I recently returned from the International Leadership Conference held in Denver, filled with gratitude for the amazing progress our movement of churches has experienced in recent years. Each year since our movement was disciplined significantly by God in 2003, these conferences have shown gradual but significant improvement in our churches as we have responded righteously to God’s discipline.
As Roger Lamb observed near the end of this most recent ILC, there appeared to be a real “jump” to a new level of spirituality this year. We may not be where we should be individually and collectively, but it is obvious that the large majority of us really want to get there and are determined to act upon our convictions in a number of areas. I am most thankful for the Denver Church of Christ for their outstanding job as host church of this year’s conference. Hundreds of Colorado volunteers did a marvelous job of making the time great, and God crowned their efforts with his blessings. Many leaders from all parts of the movement made their own contributions to what I believe will be looked back on as a watershed event.
One part of the conference that was particularly encouraging to me was the continuing willingness of congregational leaders to keep considering the affirming of the Cooperation Plan. A number of additional churches have recently affirmed the Plan, and the new Cooperation Plan Summary no doubt aided such decisions. The process of intentionally increasing the unity of our movement is working. Some leaders have been understandably unsettled about some of the mistakes of the past, when we were in a state of “forced unity,” and have needed time to get their questions answered as we keep working toward a complete “forged unity.” As one who has written articles regarding the overall issue and as one who continues to be asked some of those questions of concern, I believe I better understand those who have a reluctance that I have not had personally, and I also believe I better understand the bigger picture. In the interest of helping answer questions, prayerfully in a Golden Rule fashion, hoping not to portray any sense of condescension (which I do not feel), I offer a few considerations that have been helpful to others recently.
Church Unity and Cooperation
The first consideration comes in the form of a question: “Do we still want to be a movement of churches?” I believe the answer to that question for most of us is a resounding “yes.” Coming from years spent in a Mainline church setting, remaining a united movement is a precious thought to me. I remember at age five experiencing a split in our little church that brought great pain to my parents and other friends and relatives. Unfortunately, such experiences were not infrequent in the churches of my youth, and those experiences, combined with my convictions about Jesus’ words in John 13-17, fill my heart with a huge desire to see unity prevail among those of us in the International Churches of Christ. From the time I joined this movement in its earlier stages, even the imperfect unity we had was encouraging to me. Now as we pursue a true John 17 type of unity, I am moved to prayers of thanksgiving in tears. God help us keep working toward that perfect unity for which he prayed!
The second consideration is that if we want to function as a movement of united churches, decisions will have to be made that affect us all. Otherwise, we will be only autonomous congregations rather than a movement. Thus, another question must be asked: “How can we as a movement make decisions?” Some logical reasoning has to help us answer this one. I can only see three possibilities in addressing this question.
One, we could go back to having a few people at the “top” make major decisions for the rest of us. I doubt many of us would cast a positive vote for that one. I certainly wouldn’t.
Two, we could figure out some grouping of all churches which were formerly a part of our movement, and select delegates from that grouping, no matter where they stand currently on any issue of doctrine or practice. Knowing where some churches do stand on key issues, their inclusion would lead to a state of disunity instead of unity. I would not want to be in a delegates meeting comprised of such a combination. It would remind me too much of some Men’s Business Meetings in the Mainline church that still give me knots in my stomach when I think back about them.
Three, we can do what we are already doing by agreeing upon basic doctrines and directions, grouping ourselves by geographical considerations, and choosing trusted brothers in those groups to represent us in delegate meetings. These delegates would make some lesser decisions as a group and then take back to their churches potential decisions of a more serious nature for further discussion. In the latter case, the decisions will be finalized at a later time after local leadership groups have added their input. I see no other valid option, but what I have seen in how things are functioning through our present (and ever-evolving) approach qualifies for “Golden Rule Leadership” as I understand it. In delegate meetings, I have not seen anyone driven by worldly ambition for position or recognition, but rather only willing volunteers who want to see our movement unified and moving forward to affect eternity as much as possible for our Savior. Whatever lingering small doubts I may have had in the earliest stages of our present approach have been totally dispelled by what I have seen and experienced since then. I long to help others who still have lingering doubts to be able to get those removed and to enjoy a type of unity I have only dreamed of in the past.
