Church of Christ

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 conversation...it 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. 

An Open CONFESSION to the Churches of Christ...

This week has been a fascinating one for an important conversation in my tribe. On Tuesday, Wineskins posted a video interview with Lauren King who serves as the Preaching Intern at the Fourth Avenue Church of Christ where Patrick Mead serves as the Senior Minister. (At last check the video had 31,000+ views, which in our tradition is highly viral.)

The reaction to this news was swift, strong, and pointed. 

Blogs, open letters, social media comments, and aggravated conversations long dormant were revived. Words of affirmation, condemnation, disappointment, curiosity, and excitement flew far and wide. Different sides rallied the troops, tired rhetoric about "liberals" and "legalists" were brought back into use, and few (if any) had their thinking deeply engaged much less changed. I tried to follow the conversation, but after a while I lost track of whether there were more accusations of heresy or the suggestion that Churches of Christ finally understood the Gospel.  

So what are we to do?

I find myself in a strange place about this conversation. 

I grew up in a loving congregation in which so many godly women wielded immeasurable influence on my spiritual formation as a child. But at a certain point in my life the voices of those godly women all but vanished from my formal and intentional formation. 

In college, as I sought to learn and articulate my own beliefs I would have been immensely uncomfortable (although not entirely certain why) with the idea of someone like Lauren preaching on a Sunday morning or even studying to be a preaching minister. It would have been difficult to articulate why I took issue with this, but it just didn't "feel right." I knew that there were a couple of texts that I had heard on occasion, but I had not taken the time to learn for myself.

It wasn't until sometime later as I began an intense season of personal growth and study about most of my convictions that I started to ask the question about "women's roles" (which, by the way, a phrase coined in the 1970's, not the first century). After four or five years of studying the textual, historical, literary, linguistic, and interpretive history of relevant biblical texts did I come to my current position: In Christ, gender is not a distinction that circumscribes an individuals ability to serve in any capacity in the Kingdom of God. What matters is gifting, calling, and a holy life. 

So at some point in my spiritual journey I have subscribed to virtually every interpretive position on this question as it has been expressed in our movement.

  • That women are not to teach men (or boys who have been baptized), and that leading in public worship would constitute "authority over a man" and is forbidden.
  • That women could serve in more capacities than we currently allow, but not as the preaching or education minister (youth or children's minister perhaps) or as an elder. 
  • That women could serve in all capacities but that of an elder. 
  • In Christ, gender is not a distinction that circumscribes an individuals ability to serve in any capacity in the Kingdom of God. What matters is gifting, calling, and a holy life. (My current position.)

But the real reason that this conversation is important to me now, and the reason that it is a CONFESSION and not an argument // apologetic // diatribe against those who disagree with me is because, no matter the place I was at the moment, I often failed to act and speak towards the "other" (meaning the person who interpreted Scripture differently) in a way that honored God, built up the church, and enhanced its witness to the watching world. 

My hunch is that if all people on this issue (and any other issue for that matter) could start with a similar confession, our churches and our witness to the world would be radically transformed. So without further preface, here is my confession...


For the times when i have held to my convictions with suspicion of the other instead of love and discernment...

I humbly confess that this is counter to the central call of jesus to love the other and especially one's "enemies."

For the times that I have conflated my interpretation of Scripture with the exact words of Scripture, refusing to admit the possibility that there was more to consider or that I was fallible and limited in my understanding... 

I humbly confess this as idolatry parading as certainty and maturity.

For the times that I have thought or spoken of someone in derogatory words, whether "religious" or ordinary, whether labeling someone  as a legalist, liberal, misogynist, feminist, ignorant, arrogant, or stupid...

I humbly confess that this is ungodly behavior and reflects my lack of obedience to jesus' command not only to not murder, but to not have and harbor hatred toward my brothers and sisters. 

For the times that I have isolated myself from those who were theologically "other" from my current position (whatever that was at any time in my life)...

I humbly confess that it was not "them" who were dividing the body of Christ, but me and my choices to insulate, isolate, and reinforce functional and literal barriers between our congregations and between myself and other individuals.

