Connecting Corporately for the Sake of Vision: Part 2
In his landmark Crossroads series, Dr. Gilbert W. Stafford helped the people of the Church of God to see their movement from a unique perspective. This post continues a three-part series excerpted from chapter 10 of his second book, Vision for the Church of God at the Crossroads. It is particularly applicable to the work of the Project Imagine roundtable. I share it with you that you may read for yourself some material that I’ve asked the members of the roundtable to read.
As always, we solicit your prayers for the roundtable. Our second meeting is scheduled for February 27–March 1 in Florida.
So, what has been the source of our ongoing connectedness, if not organizational structure? It has to do with matters of historic vision. From the beginning this historic vision was enunciated in the Gospel Trumpet (GT)—later Vital Christianity (VC), in the vigorous publication business of the Gospel Trumpet Company (later Warner Press), in our songs, in our camp meetings, and in our doctrinal preaching. These were the things that held us together. Later, it was enunciated through Christian Brotherhood Hour (now Christians Broadcasting Hope: ViewPoint), a graded Sunday school curriculum, church related schools of higher education, and common endeavors, ministries, and missionary efforts. These supported our life together; they were the components of our ongoing connectedness.
But this is a different day. The Gospel Trumpet and Vital Christianity are no longer published. Warner Press has a much-reduced publication ministry. Our songs are unknown in many of our churches. While camp meetings serve very good purposes, more often than not those purposes do not include doctrinal formation. Congregational preaching hardly ever deals with the historic vision of the church. ViewPoint has a mission—a very good one—but the historic vision of the church is not the primary emphasis. Many of our churches do not use our Sunday school curriculum. Our schools have broadened their appeal so that they are becoming less identifiable as Church of God schools. Many of our churches have a lack of commitment to common endeavors, ministries, and missionary efforts.
I mention these things not for the purpose of lamentation but to identify the scope of our challenge. While we have new publications, programs, and endeavors, nothing has evoked the church-wide emotional loyalty that the above did in earlier years. Other church groups have gone through similar developments. To be sure, what we have experienced is not at all unique to us. The thing that is different for us is that, while other church groups have an organizational structure that provides them with an ongoing connectedness even while they go through changes that are similar to ours, we do not have a denominational structure.
I’m always amused when people say, “Well, whether we like it or not, we are a denomination.” I wonder whether they know how a denomination works. If we are one of those things, we are a very funny-looking one. Most people from church groups that are genuine denominations are dumbfounded at how we do things, once they get close enough to observe how things really work. Actually, we are a loosely associated network of congregations and other organizations.
Let’s use the metaphor of a tent to compare ourselves with denominations. A denominational tent is held up by the central pole of its organizational structure. (Of course, it is much more than that. It includes their history, theology, and ministry. But all that is part and parcel of an organizational structure.) Our tent, however, has not been held up by an organizational structure. On the contrary, it has been held up by Gospel Trumpet Company (Warner Press) publications, camp meetings, doctrinal preaching, CBH/broadcasts, Sunday school curriculum, schools of higher education, and other cooperative endeavors.
As we have already said, this traditional tent pole has been whittled down so that we now have a collapsed canvas. Every person, congregation, agency, and organization listed in the Yearbook of the Church of God is under the canvas, so to speak, but the central pole is not raised high enough for us to have a good strong tent.
What we have, then, is a canvas (which encompasses every body and every organization listed in the Yearbook). Instead of having one central pole, multiple little poles are sticking up here and there. We have one canvas with many little tent poles. Many of our churches and ministers find their primary self-identity in relation to the little tent poles rather than in relation to the central tent pole.
Also, some of our ministers and churches are more emotionally and theologically related to tents outside our canvas than they are to the Church of God. While they continue being under the canvas (i.e., they are still listed in the Yearbook), their real identity is not in relation to any tent pole under the canvas but to a completely different tent. Being under the Church of God canvas is simply an incidental fact of history. The Church of God tent does not define who they are.
I do not wish to imply that all of the little tent poles under the canvas are bad. Some of them make very good little tents. Neither is this to say that all the tents outside our own canvas are bad; again, some of them are very commendable. I am not calling into question the importance of associational life beyond our canvas. Nor am I condemning all little tent associational life under our canvas. The point is that unless we have a strong central pole to serve as our rallying point, we no longer can function as a church fellowship with a unifying mission. Without that central pole we will continue the fragmentation that is already so much a part of our life together.
Do we find anything disturbing about this development? If not, then nothing needs to be attended to. The process that is already underway just needs to be allowed to progress at its own rapid pace.
If, however, we find this process disturbing, we need to ask why. Is it mere nostalgia? Is it simply because we happen to enjoy our life together and don’t want to see it dissipating? If that is all it is, it is highly unlikely that anything we might do would be able to stop the process.
Or is it a matter of the biblical vision of what it means to be the one universal body of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in harmony with New Testament emphases? If that is why we do not want to see the tent in a state of collapse, then we should devote our energies to seeing that the central pole is once again raised.