This summer, I joined Parkside Church of Christ as one of their ministers. Ever since, I’ve been consistently asked, “Why did you choose the Church of Christ?”
The question itself betrays an interesting/alarming reality currently at work in the Church of Christ. The two dominant narratives in the Church of Christ today seem to be “Everyone is leaving!” and “We must keep on keepin’ on.” As a transplant into this community, I fall outside those two narratives. I didn’t grow up in the Churches of Christ; I was raised in an Assembly of God church and a fundamentalist Baptist school (my dad used to call us Bapticostals). But somehow, I’ve found myself pastoring a Church of Christ, which seems to astonish more than a few people. In a church where leaving or staying seem to be the only two options, a newcomer—especially a young one—presents a fascinating anomaly.
So how did I end up here?
It wasn’t because I fell in love with the elegant simplicity of acapella worship music. It wasn’t because of the Church of Christ’s high view of baptism. It wasn’t because of this community’s deep love of the Bible, nor was it due to their weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, their commitment to intergenerational friendship, or their flat(ish) church hierarchy. I’ve definitely come to appreciate each of these things (in an evangelical culture saturated with cool, cool musicians leading a room full of people who look just like me in low-impact personal experiences, it’s surprisingly refreshing to sing stripped down songs and share an ancient meal with babies and old ladies). But I didn’t choose the C of C for any of these reasons.
I’m here because this is the family that welcomed me.
When I had pretty much given up on organized churches, it was a couple Church of Christ professors who taught me the value of the local church community. When my parents split up, it was a handful of Church of Christ families who mentored me, nurtured me, and allowed me to heal. When I could no longer afford school, a stranger from a local Church of Christ paid part of my tuition. It was a Church of Christ that provided my first internship, and later, my first preaching gig. When I moved away to plant a campus ministry, the majority of my budget was raised by members of the Church of Christ.
I didn’t choose the Church of Christ because it’s the one true church, or even because I think it’s the best church. I chose it because it was the community that embodied the hospitality of God when I needed it most. “Chose” isn’t even the right word for how I wound up here; I ended up in this family the same way I ended up in my biological family—they just happened to be the people through whom I found life.
That said, I’ve found this to be a fairly dysfunctional family. There’s a surprising undercurrent of gender inequality in many Churches of Christ; it’s a lot more fun to be a man in this family than a woman. There’s also often an ugly combination of legalism and nasty in-fighting. You won’t believe the things some churches split or “disfellowship” over. Likewise, I can’t help feeling like many members of the Church of Christ family care much more about what goes down in the building on Sunday morning than what happens out in the world throughout the week. This really isn’t my ideal church.
But it is my family. And as a family, I’ve come to expect brokenness that requires long-lasting grace; I’ve never met a family that didn’t need daily forgiveness. Grace is the thread woven into every sustained relationship—why should I expect my church experience to be any different? It’s not like I’ll ever find a church that gets it all right, a family with no hints of unhealth. I’ve been a part of enough congregations to know that the Churches of Christ don’t have a monopoly on dysfunction.
This doesn’t mean I’m content with the ugliness in my new church family. A number of my sisters and brothers across the country are being abused by this family and need to get out. Grace does not require toughing it out in an abusive situation, even when (especially when!) it comes to family.
But my situation is definitely not abusive. And yet, it’s not the healthiest family either. As a member of this family, I’ve been welcomed to the table, invited to effect healthy change. As certain as I am to bring my own brokenness into this family, I also have the opportunity to join in God’s healing my church.
So dysfunction won’t make me leave the Churches of Christ. However, I might leave if I’m ever convinced that this family has ceased to move. We can’t follow Jesus standing still. If our dysfunction ever becomes our identity—if our mission to maintain our peculiarities usurps God’s mission in the world—our body will die, cut off from our source of life.
But, as far as I can tell, that’s not a risk right now. There are so many glimpses of life, so many signs of motion in the Churches of Christ that I’m tempted to label movement as the norm, not the exception. The missional impulse of Mark Love, the patient compassion of Sara Barton, the prophetic imagination of the Woods, the unwavering trajectory of Rubel Shelly, the merciful insight of Richard Beck, the courageous storytelling of Naomi Walters, the persistent call for justice from Josh Graves, the commitment to embodied hospitality of Coleman Yoakum, the Christ-centered inclusivity of Rochester College, and especially the faithful love of Parkside all give me reason to stay put.
This is my family now. Thanks for having me.