9 Reasons Why My Faith Compels Me to Say #BlackLivesMatter

I have not been afraid within my social media space to say #BlackLivesMatter, or to speak about the longstanding racism within my own religious tradition. But the events of this last week have brought the conversation of racism, prejudice, and violence to a new frenzy unseen in my lifetime. 

DISCLAIMER: I am speaking for myself (and only myself) when I articulate "why my faith compels me to say #BlackLivesMatter."
I believe that there are compelling theological reasons for this commitment, and in response to these I continue to strive to embody my faith "with fear and trembling." (Philippians 2:12)

But I feel like it is important, as a contribution to a very important (and very complex) conversation, to explain why my faith compels me to say #BlackLivesMatter. And why it compels me to not only say something in my social media space, but in my faith community, and publicly within my city and state. So here are 9 reasons (though there are a number of others) why my faith compels me to say #BlackLivesMatter...

Because the Triune God, revealed most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, is deeply concerned and committed to the cause of the oppressed and the marginalized, and this is the actual, real lived experience of millions of my black sisters and brothers. 

Hear the words of Isaiah the Prophet...

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
    and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
                                                                                              (Isaiah 58:1-7, NIV)

Because black lives are disproportionately affected the prison industrial complex. 

In 2010 blacks were incarcerated at more than FIVE times the rate of whites. While blacks accounted for only 13% of the US population they made up 40% of the incarcerated population. This is despite the lack of a comparable disparity in the rate of crimes committed between whites and blacks.  

Because black lives are disproportionately targeted by police for stops, searches, violations, and arrests. 

This can be seen for example in the experience of Philando Castile had been pulled over 31 times and hit with 63 charges. And the stop for a broken tail light that resulted in his death has been challenged by at least one eye witness. And the whole reality of "Driving While Black" has been substantiated for a long time and the literature continues to grow affirming not only that it is true, but that in many communities it is worse than ever.

Because our nation and its economy were literally built on the backs and bodies of black lives.

Our nation would never have become the economic powerhouse that it is today without the institution of slavery. Many of the fundamental icons of our nation were built with slave labor including the U. S. Capitol, the White House, and vast networks of railroad lines

Because black lives are disproportionately affected by poverty and economic oppression.

Data shows us that poverty for black communities and black families is very different than poverty for white americans. This is no mere coincidence, it is the "architecture of segregation."

Because black lives are harmed by the race-based and historical trauma of American society. 

There is a growing body of literature that demonstrates the psychological toll of racism, which is complicated all the more by the historical traumas of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the prison industrial complex, and many of the other things I have already cited. 

Because black lives are oppressed by systemic and institutional inequalities in education. 

There is marked disparity in education funding, discipline, and even course offerings. This comes with profound psychological consequences at all stages of life. (Check the data for your own community here.)

Because black lives are disproportionately destroyed by the so-called "War on Drugs."

At its inception, in its implementation, and its ongoing ethos, the War on Drugs was designed to crush the lives of black persons, families, and communities. 

Because churches continue to be some of the most segregated institutions in the United States. 

The racial disparities in churches are sharper than their surrounding culture. This is not helped by the high response rate of people who report that their churches are "sufficiently diverse" and did not need to pursue further racial integration. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words still ring true "that eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour in Christian America.

As a follower of Jesus I am called to live in a way that speaks up for those who are abandoned, who are oppressed, who are consciously crushed by the principalities and powers. And the call of the Christian faith is to join in the liberating work of God in the world. I am called to use my voice as a middle-class, white, straight, married, educated, male to cry out for justice, for reconciliation, for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven. It is for this reason that I say...


The State of the Churches of Christ: A Case Study

Photo taken at a small Church of Christ in rural Arkansas.

Photo taken at a small Church of Christ in rural Arkansas.

The 2015 Directory of Churches of Christ in the USA has recently been published with the first copies releasing any time now. As is typical, it is often an opportunity for reflection on "the state of the church". In 2008 the Christian Chronicle had a year long series about this question: "Are We Growing?" They again returned to the question in 2012: "By the Numbers: Growth & Decline of the Church". 