For the times that I have allowed "distance" on some issue to translate into some form of universal distance, and where I have avoided or been indifferent to the gatherings, events, ministry, and general welfare of the "other" in my tribe...

I humbly confess that this form of exclusion is both unbiblical and utterly destructive of the church's witness in the world. It reflects a great failure on my behalf to take both the roots of our tradition and the teachings of Jesus seriously. 

For the relationships that i have strained or severed because of my position on this issue at different times in my life...

i humbly ask for your forgiveness and that you communicate to me the ways in which I have harmed you and the possibility of us being in a god-honoring relationship so that i may begin to respond in ways that are redemptive and reconciliatory. 


Based on this confession I hereby resolve to the following postures and practices:

  1. I will seek to shape my language and my tone in such a way that I am able to articulate my understanding in a way that is both humble and conditional, admitting that I don't have all the facts, that I could be wrong, and that in the end I stand in desperate need to God's forgiveness and grace. 

  2. I will seek to minimize the distance between people at a different place on the spectrum in our tradition whether through individual relationships, attending events at other congregations, and finding tangible ways to contribute to the flourishing of those communities whether in prayer, service, or some form of participation. 

  3. I will seek to understand the perspective of one who disagrees with me long before I seek to offer an answer of my own. And in this regard I commit to speaking in terms of questions, reflections, and hunches, avoiding language that could be taken to equate my words with God's words. 

  4. I will begin to reach out to those whom I have alienated, frustrated, or confused by my interpretive stance on this issue. I will seek to do so in a way that prioritizes reconciliation far above agreement or even dialogue. 

  5. I will seek to embody the kind of generosity of spirit, careful use of words, and motives driven by love not anxiety, power, or fear that I wish to see in others. 

In doing all this I seek to live out and embody the Prayer of Peace (a prayer often attributed wrongly to Saint Francis of Assisi):

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.


O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
t is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Churches of Christ and Racism: Time to Listen

There is a long history of racial tension in Churches of Christ. And today perhaps more than ever, the black Churches of Christ and white Churches of Christ are separated in a way that seems intractable. Consider this an exercise in listening, first to a prominent voice from the past, and finally a great conversation from someone who is on the forefront of this conversation in our tribe.

Listen. Mourn. Repent.

Listen. Open your hearts and your tables.

We've got a lot of work to do, and we have to do it together.


  Foy E. Wallace Jr.

  Foy E. Wallace Jr.

First we need to listen to a voice from the past.

Foy E. Wallace Jr. was a prominent voice in the vast majority of our movement spanning from his editorship at the Gospel Advocate in 1909 to just before his death in 1975.

One of the more polarizing figures in our movement he commanded both deep respect and deep criticism. Few were able to withstand his opposition and his influence on both the white Churches of Christ and the relationship of the white and black Churches of Christ can still be felt today. This article, written by Wallace in 1941 embodies his position well.


NEGRO MEETINGS FOR WHITE PEOPLE

Foy E. Wallace Jr., Bible Banner (March 1941): 7.

"The manner in which the brethren in some quarters are going in for the negro meetings leads one to wonder whether they are trying to make white folks out of the negroes or negroes out of the white folks. The trend of the general mix-up seems to be toward the latter. Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs. That kind of thing will turn the head of most white preachers, and sometimes affect their conduct, and anybody ought to know that it will make fools out of the negroes. For any woman in the church to so far forget her dignity, and lower herself so, just because a negro has learned enough about the gospel to preach it to his race, is pitiable indeed. Her husband should take her in charge unless he has gone crazy, too. In that case somebody ought to take both of them in charge.

       R. N. Hogan

       R. N. Hogan

"Reliable brethren in the Valley have reported the definite inclinations of the negro man and his wife in charge of the orphan home for colored children at Combes toward social equality. They are supposed to be members of the church, and some of the white brethren are apparently encouraging them. It is said that these two negroes have privately stated that they favor social equality and are working for it. The young editor of Christian Soldier, in the valley, admits that he roomed with the negro preacher, R. N. Hogan, and slept in the same bed with him two nights!And he seemed to be proud of it! Aside from being an infringement on the Jim Crow law, it is a violation of Christianity itself, and of all common decency. Such conduct forfeits the respect of right-thinking people, and would be calculated to stir up demonstrations in most any community if it should become generally known.

