The State Of The Restoration Movement

The current state of the Restoration Movement (RM) has a lot of people concerned. Between the national decline of religion in general, and the growing sense of drift and disarray within our own institutions, few have avoided the convulsions.

Ever since it became clear that exhausted mainline denominations were shrinking out of existence, the quest has been on for a new vision to govern our future. In 2016 the North American Christian Convention (NACC) President, along with a handful of self-appointed prognosticators, initiated a crusade of pragmatism declaring that doctrinal differences within our movement would no longer matter – “the day of the denomination is dead,” they scolded.

What they failed to grasp, however, is that visions of the future are not created in the abstract; they are a response to a perceived set of circumstances. Accordingly, their thinking about post-denominational Christianity was framed by several conventionally accepted assumptions.

First, the assumption that a post-denominational world would reorganize around generational demographics. Second, that the RM’s consent to welcome various tribes into our national gatherings would be substantial, now that doctrinal debates would be safely retired. Third, that in the new post-denominational era, the threat of doctrinal divisions would be dramatically diminished.

All three of these assumptions were mistaken.

First, the post-denominational world is not reorganizing around generational preferences. Wide swaths of Millennials, just like Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers, still highly value religious affiliations. There are some 83 million Millennials, defined as Americans born between 1981 and 1996. It’s next to impossible to generalize about a group of people this large (roughly the size of Germany). Within the ranks of Millennials there are committed Mormons, entrenched atheists, and everything in between. Denying this reality is to cultivate a lazy, pernicious form of age-bias, preventing churches from accepting and ministering to people as they really are.

It’s true, Millennials remain more liberal and look more cynically toward organized religion than other age groups. But so what? Eventually, people grow up. They may well learn that their cynicism towards Biblical doctrine and institutions was misplaced, especially as the single lifestyle gets old and they find the wisdom they were looking for in cross-generational relationships.

Second, the perceived consent for welcoming various tribes into our national gatherings was grossly overestimated. In fact, that very consensus is under renewed assault. The assault comes not only from the usual pockets of doctrinal conservatism (e.g. the Restoration Herald) but from a resurgence of churches and institutions alarmed by the sudden tectonic shift in our shared beliefs. Illustrating the point, Spire Network’s October 8th scheduled platform launch – which promised a unified movement that would carry us to the sunny uplands of history  – was apparently postponed due to a lack of participation. Last week’s inability to secure the minimum number of subscribers necessary to initiate Spire’s online platform was more than just a failure to launch; it was a restraining order.

And third, the emergence of a new threat marked by mini-denominational, mega-churches. These market-driven monstrosities – deformed by secular organizational charts, crowd-sourced false doctrines and the means to promulgate them – make the coming decades a time of heightened, not diminished, contention for the faith.

At stake is the extent to which Independent Christian Churches will, with diminished support from fewer institutions, inoculate themselves from a culture of generic evangelicalism defined by embracing Calvinism, down-playing ordinances, promoting feminist agendas, and disconnecting baptism from any sacramental purpose.

Moreover, the state of our movement will rise or fall on the issue of sound Biblical leadership. The lesson of our history is that the task of merely maintaining healthy churches is unending, the continuing and ceaseless work of every generation. We need leaders of churches – not big churches, not rich churches, not Millennial churches, but all churches – participating in the maintenance of our standards. We need leaders who will take stands and go it alone if necessary. Don’t get me wrong, one acts in concert with others if possible. And it’s so nice when others join us in the breach. No one seeks to be unilateral. But one does not allow one’s identity to be held hostage by the will of others.

Since our affiliation came into existence, God has used faithful men with uncommon character and intellect to keep our movement moored to the Word of Truth. Men who stood athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one else was inclined to do so. P. H. Welshimer acquitted the movement quite well in a pair of unforgettable debates with famed evolutionist and nationally recognized Supreme Court attorney Clarence Darrow. The RM’s two favorite sons, Dr. R. C. Foster and Dr. Lewis Foster, were both doyens of Biblical scholarship within their respective generations – significantly adding to the esteem and the prestige the of Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary. And the prolific Dr. Jack Cottrell, whose name is synonymous with Restoration Movement theology. Dr. Jack has authored over 20 influential books of doctrine, defending conservative views of faith, baptism, grace and gender roles.

But who will be next?