Too often the conversation about the "current" situation (whether that is 1945, 1980, 2008, or now) breaks down in one of two ways:

Response from the "Conservatives": (A caricature to make a point)
If people would simply stick to the "old paths" and stop going after all the new and unscriptural innovations we wouldn't be in this mess. We used to be (in the glory days of the 1940's and 1950's) the fastest growing group in America (which by the way, this has been debunked by one of the most thorough and theologically conservative members of our tribe, Flavil Yeakley in his book "Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ".) Short answer: Blame it on the liberals and the heretics. Diagnosis: Our decline is empirical proof that faithfulness = the faithful remnant. Remember, "narrow is the way!" 

Response from the "Liberals": (A caricature to make a point)
If people in the Churches of Christ weren't so dogmatic, legalistic, and fundamentalist our children wouldn't be leaving and our churches shrinking. If we could get past our oppression of women, lack of talk about grace, and fascination with living in Mayberry we wouldn't be in this mess. Short answer: Blame it on the conservatives and hypocrites. Diagnosis: Our decline is empirical proof that the "conservatives" are killing the church. That decline = vindication. Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees!

If you disagree with my analysis just go follow the comments section on this article posted yesterday at the Christian Chronicle: "165,000 fewer souls in the pews: Five questions to consider".  

Perhaps though there is a third response that has begun to more regularly emerge. One that isn't necessarily alarmist or that points the finger at those on the opposite side of the relatively small theological spectrum within Churches of Christ. 

It goes something like this:

We are living in a post-modern, post-Christian society in which all "churches" (meaning denominations other than the Churches of Christ) are shrinking. 

So we look for numbers that are "worse" than ours, or show that we are weathering just as well as other traditions who are not growing. We attempt to be dismissive by saying, "Times are tough. That's life. It is unavoidable." Ultimately, these people, perhaps attempting to be peacemakers, or in varying degrees of denial are trying to tell us: It's bad, but it's not that bad.

The 2015 directory this year contains information on all the known Churches of Christ in the United States. It is the best attempt to give a comprehensive and accurate assessment of the Churches of Christ in America. 

The Christian Chronicle reports it this way:

In the last quarter-century, total membership has fallen to 1,183,613, according to the 2015 edition of "Churches of Christ in the United States," published by Nashville, Tenn.-based 21st Century Christian. 

That's down 100,443 souls - or 7.8 percent - from a total membership of 1,284,056 in 1990...

Add in unbaptized children and spouses of members, and the numbers are even more stark: The "adherents" figure stood at 1,684,872 in 1990. That number has dropped to 1,519,695, a decline of 165,177 souls — or 9.8 percent — the 2015 directory reveals.

Meanwhile, the total number of U.S. congregations has slipped to 12,300, down from 13,174 in 1990. That means a net loss of 874 churches in the last quarter-century — an average of 35 per year. 

In the same 25-year period, the nation's total population rose to an estimated 320 million, up from 250 million in 1990. That's an increase of 70 million — or 28 percent.

So while the US population is soaring (70 million in the last 25 years) we are caught in the midst of a marked decline. But a quick glance at the numbers still causes many within our tradition to not feel a great sense of alarm. 

This is where this case study comes in...

Churches of Christ in the United States 2015 has posted the overall numbers by state from their most recent addition.

The statistics for Oklahoma are a helpful test case...

