Issue #268 -------
October 3, 2006
There never were in the world
two opinions alike, no more than
two hairs or two grains; the most
universal quality is diversity.
Before you read anything further in this particular issue of my weekly Reflections, may I urge each of you to please take a moment to read a powerful reflective analysis by Bro. Joe Beam which is titled What is Happening to Churches of Christ? This very dedicated brother in Christ has truly distinguished himself in service to the Lord Jesus and His people [for biographical information see: Who Is Joe Beam?], and I believe he has done a remarkable job of presenting some vital evidence each of us within the Stone-Campbell Movement would do well to seriously consider. Indeed, the above mentioned study will be the focus of this week's issue of my Reflections. Thus, in all fairness to Joe, I would prefer that you reflect upon his words before you reflect upon mine. Don't just take my word for what he says; don't accept my analysis blindly ... go directly to the source.
Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the principles of psychology will know that there are certain dynamics ever impacting our interpersonal relationships, whether those relationships be marital, familial, spiritual, or within the corporate, educational or social parameters of our daily existence. One dynamic that can be either a blessing or a curse, depending upon our perception of it, is diversity. As Montaigne correctly observed, diversity is one of the most universal of all qualities. It also seems to be an almost universal challenge to successful interpersonal relationships. Not everyone appreciates the fact of our differences from one another, even though, properly perceived, such diversity can be one of our greatest strengths in developing and realizing a genuine state of unity and functional harmony. This is especially true within the Family of God.
Bro. Joe Beam, as he introduces to the reader his motivation for conducting the above in-depth study, has specified that many within, and even outside of, our fellowship in Churches of Christ are "struggling to understand the dynamics that are causing increasing isolation between brethren and churches." This is indeed a huge concern with many of us who are witnessing this "movement (motion) within a movement." There is an observable drifting apart; a polarization of God's people; a fragmentation of the family of God. In the fascinating field of psychological research and analysis, such a phenomenon would generate a quest among experts to determine the dynamics of such a drift. Bro. Beam correctly stated, "We need a clear picture and common vocabulary so that we can understand the current dynamics of our brotherhood tension." It was his belief that "there may be a model for understanding the uneasiness plaguing our fellowship." Thus, he set about preparing such a model, and the fruit of his labor is pictured below:
In my view, Joe has done an excellent job of not only presenting the broad spectrum of the diverse doctrinal positions of those in Churches of Christ, but he has also, and far more importantly, delineated the dynamics, psychologically, of those who fall within the various categories or sections along this spectrum, as well as their various perspectives of others who fall outside the parameters of their own "spiritual space." It is this deeper reflective psychoanalysis that will truly prove enlightening in our quest to understand the dynamics of our familial dysfunction, and with that increased perception of the problem besetting us perhaps also will emerge the seeds of a solution.
Bro. Joe Beam is very quick to note that his model is, by design, quite limited, or focused, in scope. It is a model primarily of "those within our 'mainline' fellowship" (although, most assuredly, the principles drawn from this model would be applicable well beyond the stated parameters of the model itself). In other words, there are even further radical extremes on both ends of this spectrum, extremes that are not displayed for our analysis. For example, to the far right of this displayed model one would find the entirety of the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ movement, which consists of countless factions rallying around some perceived aspect of the "pattern" that they believe to be salvific. Frankly, and I suspect my esteemed brother might agree with this perspective, Joe's model could easily be applied in full (with the sections intact) to the various feuding factions among those who characterize themselves as Non-Institutional. The same would be true of those beyond the far left boundary of the model, whom we might characterize as being the ultra-progressives, which would include such groups as the International Churches of Christ (formerly known as the Boston Movement) and those who are abandoning the name "Church of Christ" and adapting themselves to the Community Church movement. The model would apply to these movements as well, but they are not being considered in Bro. Beam's model. He is chiefly concerned with those who reside somewhere between the two extremes -- the mainline congregations. Thus, as this model is examined, this restricted focus must be understood, although, once again, I hasten to add my view (not necessarily Joe's, though I suspect he would agree) that this model could be equally applied to those outside the "mainline" churches as well.
Although Bro. Beam does spend a certain amount of time noting the types of congregations represented in this model -- i.e., innovative and traditional -- nevertheless, he tends to believe, and I completely concur, that the true dynamic in need of evaluation is not congregational in nature, but individual. The family of God is made up of people, individual men and women, and not of groups. Thus, writes Bro. Beam, "the observations that I feel explain what is happening to us don't deal primarily with churches, but the categories of people within the churches." This is a very critical perception that many miss in seeking to assess the cause of this mounting tension among those in the mainline Churches of Christ. It truly, and ultimately, does come down to the very heart and soul of the person in the pew! There lies not only the bulk of the problem, but also the strength to effect a solution!
