Two decades ago, at the turn of the millennium, many in the Restoration Movement had a sense that we were living at the dawn of a new age—a bright and forward-looking era marked by an affiliation with the largest church in America (Southeast Christian Church) and crowned by church growth breakthroughs that might both accelerate and unify us. Our movement had real problems, of course, and the day that was dawning would bring challenges of its own, but it seemed that something exciting was afoot.
By now, it has become unavoidably evident that the Independent Christian Church wing of the Restoration Movement has experienced the beginning of this new millennium less as a dawn than as a twilight age. This century has certainly seen its share of new technologies as well as tectonic shifts in culture and ecclesiology. But all of these have seemed somehow to strain our brotherhood more than enable us.
Despite good news and opportunities on many fronts, we have not, as a fellowship of congregations, been able to translate these into confidence or hopefulness. What has really defined the Restoration Movement’s twilight age has been a widespread failure to understand (like the culture at large) what is missing or what has gone wrong – a collapse of some of the preconditions for flourishing that we cannot quite explain to ourselves.
Case in point, the leaders of the Spire Network have reduced the attendance of our national convention from 10,000 to 1,500 almost overnight. And given what they say they believe about attendance metrics, it’s hard to find a rational for Spire’s continued existence. Perhaps the defining moment of this overly produced affair was President Rick Rusaw’s closing ceremony admission that Spire had failed to launch – as promised – their much valorized online platform due to its weak and dismal support.
I am not, here, offering a comprehensive explanation of these predicaments – needless to say. Although I have attempted that in previous writings. Rather, I want to highlight one particularly important cause that these issues have in common – and that tends to be overlooked.
Everyone knows that Americans have long been losing faith in organized religion and religious institutions. At this point, it’s a cliche. But what is at stake in losing that faith? How has it played out in the Restoration Movement, and what are the implications for the future?
Currently, few of our leaders appreciate the vital role mediating institutions play in our pluralistic association of independent churches. Besides being entities that separate us from centrally-controlled denominations and inoculating us from self-defined, post-denominational churches crowd-sourcing theology under low-level accountability, they provide rules and customs for how RM churches self-organize and work together outside their own walls. They are formal and informal organizations, protocols, and doctrines that mediate the space between the individual Christian and other Independent Christian Churches at large. This is the world of parachurch work, missions, conferences, church camps, regional and national youth programs, local evangelistic associations, institutions of higher learning, and organizations such as the Christian Restoration Association. Most of the work of our movement is conducted in this shared space.
Just drive around the country and count the number of church camps, Bible Colleges, CIYs, and missions that would not exist but for the shared resources of ICC churches. Without the mutual trust and cohesiveness among local congregations, few of the truly great doctrinally sound institutions we take for granted would be standing today. Churches poured millions of dollars into ICC institutions across the country in the spirit of providing ladders, within reach, upon which the aspiring could rise.
And out of that space, it was the North American Christian Convention that best showcased our national coalition of like-minded, autonomous congregations voluntarily submitting themselves to an alliance centered around a coherent theology. The NACC deliberately protected the supremacy of the local church. Indeed, autonomy was so sacrosanct that the convention was set up to have no internal constraints on the consensus of its churches. Put simply, the convention was defined by the churches, rather than the churches being dictated to by an insular group of convention directors. The NACC, through its shared space and consensus beliefs, distinguished us on a national level from the rest of a generic, and somewhat amorphous, evangelical world.
Traditionally, when Christians attended the NACC, their presence was, itself, an act of solidarity. Behind the scenes, congregations of every size and culture participated in the maintenance of our standards. Downstream from the administration, convention-goers commented on its communal nature, characteristically pointing to its reunion-like atmosphere. But the essential element which brought our congregations together, and enabled those individual relationships to flourish was an underlying cohesiveness and trust that only comes from a system that could apply doctrines and values more or less uniformly.
Closely related to the convention was an impressive booth exhibition of competing and complementary institutions which kept the RM rooted, as they all existed to assist the Church mold, shape, and improve us – forming us into Christ-likeness. They also served as a counterbalance to any arbitrary power of self-appointed aristocrats or special elite class. Each display represented more than just another privately-owned, ministry-related service, missionary group, or advancement in technology. Each free-standing establishment helped to diffuse power and control throughout the broader association of our movement writ large.
Congregations who share programs, customs, doctrines, and plain old history are simply more likely to work out their differences and problems without looking to some centralized authority to do it for them. In short, a shared culture builds trust, which is essential to the health and progress of our future.
Part of the price—and benefit—of this transaction is that these institutions can demand a certain amount of loyalty from the people and congregations they serve. Some demand a lot of loyalty, others just a bare minimum. You don’t have to give up your life for a national convention, but you do have to show up, respect your peers, and subordinate some of your interests and desires for the good of the whole.
