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A Retrospective on the 1990s in Churches of Christ



Tenth in a Series

The most skewed history is recent history. Personal involvement, limited perspectives, regional interests and ecclesiological politics color perceptions that are corrected with more distant and dispassionate assessment. It is difficult, therefore, to truly appreciate or understand the 1990s in the year 2000. Nevertheless, there are several significant features which will impact the 21st Century.

Though nominated for the 1980s, Mac Lyon and Rubel Shelly represent a diverse fellowship among churches of Christ in the 1990s. Their influence has grown. Lyon’s television program grew from 22 stations in 1990 to 85 in 2000 and added additional satellite and broadcasting networks. Shelly’s influence has grown through his consistent appearance at the Pepperdine and Jubilee lectures as well as through his popular writings — The Second Incarnation with Randy Harris — and his Web site. They represent two divergent groups among churches of Christ.

Three other individuals significantly shaped churches of Christ in 1990s. Max Lucado, through his many books — Eye of the Storm was the first publication by a member of the church of Christ to reach number 1 on the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association bestseller list — awakened a devotional and spiritual hunger within our fellowship.

Promise Keepers and the resultant "Men’s Movement" among us fed this renewal as well. But Lucado also raised the question of our relationship to the evangelical world. He reintroduced churches of Christ to their evangelical neighbors and became a symbol, whether for good or ill, of a growing alliance with evangelicalism.

Lynn Anderson led a worship and leadership renewal within our fellowship. With his Navigating the Winds of Change (1994), Anderson introduced us to change in churches of Christ. His "Church that Connects" seminars led a worship renewal (as well as "worship wars") and his They Smell Like Sheep (1997) reoriented leadership styles among our elders. The church continues to struggle with both of these renewal movements.

F. LaGard Smith, known for his conservative stance on social issues, rode a rising popularity to address concerns which will significantly affect the church in the 21st Century. He wrote and lectured on baptism, gender roles, fellowship and hermeneutics. A popular speaker in the 1990s, he influenced significant elements of our fellowship with his moderate to traditional stances on these topics. Smith stood against the rising tide of postmodernism within churches of Christ.

In addition to these thought leaders, the 1990s saw a renewed interest in the historical roots of the American Restoration Movement. Three major interpretations of churches of Christ were published in the 1990s by Robert Hooper, Richard Hughes and David Edwin Harrell — along with other more specific studies by Doug Foster, Tom Olbricht and Leonard Allen. This increased awareness generated pursuit of dialogue with other branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement through unity forums, cooperative works and speaker exchanges.

Yet, throughout this diversity and controversy, the ministry of churches of Christ grew. Most significantly, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened Eastern Europe to a flood of church plantings, educational partnerships, such as ones with Russian Universities, and short-term missions. The answered prayer of freedom in Eastern Europe galvanized a missionary impulse which bore fruit in South and Central America, Asia and especially Africa. Exponential growth resulted, and by the end of the decade church membership in India and Africa was estimated by leaders in those areas at more than 700,000 in each country.

Consistent with this renewed missional perspective, the "One Nation Under God" campaign (1991-94) mailed an evangelistic tract to North Americans and Europeans.

Ministry also expressed itself in disaster relief efforts for Hurricanes Andrew, Georges, Fran and Mitch, tornadoes, the Oklahoma City bombing and floods as well as in aid for Croatia, Eastern Europe and Kosovo.

Ministry also expanded into our inner cities. The Urban Ministry Conference and multiple inner city church plants in Houston, Memphis, Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham, and other cities renewed our commitment to the city. These efforts reminded the church of both social and racial barriers to the Gospel as practiced by many suburban congregations.

The 1990s also saw an explosion of influence by our lectureships. Pepperdine, as well as Jubilee in the East, attracted large crowds and led the church towards renewal. Freed-Hardeman’s lectureship experienced renewed success. Significantly, such reflected a shift away from journal editors as the center of influence to respected preachers and lectureship speakers.

The centers of influence in churches of Christ are now the lectureships, large churches with popular preachers and schools — probably in that order. Editors, unlike the past, are no longer our "Bishops." The Internet which may yet be the most influential factor in the 21st century, was only beginning in the 1990s.

The 1990s displayed a tremendous diversity. It was a decade of discussion and change; a shift in churches of Christ from modernism to postmodernism. The G.I. generation began to pass away, the Baby Boomers moved into leadership roles and the Gen Xers voiced their needs. That mixture was sometimes refreshing, but also sometimes divisive and devastating.

Some believe the future of churches of Christ includes a split along the lines of the one which began the century (1906). However, I believe and pray for a "broad middle" which finds unity in Christ a unity rooted in the gospel — the person and work of Christ, the Gospel meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and our hope in the resurrection.

Diversity is here to stay, but unity is, too, if we can stand together in Jesus Christ.

Originally appeared in the Christian Chronicle 57.10 (October 2000), 20.

This article, and others in the series, may be accessed at the Christian Chronicle website.


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