"It has gained considerable currency that the colored preacher Hogan has been too much inclined to mix with the white people and to favor, in attitude, a social equality. Hogan should have had too much sense, if not self-respect, to have permitted the young white preacher to sleep with him, if the young preacher did not have that much sense or self-respect. But Hogan has been under the sponsorship of Jimmie Lovell and cannot be expected to have any too much sense about anything. I have always said that Marshall Keeble and Luke Miller could not be spoiled, but if I ever hear of them doing anything akin to such as this I will take back every good thing I have ever said of them. Keeble should teach these negro preachers better than that, even if we cannot teach some young upstart among the white preachers. Their practices will degrade the negroes themselves. It is abominable.

    N. B. Hardeman

    N. B. Hardeman

"When N. B. Hardeman held the valley-wide meeting at Harlingen, Texas, some misguided brethren brought a group of negroes up to the front to be introduced to and shake hands with him. Brother Hardeman told them publicly that he could see all of the colored brethren he cared to see on the outside after services, and that he could say everything to them that he wanted to say without the formality of shaking hands. I think he was right. He told of a prominent brother in the church who went wild over the negroes and showed them such social courtesies that one day one of the negroes asked him if he might marry his daughter. That gave the brother a jolt and he changed his attitude!

"In one of my own meetings a young negro preacher was engaged by the church as a janitor. He made it a point to stand out in the vestibule of the church-building to shake hands with the white people. When I insisted that it be discontinued some of the white brethren were offended. Such as this proves that the white brethren are ruining the negroes and defeating the very work that they should be sent to do, that is, preach the gospel to the negroes, their own people.

"I saw a letter the other day from the colored preacher, R. N. Hogan, to a certain white brother stating that there were very few negroes in the section where he was preaching at the time, and that he was holding the meeting for the white brethren!

"When negro meetings are held in most of the places now, the white brethren over-run the premises. They herald these negro preachers as the greatest preachers in the world, when as a matter of fact if any of the white preachers should say everything they say to a word, it would sound so common that the brethren would stop it. But when a negro says it, in negro manner, the brethren paw up the ground over it.

"I was preaching in a certain city where Marshall Keeble had held a successful meeting. In usual style he had poured it on the negroes and it had run on the white people. One brother who was against hard preaching went wild over Keeble's hard preaching. Keeble preached it hard, calling names and giving the sectarians Hail Columbia! [T]his brother thought it was the greatest stuff he had ever heard. Later, when I was preaching in the same city, he squirmed until he polished the seat of a good pair of trousers because I drew the line on denominationalism. One night while he was squirming, I diverted attention by referring to one of Keeble's hard sayings. Immediately this brother sat erect, smiled and nodded in approval of Keeble's hard saying. I smiled back at him and said: Get yourself a negro preacher!

"I am very much in favor of negro meetings for the negroes, but I am just as much opposed to negro meetings for white people, and I am against white brethren taking the meetings away from the negroes and the general mixing that has become entirely too much of a practice in these negro meetings. Such a thing not only lowers the church in the eyes of the world but it is definitely against the interest of the negroes. If any negro preacher says that this is not true, that will be the evidence that it is true, and that he has been spoiled by the white brethren and wants to preach to white audiences. And if any of the white brethren get worked up over what I have said, and want to accuse me of being jealous of the negro preachers, I will just tell them now that I don't even want to hold a meeting for any bunch of brethren who think that any negro is a better preacher than I am! So that we can just call that argument off before it starts--and the meeting, too."                                                            

-- F. E. W.


Now for an alternative voice...

      Don McLaughlin

      Don McLaughlin

Don McLaughlin serves as the Senior Minister at the North Atlanta Church of Christ and is a leader in helping our tribe to talk about the realities of our culture and our tradition and the way that it impedes our ability to be reconciled across racial boundaries.

He recently had a fascinating conversation with Luke Norsworthy about Ferguson, white privilege, and ways in which we need to learn both the practice of hospitality and the ability to ask the response, "Tell me more."