Hopefully that line of reasoning can help others, for it has already helped some. For us to be a movement, some implications must be considered and decisions made regarding them. Embracing some type of structure is obviously necessary. A couple of years back, I wrote an article entitled “Self Starters and the Rest of Mankind,” in which I used the Dynamic Marriage program as an illustration. (Most of us familiar with that program are very positive about it.) The illustration addresses what they do to deal with the fact that the large majority of married people are not self starters and need more help than they can provide for themselves. In this program, the help comes in the form of structure, expectations and accountability – all done excellently. The fact that these three things may have been done wrongly in our past movement history does not invalidate them. Right things can be implemented in wrong ways or right ways. Wrong approaches to parenting and marriage should not make us reject either institution. In fact, in the smallest organization possible (two people in a marriage relationship), structure, expectations and accountability are essential for a positive functional relationship.
One discussion in the most recent delegates meeting involved how we can financially support HOPE worldwide and the Disciples Today media (now chosen by the delegates as the official media for the International Churches of Christ). Decisions are in dire need of being made by us as a movement. I have heard some say that we should all just give freewill offerings for such needs and that will more than take care of them. That has been our approach in the past six years, with the result that both organizations mentioned above are in genuine danger of ceasing to exist unless we unite to support them. The process of accessing needs like these and then asking churches to give at a certain rate according to the size of their membership is the only approach that will work. Some seem to think that this approach somehow removes the joy of giving and makes it an assigned duty. I can speak for only one on that point, and that is for myself. I am all for being made aware of needs and meeting them, and I gain joy from doing so.
Maybe an illustration will help us on this point. When grown children have aged parents who can no longer care for themselves, the children have to figure out the needs and then determine how to meet them in a fair and equitable manner. The responsibility of thus providing does not diminish the satisfaction of having done the right thing by seeing that the parent’s needs are met by those who love them. Meeting specifically designated needs is not mutually exclusive of giving joyfully. At the beginning of this year, being off staff of a church, our income was impossible to predict. (We are now supporting ourselves with Social Security and my Teaching Ministry.) But in faith, we set a substantial weekly contribution figure, which we have consistently given, and have been blessed by God as a result. Additionally, we have given to help individuals who needed help in a variety of ways. Recently, our congregation completed our Special Contribution for the year. The leadership (of which I am still a part) set a budget for that contribution and shared with the church that the amount would be approximately 11 times our weekly contribution. I was happy to know the specifics of the need, in order to plan our giving and do our fair share. We ended up giving more than the requested amount, and as always, gave with joy, knowing the needs of the mission at home and abroad.
Some may fear that asking for specific amounts per member to support HOPEww / Disciples Today could lead to abuses in the future. I’m sure most of us have wondered about that and hopefully have asked questions and had them answered. The bottom line of this issue has several parts. One, none of us wants to abuse the approach, since that would ultimately destroy what we are trying to accomplish. Two, no one can force any church to do anything that they don’t want to do. Three, those having affirmed the Cooperation Proposal can remove themselves from that affirmation list at any time. I for one want to know what the urgent needs are among us as a movement and do all I can to help meet them. Meeting specific and specified needs and giving joyfully have never been mutually exclusive for me, and at my age, I don’t anticipate that this feeling will ever change!
