The Hopeful Fruit #1  

Posted by The Metzes in , ,

As I looked over the apple tree in my backyard, considering the harvest cycle that was now coming to an end, there were a few apples that actually made it to fruit. Not all these apples, to be sure, were created equal. Most of them died off before they became edible. A few of them made it some time further, but then were attacked by squirrels realizing their demise at the hands of these neighborhood pests. There were exactly three that made it long enough to actually become part of our dinner one night recently. As I assess the hope-filled fruit dangling from the apple tree of the tradition of Churches of Christ, I see an equal disparity in the fruit. While each of the fruit I mention offers hope, they do so at differing levels. So, I thought I would begin here with what I believe to be the most promising of the fruit.

I have become convinced that the single-most promising characteristic of the Churches of Christ as they engage in their ministry in the postmodern world is their commitment to congregational autonomy. From my earliest days in Churches of Christ, I have known that the Bible taught "autonomy." I think I was in college before I really understood what that meant. In a nutshell, our autonomy in Churches of Christ can be well-illustrated in business-terms: each congregation is locally owned and operated.

While the basis of this self-understanding in Churches of Christ stems from the belief that the autonomous churches in Acts serve as an example for how churches should operate today, the richness of a locally-run congregation is quickly becoming realized throughout Western Christianity. As culture deepens in its skepticism and distaste for globalization and cookie cutter development, hungering for creativity and authenticity, it seems to me that an autonomous church offers an organic structure that is both biblical and culturally significant. In Christian leadership circles, a localized approach to church dynamics is gaining momentum across the denominational spectrum (just a few recent examples are : Doing Local Theology, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, It Comes from the People, Organic Leadership and Finding Organic Church).

What many see as innovative, Churches of Christ have maintained throughout its relatively short history. One of the most enigmatic qualities among Churches of Christ have been their relative homogeneity despite their autonomous claims. Although we have claimed to be autonomous, our practice has not been fully so. Congregations of Churches of Christ in settings as diverse as Boston to rural Pennsylvania, Texas, coastal California, Florida, and the Midwest all, for some time, have looked eerily similar. While there is no organizational hierarchy declaring edicts on church policy, the schools, literature, and lectureships training our leaders clearly have had a great deal of influence throughout these churches. But, should autonomy be limited to describing the lack of a denominational head quarters? Is there not more implicit in the reality of autonomy? Haven't we missed a great deal of our freedom?

Today, many in Churches of Christ find their Mecca in the Bible Belt of the South East or on the prairies of central Texas. In my ministerial interaction with those in Central Ohio, I am amazed when I come across ministers and elders who seem more concerned with what is happening at a school or lectureship hundreds of miles away than with the decisions of the local governments and churches within minutes of where he lives. I conclude that autonomy very well may be the best thing we have going for us . . . but it also may be the most widely misunderstood and undervalued.

I challenge us in Churches of Christ to take the autonomous heritage of which we have been the benefactors, and explore its deeper implications. What would it look like to be a truly autonomous agency of the kingdom? No denominational boundaries. We would be just as interested in the preaching and teaching of the Vineyard Church here in Columbus as we would the others who share our name. We would be willing partners in worship and fellowship at any time and with anyone whose sole aim was to lift up the name of Christ. And we would invite others to the table with no strings attached. We would converse and share, listen and learn. We would be more engaged locally allowing our theology and ecclesiology to emerge from within the voices of people we love and share with and worhsip beside. The oldest and the youngest would have equal say with great theological forefathers who are also part of our tradition. Our conversations would begin with empathy and care instead of doubt and hesitancy.

The future will be bright in Churches of Christ if we can further grapple with this notion of localizing our theology and practice. We can be proud of our heritage when we are about forming disciples instead of creating adherents. That is the duty of the church . . . and far too often we have gotten in the way. There is much to be said for the baggage that denominational structures bring. This post simply touches the surface of what I believe to be our most enduring and important characteristic. We live in a world who is much less interested in the position our denomination takes on homosexuals - though they will make judgments based on that (what edict has been sent down from your ruling body?) than in our local manifestation of the love of God (do you love homosexuals? can I tell that you love them?)

With the emergence of micro-narratives and village theology, the localized, contextual congregation has as much potential as ever. However, in order to embrace this potential, we must learn to listen, open ourselves, and be ourselves: here and now.

