Into God's Time: Historical Impetuses for Christian Identity

Samuel Curkpatrick

The risk of any church archive is that we become fixated on archiving models for church that were once successful. The role of history within Christian life should instead provide generative impetus for new movement. We diligently curate things from the past, such as scripture, tradition, events of Jesus life, church history, because in their recall, they call us into a new future—to live into God’s time.

A church ‘on the way’ – Balaklava, SA c.1912

Significant stories from Churches of Christ stand out from history: tent missions, bold evangelists and missionaries, great gatherings and celebrations, engaged congregations, committed overseas mission, prolific publications and resources. But it is not these events or forms of church life that are significant. These things are not necessarily good models to replicate today. Nor are they unique—although they carry a particular theological and cultural accent. This history has been remembered because it resonates with integral Christian identity in any time: trust and courage, drama and involvement, movement and pragmatism, minimalism and travelling light.

Christian history is not a storehouse of treasures that tells us who we are. It is a Word in time; an imperative that is pregnant with anticipation; a ‘where to next?’ and ‘who are we to become?’ Memorable stories from history invoke trust, daring and commitment.

We could trace the Stone-Campbell drama through its various manifestations, learning about human behaviour, creativity, fallibility and compromise—just as we could by looking at any aspect of history, playing out as it always does. But mere history is not our goal. Churches of Christ history comes to us as a challenge to stand only upon the unique ground of good news, where original apostolic witness was only yesterday and God’s reality is pressing, as close as tomorrow.

 

Observations after a year in the archives

Education:       It is clear that the COB–CCTC–Stirling has always been valued and supported by the wider Churches of Christ community (College of the Bible; Churches of Christ Theological College; Stirling Theological College). News from the College and fundraising drives regularly feature in leaflets and journals like the Australia Christian. Education seems to have been directed toward filling roles within the churches, shaping individuals to fill church roles and meet the teaching/proclamation and pastoral needs of the traditional congregation. COB emerged in the early 1900s partly in response to a perceived lack of educated leaders.

COB had a strong sense of community and fellowship, with regular student worship, activities and student councils, with many students living on campus. The broad study curriculum during the week matched with a ministry placement on the weekend has some similarities with the approach of the Christian Church Theological School of Indonesia (CCTSI) in Salatiga, Central Java, except the weekend ministry activities of students in Indonesia seem more mission focussed. Curriculum at COB was oriented toward biblical studies, with the curriculum progressing through different books/themes of the bible, with lectures based around commentary, discussion and interpretation.

Today, the need to fill institutional church roles is diminishing, along with declining interest in this type of ministry. Christian education needs to foster interpretive skills that can be used in new contexts and forums of proclamation. Critical, reflective ministry and theological skills are necessary to shaping new behaviours and languages for leadership. Some comments in the section on communication below are also pertinent here.

-          How is education empowering students to create new spaces for Christian expression and testimony?

COB students leaving for weekend ministries, 1925

 

Drama:            The early restoration movement was dramatic and theatrical, beginning in revival, a last Will and Testament, a tribunal and ministry termination, eloquent debating and frontier evangelism. The church has always been thrust into the theatre of life. This is the stage of good news.

From documents and photographs, baptism was at the core of this drama of testimony to the transforming grace of death and resurrection: bodily immersion as participation in the story which forms the heart of all church life.

Looking to history, baptism stands out. Observing church today, it feels almost entirely absent. Yet this drama is central to Christian testimony as the beginning, sustenance and purpose of the church.

Leominster (probably UK). A photo sent to lecturer Randall Pittman, who was related to one of the women present

 

Communication:          Churches of Christ have always thrived on vibrant words and phrases that have captured and shaped the movement—as a people with ‘no creed but Christ,’ seeking ‘unity, liberty and charity,’ setting off on an ‘adventure’ as a ‘movement’ of ‘organic growth,’ worshiping around an ‘open table’ and ‘gossiping the gospel’ (GR Stirling)—in friendship, disseminating the good news in everyday relationships with everyday language. With our own press producing abundant journals, provocative pamphlets, missionary news, study materials and Sunday school resources, language has always shaped a theologically engaged priesthood of all believers.

-          How might language shape communities of faith without becoming buzz words as identity markers? How might the good news transform society through everyday language, within generosity and veracity that is unbounded by creedal conventions and worn traditions?

Journals and publications have conveyed a clear and particular mission within Churches of Christ. The first edition of the Australian Christian Pioneer begins with an article titled ‘Our Plea’ (1868):

‘We turn the leaves of that precious book from Genesis to Revelation and yet not one word about denomination, or denominational interests. When then we come before the great God and ask Him for wisdom and guidance, how can we dare set forth a purpose which is not given in his great revelation—the Bible? […] In turning the pages of that book we find that Jesus the Christ has been revealed, and that for a lost world there is salvation in no other name. Hence we will not be far wrong when we announce it as our purpose to plead the cause of Christ in its simplicity and fullness, to lift our voices on behalf of Christianity as it was in apostolic days.’

Dissemination and proliferation of vibrant ideas fired by good news was at the heart of this movement—just like the collecting of writings that is now the New Testament.

-          What is the role of writing and publication within Churches of Christ today? Who are our prolific creators and disseminators of engaging and faithful material?

 

Involved communities:            Churches of Christ have always been connected with the broader Australian society through community activities, with many involved in Sunday school classes, women’s, men’s and youth organisations and activities, nursing homes, church camps, overseas mission and fundraising activities, etc. Many such activities were celebrated with large, formal gatherings as well as informal retreats and excursions. Today, state conference gatherings and events such as State Youth Games continue in this tradition. It is interesting to remember that events held up as examples of bold, ‘frontier evangelism’ (tent missions; build a church in a day), came out of this sort of church.

Past debates and emphasis on church membership (such as Christians in Fellowship; membership transfer cards, etc.) are inseparable from the idea of church as a distinct entity that seeks to be a vibrant engaging community. In contrast to this idea of church as a bounded entity within society, current language within Vic-Tas focusses on missional church expression as integrated in the communities already around them.

Overseas mission features prominently in historical sources, conveying the great investment of time and resources of many communities and individuals.

-          Is it the particular model of a church or another source that gives birth to vibrant, testimonial church life?

-          We remember tent missions and evangelical services as evidence of a vibrant church. Where else might the sharing of good news be effective, even if hidden? In our use of language, communication, pastoral care, etc.? 

 

Dr. Samuel Curkpatrick is the inaugural curator of the Hindmarsh Research Centre for Mission and Ministry. He is a tutor and post-grad student at Stirling Theological College and is involved in youth ministry at Richmond Vietnamese Church of Christ.