What is Happening to Churches of Christ?

Another preacher asked me if I could explain what is happening within our fellowship. Like many others, he’s struggling to understand the dynamics that are causing increasing isolation between brethren and churches.

I don’t think he considered me an expert; the topic is the common thread of discussion among church leaders across the nation and those of us who travel extensively get asked about it often. This time it came up as three of us sat in a restaurant eating lunch. As I moved saucers, salt shakers, spoons, and forks around the table to visually illustrate my perception, I realized that there may be a model for understanding the uneasiness plaguing our fellowship.

In my previous business we constantly designed visual models to explain to corporate executives things that were happening within their companies. In my current work with families, we do the same type of thing. We’ve found that when a group working on a problem can picture the matters they talk about and use a common vocabulary, things become clearer and easier to understand.

With that background, I drew a model that attempts to explain what is happening within our fellowship. It isn’t a perfect model. It hasn’t been thoroughly researched and built with strong statistical evidence. I’m basing it on my person observations from my travels around that nation. How widespread are my observations? Each year for the last several years I have traversed the continent in church related speaking. In the year 1996 I spoke at nearly 40 brotherhood events. [To this day Joe has spoken to over 2 million people] That includes speaking for specific congregations, area-wide events where several churches are represented, events on Christian college campuses, and brotherhood workshops. While that doesn’t make me the most traveled person in our fellowship, it does give me a broad view of what is happening from coast to coast and border to border.

Am I arrogant to draw a model based on my perception? I hope not. My purpose isn’t to get you to buy my views but to get discussion started. Maybe some of our more educated brethren skilled in research will take this rough model and develop one clearer and more accurate. But we need a clear picture and common vocabulary so that we can understand the current dynamics of our brotherhood tension. If we do that, we can better deal with them. My prayer is that this model will start us thinking about how to reduce the tension.

Church of Christ State
Types of Congregations

Each block in the above model represents a group of people within our “mainline” fellowship. The entire model represents what is sometimes called the “mainline churches” and does not represent the non-cooperative churches (sometimes called “antis”) or the churches who usually aren’t considered when brothers refer to our fellowship (such as instrumental churches of Christ, Boston Movement-related churches, and the like). It does contemplate churches who still consider themselves as part of the churches of Christ and are still considered part of our fellowship by most people in the brotherhood – even if those people don’t actively fellowship the specific church.

Notice that there are churches considered Innovative and those considered Traditional. These comprise the bulk of our movement. Traditional churches are by far the greatest in number. Traditional churches generally follow the doctrines and practices crystallized in the churches of Christ in the era of the 1930s to the 1950s.

Innovative churches feel close kinship with Traditional churches but do things traditional churches question or reject — like using special singing groups in worship or drama to make a biblical point.

Left Wing churches are those who feel little loyalty or connection with the brotherhood but have not yet introduced those actions or doctrines that would completely sever them from the fellowship. While these churches are few in number, there are many members attending Innovative and Traditional churches who have similar frustrations and theological beliefs as the Left Wing churches.

Right Wing churches not only follow the doctrines and practices crystallized in the era of the 1930s to 1950s but also feel great compulsion to attack anyone who questions or differs from those doctrines or practices. These churches are viewed as very conservative by the Traditional churches but the Traditional churches tolerate and fellowship them.

Each of these groups could be more accurately defined and should be, but for the purposes of this treatise the above definitions will suffice.

Besides, the observations that I feel explain what is happening to us don’t deal primarily with churches but the categories of people within the churches.

Church of Christ State
Categories of People

Notice there are six categories of people contemplated in the model. In my opinion, these categories explain more about what is happening to us than do the types of churches.

Exasperateds are so fed up with the conflicts in our fellowship that they want to leave the Church of Christ. They generally view our brotherhood as denominational and feel that the negatives of other denominations are no worse than ours. Often they carry a great deal of personal hurt from the words or actions of Satisfieds or Zealots. That hurt strongly influences their feelings about the brotherhood and makes them lean toward cynicism and hopelessness about the future churches of Christ. They usually aren’t considered Change Agents because they carry no hope for change. They dwell on the verge of leaving us altogether.