In the past, all of us had a role to play in the NACC. And if it is ever relaunches, rebuilding trust in its next iteration will require the people within it — that is, each of us — to be more trustworthy. And that must mean, in part, letting the distinct integrities and purposes of this national forum shape us, rather than just using it as a stage from which to be seen and heard.
To be sure, a major source of our recent decline stems from the fact we increasingly rejected the idea that we should bend to the shared standards of the NACC; instead we demanded that the convention bend to us. Rather than be a mold that constrains us by reminding us how to behave, the NACC became a platform that we stood upon to perform and preen for attention. As I’ve argued many times now, the NACC is one particularly important example. But the examples are everywhere.
Jerry Harris uses the Christian Standard as a platform for multi-site church propaganda because he puts his utopian sensibilities above God’s Word, the lessons of history, and the consensus of our movement informed by its most respected scholars. Caleb Kaltenbach may certainly have a point about the church’s response to same-sex attraction, but he uses it as a platform for his own crusade of celebrity – endorsing products, expanding his brand, and addressing issues for which he has no expertise. Here he uses the Christian Standard to bestow undeserved plaudits upon Tim Harlow’s latest book which impugns God’s character as “discriminatory” against women. Kaltenbach, careful never to actually stake out a controversial position, papers over the book’s most controversial claim by simply pretending it doesn’t exist. His review can only be taken seriously by people for whom truth matters less than style; that is, for whom a book endorsement is nothing more than an exercise in branding and PR. Once you start looking around, the list of people who use our institutions like cultural ATMs—staking out credibility that isn’t theirs to buy celebrity and authority they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford or deserve—starts to seem infinitely long. Meanwhile, others are demeaned as bitter, atavistic ax-grinders for simply pointing out, for example, that particular church growth experts who – in an effort to prop-up their dystopian narrative of ministers living isolated, feckless lives – pass-on fake statistics so they can then present themselves as heroes. That these self-serving waypointers consider this a reasonable way of selling their services betrays either a fundamental ethical illiteracy or a deeply troubling readiness to mislead. Whatever the case, it’s just another sad entry in the growing log of demagogues cashing-in on the reputational capital of an institution for their own agenda – even if it includes deception.
There have always been opportunists in every age. But healthy systems can usually fend them off like a weak virus. The dismaying thing about the moment we are in is that demagoguery is in such high demand. The current custodians of our conventions, both national and regional, no longer fight to fend off mavericks or upstarts; they now try to attract them. Indeed, what has replaced these Institutions is a strange enterprise made up of religious celebrities fostering a culture that is fundamentally antinomian, pragmatic, and cynical about all claims of integrity.
In the past, before Church Development Fund‘s appropriation, the NACC did many things. One of its historical functions was to blunt and divert the power of demagogues and the masses that listened to them. This was once understood and celebrated by our leaders. Not so today. That structure has long been demolished.
And once the demolition crew had finished, those who might be more naturally inclined to build something new discovered they were left to follow leaders who lacked a blueprint of what a better alternative would look like. In the face of a staggering rebuke to Spire’s pragmatic leadership agenda, we see their corporate leaders on their hands and knees amidst the wreckage they created, searching for the ideals they were all too happy to smash when they were in power.
As it turns out, chopping down a good institution with the aim of building a perfect one is the perfect recipe for destroying a good institution. Because when you destroy existing cultural habitats, you do not instantly convert the people who live in them to your worldview. You alienate them.
What’s worse, our scholars and theologically oriented leaders have lost their place of honor in the moral life of our movement. They have lost the ability to speak for a set of norms and ideals that, even if many Christians chafed against them and found them burdensome, were taken to be proper aspirations.
We cannot regain our bearings until we set this straight. If we are to create the conditions necessary for a revitalization and for a resurgence of cultural vitality, if the foundation for healthy church autonomy is built upon biblical morality, then we must uphold the significance of our scholars and intellectuals in our movement’s public life.
Looking back, few actually hated the NACC or the role it played. But many were indifferent to it. And indifference alone is enough to invite the rust of human nature and utopian sensibilities back in. We must all understand that recognizing our good fortune is the first step in securing the future for posterity. That means expressing our gratitude for it – not merely our arguments to defend it. And few things would better demonstrate gratitude for our core principles and ideas than reestablishing a national convention. For such an act would revive our identity, while providing an antidote to the present feeling that things are out of control. Ironically, both things it was originally designed to do.
Terry Sweany has served as senior minister of Playa Christian Church since 2006. His education includes a MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from Hope International University and a BA from Cincinnati Christian University. He is author of the book Life In Ministry and his greatest joy is helping people deepen their relationship with God. Terry lives in Westchester, California and is a member of the LAPD Pacific Division Clergy Council. He and his wife, Patty, have been married 34 years and have a daughter and grandaughter.