(Disclaimer: The story told here has the potential to reveal my real identity. However only to a select few who largely are unlikely to read here. But I am aware that I will divulge more information than usual in this post.)
I spent my years growing up in several different towns in several different states. This is because my dad was a “church of Christ” preacher. By far, most of the potential readers I might attract to this blog have little or no direct experience with churches of Christ. Churches of Christ are not a big denomination among protestantism, but there is (at least was in decades past) a stubborn presence all across the nation, and several colleges and universities associated with them, though small mostly, some you may have heard of (such as Harding University, Abilene Christian University, or Pepperdine University). And the two things we are best known for are the insistance (historically) on the absence of instrumental music in our worship (we did not use piano or other musical instrumentation) and our almost cultish isolation and non-cooperation with other denominations. Basically, we were spiritual snobs who condemned all other denominations to hell claiming their doctrines were false, thus we were not very charitable toward other kinds of Christians.
Though there are, and always were exceptions to those things, they were largely enough true. And I was raised in that world as the son of a preacher making a living for his family serving in that church.
My dad, though, way back in the mid 1970’s found himself taking coursework at the college level in a state college where religious studies featured a large part of his curriculum. And most of the other students in the program were also church leaders, but from various denominations, and so the coursework stretched him to have a more “open mind” about a lot of the basic things he learned in preaching school. It started him in a transformation as a church leader which put him far, far ahead of his time.
Since the 1990’s churches of Christ have openly made some very wildly “liberal” changes to our own doctrines. To be honest, I don’t think we ever were as monolithic on these things as it seemed between the 1950 and 1980s, but it did seem it even to most insiders. But since the 1990’s the monolithic ideal has so badly eroded that there is almost no uniformity anymore, except perhaps the notion that we have changed. And the most common paradigm in which that gets voiced, in my experience, is that people say we used to be “legalistic” and now we are not. Personally, I think that is a very naive understanding of the changes.
I think what really happened is that the culture outside finally infiltrated our ranks past a tipping point. No longer were we risistent to many damaging cultural forces like divorce, alcoholism, pornography, and at least a dozen lesser phenomona and most of that infiltration and subversion due to marketing forces within the larger culture. What outsiders and young people may have a hard time seeing is just how staunch people in our church used to be about regular church attendance especially before the 1980s. You might be on the football team in the state playoffs, but if the game interfered with worship services, you would be expected to sacrifice your ball game. However after the 1990s it would be far more acceptable to sacrifice the worship service.
But as I said above, we were not a cooperative bunch. We were highly argumentative. And “scholars” among our ranks wrote and published numerous books about “how to answer…” (Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons – everybody). And our rank and file membership was fairly adept at deploying the arguments if given the opportunity. This was viewed as “off putting” to say the least, by those outside. And you could expect that any cousins, aunts and uncles, or even coworkers, team mates, anyone who might find themselves of a different denomination but somehow within the social or familiar orb of one (or many) of our members would likely get an earful, and it wasn’t generally a pleasant experience.
But here my dad was in a state school studying matters involving church with people from other backgrounds and finding a lot of the things others brought to the table to be quite interesting, meaningful, insightful, and not so terribly damned of God. There was a while there in which Dad kept his new insights and feelings “on the DL” as we say. He was working out some things. But by the 1980s, Dad landed a job as the preacher of the Bronte church of Christ in Bronte, Texas.
By this time, Dad was becoming quite a lot more open with his “new” thinking. He had become, to the minds of many during those days, “heretical.” Actually, a fair bit of the membership at the church in Bronte found his teaching to be quite refreshing. (As I said above, there was far more at work here than simply jettisoning “legalism” on the one hand, and on the other, we were never quite as monolithic about these things as it seemed anyway.) But it was nevertheless quite a daring position for a man like him to take, especially with his livelihood on the line.
Now, pretty much all serious Christians from all backgrounds already have a good grasp on the notion of how important evangelism is for the church. However, there is two features of that notion that hit a brick wall in a town like Bronte, Texas and yet there never seems to be a clear statement of the problem.
On the one hand, if you believe your church is the only TRUE church that pleases God and all others are pretenders wasting their time, then you must also believe that in a town like Bronte where less that 250 people, roughly one fourth of the population of the town, belong to your church, then that leaves 3/4 of the city to evangelize. That means we should be getting after it, right? But on the other hand, if you believe that Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals are also fully Christian – even if mistaken about “some things” and that with humility we might see ourselves in need of the same grace, then there is very little to do in the way of evangelism in a town like Bronte since absolutely every soul in the community has been presented with at least one, of not a hundred, versions of the Gospel message in attempts to evangelize or catechize, and MOST of them already belong to one of these churches, then there is no one left to evangelize.