Opens are people who are comfortable with the nontraditional actions and doctrines of Innovative churches. They want to stay in fellowship with the Church of Christ but they put greater emphasis on their own spiritual development than on the judgment of other churches in the fellowship. They are often labeled Change Agents. They feel that certain changes in methodology and certain changes in traditionally accepted beliefs (like grace, fellowship, worship) must take place before the church will grow spiritually and numerically. They sometimes move toward becoming Exasperateds as they react to vitriolic attacks from Satisfieds or Zealots who try to force them back into more traditional views and actions. They typically don’t see yielding to the demands of more traditional brothers as an act of compromise, but as an act of accepting spiritual lethargy or death.

Cautious worry about losing or harming their relationship with people in the Traditional churches. They want new and exciting things, are excited about their own spiritual growth, but have just enough fear of the “innovations” to be uncomfortable and concerned. Certainly not Change Agents, they retreat toward more traditional positions when pushed to make decisions between innovative or traditional actions or beliefs.

Searchers feel that changes have to take place to make the church vibrant but strongly fear making changes that may destroy the “identity” of the church. They like some things they see in Innovative churches but usually aren’t comfortable with moving to those churches. They fear the loss of relationships of those they love in Traditional churches and often have questions about the “rightness” of some things the Innovative churches do. They would be ecstatic if someone could show them how to grow a spiritually vibrant and growing church while remaining totally within boundaries accepted by Satisfieds and Traditional Churches. When they are members of churches swelling from the death of smaller, dying churches, they enjoy the growth and the good things that come with it while harboring a secret fear that they are only delaying the inevitable realization that they haven’t yet found the church they long for.

Satisfieds like things like they’ve been since the 1950s. They don’t see any need to change and question or attack any change perceived as different from what the church has been during their lifetime. Neither increasing, level, or decreasing numbers of members affects their views or practices at all.

They feel that being doctrinally “sound” is the only test of faithfulness. “Sound doctrine” for them often translates into maintaining the views, beliefs, and practices of the church they grew up in or were converted to. They don’t question, even when they feel they don’t have good answers for what they believe or for the decline in their church’s membership. Their confidence in the church they know, the leaders of that church, and the great preachers of the past lead them into a satisfied state that exists without question or scrutiny.

Zealots, like their first century namesakes, make strong attacks against everything and everyone they see as a threat to their culture and cling tenaciously to what they call the “old paths.” They believe their defense of their culture is a defense of God’s church and that conviction makes them very motivated and very aggressive. They make statements that their deductions and interpretations of the Bible are the “doctrine of Christ” and, therefore, equal to the very will of God. Therefore, they strongly condemn any statement or action not in total harmony with their deduced doctrines. They oppose many things done by the Left Wing and Innovative churches or said by Exasperated or Open people. The extreme in this group sometimes fabricate or embellish “evidence” to more forcefully attack those they feel to be a threat to the church they know. For example, they might write an article saying “this is what he said but this is what that really means.” The difference in them and the Satisfieds is their extremely negative mindset and their quick willingness to attack orally and in writing anything or anyone they see as the enemy. Satisfieds tend to attack from a protective posture, usually only attacking when they feel their church or family is personally threatened. Zealots operate in offensive movements, attacking across the brotherhood whether or not they feel their church or family is personally threatened.

As you have figured, some of those from a category may be in a different type church than the model suggests. For example, some Exasperateds still attend Innovative or Traditional churches. Some Zealots are members of Traditional churches. Recently Innovative churches still have members who are Satisfieds but who haven’t yet felt enough discomfort to leave. Large Traditional churches have nearly every category represented but in varying degrees of numbers or strength.

Inclusion/Exclusion line

Since typing churches and categorizing individuals always leaves certain gray areas, I’ve included an Inclusion/Exclusion line to help understand those gray areas.

As a congregation or an individual moves to the right on the Inclusion/Exclusion line, they become more restrictive in whom they will fellowship. They also become more condemning of those they don’t perceive as being in their fellowship. As one comes closer to the Exclusive end of the line, he becomes more judgmental and unaccepting of those who don’t believe very similarly to him.

Those who move to the left on the Inclusion/Exclusion line become more open in whom they fellowship. They become less judgmental and more accepting of beliefs, actions, or doctrines that they don’t personally hold.

