The future of Churches of Christ is a theological question, full stop.
I’m struck anew by how unconventional, even peculiar, this claim is for the tradition. And that is why it is necessary to assert unequivocally that what happens next will be a response to our vision and experience of who God is. It will be nothing else.
Our preoccupation should not be how to stem the flow of membership bleeding away or how to plant enough churches to offset the loss. Our attention should not be set on preserving a historical identity or discovering a new one. Our commitment should not be to the right practices—of interpretation, discipleship, unity, community, or justice. Our interest should not be surviving or thriving or any other version of being.
Before the even-handed purveyor of nuance pipes up: Yes, these are good and important, some more so, some less. No, these are not mutually exclusive with whatever else I will say. Yes, the dichotomy of theology and practice is false. No, we cannot answer the theological question without mission or identity or commitments. Yes, there is room for more than one idea of how to move forward. No, God save us, there is not a final answer. Also, knock it off. I’m talking about the one thing here. Everything else flows from it. Nothing else means anything apart from it. Call it the heart, the womb, the center, the essential truth, the sine qua non, the yes that we must speak before and after all other words—call it what you like. (Well, don’t call it the foundation. For everyone’s sake, let’s just let that one rest a while.)
I am not interested in answering the question here. I do not offer overtures toward an answer. The constructive work is for other times and places.
Instead, I am voicing my perplexity, my incredulity, at the fact that in the midst of our scramble to reckon with the epochal shift that is sifting Churches of Christ (among others) in the US like wheat, I hear our leaders attempting to answer every question except the one by which we live or die: Who is the God we love and serve? This is a confessional question, but more, it is a theological question. It is the theological question.
My belief is that our tradition is so colossally failing to give an answer in our time because, fundamentally, we presume the answer is already given. We presume it is enough to say, “The God of the Bible” or “The God revealed in Jesus” or “The God we worship and pray to and preach about every Sunday.” Simplicity and superficiality are our bane. We presume the other questions are the ones that really need answers. This presumption is a deadly delusion. It is literally killing us.
Churches of Christ are effectively a-theological, historically as a matter of description and presently as a matter of inheritance. We are predisposed to ignore the force of the theological question. We share no coherent vision or experience of God. Our response to God is broadly, typically, inarticulate.
This became clear to me in a new way as I studied and interacted with colleagues of diverse backgrounds in my PhD program at Fuller Theological Seminary. As I participated in theological discussions, my friends would analyze, critique, and make proposals by employing an interconnected set of established theological assumptions. This not only served the coherence of their work but helped others understand what they were up to. In the same way that a theological publication is usually best understood with reference to the author’s tradition and commitments, another student’s theological heritage was a key reference point for understanding her argument. By contrast, I frequently found myself explaining that my church tradition doesn’t have a specific or well-defined understanding of a particular issue. Perhaps a tendency, a position from Campbell or Milligan or Lipscomb or Whiteside, or a common sermonic refrain, but nothing systematic, nothing definitive, especially for twentieth-century Churches of Christ. For example, in my course on the atonement, it was obvious that my background offered only a sketchy point of departure. What one says about atonement is constrained and compelled by other doctrines, such as Christology, anthropology, and eschatology. Ultimately, the interrelatedness of these topics is what constitutes a coherent theological tradition. The minimalism of doctrine among Churches of Christ, which often retreats to the repetition of biblical phrases, erodes such coherence. There are positive aspects of this minimalism, no doubt. I have a greater degree of freedom to appropriate diverse theological perspectives and to undertake more radical systematic revisions than I observed in many of my colleagues with more robust traditions. For example, it was not controversial among my cohort at Harding School of Theology to appreciate the New Perspective on Paul where it challenges substitutionary atonement, Open Theism where it challenges divine omniscience, Moltmann’s theology of the cross where it challenges divine impassibility, or Brueggemann’s biblical theology where it challenges the unity of Scriptural witness. Any of these might have been difficult to understand or unacceptable in the end for a particular student, but none of them was irreconcilable with the theological tradition, because the tradition is so tenuous in the first place. This freedom is rooted in what my teacher John Mark Hicks has called our “wild democracy,” which I cherish [1. See John Mark Hicks, “I Stayed for the Wild Democracy,” in Why We Stayed: Honesty and Hope in Churches of Christ, ed. Benjamin W. Williams (Los Angeles: Keledei, 2018), 103–20.]. It need not, however, lead to the kind of inarticulacy that cripples us presently.
The theological question demands that we articulate not only what we answer but how and why and what it means for everything else.
No doubt, the guardians of fairness and balance will cry “generalization,” even “overstatement.” To these devastating insights I say, of course our congregational life entails properly theological responses. Top to bottom, first-order theology is at work in the tradition. Our practices just are affirmations and confessions. Unequivocally, however, they are incoherent. They are not ours. They are not the entailments of a shared search for understanding. And, most fatally, they are demonstrably failing to determine our answers to the other questions that so absorb us.
Because I am especially interested in a missional theology, one example that merits attention is the argument of another of my teachers, Stan Granberg. No one is taking the rapid decline of Churches of Christ more seriously, and his research is extremely important. Wineskins, which has recently given the situation appropriate attention, featured an abbreviated version of his substantial article published in Great Commission Research Journal [2. See Stanley E. Granberg, “Three Bold Challenges,” Wineskins 22, no. 7 (2019): http://wineskins.org/2019/07/17/three-bold-challenges-for-churches-of-christ; Stanley E. Granberg, “A Case Study of Growth and Decline: The Churches of Christ, 2006-2016,” Great Commission Research Journal 10, no. 1 (2018): 88–111.]. Urging that planting new churches is the solution to what ails us, Granberg quotes Timothy Keller: “The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city.” The word “crucial” caught my attention. It comes from the Latin word crux, used originally in the phrase instantia crucis (“instance of the cross” or “crucial situation”). Let me avoid a few misunderstandings. One, I am not making an etymological argument. Two, I am not quibbling about word choice. Three, I am not casting aspersions on Granberg’s theology. Rather, because of the seriousness and merit of his argument, I want to reckon with what it represents: a propensity to reach for practical, strategic solutions that underplay the theological dimensions of the question before us. What does the cross teach us about the way forward? What is truly crucial? What does cruciformity look like as churches close at a rate that can only be called fatal? I’m an advocate of “church planting”; I’ve done some myself. But are we really suffering decline because we’re not planting enough new churches? Is the solution really to reallocate money and plant new churches? Or might it be that the problem and the most important answer has more to do with how existing churches—and, inevitably, any that arise from the same anemic theological tradition—live (and die) in relation to God?
Our theological status quo is anathema. The work of theology is imperative. There is a hopeful future for Churches of Christ that way. But if we refuse to speak of God first, if we keep acting as though we can organize, strategize, and financially manage our way forward, our future is hopeless and pointless. If we keep pretending that old answers and good intentions are enough, the tradition is dead already.
I remain hopeful, because the cross is a sign of hope. It is the power of God for renewal and restoration. We must, in faith, persist in the search for an understanding of the God found there. We must speak and act according to its logic. This is the work of theology to which we are presently called.