This is part five of the Five Forces of the Restoration Movement series. I suggest first watching the video below and then reading the accompanying article. In this video, I connect my house to the Restoration Movement.
“Follow Jesus for the future.”
The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, June 1804
As the world approached New Year’s Day 2000, anxiety levels were off the charts; the state of our technology had people on edge. The Y2K coding bug left many afraid for their future. Concerned that computers could shut off once the new year arrived, some speculated their bank transactions could be compromised or that planes might even fall from the skies.
But we shouldn’t have been surprised about the fear concerning our failing computers. The technological angst was likely connected to general apprehension about the turning century. Throughout history, people have been psychologically impacted by what is known as fin de siècle (the end of a century). As one scholar noted:
“There is no reason why the turning of a century should carry any particular historical significance. The idea that history falls neatly into hundred-year blocks and can be assessed in these units is obviously ludicrous. Yet in the supposedly Christian parts of the world where the larger sweep of time is measured in such terms, the passing of a century tends to give rise to wistful reflection on the past as well as intense speculation about the future. The arrival of ‘landmark’ dates engenders a heightened sense of temporality, of time passing. Changes which are actually taking place at these junctures tend to acquire extra (sometimes mystical) layers of meaning."
This is why the Y2K incident is helpful in framing what happened at the very beginning of the Restoration Movement. The Second Great Awakening (which started at the end of the 18th century) was at least partially influenced by the changing calendar. There were some who believed that the new century would bring about the end of the world and, as a result, the work of the kingdom took center stage.
Thus, the FUTURE—a concept drenched in both fear and hope—was a force in our Movement.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
In my final installment of this series I don’t intend to mine through our past to examine this force. Throughout our history, the goal of our Movement has been the restoration of the church to effectively impact the world with the gospel of Christ. Proving that the future is part of our DNA doesn’t require extensive prooftexting: simply look at the title of Alexander Campbell’s most influential publication. The Millennial Harbinger was meant to allude to the forerunner of something to come (a harbinger), and to introduce people to the possibilities of what could be.
The problem with future is how it can negatively impact the present. And this has become a serious issue in our Movement. Our obsession over what’s still to come tends to keep us from acknowledging how far we’ve come. So today, I want to declare victory:
The ideals of our Movement have triumphed.
Over recent decades, as churches have adapted to a growth paradigm (at least partial credit for this should be given to Movement thinkers like Donald McGavran and Joe Ellis), all kinds of churches have adopted restorationist practices: the Bible is preferred to creeds, adult immersion by baptism is more popular than ever, congregational autonomy is the norm, and denominational ties are evaporating. I frequently read through the statements of faith of many non-Movement churches and they could very easily be confused with those of our own. Even Charismatic/Pentecostal churches are recrafting aspects of their theology to become more efficient evangelists.
That’s why I say that the future is now: the issue isn’t that our Movement is dying; it’s that we finally won, and we don’t know what to do now.
That’s why I set out to write this series. While I love our Movement’s history, it has the tendency to paralyze us. We look at these forces that are so prevalent and feel as if it’s our duty to live up to them—or at least to sing their praises. It’s this compulsion that I sought to dispel.
Our Movement’s future demands that we overcome the historical forces of freedom, finance, fracture, and fortification. We must embrace our past, repent of some sins, and move toward what’s next.
While our Movement was powered by biblical liberty, the freedom of religion provided by the United States Constitution was nearly as influential. American experimentation and entrepreneurialism influenced our founders to become “Christians only.” But in the decades since, freedom in Christ has proved more compelling than Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17; we place a higher value on independence. Thus, we need to reestablish our connectivity with each other to ensure that our ideals do not pass away.
We must seek out accountability.
Years ago I was close to a Movement minister who had a moral failure. Surprisingly, he was immediately hired by another Christian Church to lead their congregation. I felt obligated to reach out to the church to inform them of this discretion of which I was sure they were unaware. They tersely responded that it was none of my business whom they decided to hire. I was shocked that one of our churches wouldn’t care about this kind of news. I was even further shocked when I learned later that two other ministers submitted the exact same concern to the church and were also ignored. Apparently this congregation felt that their freedom to hire whomever they wanted outweighed the concerns of three ministry leaders.
For years our Movement maintained some levels accountability through our Bible colleges and our magazines. But as the influence of these institutions wane, we’re forced to reconsider how we practice mutual submission. We need to be open to people’s concerns, especially since the Holy Spirit works through the counsel of others. Are we permitting room for the Spirit’s to be heard?