An exception to this is the situation where those moving toward the left hold ill feelings toward those to their right who caused them pain. When that occurs, those moving to the left on the Inclusion/Exclusion line offer more openness in fellowship to those to their left while becoming more restrictive in the fellowship they feel or give to those on their right. While they espouse the love of God, they find it difficult or impossible to give it to those they view as Pharisees and treat them with a similar disrespect to that they felt they received.

Here are some examples of how the Inclusion/Exclusion line works.

Zealots have no hesitation in condemning those in the Christian Church and flatly stating they are lost. They will even make those statements about Left Wing churches and some Innovative churches.

Exasperateds openly fellowship those in the Christian Church.

Opens offer limited fellowship; they don’t encourage the use of the instrument but will fellowship Christian churches in those matters where they have agreement.

Searchers neither accept nor condemn those in the Christian Church, claiming that God will make those judgments.

Many Satisfieds hold Exclusionary judgments about those in the Christian churches but are less vocal (or honest) than the Zealots about it.

Exasperateds often practice more brotherhood with those in the Christian church than they do with Zealots.

At first this can appear slightly confusing because not only are we dealing with the response of churches and individuals to God, we’re also dealing with human traditions, emotions, loyalties, and inconsistencies. Much more of our current controversy is based on differences in people than on doctrinal differences.

If you’ve followed my model so far, perhaps my ensuing observations will explain some things happening to us. If they sound judgmental, forgive me for that is not my purpose.

Observations About Us

While there are many more observations to be made than are written here, these are a few that explain some behaviors taking place among those in our brotherhood.

None of the observations in any category is exhaustive. If you have more observations to make, send them to the address at the bottom of the page and we’ll include them in future versions of this paper.

General Observations

I. Traditional or Innovative churches of any size usually have members from each of the six categories.

1. Because of our fundamental approach to Christianity, each category is more readily influenced by the category immediately to its right. For example, Zealots affect Satisfieds more than Searchers do.
2. Each category of people is more readily influenced by the categories closer to it. For example, Zealots affect Satisfieds more than they do Searchers. They affect Searchers more than they do the Cautious. And so the pattern continues.
3. Each category of people believes it is completely open to the Word without prejudice and that any other category of people is influenced by powerful, charismatic, or influential people to reach their theological conclusions. The further distanced a group is from another (ex. Exasperateds and Zealots) the more it sees that group as blinded to the truth by false teachers.
4. Grace Centered and Wineskins tend to reflect the views of some Exasperateds, most Opens, many Cautious’, and some Searchers.
5. Gospel Advocate tends to reflect the views of most Satisfieds, some Searchers, and many Zealots.
6. Contending for the Faith, Spiritual Sword, and The Firm Foundation tend to reflect the views of nearly all Zealots and some Satisfieds.
7. Interestingly, the Christian Chronicle with its newspaper style of reporting what is happening in the brotherhood at large seems to appeal to people across the spectrum, although recent letters to the editor may indicate Zealots are beginning to reject it.
8. Pepperdine Lectureship, Tulsa Workshop, and Jubilee tend to reflect the views of Opens, Cautious, and Searchers. Their audiences tend to come from those groups along with some Satisfieds.
9. Memphis School of Preaching lectures, The Denton Lectures, and Spiritual Sword lectures tend to reflect the views of Zealots and some Satisfieds. Their audiences tend to be from the same groups.

Observations About Traditional Churches

1. Traditional churches by far outnumber all the other types combined.
2. The majority of Traditional churches are small, mostly rural churches. (Mac Lynn details 13,972 congregations in our broader fellowship on computer disks. Those disks show that 74% of our churches have less than 100 members. Only 11% have 200 or more members. Less than 2% have more than 500 members. So while the bulk of our membership is in Traditional churches, the most of our churches are small in number.)
3. Smaller Traditional churches are slowly dying, supplying members to larger Traditional churches in the process.
4. Many larger Traditional churches that appear to be growing aren’t growing through evangelism but by adding members from the smaller, dying churches.
5. Traditional churches tend to have an older membership and, therefore, are usually well financed. Often they are better financed than Innovative churches.
6. Elders in Traditional churches tend to choose new elders who share their beliefs, views, and values. Even when they allow the church to choose the new elders they often skew the results with controls so that only those with their views are chosen. Thus they ensure the continuing of traditional doctrines and practices.
7. Traditional churches don’t lose Exasperateds to Innovative churches, but more typically to Community Churches or other denominational churches.
8. Preachers in Traditional churches are more likely to PUBLICLY agree with traditional Church of Christ views or positions and to never PUBLICLY question them.
9. Preachers in Traditional churches who are viewed as Searchers are sometimes invited to speak in Innovative churches.
10. Preachers in Traditional churches who are viewed as Satisfied may be invited to speak in Innovative churches whose leadership falls within the Cautious category.

