Seeking God's Design (Richard Lowery, et al) -- A Review

SEEKING GOD’S DESIGN: Disciples' Quest for Unity and Wholeness. Edited by Richard H. Lowery, Lawrence A. Q. Burnley, D. Duane Cummins, & Peter M. Morgan. Foreword by Teresa Hord Owens. St. Louis: CBP, 2019.  Vi + 154 pages.


           The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) —my denomination—was born on the American frontier at the turn of the nineteenth century. It eschewed the nomenclature of “denomination” for much of its early life. Those who followed the path of the Campbells and Barton Stone preferred to see themselves as part of a movement of reform and even restoration rather than being part of a traditional denomination (even though it had all the trappings of one). However, by the middle of the twentieth century, many in the Movement (often referred to as the Brotherhood) began to seek full-fledged denominational status. Those who supported such a status believed that to do otherwise was to deny the true identity of this entity known by then as the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ). Thus began the process that came to be known as "Restructure."

Restructure was a process that culminated in a merger of the National Christian Missionary Convention (the organized life of African American Disciples) and the predominantly white International Convention of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ). Note the plural “churches.” This merger, and with it a new identity, was consummated at the final International Convention/first General Assembly held in Kansas City in 1968 and then celebrated as the merger of the NCMC and the International Convention became one entity —born anew as the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Seattle. In the year 2019, the denomination celebrates fifty years of this merger and the consequent new identity as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This anniversary called forth a series of conversations and events that celebrated this momentous event that culminated in this study of this moment in the history of the Disciples of Christ. This particular book was published in partnership of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society and the Christian Board of Publication. It was officially released at the 2019 General Assembly at the joint Disciples of Christ Historical Society/Council on Christian Unity Dinner (I was in attendance as a board member of the CCU).

The book draws upon the defining document of the denomination for its title. The Disciples don't have a constitution. They have the Design, which Rick Lowery, one of the editors, suggests is a deeply theological document. The title of the book also draws on the inaugural theme of the World Council of Churches in 1948: "Man's Disorder and God's Design." In essence, the argument here is that in pursuing this new understanding of the Movement, the participants in that work were seeking God's design. Lowery writes that the movement toward Restructure had an eschatological flavor: "The church, in a fundamental sense, was 'restructured' to more effectively be an eschatological sign of God's in-breaking reign" (p. 2). Whether this was and is true is the question of this moment in history as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) reaches its fiftieth year of existence as a full-fledged self-identified denomination. Are we truly living out the vision of those who led the way toward Restructure?

This relatively brief book, which according to the back cover, is the "first volume of the James and Mary Dudley Seale Series on Disciples and Public Engagement." It is divided into three sections. The first section is comprised of two background chapters. First, in a matter of four pages Duane Cummins, the former President of Bethany College, offers a word about the context of Restructure. He describes the historical process that led to the change of status. The second chapter in this section, written by Lawrence Burnley, describes the part of the story that is often not acknowledged in our discussions of Restructure, and that is the merger agreement between the NCMC and the International Convention. He takes note of the racial dimensions of this move. We often talk about the ecumenical importance of the process, but what about the merger? Although I am a historian by training who has studied Disciple history there is much here that is new (hopefully it's not so new for more recent students of Disciples history). Thus, the struggles of the African American congregations to gain full recognition from the broader movement is central to the story told in this book.

Part II is comprised of a series of questions that were posed by James Searle, the former President of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, to participants in the Restructure process in conversations that took place in the 1980s and 1990s. The questions and responses center around "the roots of restructure;" "an Ecclesial Church;" "Congregational Autonomy;" "Covenant;" "Regions;" and "Accomplishments and Challenges." I found this section intriguing and insightful. As you read these responses you discover that the participants had concerns about the process and the outcome. They celebrated some parts of what occurred and weren't sure that everything went as hoped. For those of us who came into the denomination long after Restructure and who are participants in the church now, it is possible to see the roots of some of our current problems and concerns (at least I can see them present in these conversations). Obviously, these leaders of the church couldn't foresee all the challenges that lay ahead (especially the cultural ones). They may not have been completely aware that the Disciples were taking on denominational status at the very same time that the nation was moving in an anti-institutional direction. There were, of course, compromises made then, that have had long term consequences. These include the status of Regions. Indeed, the conversation about Regions is worth the price of the book for any Disciple, especially clergy, who are concerned about the state of our Regions. Might we have taken a different path that would have proven more effective in the long run than the one taken? It’s impossible to know for sure, but you have to wonder. These conversations are fascinating and at times demoralizing, and yet important.

Finally, in part III we come to the present. This section brings to publication a set of reflections, some of which were shared at a symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of the Design held at Brite Divinity School. In these essays, we see how some of the changes that have occurred over the past fifty years have shaped the denomination as it exists today. We see how a denomination that was overwhelmingly white with a strong African American component, has become increasingly diverse. So, we can read Sandhya Jha’s essay that addresses the question of how this increased diversity will shape the church as it moves into the next fifty years of its existence. There is an essay by LaTaunya Bynum (a Regional Minister), who recounts how she learned of Restructure as a youth when the sign on her church in Detroit changed overnight to include the words (Disciples of Christ). She speaks to the growing emphasis in the denomination on peace, justice, mercy, and kindness. Lori Tapia offers an informative invitation to understand the growing contribution of Latinx congregations to the life of the church. Bill Lee and Tim Lee have an exchange related to the frustrations felt by African American Disciples after the merger (both men have served in the leadership of the church as moderators and vice moderators). Each of these essays focuses on the growing diversity of the church and what that means for us. Then several essays raise questions about whether there is a fatal flaw at the heart of the Design, one that is rooted in the attempt to make the General units and the Regions church in the same way as congregations, and whether that contributed to the decline of our congregations. These essays by Chuck Blaisdell and Dawn Darwin Weaks raise important questions that will need to be addressed in the years ahead. If Blaisdell and Darwin Weaks raise the question of the fatal flaw, Kristine Kulp explores what she calls an "empirical, experimental ecclesiology." She speaks theologically about such terms as manifestation and covenant that are commonly used in our tradition. While she views these concepts favorably, she acknowledges that others do not share her positive feelings about them. Thus, we move from the past into the present with a view to the future. We are a much smaller denomination than we were in the 1960s. We entered Restructure with a lot of optimism, there is a word of hope in these essays, but there is also a word of caution. Whatever is the case the future will be different from the past, even if we are guided by ideas and principles that emerged in the past.

                This combination of caution and optimism is present in the concluding remarks of Rick Lowery, who is the current President of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society and husband of the former General Minister Sharon Watkins. He concludes that despite headwinds at the time and struggles since, "the restructured church they built and the two foundational documents they produced, the Merger Agreement and The Design, have stood the test of time as testimonies to our struggle to overcome the sin of America's deeply embedded racism and to witness to God's just and righteous 'design' for the world." (p. 149). Whether Lowery is correct in his assessment is, perhaps, up for debate. In any case, this book offers a unique perspective on the past fifty years in the life in this denomination I call home. I would suggest that it gets a wide reading from those of us who inhabit the church we call the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Considering that there have been in recent years conversations about identity and the lack of understanding of our history and its polity and theology, this is a book that will help deepen one’s understanding of the nature of the church.  Thus, it is an essential read for any who are Seeking God's Design and questing "for unity and wholeness.

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