Listen to the podcast here:

UPDATE: Justin Ardrey submitted the following video involving Don McLaughlin, Jerry Taylor, Josh Ross, and Eric Wilson. This is a great introduction to the conversation. Watch and engage. 

#SilentCofC: Changing Our Response (Gina South)

Today's guest post in the #SilentCofC conversation is from my new friend Gina South. Here is a little bit about her, and you will see quickly that her voice is both informed and generative. Let those who have ears to hear...


Gina M. (Tur) South is the State Director for the Alabama Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers, and a member of the Alabama State Bar Association. Mrs. South is committed to advocating for children, and works with legislators to protect children in her capacity as State Director. Additionally, she provides education/awareness for both professionals and members of the community. Prior to her work with the CACs, Mrs. South taught Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at Faulkner University for 8 years. Mrs. South graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, from Freed-Hardeman University, and from Mars Hill Bible School in Florence, Alabama. Mrs. South is married to Jason South, the Children’s Minister at Vaughn Park Church of Christ, and a Theatre Professor at Faulkner University. Together they have four children. The Souths are also current foster and adoptive parents for Agape of Central Alabama.


People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, He was indignant. He said to them, “let the little children come to me,
and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”[i]
 

Did you see that Jesus was indignant – regarding a children’s issue? Children are our some of our most precious treasures in this life. Our Lord did not want children to be treated as though they were less important, as though they had no business being placed in front of the Savior, as though there were far more important matters to be brought to the feet of Jesus. 

My heart is heavy when I consider that many of our churches are doing this very thing today. When our church leaders would rather discuss praise teams or event planning than address the direction of our children’s ministry, when paying down the church debt is more important than prioritizing child safety, when worship styles or church décor is more of a hot topic than the focus of our children’s hearts, I believe that we grieve the Holy Spirit, disappoint God, and bring Jesus to a place where He is indignant. With us. With how petty and short-sighted we are. Surely we can do better.

In my line of work, I see the aftermath of when we fail to protect children. I see the numbers of children, the cost to society, the hours of counseling needed to induce healing; I see the insidious way that it spreads, silently, secretly, and from generation to generation. Do you truly believe the statistics? Do you believe that one in four girls, and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18? Do you believe that only one in ten will actually disclose the abuse?[ii] Before my work with children’s advocacy centers, I did not. I was naïve. I assumed that the church cases were few and far between; I assumed that the statistics applied to the world, not to the church – not to any church I’d ever attended. But statistics are real, no matter what building you are in. Please do not believe for a second that because we are part of a small church family, or a close church family that we are insulated from it.

I grew up in the Church of Christ, and graduated from a Church of Christ high school and college. The Church of Christ values and the importance of God’s Holy Word have been deeply instilled from my childhood. These are my people; these are my roots. But just as most families have a skeleton in a closet, I have seen what I believe to be our skeleton, and it is the way we deal with accusations of child sex abuse, and the subsequent way that we treat the offender.

 In the situations that I have known about, the victim is told to stop talking about it, and the offender’s “record” is sealed shut. We silence the child because we do not want it to be true, or we think the child must be mistaken, or we do not want to ruin the lives of the offender, or the offender’s family. We seal shut the record of the offender and allow the offender to move on to another congregation, to molest more children, or we allow the offender to quietly resign, and seek employment in yet another place where he or she will have contact with children. Despite the fact that a sex offender molests on average, 117 children before being caught[iii], we do not press charges, or seek prosecution. We think that by not making a child face prosecution, we save them from public humiliation, or somehow protect them. We do not seek counseling for the child.

In doing so, our actions teach the child that it does not matter who touches them. It does not matter what happens to their bodies. Our actions highlight the truth: that we do not want to talk about the uncomfortable, that we will not discuss the painful topics, and that we will protect other adults to the detriment of our children’s safety. Is that really what we want to teach children?

It is remarkable that in Matthew 18, Jesus actually states, “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea,”[iv] and almost directly after that, He begins to address what to do when your brother sins against you.[v] The statements go together: it is our Savior’s desire that we protect children from evil behaviors. It is our Savior’s desire that we get to the truth of the matter.