Observations About Innovative Churches

1. Innovative churches tend to be urban and some are quite large in number.
2. Innovative churches tend to have a younger membership than Traditional churches though there seems to be a shift in that pattern. For example, I know of one Innovative church started by people in their 40s and 50s whose grown children stayed with the Traditional church they left. Some Campus Ministers report that their college students are “more conservative” than the Young Marrieds in their congregations.
3. Innovative churches carry an air of excitement but some seem to lack a clear focus of mission or what it takes to accomplish mission.
4. Innovative churches tend not to be growing through evangelism but by attracting new people to their “freedom.” This attraction is mostly from other members of the Church of Christ who feel stifled but includes some denominational people looking for church homes.
5. Preachers in Innovative churches are more likely to PUBLICLY question or disagree with traditional Church of Christ views or positions.
6. Preachers in Innovative churches are invited to speak at Traditional churches whose leadership falls in the Searchers category.
7. Innovative churches lose Cautious members to Traditional churches as their congregations become more innovative.
8. Innovative churches lose Exasperateds to Left Wing churches or denominational churches because the Exasperateds feel they don’t move toward innovation quickly enough and are too focused on maintaining fellowship with the Traditional churches.
9. Leaders and most members of Innovative churches offer friendship and limited fellowship (certain shared activities) to those who have faith in Jesus and hold certain basic doctrines (deity of Jesus, etc.) BUT they ONLY offer FULL fellowship (membership, communion) to those holding these basic doctrines AND who have been baptized as an act of obedience to Christ.
10. In reaction to the attacks from their right, some Innovative churches are moving more rapidly to the left on the Inclusion/Exclusion line and caring less about how their actions affect their relationship with the brotherhood of the churches of Christ.

