From a Church of Christ "high place" has come a blast that has sent shivers through the Texas pulpit and stirred low murmurs of protest in the orthodox religious press. Shivers and jitters are certain to multiply when the silent pew begins to respond.
Yes, the Church of Christ, like ancient Israel with its Shiloh, City of David, Bethel, and Gilgal, has its "high places," the chiefest of which is Abilene. Here annually gathers the greatest number of priests and preachers, here is published and updated the leading songbook, here the major seminary is being assembled, and here is the center for the production of professional pulpiteers.
The blast is a slender book charging that secularism has a "stranglehold" on the Church of Christ, a stranglehold equal to that on the various Protestant denominations. Its title is The Worldly Church. The book is built around the theme advanced by Dr. Michael Weed of the Institute of Christian Studies at Austin, a professor whose scholarly attainments command wide respect in religious circles. The other authors are ACU professors Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes. The book has the blessing of ACU President William Teague, and its foreword was written by Reuel Lemmons, something of a Texas high priest. Thus fully authenticated and published by the ACU Press, it is something not to be openly rejected or vigorously attacked by defenders of a "fully restored New Testament church" that is sealed against the evils of the prevailing culture. Nevertheless it is causing a vast uneasiness that is certain to spread.
Weed's basic theme is that secularization has displaced religion from the center of public and private life, first in Western Europe where religious institutional machinery still functions, but with cathedral and church pews empty, leaving only a gloss of civil religion, whereas in America, with pews still filled, secularization is even further advanced through reshaping the churches to serve the concerns of our secular society.
The business world in America has been a powerful altering force, influencing the church to support its values and ways of life while expecting the church to restrict religion to the purely private realm. And to support this settlement, business pours financial support into such churchly institutions as colleges and relief agencies on a matching basis or makes special grants. Naturally the conforming church assumes the characteristics of the technological, bureaucratic, and success-oriented secular institutions about it with its committees, hierarchical structure, communication systems, and procedures, and its chief concern for the needs of secularism's victims. Like the corporation, the church has become growth-oriented, and utilizes professional teams who can come in to establish growth procedures and put on financial drives to fund the next expansion. Leading Church of Christ journals carry the advertisements of these professionals. But in spite of all of the busy-busy activities the contemporary church has stirred, for the average member religion has become a leisure-time pursuit, not a central one.
Since the chief concern of secularism is self-fulfillment and need gratification, the conforming church often finds itself addressing concerns which the secular society handles better. Gymnasiums, church basketball leagues, running tracks, and outdoor recreation reflect this type of response; but who would attend a church basketball game when one can see a ballyhooed NCAA show? Pulpit ministers undertake counseling without professional training and certification, but the demand is there, so why not? In the pulpit the minister sees himself as a consumer salesman, and as such he cultivates communication skills and techniques like the advertising world to sell what people will buy. For the more successful salesman bigger churches with salaries ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 plus side benefits, await him. Whether the matter is singles problems, marital discord, psychological troubles, drug dependence, or youth needs, the pulpiteer deals with it in the traditional language of religion and piety, but according to Dr. Weed the language maintains a false transcendence. The love feast of the first century church to supplement the rations of the poor has become the convivial "fellowship meal" of the well fixed middle class. And with what results? "The seduction of faith by the world's artful techniques."
The book seems to be describing the 1988 merger of two prosperous Nashville churches, the selling of their excellent church buildings, and the purchase of six acres in a fine residential section to erect a new style building to support more than a score of special groups like Alcohol Anonymous, drug rehabilitation, and family counseling, and to provide wide-open spaces for youth and aged recreation. Of course the city has already provided wide open spaces in a galaxy of public parks, but so should churches. Incidentally the six acres of open space cost $2,250,000. Think what that sum would do in carrying the gospel "into all the world."