So here is the irony: Dad, without holding such views dictating that he needed to evangelize Baptists and Methodists and so forth, instead held out an olive branch toward such groups, validated them, and even encouraged them. And surprise, surprise, surprise… this turned people on! Not off.
Now, you gotta keep in mind that his teachings back at the home base church were already viewed with deep suspicion by a fair number of the rank and file, some even in leadership. He was on thin ice there on a number of fronts actually (some I will not discuss because even all these years later, confidence needs to be kept). But despite his tepid popularity (at best) within his own church, the Christians at large from the rest of the community were quite taken with him. And in time, Dad achieved, what at that time was the unthinkable: cross pollination! We put together our own version of an ambassador group (long before I ever heard of such a thing elsewhere) and visited worship services with the other churches in town. It might only be ten or twenty of our members who showed up, but in a small town like Bronte, that makes an impression on any church!
Also, there came to be other various social engagements which came to feature my dad as the “town pastor.” Watermelon social at the home of the pharmacist. Prayer service in the park or Easter Sunrise Services. Sometimes just a party, a gathering concocted by community leaders ostensibly to celebrate Dad, was held in the public spaces and attended heavily by every group in town except our church. (To be fair, there were an important minority from the church of Christ always there and always supporting such things.)
It was truly a remarkable ministry. And believe me when I say I am painting a very narrow view of it here for this blog. There is so much I could say, but it turns out that small towns, like families, have secrets – skeletons in the closet. As the “town pastor” and spiritual guide for the vast majority of the community, Dad found himself privy to many intimate details of people’s lives, and he stepped up in love and grace to be a light in the dark corners of the communal heart. I don’t know if I know the half of it, but I am sure that most of what even I know is too sensitive to share publicly all these decades later. But my dad became a deeply trusted and beloved pillar of that community. Not nearly so much his own congregation (although plenty there too), but the community as a whole!
In all the years since, I have heard our preachers – good ones too – preach the necessity of UNITY till we are blue in the face. And by my read on the New Testament, that is right; I completely concur with that emphasis on things. The church of the modern/post modern era has become so very fragmented that THAT is what I think the root of most of our problems either is or is associated with to this day. I don’t think our “legalism” of yesteryear holds a candle to the impact disunity has had on the church and on the world.
But the dream only lasted five years.
I will definitely NOT go into the details of the matters which finally arose causing Dad to be fired from what arguably was his most impactful and important ministry of his whole life. Again, there is too much there to keep in confidence, however, nearly anyone from Bronte in those days will have an educated opinion on it, I am sure. But I will say that despite the fact that some of these issues which arose were in some ways unrelated to the picture I paint above, there was no hiding the fact that they gave a fancy excuse for those hardliners among our congregation who wanted all this unity stopped to make the powerplay and muscle Dad out of a job and my family on down the road.
The truly telling part of all that which really speaks to the importance of that ministry was when a group of Christians in Bronte from the other denominations found out that the church of Christ had fired Dad came to him and offered to start a new church and make him the pastor. He need not build it from the ground up, it would come together like a miracle – ready made and ready to go. He need not miss a beat.
I cannot speak to the finely considered reasons Dad ultimately turned down that offer. I have a lot of ideas about it. I figure it would be like getting a divorce from your wife only to get remarried and let your ex live in the other end of the same house with your new family. Bronte is a very small town, and there were relationships there that would become evermore complex about like that if he had opted to do it. But in the end, I suspect he chose to have the humility of leaving rather than the hubris of outshining those who so openly opposed him. Or maybe, despite all his openness and charity toward other faith traditions, he found himself too deeply church of Christ to give up on it. All I know for sure is that we left that tiny town behind after that.
However, nearly two decades after that, I went back to college and got a Bible degree at Abilene Christian, which is only about a one hour drive away from Bronte. During my time in Abilene, I never visited Bronte except, and until, I graduated and Dad came for the event. Since he was in town most of that week, and since we found ourselves with a little spare time, we decided one morning to take a drive and found ourselves rolling into Bronte, unexpected and unannounced. Neither one of us had seen the place in many years. But being a small West Texas town, there were not too many drastic changes to the place.
We rolled up to the new convenience store and walked in to use the restroom. We did not see anyone we recognized, and the place had very few patrons at that moment. So we walked back out onto the street and decided to take a stroll. You can walk the whole town end-to-end in 20 minutes, if you so desire, but we just made a short circle of about 5 or 6 blocks right in the heart of town. We paused in front of a couple places for a moment, but by the time we returned to the convenience store less than 15 minutes later, the place was packed with people!
