Last week, I wrote an article that addressed my thoughts on potential changes in American Christianity over the next 30 years (see here). This week, I am getting more specific by talking about the top eight changes in American Churches of Christ in the next 30 years. For those of you who are new to my blog or are not from the Church of Christ (Restoration Movement) and are wondering why I’m writing specifically about this sect of Christianity, it’s because I’m from the Churches of Christ. I was born and raised Church of Christ. I love the Church of Christ. I preached for the Church of Christ for eight years. I still attend a Church of Christ. I went to five Church of Christ schools. They are my people, even if some of them wouldn’t agree with that. We all have extended biological families, just like every Christian is a brother or sister, even if they are across the world and worship with a different name on their sign (or no sign at all). However, we all have close family as well. They are close in culture, history, and DNA even when they aren’t close in any other way. That’s what our local congregations and Christian movements are. So, I give praise on this blog when I see it is due, I critique where I believe we could do better, and I comment on things I see happening in my experience and in my opinion.
I want to start this article the same way that I started the one before it by saying that I want to first make it ABUNDANTLY clear that, while I love facts and stats, this is all anecdotal. All of the major points in this article are my passive assumptions based on trends I’ve noticed, friends I’ve talked to, or books and articles I’ve read over the last few years (of which there are too many to list, so contact me if you would like some resources). That said, the points aren’t baseless. None of us know the future, and trends can change any direction at any time.
Second of all, this article is not speaking about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of these potential changes. By that, I not only mean the truthfulness of their manifestation, but I also mean the moral, ethical, and biblical implications of the possible changes. In other words, even if I’m right, I’m not talking about if the changes themselves please God. Maybe some do please Him, and maybe some don’t. I’m sure, like many things in life, it is WAY more complex than that.
When I say “CofC” in this article, I’m speaking with regard to the sect (denomination) that writes “Church of Christ” on its sign. They are from the American Restoration Movement. The “church(es) of Christ” (little “c”) is a biblical descriptive phrase that defines the spiritual gathering of those past, present, and future who are children of God. The “Church of Christ” (big “C”) is a denominational name written on a sign. The CofC usually see themselves as nondenominational and often claim that they are the one true “church of Christ.” Sure, they are part of the one true church, but they are not the one true spiritual and universal church of Christ in and of themselves. They are part of the whole. More and more of the CofC members are starting to realize that the sectarian route of the last 100 years is not true, healthy, or helpful.
One more thing, while labels are annoying, they are sometimes necessary. That said, I am going to divide the congregations within the CofC into five categories (labels) in this article. It will be a very broad brush and highly subjective. I don’t pretend these characterizations apply to all members or congregations. So, please don’t read too much into them. I’m speaking generally. You are free to write a better version of this if you want to put more time into it than I have.
First, the non-institutional (NI) CofC is the most rigid branch of the CofC. I refuse to say they (or the right-leaning- mainstream CofC) are “conservative” because “conservative” in the CofC usually just means traditional or maybe even legalistic. The hermeneutic (interpretive method) that many legalistic CofC congregations use tends to actually come off as liberal (as opposed to conservative) to the text because they often add commands where there were none. There are many types of NI CofC. Some NI believe only one cup should be used in the communion. Others believe that head coverings should be worn by the women in the churches. Some believe that there should be no Sunday school. The most common trait of an NI is the opinion about the church’s money. They tend to be particular about how money is used. So, things like paid located preachers, supporting orphanages, and having fellowship halls are seen as sinful. I have a degree of respect for NI congregations because they are just trying to consistently apply their hermeneutic. Do I think they do so inconsistently? Yes! Do I think that the hermeneutic is flawed to begin with? You bet! But I appreciate sincere effort motivated by a love for God.
The second category of the CofC is the Right-Leaning-Mainstream (RLM). The RLM CofC tends to be a little more open about things like how money is used, how many cups are used for communion, if there is a paid preacher, and head coverings on women. However, they still tend to be highly rigid and legalistic. Again, much of this has to do with the way they interpret Scripture (their “hermeneutic”). I believe they tend to be less consistent with their method than the NI, even though the NI is more rigid. When I say “mainstream,” I mean that the bulk of the CofC congregations and members fall under this category or another version of “mainstream” that I will mention in a moment. But many of the CofC congregations fall under the RLM category. They tend to believe they are the one true church and that any other gathering of “Christians” is not really Christian unless that gathering acts and thinks like the RLM and has a “biblical name.” These churches tend to be sectarian. Good intentions? No doubt! Love God and His word? No doubt! But sectarian, nonetheless. “We can have unity if you just interpret the Bible the way I do because I interpret it the best way.” This is the category I grew up in. Generally speaking, the RLM CofC believes that a person is not a true Christian if their congregation does things like use instruments while singing worship songs, get baptized without the “correct” understanding, have women serve in ministry, or has a name other than “Church of Christ” on their sign. They often ignore church history, especially their own. Many of their congregations are small.
