As was mentioned in the previous post, isolationism tends to lead to mediocrity. When ideas, knowledge and emotional/spiritual support are cut off, vision and leadership can suffocate for lack of spiritual oxygen. Part of what ails Churches of Christ is a general isolationism from one another, and certainly other Christians groups. I talked about it somewhat generally in the post on flexibility and nimbleness. Let me be more specific here: We must break down several walls—academy and church, Bible-Belt and non Bible-Belt, congregation and congregation, among others.
I know that many churches do fellowship with one another and with those outside Churches of Christ. Within Churches of Christ, we have Bible Lecture programs that try to bring church and academy together—as well as bringing Christians around the country together. There might be area preacher's luncheons, area-wide singings, etc. These are all immense blessings. But they are not enough. What I speak of is what happens between the lectureships and preacher's luncheons. It's a paradigm shift in the way we think about ourselves and our relationship to one another. We must begin to view one another as outposts of the Kingdom, and not different congregations from within a distinct fellowship.
I first noticed this was an issue as I came to know some amazing leaders within the Independent Christian Churches. Over the last several years, I've been blessed to get to know megachurch and small church pastors, university presidents, and leaders of parachurch ministries. I've been able to wander around behind the scenes as a relative unknown, observing how they interact with one another.
It is striking to me.
My observation is that church leaders in Independent Christian Churches are generally open books. They share openly the successes and challenges facing their church—in completely appropriate ways. While many of these leaders are in their 50's or 60's and have been part of highly "successful" ministries, they actively seek the wisdom of one another as though they were right out of seminary. They are still eager to learn and yet humble enough to seek out perspectives from those younger and less experienced. They are eager to listen to and advise young pastors.
They share ideas openly and generously. University presidents, pastors, parachurch leaders—all seem to feel as though they are involved in the same ministry. The lines differentiating their ministries and institutions are soft lines—they work together. The churches look out for the schools, and the schools strive to serve the churches. The churches and the schools watch out for the parachurch ministries. It seem to be about Christ and advancing the Kingdom.
I don't want to suggest that there is never any "holy competition" or scarcity mentality in Christian Churches. However, it's obvious that they are much further down this path than we are. This, I believe, is one major reason for their immense success in ministry over the last 15 years. Christian Churches serve Christ, in general, from a mentality of abundance. While, I believe, Churches of Christ continue to serve Christ through the lens of scarcity. This is obviously not true everywhere, but is seems to be so generally.
This scarcity mentality is somewhat understandable. There is scarcity right now in Churches of Christ. It seems as though there isn't enough. There aren't enough strong congregations. There aren't enough capable leaders. There aren't enough young people in the pew. There aren't enough financial resources. There aren't enough ____________ (fill in your own blank).
A lot of this is true, temporarily…just as there wasn't enough food to feed the masses the day Jesus fed the five thousand. If however, we are willing to take what we have and devote it fully to the Lord and His fame, I believe He can take it and break it and use it to feed many. However, if we choose to cling to the few loaves and fish we have, it will not go well with us. This change will not happen through osmosis or good intentions. We need God to dramatically change our hearts and increase our faith. From there, we'll need to take some concrete steps.
We need to repent of the scarcity mentality and embrace generous cooperation with one another as we never have. The abundance mentality honors God and brings His blessing. It is an expression of trust in His provision. It's seeking God's best for one another, not merely the preservation of what we have. This will take vision and faith. It will take us thinking together and allowing stories like the Parable of the Talents to inform decisions about our future.
In most places, however, the scarcity mentality that pervades our fellowship causes churches to hold back from one another, to sometimes view one another with suspicion, and to (quite secretly) even resent one another's successes. In many places, there is real competition for financial resources between churches, colleges, and parachurch ministries. This is may seem necessary, but it is dead wrong. It erects walls that keep us from working together in ways that would honor the Kingdom, leaven our spirits, and improve our effectiveness in service.
While not an exhaustive list, here are some walls that need breaking down:
- "Liberal Congregation" and "Conservative" Congregation. I believe God is using our current scarcity to reshape us in positive ways. When times were better, churches felt they had the luxury of ignoring and shunning one another over theological jots and tittles. I'm glad we've improved some in this area. However, simply not being hostile toward one another is not enough.
- Congregation and Congregation. While Churches of Christ have roughly the same number of members in United States as the Independent Christian Churches do, we also have roughly twice the number of congregations. In some places, congregations and the Kingdom would benefit from some congregational mergers or some "legacy" churches making a Kingdom decision to join with another—liquidating earthly assets and using the resources strategically to serve the poor, plant churches, or strengthen another local congregation. Remember, it's about maximizing what God has entrusted to us for His glory. At the very least, we could work together far more than we do now.
- Academy and church. I'll expound on this more in the post on ministry skill. In a sentence: There is too much distance between Church and Academy. The Church too often views the academy with theological suspicion; also as somewhat alien and impractical. The academy (though not it's best members) sometimes look down on the church and it's servants for their comparative lack of education rather than seeking to learn from them. In some of our colleges, the bright students are encouraged to go into scholarship. The nice students are encouraged to go to ministry. We have some terrific colleges and we have terrific churches. We need to view one another more as siblings. While we currently have many, we can always use more scholar-preachers and more ministry-minded scholars.
- Parachurch Ministries and Local Congregations. Let's stop competing for dollars and donors. God will provide. Parachurch ministries are not a substitute for the local church. Churches cannot do certain ministries nearly as effectively as the parachurch groups can. It seems like the Kingdom would benefit from more strategic partnerships and less rivalry. If you need a good example, look at how some churches partner with ministries like Let's Start Talking and Medina Children's Home. It can be done…and well.
- Parachurch Ministries and One Another. Rather than working together, thinking together, planning together, and perhaps even joining one another, these ministries often choose to go it alone—duplicating ministry over and over and competing with one another for resources. This shouldn't be. Churches of Christ have some marvelous parachurch ministries. We could benefit from strategic thinking on how to improve ministry through them, and perhaps consolidate and strengthen them.
- Bible-Belt and Non Bible Belt. There is a chasm between the institutions and congregations of Churches of Christ located in the Texas/Oklahoma – Tennessee corridor and the rest of the country. Having served in both areas, I know that both have capable ministers, ripe harvest fields, and a lot to offer one another. They just don't–in part because of perceived cultural differences, and because of geography. However, we live in an age in which geography isn't the boundary it used to be. East-Coast and West-Coast churches need to see how God is moving some of our largest, most vibrant congregations. The Bible-Belt is indeed talent and resource rich, but they are also stronger at leadership development and cooperation. Their proximity to Christian colleges avails them access to intellectual and human resources that coastal congregations don't have. Coastal churches are immensely creative and resourceful, forced to be so for lack of resources, a less Christian community demographic, and higher cost of living. Coastal churches are generally smaller but this can sometimes foster deeper relationships. Because the coastal regions tend to be less Christian, most of those in coastal congregations are there because they want to be. Many are spiritual Marines—willing to do absolutely anything for the cause of Christ. It would bless us all to have a bit more cross-pollination.
Here's the sum of it: Let's renounce the scarcity mentality so the walls can come down. Some courageous decisions need to be made. Some awkward conversations need to happen. Some fences need to be mended. Some repentance and forgiveness needs to take place. Let's get on with it, so we can dream big again by faith.
An abundance mentality toward one another will lead to the expansion of God's Kingdom, because it honors God and He is working in all of us. Serving from abundance will lead us to share God's work in us with all of us. As we do, we need to remember that God works outside Churches of Christ as well. However, we can start here. Only God knows what will happen.