State of Oklahoma

Population: 3,878,051
Congregations: 569
Members: 56,528 (Defined in the directory as baptized individuals)
Adherents: 74,208 (Defined as both baptized and unbaptized individuals)
Attendance: 56.027 (Defined as average Sunday morning attendance)

Here are a few important and initial observations:

  • Churches of Christ in Oklahoma are common, particularly in rural areas. With congregations in all 77 counties there is significant "presence" throughout the state. 
  • On any given Sunday, 1.44% of Oklahomans are attending a Church of Christ. 
    • As context the ratio is the following in these surrounding states: Arkansas (2.21%), Tennessee (2.52%), and Texas (0.88%). 
  • The gap between membership (56,528) and adherents (74,208) is 17,680 or 23.82% of all adherents. Presumably, many of this number are children.
    • (From another source but still relevant) The average age of people in the Churches of Christ is approximately 54 with slightly more than 25% being college graduates. This means that the rate by which our tradition will grow merely by the growth of families will continue to rapidly decline. 
  • The general average size congregation in Oklahoma is just over 98 people. (Attendance divided by the number of congregations.)

This last number, that the average size of a congregation is approximately 98, would cause many to breathe a sigh of relief. A congregation of nearly 100 should be economically sustainable, large enough to have some form of eldership/leadership, and able to have a meaningful presence in their community. 

But the reality should be much more sobering...

I want to demonstrate this by looking at the size of four congregations located in the two primary metro areas in Oklahoma and their attendance. This radically reshapes the way we think about the "State of the Church" in Oklahoma. It is my hunch that these same kinds of results will be more or less true across the country where the Church of Christ has any real presence. 

Here are the four churches: Memorial Road Church of Christ (OKC, OK), Edmond Church of Christ (Edmond, OK), North MacArthur Church of Christ (OKC, OK), and Park Plaza Church of Christ (Tulsa, OK).

According to the most recent weekly bulletins posted on their website their attendance for the last Sunday or February was as follows:

  • Memorial Road Church of Christ - 2,175
  • Edmond Church of Christ - 1,182
  • North MacArthur Church of Christ - 511
  • Park Plaza Church of Christ - 1,395
  • Total Attendance: 5,263

These numbers are important for a number of reasons:

  1. These four congregations comprise 9.25% of all church attendance in the State of Oklahoma while making up 0.7% of the congregations in the state. 
  2. The average size of these four congregations is 1,316, which is more than thirteen times the size of the average congregation, each. 
  3. Simply removing these four congregations from the list produces the following results:
    1. Attendance: 50,764
    2. Number of Congregations: 565
    3. General Average Size: 89.84 (down form 98,5)

When all the data is processed (which will have to be a project for another time) my hunch is that we will discover the following results:

  • That less than 25% of the congregations in Oklahoma more than 50% of the attendants. 
  • That the average size of a congregation in a rural community (let's define this as a community with a population of less than 10,000 people) is closer to 40. 
  • That the number of congregations that are one (or two) funerals, fights, or withheld contributions from folding would be troubling. 

The implications of this are enormous for a lot of reasons. Here are few worth discussing...

How should our schools that train ministers react to the reality that many of the established congregations in Churches of Christ will struggle to financial support a paid minister? (This might be particularly of interest to people training for "extra" ministries like youth, college, and family ministry which typically require that person to be additional ministry staff.)

How might larger, more established churches aid and support these struggling congregations, and when necessary, help them to close their doors with dignity and thanksgiving for what God has done?

What kind of church do we anticipate leaving for our children and for our communities?

Might this kind of perspective on the gravity of our situation embolden us to make important and sometimes painful decisions for the sake of our local congregations?

There are so many other questions to be explored, but I believe that it is time to recognize that in some ways, the Churches of Christ are not sick with the flu, but possibly considering hospice care. 

But take heart, the Kingdom of God cannot be overcome. And as people who once knew what it meant to be "Christians only, not the only Christians" that is not a bad place to be. 


Churches of Christ: Quick to Speak and (Too Often) Absent to Listen...

A screenshot of the metrics on my website for the days after I originally posted An Open CONFESSION to the Churches of Christ

The last couple weeks have been interesting here. I typically write for a handful of people who actually read my writings. My writing for me is usually more a cathartic experience that enables me to try and articulate something that has been on my mind for quite a while. Most of my writings never leave the draft folder, either because I don't think they are of the kind of quality that I expect of myself, because they are underdeveloped, or sometimes even because they should never be made public. 