The early days of the Movement were highly influenced by wealth. The affluent were often able to determine whose voices were heard and what issues took precedence. As Christian Churches today are much larger than congregations in previous generations, the financial strength our Movement is now shifting inward.
We must commit to support Movement causes.
In recent years, I’ve learned of churches in our Movement that have reclassified their “missions” giving as “outreach.” In these instances, church funds have been diverted from supporting missionaries on foreign fields to more localized efforts designed to reach out to its own community. While it’s admirable that congregations are more willing to meet needs in their own backyard, does it need to come at the expense at the work of the gospel overseas?
I beat this drum constantly, but I continue to do so because it’s critically important: we must continue to support the missionaries and institutions of our Movement. This is not a call to exclusionism but a reminder that supporting those institutions that serve our Movement is a way of preserving our past. If we continue down a path of self-reliance, there may be no one there when we need it most.
Throughout our Movement’s history, issues of non-essential theology created rifts that destroyed fellowship. When people in our Movement disagree, we tend to fight feverishly and then fracture into smaller, like-minded groups. We essentially create tribes within tribes to avoid uncomfortable confrontation.
We must seek unity (especially when it’s challenging).
I remember in the late 1980s, there was a mild controversy in our Movement over the legitimacy of Saturday evening worship services. These services were intended to reach those who could not attend worship on Sundays and were quite influential in attracting lapsed Catholics who were used to Saturday evening mass. But since there was no Saturday worship described in the New Testament, it became a source of contention. I remember reading magazine articles and hearing sermons on the subject. While the topic today isn’t as contentious, it was previously used as shibboleth to create distance between believers. In order to continue to growth as a Movement, we have to learn to argue in a healthy way.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that we loosen our theology. But I am suggesting that we stop vilifying those with whom we disagree on non-essential issues. And if our “essentials” list won’t fit on a notecard, maybe we should reevaluate our definition of the word. Isolation from fellowship can prove costly, so we need to stick together.
When theological differences were too massive, Movement leaders prepared for war and hunkered down for battle. Fortification was a tactic used against a formidable enemy. But we maintained this fighting posture long after the war was over. This created a negative vibe around the our churches: while we never claimed to be the only Christians, we often acted like we were. We became the most exclusionary unity movement in the world.
We must tear down walls.
Those of us in the Movement who are 50 years old or younger have lived under the umbrella of fortification our entire lives. Even though the fight over theological liberalism was virtually over before many of us were born, we’ve been warned for decades that we must continue to fortify; we just assumed that there would be another fight over liberalism, so we kept our walls up. We followed in the ways of the Pharisees and built hedges around the Law. We became suspicious of our sister and brothers in Christ just because they might one day influence us to go astray.
Our Movement still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from the fight against theological liberalism, but that fight is over. The liberals have given up believing altogether, so now it’s in our best interest to find commonality with those who embrace our ideals—less fortification, more fellowship.
FOLLOW JESUS FOR THE FUTURE
In offering this critique of the forces behind our Movement, I’m not trying to land cheap shots. Even as I call out the failures of our past, I’m forced to admit my complicity:
· I neglected opportunities for accountability.
· I haven’t always financially supported our Movement’s institutions.
· I basked in my own theological brilliance on non-essential issues.
· I highlighted the poor theology of my denominational kin instead of reaching out to them.
· I spoke where the Scriptures didn’t speak in order to win arguments.
I’m sure all of us have failed at times to live up to the ideals of our Movement. My hope, however, is that admitting our shortcomings will create the space for us to do better in the future.
While I can’t be certain what lies ahead for the Restoration Movement, I’m still convinced that our work is incomplete. In recent months, I’ve talked with quite a few denominational churches that are choosing to pursue the path of autonomy. Even though they’re excited at the prospects of congregational independence as found in the New Testament, they still are seeking out like-minded churches with whom to walk.
So if we’re needed by others, then we definitely need each other. My prayer is that we can continue to become the Movement that God has called us to be.
We must continue to follow Jesus for the future.
The quote about the end of the century is from Geopolitical Traditions: Critical Histories of a Century of Geopolitical Thought David Atkinson and Klaus Dodds (pg31).
For those unfamiliar, Joe Ellis was a professor at Cincinnati Bible Seminary and wrote the book that was a basis for Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church. Donald McGavran was one of our Movement’s missiologists and is considered to be the father of the church growth movement.
Photo by Daniel Chen on Unsplash