James DeForest Murch, the noted church historian of the Stone/Campbell tradition from the last generation argued in the preface to his survey of our Movement that “unless the movement remains true to the principles and purposes which brought it into being, it has no reason to exist” (Christians Only – Standard – 1962 – v). It is crucial to remember that there was once something important enough to have moved the founders of our church to leave the churches of their past in order to bring our church into being. There was passionate conviction in the founders of the Stone/Campbell Movement that they were right about some things that other churches had gotten wrong, and that these were things that mattered enough for them to take the dramatic step of separation from those other churches in order to give them full and faithful expression. And I would argue that our denominational drift and decline in recent years has not been the result of these consequential convictions somehow losing their power in the engagement with culture, but rather that these consequential convictions were misplaced in our drive to become a denomination in the 1950’s and 60’s, and so have not even been a part of the conversation in many Disciple congregations for some 50 years.
G.K. Chesterton once said of Christianity in general, that it’s not that it has been tried and found to be wanting; but rather that it hasn’t even been tried. And the Disciple version of this is not that our perspective has been tried and found to be wanting, but is rather that most Disciples don’t have a clue about what the Disciple perspective is. Just ask a sampling of the people attending the typical congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) these days about why they are Disciples rather than Baptists, Methodists or Presbyterians, and I predict that the answers they will give you will have nothing to do with the consequential convictions that brought us into being, and everything to do with the variables of place and people that give that congregation its local form and life. Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these variables of people and place, every vital congregation has to have them. But for that congregation to be part of something bigger than just the people who have gotten together in that place and at that particular moment of time, then those consequential convictions that brought the spiritual tradition of which that congregation is a part have got to be understood and affirmed. So what are they?
Well, I learned the concept of “refounding” from Robert Thornton Henderson in his book Blueprint 21 He explains – “The term “refound” denotes an intentional return to the foundation upon which a denomination was founded so that it can be a viable witness for present and future” (8). The value of denominations, in Robert’s opinion, are the ways that each one of them is “a thrilling and dynamic window into the Christian faith, and into God’s purpose in the world” (3). What we need from our denominational traditions are their “living voice,” their particular take on the work of God in Jesus Christ that was once clear enough and important enough to have brought a denomination into being! It is “retrieving these enormously wonderful and powerful understandings of God’s design in Christ” that Robert urges the church to get on with if our churches are to have any kind of future.
The demise of the mainline denominations as organizations are no great loss in Robert’s opinion; but the loss of the spiritual experience and theological perspective that first brought them into being – what Robert calls “the treasure around which each denomination came into existence” – this is the gift that we need to “refound.” He insists that mainline churches like the Disciples are going to have to renounce “forgetfulness” and embrace “remembrance” as the price of admission to the future. We are going to have to know and value “the principles and purposes which brought us into being.” Robert writes as a Presbyterian about his own Reformed heritage, but what he says about his “old Reformed house” is just as applicable to our old “Stone/Campbell” house.
My conviction is that if this “old Reformed house” is refounded in its integrity, it will find itself in a 21st century neighborhood of other splendid houses that are also in the process of being refounded to their original integrity… They will be Wesleyan, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Mennonite, Lutheran, Orthodox, Pentecostal and Independent houses. They will be wonderfully cosmopolitan in their make-up. Their children will play together in each others backyards… Their common heritage of biblical narrative will be celebrated. Family members will know that they are heirs of all these traditions within the larger “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” as well as their own. They will break bread and drink the cup together. …but each will know and take pride in what its own rich family heritage is. (12)
The question is, “What is our ‘thrilling and dynamic window into the Christian faith, and into God’s purpose in the world’ as Disciples?” I was taught that the treasure that brought us into being as Disciples could be neatly summarized by something called “Our Plea.” And the way that I was taught the “Plea” by Dr. William Richardson was that –
The Plea of the Disciples of Christ is a plea for Christian Unity on the basis of the New Testament Church in order to evangelize the world.
The late Anthony Dunnavant, the highly respected historian of our church, used to say that our Plea as Disciples consisted of a commitment to the common purpose of world evangelization using the strategy of unity and the tactic of restoration. And he saw all of this at work in Jesus’ High Priestly prayer found in John 17:20-23 where Jesus prayed for those who would one day believe in Him through the teaching of the Apostles (Restoration), that they would be one (unity), so that the world might believe (evangelization). And I believe that “Refounding” the Disciples in our day will require us as a church to provide greater clarity about who we are using a contemporary version of the “Plea” – maybe “Biblical” or “Evangelical” for “Restoration,” although neither one quite captures what was at work in our commitment to “Restoration,” and “Ecumenical” for “Unity,” and “Missional” for ”Evangelization” – and then to become increasingly explicit about how this “Plea” of ours directly informs “why we do the things we do the way we do them.”
My point is that I believe it’s time that we solved our identity crisis and institutional drift by getting back to those three big things that brought us into being in the first place – a commitment to a faith that is just as big as the Bible; the refusal to talk or think about anybody who names Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God and their Lord and Savior as anything other than a brother or a sister; and, the acceptance of the Great Commission to preach the Gospel to the whole world and to teach everything that Christ commanded as the reason why the church exists at all. I can’t help but think that only a Disciple’s congregation that truly understands and fully appreciates what was at work in the origins of the Movement of which is a part has a future.