Friday, February 21, 2020

So Long, North American Christian Convention

This week I was reminded that it's possible for me to feel shocked and unsurprised at the same time. I've learned that the North American Christian Convention, an annual gathering of people from independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, is no more. After 90 years of what many described as a 'big family reunion,' it's been shut down and replaced with something called The Spire Network. This turn of events, which apparently took place in 2018, seemed both impossible to me and, in hindsight, completely predictable. 

The North American Christian Convention came together in 1927, largely as an alternative to the International Convention of Christian Churches, which was seen by some as being too top-down and doctrinally liberal. For a time it wasn't too uncommon for people to attend both, when able. Over the course of the following few decades the chasm between the two grew larger, until in 1968 the ICCC approved a plan that formalized a 'restructure,' resulting in the denomination we know of as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). There was already something of a distinction between the Disciples churches and the independent Christian churches before that vote, but this was the point of no return. 

As I already mentioned, the NACC was widely considered a family reunion of sorts, an important touchpoint for people from like-minded churches. In the absence of a traditional denominational structure, it's been the Bible colleges, publications, and conventions of these churches that have kept their identity distinct and held them together. As time passed and leadership aged out and changed, the NACC became more and more generically evangelical. People unaffiliated with the movement were regularly featured on the program, and differences between these churches and the general mass of evangelicalism was heavily downplayed. It's as if the leadership was actively trying to dissolve this unique branch of Stone-Campbell Movement. It also became increasingly obvious to me and others that the mega church and then multi-site church models were favored above all else. Resources for preachers and elders from small to mid-sized churches seemed fairly scarce to me. It was all about getting big. 

From a look around the internet I can't tell if a Spire Network Conference happened last year (2019), but one is coming up in Orlando this coming September (2020). Perhaps indicative of how much this is directed towards white, upper-middle-class boomers is the fact that they're also sponsoring a golf tour. I guess that drawing in Millennials, GenXers, and people of color must not be high priorities for this new venture, and that makes sense in terms of financing. It's the white Boomers who have money to spend. Then again, what future can they possibly have if they are out of touch with other generations and racial/ethnic groups?

It may seem odd for a Unitarian Universalist like myself to take an interest in this matter, until you learn that I was formerly associated with the independent Christian Churches, even being ordained by the elders of one such congregation in Arkansas. While this is no longer my horse race, I can still feel what I would have felt in an earlier iteration of myself. And so, I felt oddly upbeat to learn as well that The Christian Standard, the flagship publication of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is now in the hands of people who have re-oriented it back to the movement and the specific identity of these churches. Before, the publication had become a means of delivering propaganda in favor of the turn towards vanilla evangelicalism. 

To be clear, I would never want nor even be able to return to the independent Christian Churches. Even as a theist the dogma would be far too heavy for me, and the political leanings of most members oppressively conservative. Call it sentimentalism, if you like. There are too many good memories of people and churches that supported me as I studied for the ministry and then went into mission work. Too many Sunday mornings with kind, smiling faces (aside from one rather terrible congregation in the southwest that has, thankfully, closed) singing hymns, having communion, and hearing a sermon. 

Also, seeing what has happened, a big part of me feels vindicated, having predicted this general course of events for many years, however unexpected the specifics feel.