Observations About Zealots

1. Zealots accept only members of the Church of Christ as saved and reject as lost all others who claim faith in Jesus. So do many Satisfieds but they seldom publicly proclaim it.
2. By repeatedly assaulting the beliefs and actions of Opens and Exasperateds and Innovative churches, Zealots affect the views of many Satisfieds, making them more Exclusive. Playing on accepted traditions and beliefs within the Church of Christ, Zealots turn these Satisfieds toward a more Exclusive view by making them afraid of potential apostasy.
3. Zealots unintentionally drive some Satisfieds toward a more Inclusive position as these Satisfieds react to perceived anger and bitterness in the Zealots.
4. Zealots are making more points of divisiveness in the brotherhood. In their move toward greater Exclusion they are making things into matters of faith that were considered matters of opinion 20 years ago.
5. Zealots judge the faithfulness of Church of Christ preachers, elders, and members by their willingness to condemn or pronounce sinful those not in the Church of Christ.
6. Zealots also judge the faithfulness of Church of Christ preachers, elders, and members by their willingness to condemn or pronounce sinful those individuals or congregations in the Church of Christ whom the Zealots have labeled “unfaithful.”
7. Zealots make the act of supporting or attending certain workshops (Tulsa, Jubilee) a matter of rejection and judgment.
8. Zealots make the act of speaking on a platform with people they’ve already condemned a matter of rejection and judgment. The content of the speech is considered irrelevant.
9. Zealots make the act of writing in a journal with people they’ve already condemned a matter of rejection and judgment. The content of the article is considered irrelevant.
10. Zealots often influence church leaderships comprised of Satisfieds to make these same judgments and rejections of preachers and other congregations.
11. Zealots influence the actions of congregations where the leadership is comprised of Satisfieds who are sensitive to the Zealots’ attacks.
12. Since Searchers are more influenced by Satisfieds than they are by Zealots, Zealots influence them through their influence on the Satisfieds. Zealots are keeping many Searchers from moving toward more Inclusion by their moving many Satisfieds toward more Exclusion.
13. By this effect on Searchers, Zealots exert limited influence on the Cautious’ by raising their concerns about their not yet abandoned traditions and beliefs.
14. Zealots are rapidly carrying their Exclusion message to any mission field into which they can send teams. For example, they have many teams now visiting the former USSR nations spreading their Exclusionary position. I know of one brother on a mission trip was asked by a Russian new-convert where he stood on the “Jubilee issue.” I know of other examples in places like Panama.
15. Zealots use the words “Jubilee” and “Tulsa” as descriptors to label congregations or individuals that they reject. They use phrases such as “Jubilee churches” and “Jubilee Christians” with disdain.
16. Because of his visibility and public questioning of certain traditions, Rubel Shelly is the focus of many Zealot attacks. Over time Zealots have come to use the name “Rubel Shelly” as the byword to describe any person, group, school, parachurch organization, or congregation that they have any disagreement with. (This is much like the use of the word “gate” in the political world. Since the time of Watergate any alleged scandal uses “gate” – ex. “Irangate.” Before the refocusing on Rubel, Zealots used the word “Crossroads” in the same manner.)
17. As a direct result, Zealots judge and reject anyone associating with the actual Rubel Shelly just for the association.
18. Zealots have reached the point where they will judge and reject any person who does not openly reject Rubel Shelly — even if the person doesn’t know much about Rubel.
19. Zealots have influenced many Satisfieds to use the phrase “Rubel Shelly” in the same way and make the same judgments — just as they once did with “Crossroads.”
20. Zealots and most Satisfieds believe the logic and hermeneutical process used to determine prevailing Church of Christ doctrine are beyond question. They view the doctrine determined by those processes is equal to the “doctrine of Christ” and refer to them as the “old paths,” equating that with the core gospel. “Old paths” seem to include the doctrine and practices accepted by most of the Traditional churches for the last 50 years or so.

Observations About Exasperateds

1. Exasperateds tend to be people who feel they’ve been hurt by the Church of Christ and want to completely change it, or, failing that, abandon it.
2. Since most Exasperateds hold little hope that they can change the Church of Christ, they become more bitter as they continue in fellowship with it before reaching the point of leaving.
3. No longer believing Restoration churches viable, Exasperateds are leaving our fellowship in increasing numbers, typically going to community churches or denominational churches.
4. Exasperateds and most Opens view the term “old paths” as a reference to Exclusionary Church of Christ dogma that does not necessarily equate to the will of God.
5. Exasperateds and most Opens believe traditional Church of Christ logic and hermeneutics to be flawed or inadequate and, therefore, do not equate the doctrines devised from them as the “doctrine of Christ.”
6. Exasperateds view Rubel Shelly as a breath of fresh air but still a staunch member of the Church of Christ they reject, therefore giving little him or his teachings little influence over their actions or beliefs.
7. Exasperateds view all people who affirm faith in Jesus and hold certain basic doctrines (deity of Jesus, etc.) as Christians and will offer Christian fellowship to them.
8. Exasperateds exert little influence on Innovative or Traditional churches but do exert some influence on Opens.
9. Exasperateds exert no influence on Searchers, Satisfieds, or Zealots.
10. When Exasperateds leave a congregation, Satisfieds and Zealots tend to applaud their going while Searchers tend to lament their loss.

More Observations About Interaction Among the Categories

1. Cautious and Searchers accept most of the traditional Church of Christ logic, hermeneutics, and derived doctrines but have difficulty binding all of them as the “doctrine of Christ.”
2. Satisfieds are generally accepting the Zealots’ transitioning of matters of opinion to matters of faith.
3. Searchers find those transitions very uncomfortable but have not yet decided whether they will accept them or not. Their conscience battles their need to be accepted by the Satisfieds.
4. Cautious and Searchers try to bridge the gap between Innovative churches and Traditional churches so that true fellowship continues between the two types of churches.
5. Opens don’t give Rubel Shelly the same level of importance as the Zealots and tend to think of him as one of several that are publicly saying what many believe but will openly defend him because of their negative reactions to the Zealots.