So a couple of weeks ago when I wrote An Open CONFESSION to the Churches of ChristI expected that the few readers that I have might read it, but I ultimately didn't care. It was important for me to attempt to articulate what I was feeling in the wake of all the nasty, uncharitable, character maligning that I was reading. Now, that post has been read by more than 45,000 people, by far the most "popular" thing I have ever published here. (I say "popular" because you don't need to spend long in the comments to see that it really wasn't all that popular.) But it was what happened after that in the following days that has fascinated me. 

I spent a couple of days trying to respond to each and every comment submitted. I wanted to make clear that there was no bait-and-switch here. That people of all convictions on this issue (and any other that I discuss here) are welcome to hold to and even advocate their understanding of a particular issue, granted that they do it in a way that is honest, loving, and seeks to address the issue without maligning one's character or fast-tracking their eternal destiny. (You should see the private emails from people unwilling to post their comments on the blog. "Glorious" I tell you.)

Then I began to repost an edited version of some work I had done previously on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. This is one of the "trump cards" that is often played in this conversation. It is one of the texts people run to in order to say, "There is no is forbidden. Move on. Stop talking about it. Repent of your wrong interpretations.)

Side Note: If you (actually) read 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in any English translation you will see that the text says absolutely nothing about teaching or preaching. It speaks only to learning. This in itself, is a great illustration of how we (mis)use texts in order to fit our already pre-determined interpretive positions.

But the thing that I noticed that was so stunning was this:

Thousands of people stopped by the share their reaction to the rather open-ended confession that I had posted and a small, small, small fraction of them actually stayed to engage in an exploration (whether or not they agreed with my conclusions) of the actual biblical text. 

This is what I have called in my academic work, The Silencing of the Voice of Dissent. (I have an enhanced form of this paper originally delivered at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference in 2013 being prepared for submission for publication.) This is the phenomenon in which groups, individuals, and perspectives in any religious tradition that are aberrant experience a threefold movement from marginalization, to removal/expulsion/silencing, to a revisionist history to deny that they (whoever that is) were never a part of that religious tradition. This is exactly what has happened in the Churches of Christ. 

And in this season, where this conversation is re-emerging we are learning two things that I think are the result of the kind of paradigm that I suggested in that paper:

  1. Most people in our tradition are fundamentally unaware of the diversity that has long been a part of our movement on this question, even in our beginnings, and that a number of women made massive contributions to our movement and to the Kingdom of God as preachers, teachers, and missionaries. 
  2. We find ways in our revisionist history to also make sense of the present. This is why we have single women as missionaries all over the world who can serve "over there" but could never do so at home. We are able to learn from, read, and even share with our congregations the insights of women from books and other resources though it would be "sinful" for the author herself to get up and do so. 
  3. And finally, in order to authorize the revisionist history we must draw the lines even harder than they were before. This is why we don't allow women in many Churches of Christ to do things in our worship gatherings that they were clearly doing in the first century church, such a reading Scripture and praying! 

I think that this issue in the Churches of Christ has the potential to be more fragmentary than any in the history of our particular branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement. In my opinion there are three reasons for this:

  1. As a movement, we have become so polarized, and for so long have abandoned or maligned others within our tribe that have significant and sometimes important interpretive differences that we simply don't know how to speak to one another. 
  2. Our (unhealthy in my opinion) focus on congregational autonomy has translated into an extreme sense of isolation unless there emerges a common enemy. This means that the possibilities of constructive, generative engagement of people with different interpretive understandings of any issue is excruciatingly limited. 
  3. These things simply take time, and our culture, our churches, and our lives simply aren't willing to make that kind of sacrifice that is fundamental to the hard work of asking serious questions about God, the church, and the life that we live together for the sake of the world. 

