Sweeping social and spiritual change in America has brought us into a fundamentally different context than the one in which ACU and the Stone-Campbell Movement began. In that change we are losing something essential for the life of love God intends. This is a series about what we have lost: our most precious asset, our attention. The series is also about how we can realistically get our attention back.
Though we will explore history, theology and principle as we go, my primary interest here is to open a conversation about how people in our time can reclaim—and are reclaiming—a lifestyle of attentive love.
In the first few posts, I want to sketch some of the history of how we have come to be where we are. Much like the proverbial frog in the kettle, these changes have occurred slowly enough that the threats and opportunities they pose are easily missed by those of us immersed in them. As we take a fresh look at the realities in which we swim, options before us to reclaim our attention will come into focus.
I begin with some family history. My great, great, great grandfather, Abraham Monticue Shelton was born in 1800. That same year, forty miles away, Barton Stone participated in the Kentucky Red River Revival.
As family lore has it, Abraham grew to young manhood an illiterate unbeliever. He found himself debating proponents of the Restoration Movement then sweeping Kentucky and grew frustrated with his ignorance of the Bible.
To disprove his companions he taught himself to read. As he read scripture, though, he became convinced that they were right and he was wrong, and became a Christian.
Abraham went on to become a preacher, an elder, and the father of ten children. The family settled there in Logan county, and for the next 50 years, farmed, loved and lived together as witnesses to God’s arriving Kingdom.
In 1871, the little church that had formed there officially organized as the Kedron Church of Christ. Abraham and his son Thomas were two of the three elders. Their public meetings occurred once per month in a log schoolhouse on land provided by Abraham’s son, Alexander. Ten years later, in 1881, the congregation built their church building—one that remains in use to this day.
I tell this story to call to mind what was, in the first generations of our movement, the unremarkable norm: people lived in the extended community of a walkable world. As far as we are removed from that world today, it is instructive to remember what such a world is like.
A walkable world is a world in which nearly everyone you see is known to you—often for your whole life. The people with whom you work, shop, attend school, play, and meet as church are familiar faces with whom your life has overlapped frequently and in many ways.
In the walkable world of the 1800s, whether you were among the 10% who lived in cities or the 90% who did not, in all likelihood you shared three meals a day with your extended family. If your work was outside the home, for the midday meal you usually walked in from the fields or elsewhere. Sitting around that table would be not only spouse and children but parents and in many cases other family members and workers. At that time, and for most times and places before it, a life thickly shared in community—with all its beauty and challenges—was the unremarkable norm for how people lived.
The developed world we inhabit today is fundamentally different—not a walkable world, but a virtual world. In a virtual world, comparatively few people are embedded in relationships where they are well known. In the course of a typical life relational resources are thinly spread across many acquaintances. In a virtual world, one has to be uncommonly intentional to form and keep deep relationships.
What happened to change our worlds? To this topic we turn next.
Meanwhile, what do you think? How does the shift from a walkable world to a virtual world alter our capacity for attention and love?
Dr. Kent Smith is CHARIS Professor at Abilene Christian University and has taught there in the Graduate School of Theology since 1991. His teaching and research focus has been in the area of spiritual nurture systems, especially as they relate to new expressions of church. He has directed ACU’s graduate internship in missional leadership and has been a trainer for international mission teams over twenty-five years with ACU’s Halbert Institute for Missions. Kent and his wife Karen are founding members of the Eden Community. He can be contacted at [email protected]