Much has been made in the blog-o-sphere lately about the decline in numbers in Churches of Christ, my tribe in the Christian landscape. Some folks who hang out in my little corner of the CoC have had a similar take, as if its obvious what these numbers mean. “See, told you something was wrong. Change or die.”
I’m sure that if you searched everything I’ve ever said about the future of Churches of Christ you could find me saying something like “change or die.” But I say that not as a specific indictment of Churches of Christ, but as a general principle related to any human community traveling through time. Change is part of the deal. If you’re living, you’re changing.
The fact that this is the reaction to this particular report bugs me, and I’m not sure I know why exactly. But here are the questions that make my brain itchy.
Can we only tell our story as a God-story if it is a story of progress? Have we been so co-opted by the Western myths of progress and technical mastery that we can only attach God or “blessing” or “validity” to the term “growing”? Are we saying that numerical growth is the only indicator concerning our value in relation to the Kingdom of God? If our numbers were moving the other direction, would we take that automatically as a sign that God was with us? Would we be willing to be a part of a declining group numerically? Put another way, would we turn our back on God’s calling if it meant being a part of a group in numerical decline?
I have become more aware in the past few years how a bias toward progress in terms of narrating self-understanding has left me clueless to major movements in Christian history that don’t fit neatly into that (Western) story. And this is a crying shame. Truth is, we have a hard time asking a different set of evaluative questions given this massive cultural bias, and the question of progress might not be the best one to ask of a God whose clearest moment of self-disclosure was death on a cross.
As with all data, the theological question is not more or less, bigger or smaller, successful or not, but what do we think God might be calling us to given these particular set of circumstances.
God might be calling us to die–to spend our life given our belief in resurrection. Because I don’t believe that Churches of Christ comprise the church, I’m open to the possibility that we might be called to surrender our life into the larger Christian story. But my hunch is that typically all groups are called to realize their gifts as God’s people through both death and life, through both gains and losses. And its not always clear in any given moment which is which. As Paul put it, for some its a fragrance from death to death, for others a fragrance from life to life.
The question is, as always, given our unique story–our belonging in time and space–to what is God uniquely calling us? I am confident that there is a satisfying answer for those of us who serve God in Churches of Christ. This question allows me to be thankful for where I am without envying someone else’s place or calling among the various movements of God’s mission for the world. I can love my tribe for both its strengths and weaknesses, knowing that both might be preparing us for answering God’s call to serve the Kingdom in increasingly meaningful ways.