To my memory the joint was filled to capacity. Maybe as many as 50 people jammed in there.
Because someone had spotted [Special Agent Dad] there, and word spread quickly. People all over town called friends and family, dropped what they were doing and rushed down to the store just hoping it was for real. And sure enough, it was!
It was like my dad was Bon Jovi back stage with a pack of women wanting autographs or something!
Okay, maybe I am exaggerating that just a tad. But not by much.
Seriously, nearly two decades had passed, and the town turned out just to catch a glimpse of their old “town pastor” if they could. So maybe it was a little more like disciples dropping nets to follow Jesus!
It was a powerful testimony to the special ministry that happened there all those years before.
Suddenly, we were re-establishing contact with long lost friends. People shaking our hands, hugging us, some with tears in their eyes, overjoyed to see us. Greeting us, inviting us to their homes, hoping we were back to stay… all that.
Even the newest church of Christ preacher, the one currently holding that position at that time, showed up to greet us, and he looked nervous as all get out! Just Dad’s presence, with that kind of popularity, seemed to give him the perception that it threatened his livelihood! And it showed that Dad had left some really big shoes that this guy was struggling to fill.
Why am I telling all that story?
Well, several reasons, I suppose. Not the least that it needs to be told. It should be honored and celebrated. The thing that happened there was a gift from God! It was a small town, a town hurting with secrets even, and so none of this made the papers or the TV. If you were not there, and not part of that community, then there is no reason you would ever know or understand. Even my mere retelling of it does it no justice, and I feel certain you cannot really appreciate it. But perhaps I would be wrong not to offer it and try… try to share at least a sense of how special that time was. To praise God for the charity he gave to my dad in allowing him to enjoy such an outflowing of God’s grace, and to see various faith communities daring to share unity with one another on some truly deep and personal levels!
But there is another aspect to all of this too. One that is a regular theme on this blog – the hard-heartedness of the church.
By the time I joined V-church here in Lubbock, a few years after that visit we made to Bronte, after I graduated ACU, I too was looking for churches of Christ who honored ecumenical outreach. I particularly looked for a church that reached out both to the poor in sacrificial and loving ways AND to other faith traditions as well. And I found it, so I thought, at V-church.
I have posted a series several years ago now, ON THIS BLOG, all about my love and the adventures I found at V-church. But in more recent years, my dad has retired and come to Lubbock to live near me as he faces his late years. And upon coming to Lubbock, he too joined V-church along with me. However, this was a few years after I was disillusioned by that church, after they had discovered the book When Helping Hurts and during a time when I personally was being unofficially shunned and marginalized for speaking out against all of that. However, for years leading up to that time, I had sung the praises of V-church for both their ecumenical work and their heart for the poor.
So, when my dad showed up, even though he was an old guy with his best years behind him (supposedly), he came with an impressive resume, important experience, wisdom that would be invaluable to share. You would think V-church would be thrilled to attract all that, would invite the old man to maybe hold a lecture, a seminar, something right?
Not interested in any of it.
Why? What’s going on?
Is it all really a matter of how we used to be “legalists” but we have changed since then? Or is there other agendas at work?
V-church, once upon a time, started an ambassador program where they sent representatives to worship one Sunday with every other church in Lubbock! That takes a while to do. It is a brilliant idea, and no telling what all the blessings are between churches of Christ and so many other faith traditions could be still incubating from that. But my dad was doing that decades before it was cool, decades before it was even edgy stuff someone just dreamed up. And not only that, but my dad’s ministry involved people in intimate sharing of their lives across these traditional boundaries that have done so much damage to the church at large for hundreds of years. You think I am just looking for respect here? Nah. That would be nice, of course, but the real point is that this church with such a rich history and interest in THIS KIND of thing blowing off the insights a person like my dad brings with him is so far out of line as to suggest there is some sort of corruption going on.
Perhaps it’s some spiritual corruption, but I bet it involves politics and probably some money too. But I can only guess at that level. But the oversight here is just too enormous to simply be coincidence. And in more than five years now of being a committed member there, his input is far more resisted than sought.
I can’t help but note that it was the church of Christ that fired him when he achieved so much, and now it is the church of Christ blowing off the asset sitting right there in their midst.
I think that is a shame, and I think it should be addressed. The opportunity is utterly wasted, and the old man is getting old. There is far more he can no longer do than what he once did. But passing up a simple consultation is just stupid and outrageous. If nothing more than learning from history, this man has far more value than his own brothers and sisters in Christ care to find out, and it’s costing them.
That’s another reason I post it.