Just before I left for the 2015 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus, Ohio back in July, a special appeal was sent out via Facebook about the upcoming event. Registrations were well below what was expected and there was talk about what to do concerning the 2019 General Assembly which was supposed to be in Des Moines, IA. It was decided at General Assembly to at least for now not sign the contracts for Des Moines and start giving some thought about future General Assemblies. This makes sense since attendance at these events have been steadily declining.
But as the denomination starts to look at General Assemblies, I have to wonder if there is a bigger concern going on. It may mean that it’s not just General Assembly that needs to be changed- indeed I’m thinking the entire denomination needs to be changed.
It’s been almost 50 years since the Disciples of Christ reorganized its structure. Before 1968, the Disciples were not a formal denomination, but a loose association of churches and state coventions. After 1968, the Disciples became more cohesive, less informal and more formal.
Of course, this restructure happened a year before I was born. About two generations have passed since this plan was approved and many of the leaders involved have since died. The restructure came about in an age where we placed trust in institutions and not just institutitions, but large institutions. It was an age where things were centralized. It was also a time when denominational labels mattered. I think that restructure was designed to take care or maintain the church. None of those things matter today. We don’t automatically trust institutions. We are suspicious of centralized power. We don’t care as much if someone is a Baptist, Presbyterian or even Bhuddist. We have a structure that I think was great at keeping the ship going steady, but we don’t have a structure that is designed for innovation in spreading the gospel.
I remember seeing a video around the time of the 2013 General Assembly in Orlando. One of the things that I remember from that video was that only 18% of Disciple congregations are sustainable according to the 20th century model. I was astounded by that number though not surprised, partially because I’ve seen churches struggling. My own congregation is not sustainable to the old model. Our churches are need of updating. If they aren’t sustainable according to the 20th century standards, then what is the new standard? This is something our denomination as a whole has to answer; because the key to restructuring our denomination starts from the bottom up. It starts with churches, moves to Regions and then to the General Church.
Yes, we should entertain ideas of what to do about General Assembly. Maybe it needs to be every 3 years instead of two. Maybe we meet at a college instead of a convention center. But frankly none this matters if we don’t get the churches straightened out.
But even more than churches, we need to figure out what it means to be a covenantal people. Disciple pastor Lee Hull Moses shared what that means and how General Assembly fits into that:
What I do know is that we are a covenantal church; we are obligated to one another only by our relationships. We need time and space to nurture these relationships—in person, where we can hug each other and meet each other’s children and stay up late together. We need the time and space to connect with the manifestations of the church that enable us to do ministry more deeply and widely than any one congregation could ever do on its own. There were nearly 4,000 people at the assembly in July. Not one of them would have come if they didn’t love the church, and that is an incredible thing to behold.
Part of the problem I believe is that the covenant is in some ways frayed if not broken. Churches feel on their own. Regions can at times do their own thing spurning advice from the other two manifestations. General Church bodies seem distant and don’t always seem to connect to the local church.
It will be interesting to see what we decide about future General Assemblies. But I think we need to do more than reboot GA; we need a reboot of the Disciples. It’s time for Disciples 3.0.