Affects on Openness and Honesty

1. Because of financial reasons, brotherhood sponsored schools, colleges, universities, and parachurch organizations tend to yield to the views or positions of wealthy Satisfieds.
2. These same organizations tend to yield to the views or demands of Zealots when they fear the Zealots have the ear of wealthy or influential Satisfieds or Searchers.
3. Faculty members of these institutions (especially Bible faculty) tend to be conservative and wary in their scholarship and teaching in direct correlation to the school’s fear of and yielding to Zealots and/or wealthy Satisfieds.
4. Preachers tend to be wary in their preaching and teaching in direct correlation to their leaders’ fear of or yielding to Zealots and/or influential Satisfieds.
5. Any leader dependent on the financial or moral support of others to maintain his position of leadership will tend to yield to the views of those who provide the greatest support — no matter what their views are.


There are many more observations that can be made and should be made to explain what is happening to us. If my observations are correct, there are some inevitable consequences of our behavior unless those behaviors change.

A. More people will become Exasperated and leave our fellowship. This will especially be true of those who find it most difficult to accept something just because it is touted as an “old path.” If they are not allowed to exercise their own intelligence and learning, they will simply go where they feel they can.
B. Preachers who now move within both Traditional and Innovative churches will gradually lose those opportunities as the Zealots tighten the rules of fellowship. As new tests of faithfulness emerge, more preachers will be forced to make a decision that will preclude their being invited to the other type churches.
C. Similarly, more preachers will be forced from the congregations where they now serve as they refuse to accept these increasingly Exclusive tests of fellowship that their elders will adopt from the Zealots. Many of these preachers will either leave our fellowship or leave the ministry. The reason will be simple — the number of churches willing to hire them will diminish as the Traditional churches continue to move toward more Exclusive positions. They won’t have any pulpit in our fellowship to move to.
D. If the current tensions continue to intensify, odds increase that our brotherhood will split into three groups. Left Wing churches will leave our fellowship altogether. Innovative churches will become a group unto themselves with little, if any, formal fellowship with Traditional churches. In my estimation, Traditional churches and Right Wing churches will stay together to form the third group with Zealots controlling much of the doctrine and activities of that group through their watchdog mindset and poised pens.
E. If this division occurs:

1. There will be much pain, division of families and friends, and general turmoil as the division becomes clearer and more pronounced.
2. Exasperateds within the Innovative churches and Traditional churches will leave our fellowship within 24 months of the split.
3. Innovative churches will experience a temporary slump (12 to 36 months) as many leave them for Traditional churches where they feel safety and comfort. They will then begin to grow rapidly IF they quit focusing on the hurt from the split and start concentrating on growth. Freed from the current brotherhood concerns, they will be able to fully implement the progressive evangelistic and faith building programs they’ve been dreaming about. Of course, that will only happen if their focus changes from the current one of freeing themselves from constricting traditions to a new one of actively reaching out to the world around them.
4. Traditional churches will gain dramatically during the split and for months afterward as Cautious leave the Innovative churches for the more comfortable and “safer” haven of the traditions and beliefs they have always held. But if I’m right and the Traditional churches do let Zealots control, they will find that after a swelling period (12 to 36 months) they will begin to decline as they lose Searchers and lingering Exasperateds who will not be able to tolerate the extreme Exclusionary position the Zealots will force. Unlike the conservative churches that outgrew the Christian Churches when that split occurred, these “conservative” churches will be choked to death by the prevailing spirit and control of the Zealots.


These are my observations. Ultimately things will occur as God wills. I’m not a prophet, just an observer. Division is already occurring and will be very pronounced within 3 to 8 years unless wise leaders in the Traditional churches disregard Zealots.

Neither the Opens, Cautious, or Satisfieds are driving this division; Zealots are. They accomplish it through their continually tightening rules of fellowship that Satisfieds are accepting. They will never see that but will believe the split was caused by the Opens who led their churches to become Innovative.

Our greatest enemy isn’t going beyond clear New Testament doctrine. It is making laws where God never did and chaining our great brotherhood from its task by those laws.

The End.