Additionally, there is one small phrase we overlook. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…”[vi] When we have enough reasons to know that a person actually committed a crime, there is a Biblical mechanism in place to warn our church family. Are we doing what God has instructed of us? Are we warning our brothers and sisters? Keep in mind that you are not committing slander against an individual when you state the truth.[vii]

We must improve the way we deal with child sex abuse in the church of Christ.

The counselors who work with abused children tell me this: some Church of Christ children (and many other church-going children) are raised in such conservative homes that they are gravely unequipped. They lack the actual tools that children need to protect themselves. They do not receive the message “my body belongs to me,” and “it’s ok to tell someone NO.” Oftentimes, the children even lack the vocabulary needed to explain what has happened to them.

What can we do to improve? For parents, the following steps would be a good step in the right direction.

  1. Equip your preschooler. Teach them the actual names of their body parts, and teach them that nobody is allowed to touch them in a way that makes them feel bad, or uncomfortable unless it is the doctor, and is medically necessary. Make sure they understand that other children (not just adults) cannot have access to their bodies.
  2. Keep the lines of communication open. Tell them explicitly that they can tell you anything or ask you anything. Ask them if anyone is touching them, or doing anything inappropriate. Revisit the topic frequently enough so that as they grow, and get older, that they will always feel like they can talk to you about their bodies, or about sex, or about inappropriate situations they may have encountered.
  3. Educate yourself. Download the free McGruff Mobile smartphone app, where you can view an interactive map displaying crimes and sex offenders in your neighborhood. Actively seek information about how to talk to your child about body safety.
  4. Find out what your congregation is doing to protect children, and join in and assist.

What can churches do to improve?

  1. Give all members of the congregation (men, women and children) a voice in contributing to and implementing child safety policies. Seek the input of child safety professionals in your congregation. Create an environment where knowledgeable, qualified women and men can both advise and make policy decisions about child safety.
  2. Implement policies and procedures for child safety. Most church insurance plans have a model child safety policy that the congregation can implement. The Methodist churches have an impressive child safety plans (Safe Sanctuaries) in place today, and it is an excellent program that is a model for other religious groups.
  3. Hold regular seminars for both church staff and parents to teach them the signs and indicators of child sex abuse, and about how to identify individuals that are “grooming” children for abuse.
  4. Conduct background checks of all members who will have direct access to children.
  5. Make certain that your congregation has a policy of 2 workers for every class. No teacher should ever be alone with a child, regardless of whether the teacher is male or female.

Do not be naïve about the facts of child sex abuse. Do not neglect the children in your church family. Do not turn a blind eye, and do not fail to give your child the tools he or she needs, for who among us would dare to send an innocent, unarmed lamb into a battlefield, without so much as a warning? “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”[viii]


ENDNOTES

[i] Mark 10:14 NIV

[ii] Theresa Harvard Johnson, Angela Williams, Courage to Speak (Marietta: Voice Today, 2013), 20.

[iii] Nancy E. Grabe, et al., The Grooming Mystery (Marietta: Voice Today, 2013), 4.

[iv] Matthew 18:6 NIV

[v] Matthew 18:15-17 NIV

[vi]  Matthew 18:17 NIV

[vii] Disclaimer: the contents of this article are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice.

[viii] Matthew 10:16 NIV

#SilentCofC: The Trust Deception (Jimmy Hinton)

Today's guest post is from my new friend Jimmy Hinton. He serves as the minister at the Somerset Church of Christ in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He writes often about issues of abuse at his blog and is in the initial launch of his new ministry, Church Protect. Jimmy's journey into helping the Church think about the scope and cost of child sexual abuse came in the aftermath of learning that his father, a Church of Christ minister, was a pedophile with dozens of victims. His voice is important in our fellowship and I am thankful for his contribution today.

WARNING: Jimmy doesn't sugar-coat the nature of abuse. This is important, but for some, especially those who have been victimized in the past, it may serve as a trigger. For the rest of us, please consider Jimmy's honest and unsanitized perspective as an exercise in learning empathy for victims of this horrific evil.