The third category is the Left-Leaning-Mainstream CofC. I say “left-leaning” VERY loosely. First of all, I mean left-leaning from the typical and traditional CofC standard of “conservative.” Second of all, the LLM CofC likely DOES most of the same things that the RLM CofC does. There is some overlap. However, they tend to think differently about the implications of the actions. For instance, they tend to think that instruments, women preachers, and the “saved at faith” teaching are wrong, just like the RLM CofC, BUT they do not necessarily consider themselves the only true church. They don’t believe one has to have uniformity to have unity. They see the CofC as the best manifestation of the New Testament church. They wish to restore the church to how it was in the first century. That said, they do not think they are the only Christians, that sins of ignorance or passion mean that someone lost their salvation, or that they have arrived at a perfect understanding. They tend to be much more ecumenical and grace-centered. They question the usual CofC hermeneutic on some level. Both categories of the mainline churches have the most members and congregations. There are probably more congregations that lean right and more members that lean left. Many of the LLM congregations are in cities.
The fourth category is the progressive CofC. There is a spectrum here, just like with the other categories. They are very similar to the LLM CofC but usually have things like praise teams or instruments. There is a good deal of overlap between progressives and LLM CofC. Many of them have some level of female participation in the church. They are much more likely to try new things and question tradition. That said, they have a great deal of respect for church history, especially their own. They usually are not trying to restore what they think is an imaginary “perfect first-century church.” Instead, they see things like guidance from the Spirit, cultural/contextual interpretation, the edification of the saints, service to the community, unity with other believers, and transformation into the image of Jesus as the continual and progressive goal of the church. They strive for a heavenly community in Christ, but realize that won’t be fully realized until we see Jesus face to face. No church has ever reached perfection. We are a family striving for a goal. They do tend to struggle to find unity within their often small congregations because the CofC has uniformity built into its DNA for many people. At some point, many of the progressive members either retreat to the LLM or move on to another denomination or to the fifth category. The fifth category is what I will call nondenominational. In this article, that means congregations or movements that come from the CofC but do not have CofC on their signs. Most of those churches look more like the average evangelical nondenominational churches. However, some look more like a mainline protestant church.
Church Category Key
- CofC = Church(es) of Christ
- NI = Non-institutional (see all tradition as doctrine)
- Mainstream = The majority of congregations and members
- RLM = Right-Leaning-Mainstream (see tradition as doctrine)
- LLM = Left-Leaning-Mainstream (traditional w/CofC views but see it as tradition or secondary)
- Progressive = Progressive from a CofC standard (nontraditional; highly grace-centered)
- Nondenominational = In this article, it means CofC background but not name.
With the above in mind, the following are my “top eight” for the future of American Churches of Christ.
Jesse’s Top Eight Changes in the American Churches of Christ in the Next 30 Years
- Non-Institutional churches will cease to exist in any measurable sense, and the right-leaning-mainstream congregations will be much smaller.
The NI congregations will either die out or merge with the RLM congregations. There might be a few fringe NI congregations as house churches, but it will be rare. The NI category will essentially cease to exist. Some of the RLM will become more rigid, and some of the NI will become slightly more open so that merges can happen. Even with a merge, the RLM category will become much smaller. Many of them will also be house churches.
2. The “progressive” category will cease to exist, the nondenominational congregations will be difficult to measure, and the left-leaning-mainstream churches will be the largest category and look like the new “progressives.”
Many of the RLM will become LLM and vice versa. However, the percentage of those joining the LLM will be greater than the percentage joining the RLM. What is left from the progressive congregations will either become nondenominational or merge with the LLM. The progressive category will essentially cease to exist, and the demographics of the nondenominational will be too difficult to measure. Therefore, there will essentially be two categories, the LLM CofC and the RLM CofC. The LLM will look similar to how the progressives are now because of the influence of progressive churches, the general change in the culture, and the increase of resources for the layperson. The LLM will be the largest category in the CofC.
