It’s Good To Be A Part Of A Growing Church Movement

Author: Bob Russell, Former Pastor of Southeast Christian Church

Pictured Left: Bob Russell with staff from Discovery Church, Bristol, TN

I have visited several good churches in the last couple weeks.  Today I preached for the Discovery Church – a new church plant in Bristol, Tennessee.  Although just one year old, Discovery already averages 350 people with a median age of 25.   Pastor Tony Marr and their leaders are determined to connect the unchurched in Bristol with Jesus Christ.

Last Sunday I preached for the First Church of Christ Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, which is on the Canadian border.  There, in that town of 15,000, the most influential protestant church is First Church of Christ, which sits right in the middle of downtown.  The worship was alive and the people were attentive.  There is a vibrant ministry to the local community and University.  The campus minister of Lake Superior State University became a new member of First Church of Christ the weekend I was there.  The church’s astute and devoted pastor, Tom Cash, his staff and elders are making a difference in people’s lives in a remote area of the country.  You don’t get any further north than Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan.  It was spitting snow on the first Sunday in October, but between 250-300 people attend that church every week–many of them high school and college students.

Tom and Coleetta Cash of First Church of Christ, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan with Bob Russell

This past Tuesday I flew to Dallas, Texas to do leadership training with the staff and elders of The Compass Christian Church in Grapevine, a Dallas suburb.  Drew Sherman is the unassuming but talented pastor of this church which is nearing an average of 4000 in attendance (including two satellites).  Compass Christian has the right leadership, location and spirit to continue to explode in growth over the next few years.

The twelve elders at Compass sacrificed two evenings to spend time in deepening their well and understanding what it takes to elevate their leadership culture.  I also was able to address about fifty staff members and was impressed with their leadership gifts and spiritual dedication.  Patrick Garcia, son of Southeast Christian Church members, Dan and Rita Garcia (and son-in-law of Dave Stone) is a teaching pastor at Compass Christian.  Even though he’s just twenty five years old, Patrick is much respected for his preaching – not unlike the young Kyle Idleman is at Southeast.

Bob Russell with leadership of Compass Christian Church, Dallas, Texas

My experience this past week reminded me again of the vitality of our movement right now.  What became known as The Restoration Movement was started back in the early 1800’s with the plea to unify Christians by simply using the Bible alone as our guide.  The intent was not to start another denomination but to focus on restoring simple, New Testament Christianity.  One of my favorite slogans from those early days is, ‘We are not the only Christians but Christians only.”

Twenty years ago the Restoration Movement was divided and stagnated…we got bogged down in legalistic attitudes and a sectarian spirit.  There were articles in publications that asked the question, “Is The Restoration Movement Dead?”  And, “Is the Restoration Plea Still Valid?”  A few of our preachers distanced themselves from any identification with our movement, choosing to be unaffiliated, even though Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have no denominational headquarters and every church is autonomous.

However, over the course of the last twenty years, the Restoration Movement has been revitalized.  We are one of the few religious groups that have experienced some degree of numerical growth over the past two decades.  While mainline protestant churches are rapidly declining and some of the larger evangelical denominations have also experienced a loss of membership, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have come alive and are transforming thousands of lives.

For example, twenty years ago there were very few Independent Christian churches in Texas.  Most that did exist were small and struggling.  Now there are several churches in Dallas running well over 3000 in attendance every Sunday.  There are several in Houston now running over 1000, including Current Christian where former Southeast staff members Darren Walter and John Faust minister.

In 1987 the preachers of Christian Churches averaging over 1000 in attendance were invited to come to Louisville for a networking session.  There were nine churches that were over 1000 at that time and none were over 2000.  That gathering proved so uplifting and informative that we decided to continue it every year.  This past year there were over 160 preachers who were invited because their churches average over 1000 in attendance.

This past month a new conference of ministers of Christian Churches with attendance of over 5000 was started and seventeen preachers participated.  We have three churches that average over 15,000.  Isn’t that incredible?  Of course numbers alone don’t measure the health of a church but numbers do indicate that evangelism is taking place which is the primary mission of the church.  And in recent years our movement has also modeled new church planting, satellite churches and innovative ways of serving the community.

I’m not really sure why this surge in growth in the past two decades, but for some reason God is really blessing.  Church historian Jim Garlow pointed out several years ago that it is really unusual for any movement to stagnate and then catch fire again.  He suggested that one significant reason for our turn-around was that a good number of our local pastors took their focus off trying to convert the denominational world to the rightness of our doctrine and simply began focusing on winning lost people to Christ.  That idea caught on in enough churches that we regained our vision and momentum.

There are other factors of course,but one thing is for sure: The basic plea to go back to the Bible as our source of authority is relevant in today’s culture.  To stand firm in doctrine but to allow liberty in opinion is an idea whose time has come.  This is no time to jettison the Restoration idea.  We don’t have to talk about Thomas and Alexander Campbell or Barton Stone,the early founders.  We don’t have to give long history lessons or even win people to a movement.  We just have to do what was originally proposed, exalt Christ and use no book but the Bible, no creed but Christ, no name but the Divine name.  And God will bless.  He has promised, “My Word will not return empty.”  And, “If I be lifted up I will draw all men to me.”

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