Currently, the movement lacks a strong, widely-known, up-and-coming scholar ready to pick up the fight and lead us into the future. Dr. Cottrell and his Christian Restoration Association contemporaries are quickly coming to the age of retirement or failing health. And if no one emerges soon, our movement may continue to decline.

Nothing is inevitable. But if we make the right choices, if we reassert our spiritual framework, perhaps even reinstate our national convention or something like it, we can avert a total collapse. Decline, after all, is a choice.

We are in for abnormal times. Our best hope for surviving in such times, as in difficult times past, is in sound doctrine and Spirit-led living — these will give us the strength and the will to lead our movement; unashamedly laying down solid biblical principles and being prepared to defend them.

Compared to the task of defeating Protestantism, averting the doctrinal chaos of pragmatism is a rather subtle call to greatness. It is not a task we are any more eager to undertake than the great twilight struggle which just concluded. But the task is just as noble and just as necessary.


[The featured image above is taken from a live-cast produced by Central Christian College of the Bible highlighting Dr. Cottrell. The message “Does God’s Word Teach Absolute Truth?” This illustrates the kind of leadership we need, and the kind this post endeavors to describe. It is well worth the time. For those who want to see this presentation in print, see a brief version of it in theCollected Writings, Vol. I: The Unity of Truth” (The CRA, 2018), pp. 81-103).]

Terry Sweany serves as Senior Minister of Playa Christian Church. He received his Bachelor’s in Christian Ministry from Cincinnati Christian University and a Master’s in Marriage, Family, & Child Counseling from Hope International University. He and his wife, Patty, reside in West Los Angeles.

6 thoughts on “The State Of The Restoration Movement”

  1. Thank you for a well thought out and presented article. Pragmatism is most definitely one of the biggest “Giants in the Land” (if not THE biggest one) the RM plea faces today.

    For the sake of a more perfect accuracy, though… Clarence Darrow argued cases before the Supreme Court, bur he was never a Supreme Court Justice.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Fred, thanks for the read, the comment, and the correction. I’ll change that now. I read that in a book on the life of P.H. Welshimer which I have quoted several other times. Anyway, I probably should have been more aware of Mr. Darrow. But I’m glad you pointed it out.

      I also appreciate your comment on giants in the land.

      Blessings.

  2. Thank you for your article. I share the same concern. My grandfather, Dr. Henry Webb, was a RM historian, long time church history/Greek professor at Milligan College, minister at several independent Christian Churches, and authored In Search of Christian Unity: The History of the Restoration Movement. I grew up with stories of Stone and Campbell, and hearing about Christian conventions and unity forums. My grandfather would travel around to area churches to teach six week classes on RM history. Everyone loved it! Next Sunday, the oldest gathering in the entire world of Christian Churches (started in 1829), the East Tennessee Christian Convention, will have it’s annual gathering. A faithful few keep it going. I would love to bring revival to our movement. How do we start this when most Christian Church goers/members haven’t heard of the Restoration Movement?

  3. Thanks for sharing Kirsten. Thar’s a great legacy, you have pointed out an important point. I think leaders read that Christians don’t want to know about doctrine, so they deemphasize it for fear of turning ppl away. It’s difficult but it was never supposed to be easy.

  4. We have served in the RM since 1970s. We are seeing the mainline visible churches failing to meet the needs of the immediate community around them. The community in the cities and out in the country people are done with “big Church”and apathy of the “vchurch” to meet their daily needs. Movements around the world are going to “house Church” like the http://www.wearechurch.com/ in San Fran. or https://newchurchtahoe.com/who-we-are/

    These “house churches” are popping up all over as the “dones and Nones” seek a savior. We recently counseled a mega vchurch in Tampa that is surrounded by a poverty zone and hemmed in by the commercialization of their location. They are dying as a congregation. A cult of messianic Jews is trying to take them over. We advised them to 1. open their kitchen to feed the hungry, open their building as shelter for homeless, use their location in the ghetto that once was middle class to care for their actual neighbors. or 2. sell the property and give the money to the poor. 3. Adopt the model of the early ekklesia and form community in their homes, with neighbors and worship every day. We are saddened to see the current trend to make our Church into a non denominational denomination like all the rest.
    We love Dr Cottrell, btw .
    https://saltlightministry.com/2019/08/07/we-are-one-we-are-supposed-to-be/

Leave a Reply to Fred Balding Cancel reply