3. Congregations with 250 or less will disperse into autonomous house churches.
The majority of those in this category will be the RLM churches. However, there will still be some church buildings in use by the RLM. Those with 250 or more will work as umbrella churches that hold Sunday gatherings but also facilitate online church and house churches as a united network. The majority of those congregations will be the LLM churches. The majority of the CofC congregations and members will be LLM.
4. The majority of the CofC will be more ecumenical.
As mentioned above, the majority of the CofC will be LLM churches, and they will be more like the progressives in the CofC today. Part of the implications of being left-leaning is being ecumenical. While the number of Christians will be similar to what it is today, the percentage of Christians will be significantly less than what it is today. That means that Christians will have to work more closely and find common ground. The progressive CofC is already doing this. In 30 years, the majority of American Churches of Christ will try to find common ground as well. That doesn’t mean “anything goes,” or that passionate conversations won’t happen, or that there will be perfect agreement between churches. It just means that there will be grace, patience, and a desire to find common ground so that churches can work together. The CofC will try to bridge the gaps between Christian institutions, especially those connected with the Restoration Movement.
5. The CofC will embrace the gifts that God gave to women.
Not every woman has every gift. Just like not every man has every gift. And all gifts are equally beautiful and powerful. There have been thousands (billions?) of women who use their talents often and well, even in complementarian churches (that means churches that don’t allow women to preach or teach in front of men). However, in 30 years, the majority of those in the CofC will see the contextual, ethical, and spiritual significance of giving women as much opportunity to preach and teach as men. Some might think this is optimistic, but I think it’s true. And frankly, if we make this change in the next few years, it could completely change the trajectory of American churches for the better.
6. The CofC will have diversity when it comes to instrumental music in worship.
The CofC has a small percentage of instrumental congregations right now, but most do not use instruments. Many congregations that do use instruments have two services to accommodate those who wish to sing without them. Some CofC churches think that using instruments in worship is a sin. Others do not use them because they appreciate the tradition. I still think those two distinctions will exist in 30 years, but I also think that there will be a greater percentage that realizes that “worship service” is a manmade idea and that the premise of “correct worship” is not in the New Testament. Therefore, more churches will use instruments to some degree.
7. Communion will look completely different than it does now.
One of the things I love about my heritage is that we take communion (Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, love feast, etc.) every Sunday. I wish we would take it even more. It is not just a symbol for us. Christ meets us there in a special way and brings us unity by the Spirit. In 30 years, I believe that most CofC congregations will take the communion more often than they do now, have it around a table, and make it the center of the gathering. I think passing plates around is coming to an end. Our “worship hour” will still have songs and lessons, but the focus will be on communion and edification—no more pews facing a stage.
8. The CofC will be open to different methods and theologies concerning baptism.
Now, I want to make it clear that there are necessary elements to baptism. I believe that it is ideally by immersion. I believe that it is ideally an immediate action for the remission of one’s sins. I believe that it is in the name of (or, “by the power of”) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I cherish our high view of baptism. However, if there are legitimate disagreements with other Christian groups, I think we will be more open to still accepting them as family. For instance, there are good reasons to think that one is a child of God at faith. There are good reasons to believe that sprinkling is okay instead of immersion. There are good reasons to baptize a child. Now, as a general rule, that’s not where my theology is, but there are good reasons for these disagreements regarding the method and theology. Virtually every denomination baptizes and gives the baptism a very high view. Let’s have a debate! Sure! Let’s lovingly teach one another. Of course! However, I think that the future will be more about God’s part in our baptism rather than our “perfect” understanding and works. God always honors genuine faith above perfection. Mercy triumphs over judgement.
CONCLUSION: Again, trends can change in an instant. And, while a lot of this anecdotal evidence is (passively) influenced by trends, a lot of it is nothing more than my opinion. I’d love to hear yours if you can share it in a thoughtful and kind way. Much of this is perhaps “too” optimistic. But maybe not? I sure hope not. But fair warning, if you think I have anything worth saying on these matters, I think it will be uglier before it gets pretty. But make Christ your polar star. Make God’s love your royal law. And feed the sheep. – Jesse