I had just spoken as a keynote at a large conference for professionals who deal with abuse.  For many theological and psychological reasons that I won’t unpack here, I take a strong stance that pedophiles should not have access to our children, even (especially!) in worship.  A man came up to me after my speech and said, “You’re a preacher and you say that pedophiles and children should be separated.”  “Yep,” I said unflinchingly.  “Let me just ask you, where is the trust and forgiveness in that?”  I assured him that mistaking forgiveness and trust is a grave mistake.  They are not the same thing.  We can forgive people who should never be trusted again.  It’s a strange notion that we somehow magically believe that people who say, “Sorry” will never struggle with temptation again.   

This man’s response is not uncommon among church leaders.  I regularly get challenged by people who have never spent time either with a pedophile or with their victims.  They haven’t had to face the reality of witnessing the lies, manipulation, and denial from pedophiles.  Nor have they heard the horror stories from survivors who were humiliated, stripped naked, poked, prodded, and caressed with the tongues and fingers of their perpetrators.  I have.  And I acknowledge what the Bible and psychologists both agree upon—Children need responsible adults to protect them.

When I shared this man’s response with my ministry partner, who happens to counsel incarcerated sex offenders, without hesitation he offered me the following advice. 

“Always keep a 3x5 notecard and a pen in your pocket.  Next time someone is adamant that you are ‘unfair’ and need to integrate pedophiles into your church, take down their name and personal number.  Write down their home address as well as their church address, number, times of service, etc.  And just tell them, ‘You know what?  You’re right and I’m wrong.  Pedophiles do need a place to worship among children.  We are not equipped to make that happen but we are willing to pay for the flight, bus ticket, gas, or whatever to send the next pedophile we meet directly to your home.  Thank you so much for agreeing to integrate them into your own home and church.’” 

Now before anyone draws too harsh a judgment, let me be clear.  I want pedophiles to be redeemed.  I’m not arguing that we ban them from church unless, of course, they show no signs of remorse or repentance.  What I’m arguing is that, according to the Bible, we have the highest calling to protect our children and so, pedophiles who have repeatedly perpetrated upon children have no business being surrounded by them.  We should offer an alternative worship service without kids where temptation does not cause a repentant pedophile to stumble.  We do it with drug addicts.  We don’t serve booze to alcoholics.  So why do we insist that we serve our children on a platter to someone whose appetite is so insatiable that he or she has repeatedly stripped a child of their clothes, innocence, and decency?  God “does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), so why do we? 

The most common cliché I hear from churches who insist on not taking any precautions to protect their children is this—“We have a group of volunteers we trust so why would we upset them by demanding background checks and watching over them every time they want to serve?”  Great question.  Let me tell you about a story of a man who trusted his own father. . . who happened to be a well-respected father and preacher!  My dad has dozens of victims who all have dramatic stories of shame, pain, and humiliation.  He was able to gain access to children precisely because everybody trusted him.  Let me also tell you about hundreds of other people who have shared similar stories with me as I listen to their painful stories.  They all tell a similar story: “Nobody questioned my abuser because he was the guy everyone loved and trusted.” 

I can assure you that if you are, like I was at one time, looking for the creepy guy standing behind the bushes by the ice cream truck, you’re looking in the wrong place.  A successful pedophile is not someone who offended a child and got away with it.  No, a successful pedophile is someone who offended children over and over while gaining the love, respect, and trust from those closest to him.  The successful pedophile is the last person anyone would suspect as an abuser and the first person someone would choose to care for their kids.  And there is a lot of success out there, especially in our churches.  My dad once wrote me from prison, “Churches and Christian daycares are the easiest places to offend.”  Touché. 

I call this the “trust deception.”  We Christians are deceived precisely because we want to trust.  Dr. Gene Abel did a massive study among over 1,000 pedophiles and found that 93% of them identified themselves as religious.  That’s a huge deal!  We picture pedophiles as monsters with 3 heads who deny God and mock Jesus.  It’s simply not true.  The vast majority of them believe in God and identify as Christians.  The reason I make such a huge deal about this is because religious people typically go to church!  If 93% of pedophiles are religious, that means the majority of pedophiles are frequenting your churches.  It gets worse. 