Before moving on to the critical analysis of individual personality types, I believe just a few thoughts are in order with regard to congregational personality types. When examining the statistical data regarding our movement, it becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly that most of our congregations fall within the "mainline" (also known as "mainstream") profile, and most within this category are clearly far more "traditional" than "innovative" (or "progressive") in nature. It is further true that most "traditional" churches have rather small memberships, and tend to be rural. Bro. Joe Beam points out that Bro. Mac Lynn has documented through his research that "74% of our churches have less than 100 members. Only 11% have 200 or more members. Less than 2% have more than 500 members." Bro. Samuel Dawson, in his book "What Is Wrong With Most Churches of Christ & How They Can Avoid Extinction," points out at the very beginning that "In the 50 years from 1955 to 2005, Churches of Christ have dwindled from 3.0 to 1.267 million members and from 18,000 to 12,963 congregations. While the population has doubled in this same period of time, membership within Churches of Christ has declined 58%. At the average rate of decline of 34,600 members per year (1.16% per year), Churches of Christ will vanish by the year 2042." A rather grim assessment, to be sure. But, more about this vision for the future in an upcoming Reflections later this month.
With regard to the more "traditional" congregations within the mainstream, Joe Beam observes that they "generally follow the doctrines and practices crystallized in the Churches of Christ in the era of the 1930s to the 1950s." To the extreme right of this part of the spectrum we find the so-called "right wing" congregations, which "not only follow the doctrines and practices crystallized in the era of the 1930s and 1950s, but also feel great compulsion to attack anyone who questions or differs from those doctrines or practices." These are the militants of the movement, and one will quickly find many of the conflicts within the mainline churches launched by these "contenders for the faith." These are the zealots, and such ultra-conservative journals as "Spiritual Sword" and "Contending For The Faith" are their media voices. Such schools as Memphis School of Preaching are their indoctrination institutions.
On the opposite end of the mainstream spectrum we discover the so-called "left wing" congregations, which are pretty much "exasperated" with the traditional position, yet have not fully taken those steps necessary to completely sever themselves from that greater fellowship (as those groups are doing who are dropping the "name" altogether and becoming essentially community churches). Moving a little more to the center from the far left, one finds the "innovative" congregations, who still feel close ties to the more traditional congregations, but who nevertheless are willing to "do things traditional churches question or reject -- like using special singing groups in worship or drama to make a biblical point." They are, by the very definition, "innovative" -- i.e., willing to effect what they deem to be responsible changes in methodology, though not to the message itself, in order to make the message more relevant to our time. The farther one moves to the left, the more accepting the congregations are of diversity among disciples; the farther one moves to the right, the less accepting the congregations are of diversity among disciples. Thus, those on the left tend to be inclusive of others; those on the right tend to be extremely exclusive of others.
Bro. Beam observes, "Notice there are six categories of people contemplated in the model. In my opinion, these categories explain more about what is happening to us than do the types of churches." If you look again at Joe's model of those within the mainstream or mainline congregations of the Churches of Christ you will see these six categories clearly delineated. It should also be pointed out at this point in our review of Joe's study that psychologically speaking it is rather irresponsible to suggest that the lines between categories are sharply drawn and there is no overlapping. That simply is not the case. Some disciples will clearly display aspects of more than a single category. Bro. Beam alluded to this fact in his study, but I felt it should perhaps be stated even more strongly. Having said that, however, Joe has done a tremendous job of spotlighting some of the major traits evidenced by most who fall within each category of disciple. Notice each of the six types of people in this model, beginning at the far left and moving to the far right [comments in quotation marks will be from Bro. Joe Beam].
One of the conclusions drawn by Bro. Beam in his study, and I believe he is absolutely correct in this assessment, is -- "As a congregation or an individual moves to the right on the Inclusion/Exclusion line, they become more restrictive in whom they will fellowship. They also become more condemning of those they don't perceive as being in their fellowship. As one comes closer to the Exclusive end of the line, he becomes more judgmental and unaccepting of those who don't believe very similarly to him. Those who move to the left on the Inclusion/Exclusion line become more open in whom they fellowship. They become far less judgmental and more accepting of beliefs, actions, or doctrines they don't personally hold." In other words, those to the right in this model tend to build barriers to greater unity, harmony and fellowship, while those to the left tend to build bridges.
