Paper, Plastic, and Church?

Thirty years ago the grocery store cashier would ask a simple question, “Paper or plastic?”  A major public relations campaign was waged to make shoppers feel guilty if they refused the offer of plastic. A choice to refuse plastic was a choice to destroy the environment, one tree at a time.

Times have changed.

The California legislature recently had a contentious debate about whether to ban plastic bags. The reasoning behind the proposed ban? Plastic bags pose a risk to the environment. We are left asking, “What were we thinking? How could we ever have thought plastic bags were the answer?”

Thirty years ago my wife walked into a church for the first time wearing pants and carrying a NIV Bible. But before we got out of the car, she wondered aloud, “Do you think I will be struck by lightning?” She had been taught by well-meaning people that women wore dresses–not pants–to church. In fact, she was taught that it was sinful for women to wear pants to church.  She had been taught that the KJV or ASV were the only reliable Bible translations.  In fact, she was told that it was sinful to use other translations. Looking back, it is hard to fathom we ever believed that stuff.

Times change.

In reflecting on my grocery store experiences with paper and plastic and my church experiences with dress and translations, I find myself pondering the future. What practices, beliefs, or restrictions are we currently holding to in our churches that we will look back on in 30 years and ask, “How could we ever have done that? How could we possibly have believed that? How could we ever have had rules against that?”

Recently Lourene and I had an opportunity to share the story of our spiritual journey over the last 30 plus years.  We wondered aloud how we could have ever accepted the restrictions we did. And we wondered about our children. In 30 years when they are telling the story of their spiritual journey, on what will they look back with disbelief? I think I can predict some of the changes that will take place in their lifetime, but others will probably be total surprises to me.

It is easy for me to vilify the previous generation for the choices they made and the way they led the church. As my children look back over their church life and see inconsistencies and absurdities, I hope they will be more gracious to me than I have been to the previous generation.

How 728b Opened My Eyes

If you have been around Churches of Christ very long, the number/letter combination “728b” probably means something to you. Our God, He Is Alive, often referred to as the “national anthem of churches of Christ” was number 728b in the Songs of the Church songbook.

Back in the day a song leader didn’t even have to announce the title. When the number was announced, the congregation didn’t have to turn to the page to know the title. All that needed to happen was for the song leader to simply say “728b.”  The reaction from the congregation was usually audible and instantaneous. “728b” elicited palpable excitement throughout the assembly.

But I remember Our God, He Is Alive before it became “728b.” I didn’t hear it at my first church home. I heard it at school. I heard it at another congregation I visited. I heard it at college gatherings. My first church home used the venerable old hymnal Christian Hymns III. Trust me when I tell you that Christian Hymns III did not include Our God, He Is Alive under “728b” or any other number.

And then one day I discovered that you could buy inexpensive,  gummed sheet music of Our God, He Is Alive that easily could be pasted into the back of Christian Hymns III or any other book.

So with great excitement I approached a couple of the elders to tell them about my discovery. I expected them to be thrilled to hear the good news. We could sing the song, too! I was shocked when their response was, “Well, we need to meet about this and make sure it is scriptural.”


I wondered, “How could there possibly be any question about a song as good as Our God, He Is Alive?”

Please understand, this was my first church home. I respected the elders and ministers. In fact, I knew that they were right about everything. After all, they said so. And if you didn’t think they were, they could present an argument in the form of a syllogism to convince you. And they pledged,  if they were ever proved wrong about something, to immediately repent so they could be 100% right before God.

I believed them.

And then the next Sunday the minister approached me and said we needed to talk.

“The elders told me you want to paste that new song in the back of our hymnal.”

“Yes, it’s a wonderful song!”

“Well, did you know it was written by somebody in the ‘anti-cooperation’ church of Christ? It would send the wrong message if we sang that song. The answer is ‘no,’ and please do not ask again.”

That day I knew something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

That day I began realizing that everything was not 100% perfect at that church.

That day the scales fell off my eyes. And as the scales fell, I began a new season of searching.

A lot of people have special memories of “728b.” The catchy tune. The inspiring words. That wonderful bass line.

But for me, it was the song that opened my eyes.

I will always be grateful.

Life in the Bubble

On his blog, Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight writes these confessional words about his religious upbringing.

“I grew up a Trumanist Christian, as in the Truman Show with Jim Carrey. That is, I grew up in a bubble, protected from the rest of the Church by a protective dome that prevented outside interference. As we drove to church every Sunday morning, for a double-dose, both Sunday School and the Sermon, we passed a Lutheran Church. Sometimes I felt sorry for those who attended that church — though, of course, they didn’t get to church as early as we did.

We were Baptists; the rest of the world, churched or unchurched, was going to hell. I hate to be so crass, but I’m telling you our (perceived) truth. And the reason we were going to heaven was because we alone believed the Bible as it was really taught. What was taught could be snagged from the notes of the bottom of our Scofield Bibles. We didn’t join forces with any other churches, mostly because they were “liberal” and being “liberal,” the Dante-like lower circle of the inferno, was a sure ticket to hell. We alone were faithful to the Bible.

As he continues writing on his blog, McKnight shares the experiences that led him away from “Trumanism.”

Question: Have you experienced Trumanist Christianity? That you and your group were alone the remaining, remnant-like faithful of the Church?”

Reading these words makes me thankful for my restoration heritage. Not that we have never slipped into “Trumanist” tendencies, we have done so — I have done so. But while our practice has been far from perfect, the movement always has had the great ideal of being “Christians only, but not the only Christians.”

I love the line about dismantling denominations from The Last Will and Testament of The Springfield Presbytery (a foundational document of the restoration movement) – “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large: for there is but one body and one spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”

May God forgive us for “Trumanism.” May God protect us all from the sectarian, denominationalist spirit of “Trumanist Christianity. “


“For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

Churches today need to relate to one another with more imitation and less competition. Too many view their great struggle as being with their sister churches rather than against the powers and principalities of darkness. We don’t need a competitive spirit, but a complementary one. Churches need to appreciate the strengths and accomplishments of other congregations. Imagine how the kingdom is built up when Southside church looks for the good things happening in Northside church and when they see it they respond with celebratory thanksgiving. Rivalry out, revival in!

There was a time when churches of Christ were heavily influenced by what Christian colleges did. People turned to colleges to understand scripture and to get fresh ministry ideas. This trend has changed with people looking more and more to other congregations to set the tone. I think this is can be a positive development – ministers and elders looking for the strengths in other church families, admiring them, and even imitating them. While we may not want to become franchise McChurches, we can benefit greatly by appreciating the successes of others and following in their footsteps. And sometimes what we may need to imitate more than anything else is an allegiance to the love of God through Jesus Christ that is steadfast and unmovable, no matter what the consequences.

While we can benefit from intentional replication of good things in other churches, I’m not so sure the Thessalonians’ imitation of the Judean churches was all that deliberate. They just accepted the message from God and passed it on. The results certainly were not a reproduction of anything we would call positive. The Judean churches suffered and the Thessalonians followed right behind them. The persecution that brought suffering was not at the hands of strangers, but from their own countrymen.

Why did their own countrymen harass them? The surface answer would be because the Judeans and Thessalonians were reaching out to the Gentiles, that they may be saved. But this was not just a matter of what was being taught and to whom. Beneath the surface, those who caused this suffering were fueled more by anger than principle. The opposition’s deep-seated ill-will provoked them to drive out people. Paul made it clear, this contentious hostility toward people displeased God. This sin can be heaped up only so far before the wrath of God is poured out.

In whose footsteps are we following? The grace-fueled, evangelistic Thessalonians or their antagonism-fueled, contentious countrymen?