The reason churches are among the highest risk for sex offenses to occur is that we have created the perfect storm.  As the famed Dr. Anna Salter once told me, “They (churches) are such inviting targets.”  There are 3 main ingredients to our Molotov concoction: 

  1. Christians by nature are generally naïve.  Quite honestly, we don’t want to know what kinds of things happen outside our own happy bubbles.  It disrupts our happy time and forces us to think about something tragic and actually do something about it.  Let’s be honest—prophets like Jeremiah weren’t exactly known for gaining converts through uplifting sermons. 
  2. Churches are desperate for volunteers.  When someone—heck when anyone—volunteers to help out, especially with kids, we describe them as “gifts from heaven.” 
  3. We wrongly trust everyone because “church folk” are safe people and church is a safe place.  Wrong!  Going to church makes a person a trusted individual no more than standing in a garage makes them a car.  The only way church will be a safe place is if we make it a safe place.  And this can be done.  The refusal by many church leaders to adopt healthy policies to protect their kids is mind-numbing. 

There are 42 million survivors of child sex abuse in the United States alone.  As someone who does church consulting and regularly conducts workshops on abuse in the Churches of Christ across the nation, let me tell you, it is an epidemic.  Am I an alarmist?  No, I’m a realist.  Just in the last few months, I’ve had somewhere around 100 survivors of child sex abuse share their stories of churches either actively covering up accusations of abuse or just flat out denying that it happens.  Shame on us.  We can do better than this for the very children Jesus called us to imitate.  Christ became indignant when his disciples blocked them from coming near him.  How much more indignant should we become when church leaders deny children a safe environment to worship?  Children should not have to cower in fear every time they enter an assembly to worship.  Let’s vow to do better at preventing abuse.

10 Things I Love About the Churches of Christ

A congregation in rural Arkansas that I pass when visiting my sister-in-law and her family.

A congregation in rural Arkansas that I pass when visiting my sister-in-law and her family.

Someone recently called me and said, "I've been reading your blog and you never have anything positive to say about the Church of Christ, it's always negative." Fair enough. 

I can understand how this perception is possible, particularly if you don't see me in my church context or some of my other writings (particularly in my A People's History of Churches of Christ work and my series of Table meditations). I identify with the segment of our tradition who believes that there is deep value and possibility in many of the fundamental convictions of our tradition, among others:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, charity; and in all things, love. 

Let the unity of Christians be our Polar Star.  

For more see this six-hour series from Dr. Leroy Garrett.

I deeply resonate with the metaphor employed by Leroy Garrett about his place in Churches of Christ: A Lover's Quarrel

He describes it this way: 

"I love the Churches of Christ too much to leave, and too much to leave them alone." 

I couldn't have said it better myself. 

So here are 10 things that I love about the tradition of which I am a part and which I love too much to leave alone.  

(1) The desire to read, interpret, and apply Scripture.  

We have a long history of exploring, interpreting, and articulating our understanding of Scripture. We have done so with diversity from our earliest days, and we continue to value the place of the biblical text in our life and practice.  

(2) An appreciation for congregational singing.  

While I do not believe that acappella music is a theological mandate (a.k.a. that instrumental music is a "sin"), I believe that it has immense formative power and should not be changed or discarded lightly.  

(3) A desire to make Communion a regular part of the life of the church.  

This is a gift that our tradition has given us, and that should not be taken lightly.  

(4) An intrinsic commitment to simplicity of worship.  

By and large our tradition has sought to engage in worship without an undue emphasis on "production".  

(5) The ability for significant diversity by way of congregational autonomy. 

Each congregation doesn't need to appeal to a central authority or prescribed set of rules in their decisions of faith and practice.  

(6) The desire to engage in critical scholarship across disciplines.  

For the relatively small size of our tradition we have produced a disproportionate number of recognized scholars in a wide-range of fields. We are not afraid to love God with our minds.  

(7) Our value of the practice of Baptism.  

While much of the Evangelical and Pentecostal world has made little of baptism, our tradition has continued to value this central Christian practice.  

(8) Our desire for good preaching.  