Another aspect of structure needed for us to be a truly unified and growing movement is how we interrelate with our sister congregations. In this realm, many joint endeavors come to mind, such as regional conferences, retreats, camps and the like. Also, just as individuals need discipling (by whatever term you prefer), churches need the same. Otherwise, in our isolation, we fail to see ourselves clearly. Outside influence is a wonderful thing to help keep us aware of our strengths and weaknesses and keep growing. Again, I understand that some worry that “Big Brother” will start making our decisions for us. At the beginning of the formulation of the Cooperation Proposal, I had that concern, since we were in the same geographical grouping with the Los Angeles church (definitely “Big Brother” in the past!). Three brothers from the leadership group of the LA church – Bruce Williams, Al Baird and John Mannel – came to Phoenix to meet with our elders and staff brothers to address our concerns. Their humility and expressed desire to be givers and not takers alleviated our apprehensions, and time has shown them to be true to their word. They have provided us much valuable help and input, for which we are most grateful.
But you may be wondering how discipling works between churches in a righteous way. Back in 2003, while still in Boston, I used my grown children as an illustration of how I thought churches should relate to each other. With my grown children, I wanted to keep a really close relationship; I wanted them to value my age and experience and seek advice from us; but, in the realm of making final decisions, that was their task. I would hope that my adult children would have the same kind of relationships with each other. Is this not how churches with their own leadership groups should function? Input is sought and valued, but final decisions are up to local leaderships. Of course, in church plantings and situations where less mature churches are being supported financially by more mature churches, the mature churches will be involved more in decision making. Similarly, if I loan my grown children money, I would expect to be involved with them in making decisions about how that particular money is going to be used. Churches providing financially in such situations may well want to be involved more in joint decision making. Note that I am not talking about this process being applied to mature First World Churches sending mission support to mature Third World Churches. However, in those situations, budgets and annual financial reports are certainly in order.
Let me share one more illustration to help show how the discipling relationship works between churches. In Phoenix, we once had an unfortunate experience with a staff person, and asked for input from the LA brothers, which was gratefully received. After following their initial advice, another issue came up in the situation that had to be dealt with. After our local leadership group decided how to deal with it and did so, Bruce Williams called to say that some leaders in LA had a concern about how we handled one aspect of the situation. After talking it through in some detail, Bruce asked if our Leadership Team (comprised of both elders and evangelists) would reconsider that one aspect of our decision – to which I replied, “Sure.” I explained the request to our leadership and we met to reconsider our decision with their concerns in mind. After much discussion, we decided to stick to our original decision in the matter. I called Bruce to inform him of that, and he thanked me for our willingness to at least reconsider the decision. That was the end of the matter. He never brought the subject up again, as far as I can remember, and there was not the slightest hint of any strain or awkwardness in our relationship with him or with LA leaders after that time. Quite the contrary, because our working relationship has been excellent before and after that particular issue.
Although the LA leadership is much larger and more mature than ours, the input and advice has gone both ways, as it should. I think it provides a fine example of what relationships between congregations looks like in the present. I disciple our congregational evangelist, Gary Sciascia, but he also has a discipling phone time with Bruce regularly, which Gary and the rest of the Phoenix leadership appreciate greatly. Most of our elders have ongoing relationships with LA elders as a part of our desire to avoid any hint of isolation and the damage that it causes. I think our relationship with LA preaches a good sermon about spiritual maturity, mutual trust and respect, unity and cooperation, and what it means to be united in a movement of churches sharing a common history and a common mission to change the world.
In conclusion, let me thank you for reading far more material than I intended to write in this article! However, I do believe that what I wrote about it is all interrelated to the overall subject. I have found others to be helped by it, and my only desire is to be helpful and a promoter of the type unity that Jesus prayed for. I feel better about the unity of our movement at this point than I ever have. As churches, we have a ways to go in getting the majority of our members back on the cutting edge of evangelism and discipleship, but we are making definite progress. And I am convinced that our growing unity as a movement is the most important tool our God has used in helping us make significant and numerous changes for the better. I believe he shares my joy at the changes that are occurring daily. The future is as bright as the promises of God, or as Tom Brown put it in a great lesson at the recent New England Conference, “The Best Is Yet To Come!”