“Churches of Christ don’t know what they have and don’t know how to make it work for them, but your core values line up well with what God is doing in the world’s fastest replicating churches around the world,” said my friend David Watson over breakfast one day. David is a former missionary and now trainer of global leaders connected to hundreds of thousands of churches planted throughout in the last several decades. In China, India, Africa, and beyond, a decentralized movement of Jesus followers has been growing with stunning speed and power, often underground or below the radar of those who only measure large western institutional versions of Christianity.
At Missions Resource Network (MRN), we have been connected to one such movement in Rwanda though our partnership with African Transformation Network in Kigali. We trained many of the Americans who have worked there since 2008. We invited David Watson to Kigali to be part of a Disciple-Making Movement training in 2009 and have continued to support the work. Already they have seen well over 200 churches planted in 12 movements with upwards of 4,000 baptisms. They are seeing third- and fourth-generation churches springing up and crossing borders of all the nations around Rwanda. All the gatherings are lead by Rwandans. Americans play limited but catalytic roles in what is now a certifiable Rwandan movement. This is only one of many similar stories that can be told from around the world in various groups with similar approaches of mission.
If you look at the values of such rapidly multiplying, self-replicating communities of faith around the globe, it almost sounds like a description of the American Restoration Movement from a couple centuries ago. As Matt Miller, one of the Americans working in Rwanda, says, “This out-restorations the restoration movement.”
Many of the historic values of Churches of Christ are particularly adaptive in the current state of global kingdom expansion. Unfortunately, too often those values have become more rhetorical than actual. Still, they are in our historic DNA and can be brought back to life with a little blowing on the embers for at least some of our churches. It’s like a massive global parade is marching down our street and we can’t see it and aren’t joining in.
What are these values? I’d like to expand on just a few of the most significant.
Unique Authority of Scripture
Many of the world’s fastest growing movements of believers take a Bible only approach to instruction. Rather than depending on training materials and formalized doctrinal statements produced by denominations, counsels, conventions, or theologians, they simply get their people engaged in simple discovery Bible study groups that ask, “What does the Bible say?,” “What do we hear God saying to us?,” and, “How do we obey this?” Rather than telling people how to do church or what to believe, those facilitating these new gatherings of believers are asking people to encounter God in scripture and decide for themselves how to obey him in their context. The missionaries or outside leaders don’t import the models of church from their home context, but trust that God can speak through his Word to people who seek him in scripture. They teach dependence not on missionaries but on God through the Word itself. When there are questions about what to do, the missionaries refer the leaders to the Bible and relevant passages and let the insiders decide how to obey.
Local Autonomy (church as a de-centralized network)
This approach is only possible if people in each gathering have the freedom to hear and obey as they hear God speaking. While congregational autonomy can be taken to unhealthy degrees that prevent strategic collaboration, allowing each congregation to be responsible to God directly under the Word and the Spirit creates an immediately contextualized and relevant hearing of the Word and gives the local church a sense of ownership and responsibility to obey it and spread it in the same way they received it.
Priesthood of All Believers
For churches to rapidly grow and replicate themselves, the major challenge is multiplying leaders. That cannot happen if there is a complicated process of training and ordination. The average disciple must be empowered to teach others and lead new groups. Where that happens, churches can multiply quickly.
Rapid multiplication also means the faith must travel lightly and be able to go into places where there are few resources other than people of faith who are willing to obey what they believe. If there is no necessity for buildings, clergy, and all the trappings of complex models of western church—if all people need is scripture and the Spirit—groups can multiply rapidly. The more simple the model of church, the more portable and replicable it is. This does not make larger institutional forms and traditions bad, but they can be expensive and cumbersome. Simple forms can outpace complex ones.
I’ve heard it said the Churches of Christ did a better job of restoring 4th century Christianity than 1st century Christianity. We assumed buildings, centralized gatherings and structures, and leadership patterns that did not truly emerge until after Constantine. Whether or not that is true, the rapid growth of the underground church in China and explosion of simple Bible focused groups around the planet in recent decades have shown that simple New Testament-like Christianity still has great power and should not be abandoned as if passé just because some have taken it in unhealthy directions. While the Lord may use a variety of church models to do much good around the world, we are living in a time when simple restoration principles still have great power, and it is time that people from the Stone-Campbell heritage rediscovered what is in our storage shed and bring it back out for use. The parade is coming down out street. Let’s join in.