I have heard and seen from others outside of our tradition, that Churches of Christ have some of the finest preaching in the American/Evangelical scene. With people like Mike Cope, Josh Graves, Rick Atchley, Jerry Taylor, Fate Hagood III, Lawrence Murray, Sara Barton, Jen Christy, Noami Walters, and others I am quick to agree.  

(9) Churches of Christ have a deep love for missions.

I have seen this to be true both in the congregations that I have been a part of, and in my own family.  

(10) That our story is unfinished.  

We have a deep recognition that God is not done with us yet, that there is more work to be done, and a new horizon to see. We know that we are to do more than maintain the machine and speak of the "glory days". 

Do I love the Churches of Christ? Absolutely.

Will I stay in Churches of Christ? I believe it is my family, and you don't abandon your family.  

Are there things that I would like to see be different? Yes. And when God looks at me, there are things he sees which he desires to change as well.  

Do I look like I am "always hating" on Churches of Christ? Only if you don't know me.

So if this is your perception of me, send me an email or buy me a cup of coffee. I am an open book, looking to honor God and serve his mission in the world.

And if you and I don't agree on how that is/should be done, let's talk, as brothers and sisters in Christ, for that is what we are. 

That willingness to walk together even in our diversity and particularity...I couldn't think of a better way to honor God and the beauty of our Tradition.  

 

#SilentCofC: Autonomy and the Culture of Silence

Yesterday we explored this idea:

ALL OF OUR PRACTICES ARE EMBODIMENTS OF OUR THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS (ABOUT GOD AND THE WORLD) EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN ARTICULATED.

Today I want to briefly explore one of the most treasured (and misused!) elements of our ecclesiology: Congregational Autonomy.

For brevity, allow me to simply caricature what happens in our tradition when it comes to congregational autonomy.

First the elements of congregational autonomy that we celebrate...

  • Each congregation is run by its own elders. An eldership cannot exercise authority over other congregations or the members of those congregations.
  • Each congregation is enabled to make its own decisions about its life and doctrine without needing the pre-approval of some larger governing body.

Now, the more functional and dangerous components of this idea...

  • Lacking the authority structure to impose theological conformity, Churches of Christ result to social pressure, rhetoric, and a string of publications and outlets aligned with others of a similar orientation and practice.
  • Potentially embarrassing events (such as sexual abuse) can be addressed at the local level with nothing else done because it's not our problem and/or we don't have any authority or "right" to say something.
  • Autonomy typically means functional isolation, as if each church lives within a vacuum, although in dialogue with other equally self-contained congregations. This means that churches who do have resources to deal with things like sex abuse prevention are isolated from churches that need the same help.

In Churches of Christ, our "autonomy" has served to enable sexual predators to move from congregation to congregation with impunity.

In the last week since posting the introductory post in this series I have been contacted by four individuals who have stories of abuse being covered up (some in the distant past, and some in the last month!) and the perpetrator being asked to no longer attend that congregation, but to attend at a different Church of Christ! What the hell?!?!

Remember this excerpt from the outstanding article (published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology) entitled, What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse by Victor Vieth.

Child molesters manipulate both children and the church.

“Child molesters, particularly those meeting the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia, are extremely manipulative of not only their victims but also the church as a whole. According to Salter (2003, p. 28) ‘If children can be silenced and the average person is easy to fool, many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.’ In the words of one convicted child molester:

I consider church people easy to fool… they have a trust that comes from being Christians… They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people… I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words. (Salter, 2003, p. 29).

Not only are child molesters skilled at lying to pastors and parishioners alike, they are often proud of their abilities to fool leaders and members of their congregations. In the words of one convicted child molester:

(T)here was a great amount of pride. Well, I pulled this one off again. You’re a good one … There were times when little old ladies would pat me on the back and say, “You’re one of the best young men that I have ever known.” I would think back and think “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t think that.” (Salter, 2003, p. 199)

Congregational autonomy as it currently functions in Churches of Christ is at the very least problematic, and increases the risk that sexual predators are able to move within our tradition with impunity. It's time for the sake of our children and our witness in the world to think about how our functional isolation endangers the most precious and vulnerable members of our church family. 

Increased cooperation, communication, and commitment to protecting our children is the only faithful way forward.