Is it possible? With God all things are possible. Will it be difficult? Absolutely. Will it happen? I don't know. But if there is a movement that has the resources within its own history to have these kinds of engagements with one another and who are unwilling to be merely the next denomination (yes, I used the "D" word) to break up over theological issues... it is the Churches of Christ. 

Maybe we should take to heart one of the fundamental statements from Alexander Campbell as our marching orders for the near future:

"The spirit of all reformation, is free discussion."
-- Alexander Campbell

#SilentCofC: It's (Past) Time to Have This Conversation

Today it was announced that another former minister in our tribe was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. The victim reported to investigators that the abuse occurred over a period of years as she was living with the family as a foster child. 

The simple truth is this... 

This is not the first time that revelations like this have come out in the Churches of Christ. 

But maybe, this is finally the time that we can have some constructive conversation and tangible action about this problem in our tribe. 

Here is the series that has resulted so far from myself and a number of highly qualified guest contributors...

#SilentCofC: Child Sexual Abuse and Churches of Christ

This is the introductory post of the series covers the following: 

  • The prevalence of child sexual abuse,
  • The particular realities of this problem in communities of faith,
  • Myths about child sexual abuse
  • Notable incidents of CSA in Churches of Christ

#SilentCofC: Our Theological Assumptions About Children are Dangerous

Here I begin to explore the consequences of the way in which children are sidelined in the life and practices of the church. I suggest that our "segregation" of children minimizes the ability to expose children to positive adult interaction and increases the likelihood of predators engaging our children. 

#SilentCofC: Autonomy and the Culture of Silence

Here I explore this fundamental challenge and risk to one of our most celebrated "values": hat congregational autonomy has served to enable sexual predators to move from congregation to congregation with impunity. 

#SilentCofC: Church Practices for Prevention (Guest Post by Dr. David Duncan)

David Duncan, minister at the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston, offers an insight into some of the strategies and expectations that are in place in the congregation he serves to protect children and prevent abuse. 

#SilentCofC: The "Victim" and the Church (Guest Post by Dr. Ron Clark)

Ron Clark, church planter and minister at the Agape Church of Christ in Gresham, Oregon brings an insightful post about how the church should think about and respond to victims of abuse. 

#SilentCofC: The Trust Deception (Guest Post by Jimmy Hinton)

Jimmy Hinton is the minister of the Somerset Church of Christ in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He leads a ministry called Church Protect which is born out of his journey to help churches after his own father's conviction (a former Church of Christ minister) of child sexual abuse. This is his personal narrative and warning about the ways in which trust is too easily earned and kept in our churches when it comes to protecting our children. 

#SilentCofC: Changing Our Response (Guest Post by Gina South)

Gina South is the State Director for the Alabama Network of Children's Advocacy Centers and former professor of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at Faulkner University. She offers a number of tangible ways that our churches can move from secretive and fearful to proactive and bold in our protection of our children. 

#SilentCofC: The Mission - A Story of Abuse from the Mission Field

A first-hand account from a missionary (identities have been obscured to protect the innocent) about the uncovering of an abusive individual from their supporting congregation abusing a child on the mission field. This is their struggle with the confrontation and the fallout from their supporting church. An important narrative that is not unique to our tribe, but that no longer allows us to think of it as a problem only in other Christian tradition. 

There is more to be said and more to be written, but for now, this is a resource for all churches who are serious about protecting their children. 

We cannot remain silent any more. 

The Translators of the King James Bible on Change


Look at this quote from the preface of the original 1611 King James:

For was anything ever undertaken with a touch of newness or improvement about it that didn’t run into storms of argument or opposition? … [The king] was well aware that whoever attempts anything for the public, especially if it has to do with religion or with making the word of God accessible and understandable, sets himself up to be frowned upon by every evil eye, and casts himself headlong on a row of pikes, to be stabbed by every sharp tongue. For meddling in any way with a people’s religion is meddling with their customs, with their inalienable rights. And although they may be dissatisfied with what they have, they cannot bear to have it altered.