In his novel The Lost World, which was a sequel to the acclaimed Jurassic Park, Dr. Michael Crichton discusses the fate of the dinosaurs, and he explores how their extinction may well convey a warning to mankind today. The question posed in the book is this: Was the extinction of the dinosaurs caused by a sudden cosmic catastrophe which befell the planet, or was their extinction due ultimately to their behavior? The theory proposed in the book suggests that when a complex organism ceases to be responsive to its environment ... when it fails to adapt ... it will decline to the point of extinction. It is further suggested that only those complex organisms which change will ultimately survive. This does not mean the organism changes its true identity -- dinosaurs would remain dinosaurs -- rather, it suggests that survival depends upon elasticity. Simply put: Those complex organisms remaining rigid, unresponsive, and frozen in time and place become fossils -- lifeless monuments to the folly of inflexibility.
Dr. Crichton has shown remarkable insight into the human condition. He may also have touched a raw nerve religiously! Too many people professing the Christian faith are frozen religiously in the past. They have become fossilized in their practices and perceptions, repeating by rote the conclusions of their forefathers rather than delving deeply into the Word of God to ascertain Truth for themselves. Religious rigidity and contempt for change will tend to result in fossilization, both for individuals as well as movements and congregations. Fossils are a source of great interest for those walking through a museum, but they have little or no relevance for those seeking meaning in their journey through life. Unless we, as disciples of Christ, are relevant to our times, the decline toward extinction is assured.
Bro. Joe Beam, in my estimation, has done our movement a tremendous service by supplying us with a model delineating the dynamics of our interactions (or lack thereof) with our fellow disciples in mainstream Churches of Christ. The undeniable reality we face is our own diversity. The challenge before us is: what will we do with this knowledge and this reality? We can either drift farther and farther apart from one another, with more and more dropping off the spectrum on both ends, or we can seek somehow to move toward the fulfillment of our Lord's prayer for oneness and harmony in John 17. Our survival as a movement, if such survival is desired, demands the latter, and if it is to come it must come from those "Open" disciples who, by their very nature, are open to the changes required to facilitate this greater unity. I pray that this present Reflections will serve as a catalyst for further thought over the next few weeks, and that it will lay a foundation for the upcoming study on my vision for our future in Churches of Christ. May God lead us all to greater reflective openness!
From a Doctor in Kentucky:
Brother Al, I had all I could take, so I unsubscribed from MarsList. I think I could be dead for a thousand years, come back to life, and the legalists would still be fighting each other about the exact same things. I'm glad you have the patience to try and deal with these people. I guess, however, that I should be glad they engage in such debates with one another, as the more time these legalists waste on such things, the less time they will have to convert people to their backward way of reasoning!
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, Thanks for your Reflections article in response to my question about John 14:2. I also would like to thank you for all of your many other articles that have been an aid in delivering me from that legalistic form of doctrine in which I had been reared. I guess maybe in time I will lose my fear of "Will I ever do enough good deeds to make it to Heaven?" and finally come to grasp the full meaning of God's Grace, which was never taught to me as I was growing up in this legalistic group!
From a Reader in Texas:
Thank you, Al, for all that you do, and please keep up the good work! You have a way of helping folks think through their belief systems in the most important way -- with a Scripture base and a constant walk with God. So many people have blessed me in days past with an open, understanding view of Scripture and the God behind that revelation. You are doing a wonderful job of walking in the tradition of those who open the doors of understanding to break the barriers that bind the hearts of men. Blessings on you and Shelly!
From an Elder/Author in Texas:
Bro. Al, Another excellent piece on "mansions" in the Father's "house." You constantly maintain a high standard of objectivity, research and expression, even when I don't come out exactly where you do (which is a rare occurrence). I appreciate your ministry.
From a Reader in Texas:
Dear Brother Al, Thank you for reminding us once again of the splendor awaiting us. Footsteps quicken and hearts beat faster as we come closer and closer to our homecoming. The songs of heaven call forth happy tears as we anticipate the arrival on that beautiful shore. Life is precious, but oh, what joy awaits us on the other side!!
From a Reader in Texas:
Dear Brother Al, My notes to you are usually in a humorous vein, and almost always in agreement with you, and sometimes even encouraging you to "lighten up" just a bit. But this time I must tell you that I respectfully and cordially disagree with your interpretation of John 14:2f. I believe the passage should be interpreted in the context of chapters 13-16. You could even include chapter 17 (Jesus' prayer) in this. Jesus went to the cross to prepare a place and open the door for all in His Father's "house" (household, family), which is the ekklesia ("church") -- 1 Tim. 3:15. Please read the context (and I know you have many times) so that you can, in the words of Alexander Campbell, "come within understanding distance" of the passage in question. So, count me in "the minority" this time with regard to your interpretation. Although I will see you in heaven, you are already IN the place Jesus went to prepare for you (His church/family).
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