The Apple Tree In My Backyard  

Posted by The Metzes in ,

My wife and I moved into our house on Main St. five years ago. Like all young married couples, we were excited about this major future-defining purchase that we had made (OK, major understatement). As we considered the number of bedrooms and bathrooms and squarefootage among other house-suitors, I was always drawn to the backyard. Growing up on a sprawling lot in the country surrounded by trees, I knew the metropolitan setting of suburbia was going to be a challenge for me. Sprawling country acreage was never within our financial means, so I settled for a big backyard, and our first house on Main St. has a nice big backyard where I spend as much time as I can.

One of the most striking features of our neighborhood is the trees. There is a sign on our street that decrees Westerville, OH as "Tree City USA." I'm not exactly sure what that means, but what I do know is that we have many large and beautiful trees in our neighborhood. As we visited potential houses five years ago, we saw many houses that were nicer, newer, and larger than ours but few had trees as large as the ones at our house. Directly behind our house is a beautiful silver maple tree that seems to stretch forever towards the sky. It has such beauty that I am willing to ignore the numerous large branches it has lost since we moved in - even the ones that have scraped our gutters. Behind the silver maple is an even more impressive sugar maple - a beatiful sight particulaly in the fall. In the back corner of the yard are two pine trees that shade our hammock in the summer. And just a few feet from one of those pine trees is a large apple tree.

When we first moved into the house, the trees hadn't been trimmed in many years. My first mowing experience was similar to running an obstacle course dodging hanging branches and low-lying limbs. The overgrown limbs greatly hid the beauty of our backyard. As a matter of fact, during our first year in the house, I didn't even realize we had an apple tree. Fall came and went and there were no apples on the tree. However, thanks to my pruning, when the next spring came around, the apple tree was full of the most beautiful blooms filling the air with their sweet fragrance. The scent was no guarantee of the apple harvest, however, as the blossoms gave way to small fruit. The fruit never matured, and we ended up with a tree full of rotten half-grown apples. Upsetting to us tenants, but great news for the local squirrel community.

The half-grown apples were a disappointment, but it was encouraging to know that we had made some progress. I was committed to giving the tree constant TLC and to willing it on towards a more bountiful future. And the tree reponsded. Unfortunatley, just as the tree seemed ripe for a large harvest, it was nearly destroyed by Ohio's first hurricane. (Really, Ohio had a hurricane!) One large gust sent the top-part of the neighboring pine tree right on top of the apple tree I had been caring for. So much for the progress!

This year I have done my best to salvage our apple tree. I trimmed all the branches that were damaged by the pine tree. I cleaned out all the dead branches and limbs. This spring there were but a handful of blossoms, but it looks as though it is going to make it. The handful of blossoms gave way to exactly three apples. Because there were only three, I gave these apples special attention. I did my best to nurture them keeping them free of insects and harm. Slowly, across the summer, all three of these apples matured right in front of our eyes. It was the most beautiful sight - these three apples hanging alone on this large, damaged apple tree.

I want to use this apple tree as a metaphor for the Churches of Christ. The tree has been beat and battered by the weather. It has been split by the storms life has rained down upon it. In the same way, the Churches of Christ have been beat and battered with storms of their own: divisions, scandal, and tension. And these churches have not been left unharmed. Unity has been the chief victim, but there are others. As I sat looking at my apple tree last fall after the hurricane, questions that I have had about the Churches of Christ seemed dually applicable - is she going to make it? Will she continue to bear fruit in the future? Is this the end? Has she finally been beaten into irrelevance? Does she have anything left to offer? Am I wasting my time trying to save her?

It's important to note here that in my analogy there are other, larger, more healthy trees in my backyard. Sure, they all have their problems: the silver maple has a disease that my kill it one of these days, the pine tree that took out the apple tree is missing its top half, and the sugar maple badly needs pruned. These are the other denominations. There are other, older, solid parts of the kingdom living out the Gospel alongside us. There are also some smaller shoots that have taken root and they that may or may not make it into adulthood - other denominational movements that continue to grow and shoot off from the others. In this analogy I am certainly not concerned that the church is by anyway defeated. This is an intramural dialogue for those of us associated with Campbell, Stone, and the boys.

There are some reasons to throw in the towel and give up hope - any Google search of "Church of Christ" can affirm that. And yet, like my apple tree in the backyard, there seems to me to be a few pieces of beautiful fruit still hanging from the tree, not ready to completely fall to the ground, giving up. This fruit needs nurture and attention. It needs time and care.

