Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Discipling Fails to Fix Racial Issues in Atlanta

Another failure of the authoritarian discipling system the International Churches of Christ use has been exposed. From a recent post on the well-known ICOC Delphi Discussion Forum, a current member discloses that there are deep racial divides among the individual ICOC churches in the Atlanta metropolitan area. (The following quote is verbatim from the forum post.)

"Needless to say, all the churches handled it their own way. was unique but I can't say any better because of the results being quite fractured. And after it split up, the results varied from church to church in the different locations in the city. Some groups are deeply wounded and many in these groups won't have anything to do with the others. Some are almost all racially one color because of their location in the city being all black.

We also had a hidden racial issue in the church that surprised a lot of leadership. But, hey, this is !

A fragile shift toward unity is growing here but on a much more respectful and peer related level...not authoritarian. It will take a long time because many people are still very sensitive."

The Atlanta Church of Christ was reconstructed in 1986 from a Church of Christ with a Crossroads Campus Ministry. It was lead by Sam Laing who is currently leading the ICOC church in nearby Athens (and was a key player in converting and training Kip McKean at the University of Florida in the early 1970's). After the fallout of the Henry Kriete Letter of 2003, the Atlanta church decided to formally split into separate churches based on geographical regions. For almost eighteen years, it grew into a church of thousands and practiced and preached Kip McKean's authoritarian discipling model and was sold to both its members and potential recruits as a foolproof way to provide a structure for spiritual growth and maturity and numerical growth.

Atlanta, like most other cities in the Southern United States, has had to deal with the specters of slavery and racism for hundreds of years. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's showed that the city and its people were far from reconciling and resolving this issue. Blacks and whites could still live tougher civilly though, but the unspoken undercurrent of the past still remained.

Enter the ICOC with its racially diverse churches. This was and still continues to be one of its best attractions to outsiders. Some ICOC leaders, like Daryl Reed, Lead Minister of the District of Columbia Regional Christian Church in Washington, D.C. are espousing their insights about how to pull diverse groups of people together in the church and get them to work together as a family. (In fact, Daryl has been chosen to speak at the 2010 North American Christian Convention, sponsored by the Christian Church branch of the Restoration Movement!)

So why is there disunity between the Atlanta congregations now? It has been clearly shown that the discipling methods the ICOC has used in the past and continues to use are authoritarian and force each member and each congregation in the group to conform to the norms of the leader. (An excellent description of this in action is the book The Discipling Dilemma.) In the past, it has been Kip McKean. Currently there is no one clear leader of the ICOC. Each church claims to be autonomous. However, there is an emerging body of leaders over the churches that choose to be part of the so-called "Cooperation Churches". Several of the churches in Atlanta are part of this group (Athens Church of Christ, North River Church of Christ, Atlanta Metropolitan Christian Church, and Atlanta Church of Christ in Gwinnett), but many aren't (Greater Atlanta Church of Christ, North River Church of Christ, Cornerstone Church, Marietta Christian Church, and the Northview Church of Christ). With the same forced unity that is pushed by the authoritarian discipling system, it's not surprising to see that major issues among the people in the formerly unified Atlanta Church of Christ, and not just only racial ones, were glossed over for the good of the stability and growth of the group.

Sadly, the solution these churches use to solve their problem is more discipling from an outside authority. In a report from the ICOC Cooperation Churches entitled Elders Service Team Addresses Crucial Shepherding Issues, the problem with the Atlanta Cooperation Churches is mentioned:

"In Atlanta a mediation team of Bruce Williams, John Causey and Wyndham Shaw was asked to assist in resolving issues between 5 cooperating congregations."

(Note: there are only four churches listed as Cooperation Churches in the list linked above.)

Bruce Williams is the Lead Evangelist of the Los Angeles Church of Christ, still the largest ICOC congregation. Wyndham Shaw is an elder in the Boston Church of Christ. Both men have been part of the ICOC going back to the 1980's and have held high level positions in both the era during and after Kip McKean was leading the movement. A recent quote from Shaw is troubling when it comes to the belief that the ICOC without Kip McKean is more open-minded (emphasis mine):

"You know, love for the truth without heart for God and people is legalism. We do have to watch that. We can get so caught up in knowing every scripture and proof text of every issue that's out there in the cultural, philosophical, and religious world - the urban legends - that we become arrogant. We become self-righteous. That we think knowing the truth will save us, rather than loving the source of truth, Jesus - and what he has taught us to set us free. Let's don't become legalists, church. Let's don't become people that are arrogant because we think we're better than others.

On the other hand, do not let anyone shut you up, back you up, or keep you from standing up for what you know the truth is that people need to hear. You see, that's the extreme I'm afraid we got to. 'Oh, well, you we're a little overzealous about who you thought was saved and lost.' Let me say something: the religious world is still just as lost if they do not get the truth of discipleship, of baptism for the forgiveness of sins, by immersion as an adult, as they ever were! We may not be the only ones that hold that conviction, and that's true! And where we find people, we should embrace that, but we can not change the width of the gate or the narrowness of the road that leads to eternal life."

Wyndham Shaw, Elder/Evangelist - Boston Church of Christ (sermon delivered at the Worcester County Church of Christ) - "Love of the Truth" - March 28, 2010 - [42:28-43:55]

It's clear that in Shaw's mind that the only way to unify is through "the truth of discipleship" coupled with the "right" baptism.

In addition, how could the leaders not know that racial issues permeated their congregation? For one, sins of racism were likely confessed by converts and that information was passed up the discipling hierarchy to the top leadership. Secondly, if the leaders had winning Atlanta for Christ in mind instead of building up their own kingdom, they would have known about the culture and city's history, so expecting racial tensions should be near if not on top of the list of concerns that the church had to deal with as it was growing in the 1980's and 1990's.

Ultimately, the intervention by these powerful and influential leaders outside of Atlanta will just put duct tape and a fresh coat of paint on the same problems that have existed for almost the last quarter century. Since the ICOC only has the proverbial hammer of discipling, every problem looks like a nail. And the only solution is to bang away until objects sticking out of the wood have either been driven into it or pulled out and tossed away. The sad part is that almost eight years after the Henry Kriete Letter, Atlanta and the other ICOC churches haven't bothered to dig into the tool chest, particularly reevaluating the driving forces of the First Principles studies, incorporating the role of the Holy Spirit into the individual disciples' lives, and seeking help from the outside to dissolve the sticky tar pit trap of authoritarian discipling and legalism that traps them all.