Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
-1 Corinthians 4:5-7 (NIV)
The publication of a new directory of the Churches of Christ, the fellowship of churches that me and my congregation are associated with, has revealed something that most of us have already known for a while: Membership in the US is down.
It’s down, publishers of this directory say, by nearly 8% since 1990, from nearly 1.3 million to a little less than 1.2 million. In the same time period, the total number of US churches that identify with Churches of Christ has dropped from 13,174 to 12,300: a net loss of 874 churches.
Estimates are hard to come by, but most suggest that American church attendance in general is on the decline. 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, in a time when the population of America is rising, the percentage of that population that goes to church on a regular basis is declining. And Churches of Christ are experiencing the same sort of decline.
Here’s what I find interesting, though: Churches of Christ have always said we weren’t a denomination. We don’t have a headquarters, or a yearly convention. Local churches appoint their own elders and deacons, call their own ministers, and handle their own affairs. Some local congregations are friendly an cooperative with one another, while others choose to isolate themselves. There are universities and colleges and schools located with us, and facilities to care for dysfunctional families or elderly people, and even some organizations that help to recruit and train mission teams. But none are supported by a denominational office, just by individual churches or, increasingly, corporate and individual donors.
And yet, there’s a directory that claims to be able, with some accuracy, to say how many of us there are.
I guess that’s fine. If nothing else, it helps people who are traveling (and don’t have internet access?) to figure out where they can find a church that will probably look and sound something like theirs. But how do the publishers know which churches are “ours” and which aren’t? By the name? There are some Churches of Christ that, for instance, use instrumental music. (Most of “us” don’t.) By our more distinctive practices? Then we’d need to include some other groups, even if we’re only talking about our most distinctive ones.
I know, I’m kind of being disingenuous. There are undoubtedly a number of criteria that the publishers use to distinguish “us” from “them.” And, in fairness, they’re not doing it for the purpose of judgment. Just for the purpose of naming “us,” as opposed to others.
In other words, for the purpose of denomination. (That’s what the word means, after all.)
Paul, writing to a church that was divided into groups that favored this teacher or that preacher, said that the problem they had was going “beyond what was written” to judge and attribute motives and try to win praise. They were “puffed up” by being, they thought, more “right” than those others. “What do you have that you didn’t receive?” he asks. Something that we should ask whenever we feel the denominational spirit rising in us.
It seems so right, sometimes, to point out others’ flaws and shortcomings. We’re like Jesus’ first disciples, reassuring him that they had shut down an unauthorized exorcism. After all, the brand has to be protected, right? Can’t have folks who haven’t been vetted running around kicking the devil’s rear end. What if they don’t see eye to eye with us on how many cups you use for Communion, or whether it’s OK to sing Chris Tomlin songs?
But Jesus tells us exactly what he thinks about that kind of denominationalism: “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” The Jesus movement was never intended to be institutional. It was certainly never intended to break apart along the fault lines we’ve created with our pride and arrogance. It is Jesus who draws us together, not human reflection on and interpretations of the things he did and said. As Christians, we follow Christ, and others who do the same are our sisters and brothers, whether we agree with them on some of the specifics or not.
And there is room for dissimilarity and even disagreement in God’s spacious kingdom. I believe, for instance, that baptism is for believers, and that it’s by immersion. I’ve argued with other Christians over that very thing but that doesn’t make them less Christian. I think they’re wrong about that particular issue, but I’ve been wrong before as well, and there’s a slight chance I might be again, and I don’t think that puts me out of reach of God’s grace. So shouldn’t I give someone else the same latitude? What do I have that I haven’t received from the limitless stores of God’s grace and love? Why would I ever imagine that someone else shouldn’t receive it as well?
Denominationalism only benefits those who hold power. It sees the growth of another group of Jesus followers as loss for its own. To a denominationalist, the kingdom of God is a zero-sum game. God’s grace and love have limits, and they are exactly equivalent to the boundaries of his denomination.
So my fellowship of churches in America is losing members. I’m sorry about that, and I want to do what I can to solve it. But there are churches in America, some of them in my fellowship and some outside, that are growing, and I’m thankful for that, even if I sometimes think that they might be compromising some important things to do so. Church attendance is on the rise in South America, India, and Africa. I can see that as a loss for the American church, or for my particular brand of church. Or I can see it as a gain for the Kingdom of God. And, begging your pardon if you think differently, I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.
Whoever is not against us is for us. I think I’ll trust Jesus’ word on that one. The Devil rallies enough opposition to God’s work already; let’s not create it for ourselves. The church can splinter and divide into increasingly irrelevant bits over increasingly irrelevant disputes. Or, we can learn who our allies are, learn from each other, and take the good news of Jesus to a world that increasingly doesn’t know it.