In the work that I have proposed, and will be fleshing out here in the months to come, there is some productive fruit still hanging from the group of disciples who call themselves "Churches of Christ." This group increasingly grows diverse and discussions about them grow increasingly complicated - but perhaps, considering the complicated postmodern matrix of the Western world, that in and of itself is one of those pieces of hopeful fruit.

In the next several series of posts I'll be addressing what I believe to be the most hopeful pieces of tradition in the Churches of Christ. This work will be divided into two sections: Hopeful Fruit and Pruning Shears. While there may be some hopeful fruit dangling from our tradition, there remains at the same time some major obstacles to our growth that will require pruning. In the coming months I'll be soliciting fellow ministers who are in a similar place to me to reflect on these areas offering practical and timely suggestions on how we might save our apple trees - if that is in fact what God wants us to do.

I would invite those of you in these churches to post thoughts and ideas about some of the hopeful fruit you see in our movement as well as other harmful limbs that you feel need to be pruned. I am continuing to assemble a group of writers with topics on this issue and would benefit greatly from hearing the ideas of others. I'll be copying this post throughout on the like-minded group site: Post-Restorationist Perspectives. I hope you enjoy!

The Unhelpfulness of Categories  

Posted by Adam

If you want to prevent meaningful dialogue from taking place, here's a tip: Apply categories. Get at least one of the people involved to think of their position as the "conservative" or "liberal" position. Better yet, get them to start thinking of themselves as "liberal" or "conservative". This works in virtually any setting (theology, politics, etc), and really only requires one of the dialogue partners to apply the labels to be effective.

If preventing meaningful dialogue doesn't go far enough for you, here's another tip: Polarize the argument. Convince at least one of the people involved to define their category so narrowly that to differ on any point, or even to question any point places one in the opposite category. Cultivate an us/them mentality. Make it about "winning", or even about "not letting the other win", more than substance. Cultivate the idea in an individual (or group) that the position they currently hold is the one that any sensible person would naturally come to if they would only be objective about the matter. Once a person becomes convinced of the obviousness of their own position, they will naturally assume that anyone who disagrees with this position is obviously stupid, or an evil person who is intentionally misleading others.

Make sure that these categories get reinforced frequently, perhaps by employing overbearing media personalities who can boldly and consistently articulate the intelligence and rightness of their own position. Note: these personalities should never be self-critical, never recognize anything good in the other, and should only have anything resembling a sense of humor in reference to those they seek to ridicule (they should never be self-deprecating).

Follow these steps, my friends, and I guarantee that you will prevent any empathy, understanding, and progress. Remember, you don't have to win the debate to maintain the status quo. You just have to apply categories and polarize the argument.

A few warnings though. For this to work, you must avoid the following at all costs:

  • Asking questions
  • Engaging with the questions of others
  • Listening to the best articulations of other perspectives
  • The idea that there even can legitimately be other perspectives
  • spending time with others who are unlike you
  • Humility
  • Compassion
  • Grace
  • Anything beyond a Gospel of "sin-management"
  • Jesus

Top 5 Video Presentations from "The Nines" IMHO  

Posted by Adam

A couple of weeks ago, Leadership Network put on a free online conference primarily for Ministers and ministry leaders. It was a somewhat schizophrenic and maddening experience as it jumped from good, thoughtful presentations to inane church-growth drivel passed off as "wisdom". Below, I'm embedding what I thought were the 5 best and most helpful presentations. Feel free to comment. I'd really like to see your reactions.
(Sorry Driscoll fans...he doesn't make my cut...even though he went over the time limit with the clip from one of his sermons that he sent in.) If you'd like to see all of the presentations, they can be found HERE.

Now, here are the 5 videos that, in my opinion, were the most engaging and important for anyone engaged in church and/or Christianity a leader or otherwise:

1. Brian McLaren--One of my favorite authors. I love this guy.

2. Skye Jethani--editor of

3. Alan Hirsch--Leader in the Missional Conversation/Movement

4.Reggie McNeal--Another Leader in the Missional Converstation/Movement

5. Pete Wilson--My friend Matthew Paul Turner's Pastor. When you start watching this one, you'll be tempted to assume he's w/ the flashy church growth crowd. You'd be right about the flashy, but you'd be wrong about everything else.