This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

What's Up With The Disciples' Northeast Region?

There's something I find strange about the Northeast Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Made up of congregations in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, it covers a lot of ground it an extremely populous region of the country. Some time back I took a look at the congregations in my immediate area and discovered that they are very diverse, and most have names that indicate they weren't founded in the Disciples tradition to start with. I know why.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was officially formed in a restructure in the 1960s, and over the course of that and following decades it shed congregations at a dramatic pace, as congregations that didn't consent to the restructure or which didn't like the theological direction of the denomination withdrew. When I was in college in Moberly, Missouri I found the shelf in the Bible college library of Disciples Yearbooks, and observed that year after year they shrank in size, until at one point they thickened up again. Looking inside I discovered that additional content had been added to pad it. 

A few years ago a Disciples insider explained to me that the denomination was exploring various avenues to address the member and congregation loss, and one of the methods they came up with involved signing up existing churches. According to my source, what they do is approach the leadership of immigrant and other non-white churches and offer them denominational support. It's not all about money, per se. It involves providing resources for learning how to manage finances, grow a congregation, and so forth. Whatever the details, many such churches accept the bargain and sign up. 

This strategy is not really news to me. In the late 1990s I met some Brazilian men at a mission convention in the United States who were representing their church in Connecticut. Their church was part of Hisportic Christian Mission, an outreach of the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. In the two years I visited churches connected to that mission I listened in on conversations about pastors that one or the other of the leaders were in touch with, trying to persuade them to join the fold. They would maintain autonomy, as of course the independent Christian churches have no formal denominational structure, and would only have to commit to baptism by immersion only, and to the practice of weekly communion. The first ask was an easy one, as most evangelical Brazilian churches practice immersion only anyway. The second, to have the Lord's supper weekly, was more problematic. Many pastors believe that having it that often makes it less significant. From what I gathered, most of that mission's growth has been through this method of recruiting. 

Looking through the list of churches to the left, part of what I found when I put in my New Jersey zip code, you'll see that these are a lot of immigrant churches as well as predominantly black churches. The use of 'Church of Christ' is not unusual in this area for the Disciples, and so they were most likely founded in this tradition. 

Doing an internet search for most of these churches, I found almost no websites, and minimal reference to them otherwise. This doesn't mean they aren't legitimate churches, only that they lack the wherewithal to promote themselves online. 

Further down the list than pictured here I came across 'New Creation Church of God in Christ.' In case you weren't aware, the Church of God in Christ is a historically black denomination, one that is Pentecostal and very conservative. Theologically it is quite different from what would be considered mainstream among the Disciples. The very fact that one of its congregations would be dual-affiliated with the Disciples is something I found astonishing. But, that wasn't the only one of its kind.  

On that lower end of the list I saw Carnasie Church of God, and a little research turned up that it is affiliated with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN), a Pentecostal denomination in the Holiness tradition. Again, this is a very conservative group both socially and theologically (the two usually go hand in hand.

Although I didn't check every listing that came up, I looked at many, and only found one that explicitly indicates a connection to the Disciples of Christ online. Evangelical Crusade of Soul Winners by name in the DoC directory, online it 's called 'Evangelical Crusade Christian Church.' The same page also includes the DoC chalice logo. Have a look here:

Of the few that have their own church website, House of Prayer and Evangelism (HOPE) Church is the one that indicates communion is weekly. How it phrases it seems odd to me: 'Guided Communion each Sunday.' What does that even mean? As far as I know, all communion/Eucharist/Lord's Supper in every denomination is 'guided,' either by a priest, pastor, elder(s), or by lay people. What would be 'Unguided Communion' in this scenario? In any event, the church's site makes no other mention that I was able to find of DoC affiliation. 

Before I go into the problems this could pose for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I want to say that I'm impressed at the range of churches they've looped in, and in particular the ones already affiliated with much more conservative denominations. There are plenty of UCC/DoC churches around, but I can't imagine COGIC/DoC is very common. It's really remarkable.

Aside from that, I only see trouble here. It's two parts that contributes to only one result.  

First, from at least the looks of it, these churches are not being integrated into the Disciples tradition. Even UCC/DoC affiliated congregations make an effort to recognize both heritages. It seems very unlikely that these churches are or will be made to feel part of the denominational family. I hope I'm wrong about that, and that they're working some angle to help them feel at home. 

Second, the Disciples over the years have worked at becoming lgtbq+ friendly, anti-racist, theologically progressive, and so forth. Their success at that has been spotty, with many Disciples churches just as conservative and traditional as they've ever been. How long will it take for the leaders of these 'new' congregations, predominantly quite conservative theologically, to realize the nature of the denomination? I doubt they'll want to uphold or further Disciples progressivism. 

The outcome seems predictable. Some will decide that whatever benefit they're getting from being connected to the DoC isn't worth the association with the political, social, and theological positions of the denomination. Many others, I suspect, will continue on with little or no awareness of the denomination, and remain on the list of member congregations without any real participation in the larger life of the church. The worst thing that could happen for the DoC is for these churches to truly become active, opposing the openness of the denomination. This seems unlikely to me, but it is a risk.

It's a strange and uncertain way to grow a denomination.