The authors of The Worldly Church find the roots of the secularization of the Church of Christ in America in the Enlightenment and the rationalism of John Locke. Alexander Campbell was certainly thoroughly Lockean and millennial via human progress. They could have also noted the impact of the frontier in creating a self-help religion. Christianity in its beginning was an urban religion. With the fall of Rome it became a village or manorial religion with emphasis on community. The problem for America was to adapt such a community religion to the individualized life of the frontier. The Restoration Movement was successful there because it brought to the back country a direct man-to-God religion free of a professional clergy and the stifling effect of institutionalization. The outcome might have been happier had Barton W. Stone been a greater influence rather than Campbell to offset the rationalism, legalism, sectarianism, and self-success individualism that provided fertile ground for secularism. Stone reached out to the poor, the non-slave-holding class, and those moved by the majesty, awe, and transcendence of a God-dependent religion. This writer's own grandfather left a Stone-founded church in which he grew up prior to the Civil War to find a home in a Campbell-oriented church. David Lipscomb was much closer to the spirit of Stone than to Campbell, and he wielded his pen against threatening secular forces. But the present century's culture engulfed his teachings and left him little more than a name.
The massive change which has taken place in the Restoration Movement has happened almost without any self-examination, almost in a fit of absent-mindedness. In this writer's earlier years the church was poor, rural-minded, with wrong-side-of-the-tracks status in the minds of the most. With World War II it moved directly across town to the prosperous suburbs and took on the trappings of the influential Protestant churches. Its members moved into the upper circles of business and became influential in the professional fields. In describing this development two years ago in the quarterly magazine published by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, this writer identified G. C. Brewer, the most brilliant preacher of the first half of this century, as the leading architect and prophet of the secularized Church of Christ. Brewer obtained his education at the old Nashville Bible School under David Lipscomb, but came to throw his eloquence and powerful influence against major tenets of his old teacher. It is small wonder that he became the hero of the American Legion. By both teaching and example he created the full-time professional pulpiteer dominating church activities. He brought the term "budget" into Church of Christ language. The "eldership," a non-biblical institution modeled on the corporate board of directors, came to flourish before his death. The church swiftly became an institution rather than a people of faith, with a hierarchical structure as unyielding as steel. Politically a membership that had been identified with radical agrarianism and labor a generation ago, went en masse into the Republican Party. Who has heard a sermon celebrating Labor Day in twenty years?
More at ease in their suburban status, church members have become less sectarian and more concerned with culture-created 'needs' - such as broken homes, youth guidance, youth recreation, the problems of an aging society, drug rehabilitation, pre-kindergarten services, alcohol addiction, prison "work," needs of the homeless, and so on. Some churches have looked back at the ghetto through which they hurriedly passed on their way to the suburbs to find "inner city needs." All of these are commendable provided it does not mean an emphasis shift from the one supreme need of sinful man. The pulpit has become a place of smooth performance, with catchy sermon titles, telling people what they want to hear. Consider the title of a series of sermons "Emotions in Motion'' (pop payxhology) and "Sermons on the Amount" (to fund the new building).
Nothing is more indicative of the acculturation of the church than the discovery and use of power in the present century. Power makes things go in the political and economic realms. It is logical to assume that it can make things equally successful in the realm of religion. The self-perpetuating "eldership" which has taken shape in very recent decades is far from finding its model in the Apostles rejecting administration to devote their energies to teaching. The insistence of Jesus that there must be no place for power among his followers has been blithely ignored. They meet in private, like the corporate board with full decision-making powers, with absolute control of all monies, the church plant, the budget, the hiring and firing, all church activities, and who may or may not participate. The emergence of the powerful figure in the pulpit has been a surprising development for a "people of the Book" for the Book makes no allowance for such a figure. Meanwhile the Christian colleges are pouring enormous sums into facilities and programs to prepare professional ministers featuring "internships.'' The doctoral programs now being offered are not primarily to develop scholars in theology, but "how to" programs in sermonizing, administration, and utilitarian needs. Specialization now advanced with "youth" ministers will spread into other "need" fields. It is regrettable that The Worldly Church did not spell out all the earmarks of secularism in the structure and operation of the contemporary church, but at least it is slipping down a coated bitter pill.