church of Christ to just another denomination. It isn’t enough to merely declare that we are not a denomination. When we make statements using sectarian language we betray the denominational mentality in our heart (cf. Mt. 12:34). Let our speech communicate that we just want to be Christians in the body of Christ, nothing more, nothing less.

In the first century, members of the Lord’s church were content to be called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). They didn’t have “Church of Christ preachers,” only gospel preachers (1 Cor. 9:16). And the only doctrine they knew was the doctrine of Christ (2 Jn. 9).

3. Communicate our unique approach to Christianity. We have an approach to Christianity that is not only biblical but also unique among all the religious groups in the world. This approach combines doctrinal purity with a nondenominational appeal.

Some groups can claim doctrinal purity, but since their allegiance is to doctrines advanced by manmade creeds and not the Bible, they become a denomination.

Some groups make a claim to be nondenominational and as a result are growing in America’s current cultural climate, but they have sacrificed doctrinal purity so they can remain tolerant of diverse views.

Only the churches of Christ combine these two attractive ambitions. The problem is that we’re not talking about it much.

America’s sick of division and sectarianism. It’s time the churches of Christ adapted to this new climate. We should still warn against denominationalism; Christianity remains greviously subdivided. But there’s a new spirit in America–one of tolerance and unity. I believe it to be severely misguided, but I also think it we have an advantage over many religious groups in this new climate because for the last 250 years we have stood against denominational division and have argued for simple New Testament Christianity. The world is ripe. Will we rise to the occasion?