how not to do world communion sunday

i sat and pondered the moment; there under protective glass was the graven image of thomas campbell, but i couldn’t find jesus anywhere!

The glass-encased reliquary containing artifacts and graven images of Thomas Campbell located at the entrance of Elkins Auditorium on the campus of Pepperdine University, where the University Church of Christ in Malibu worships. This photograph was taken just prior to the regular 11:00 AM worship service on October 4, 2009.

The glass-encased reliquary containing artifacts and graven images associated with Thomas Campbell located at the entrance of Elkins Auditorium on the campus of Pepperdine University, where the University Church of Christ in Malibu worships. This photograph was taken just prior to the regular 11:00 AM worship service on October 4, 2009.

october 4, 2009. i entered elkins auditorium on the campus of pepperdine university about ten minutes before 11 am. the second service of the university church of christ in malibu, ca was about to begin, so i made my way to my regular seat in row 2. (i actually like sitting toward the front during worship service.) despite the wealth of the city of malibu, the university church of christ does not own its own church building. rather, it has an agreement with pepperdine university that allows them to worship in a lecture hall on campus: elkins auditorium.

i knew that today was ‘world communion sunday,’ a sunday where different congregations from different denominations around the world set aside their doctrinal differences and partake of a communion together united solely as christians.

i was also reminded that today was world communion sunday because my local congregation had earlier announced that it would be hosting a special, alternative to world communion sunday second service on october 4: a second ‘great communion‘ celebration, which is designed to do the following:

remember Thomas Campbell, celebrate our movement, sing praises to God, and accept Christ’s invitation to his Table.

i had taken issue with this decision to hold a special communion to celebrate thomas campbell and logged my objection in a previous post. my objection centered around two main points:

1. it is highly oxymoronic to hold a special communion to celebrate and commemorate a denomination that was established for the very purpose of eliminating denominations.

2. because the ‘great communion’ celebration was held on the first sunday in october, a day known to the rest of the world as ‘world communion sunday,’ the great communion celebration appeared to be an alternative celebration of the restoration movement churches on a day reserved for unity among all christians (not just those within the restoration movement).

but this was by now an old issue to me. i had said my peace, logged my objection, and wished them the best. those who chose to attend and participate in the ‘great communion’ service were welcome to do so, and i would say nothing further on the matter.

but as i sat through the regular 11:00 am worship service in elkins (again, not the special 3:00 pm ‘great communion’ service, but the regular 11:00 am service), i could not help but notice two things that stood out like democrats at a nra convention. and because i do not wish for the rocks to cry out, i shall mention them briefly here.

there was a reliquary containing objects commemorating thomas campbell in the auditorium!

The glass-encased reliquary containing artifacts and graven images of Thomas Campbell located at the entrance of Elkins Auditorium on the campus of Pepperdine University, where the University Church of Christ in Malibu worships. This photograph was taken just prior to the regular 11:00 AM worship service on October 4, 2009.

A close-up of the glass-encased reliquary containing books autographed by and images of Thomas Campbell. This display was located at the entrance of Elkins Auditorium on the campus of Pepperdine University, where the University Church of Christ in Malibu worships. This photograph was taken just prior to the regular 11:00 AM worship service on October 4, 2009. It appears to have been set up in preparation of the 'Great Communion' service to take place later that day at 3:00 PM.

never before have i seen or even heard about a reliquary in a church of christ. sure, doug foster has his shrine to thomas and alexander campbell and the stone-campbell movement, but i have never seen an actual, glass-encased display case containing objects associated with the closest thing the churches of christ have to saints.

keep in mind, the churches of christ are somewhat famous for their lack of religious icons, decorations, images of jesus, and in many cases, crosses in their buildings’ architecture and decoration. there is a long tradition of reminding members that the church is not a building, but the people who come to worship. this, combined with the fact that the churches of christ are traditionally poor and could not afford fancy buildings and organs and pianos (another contributing factor to the church of christ’s affection for a cappella music), has resulted in church building architecture and furnishings that lack images of jesus, crucifixes, or images portraying scenes from biblical stories.

The stained glass window of Pepperdine Universitys Stauffer Chapel. Note at the center of the window there is no cross, but a Bible, highlighting the importance of the text to the Church of Christ tradition.

The stained glass window of Pepperdine University's Stauffer Chapel. Note at the center of the window there is no cross, but a Bible, highlighting the importance of the text to the Church of Christ tradition.

(however, one may note that in the pepperdine chapel (not a church of christ, but a chapel on the pepperdine campus), there is a large stained glass window. many are surprised to note that at the center of the window a book appears prominently displayed, rather than a cross or an image of jesus. many have argued that this speaks to the church of christ’s focus on the text of the bible – for better or for worse – as opposed to the person of jesus.)

given my tradition’s loathing of religious imagery, you can understand my astonishment when i entered elkins auditorim and saw a glass box encasing rare books containing the signature and a graven image of thomas campbell, who is said to be the founder of the ‘church of christ’ as a movement. (conservatives will deny this and argue that the founder of the ‘church of christ’ is no less than jesus himself, but the restoration movement and its offspring, the ‘churches of christ,’ ‘disciples of christ,’ ‘christian churches,’ and ‘international churches of christ’ are said to be the product of thomas campbell, his son alexander, and barton w. stone, among others.)

note the great irony of this moment: in elkins auditorium, there is not a single image of jesus anywhere – no picture, no stained glass, and not a single cross to be found anywhere! but, there is a glass-encased, highly visible, carefully placed reliquary dedicated to thomas campbell. i thought to myself, ‘we finally have a reliquary in a church of christ. it is prominently displayed, under protective glass, and it contains objects associated not with jesus, but with st. thomas campbell.’ i sat and pondered the moment; there under protective glass was the graven image of thomas campbell, but i couldn’t find jesus anywhere!

=====

but there was a second travesty on this first sunday in october, 2009:

there was not a single mention of world communion sunday. not one!

for a congregation that has openly stated its commitment to ecumenicism throughout this ‘great communion’ debate, i found it incredulous that there was not a single mention of ‘world communion sunday’ during the 11:00 am service.

my close friend and preaching minister at the university church, dr. ken durham, gave a sermon that compared (i kid you not) thomas campbell to bono (the lead singer of the rock band u2). among other things, both call for unity and both wear pimpin’ glasses. the sermon centered on the song ‘one‘ by u2. i love the song. i like u2. and i applaud the social justice work bono does to bring about debt rescindment in developing nations. despite the obvious attempt to cave and mention thomas campbell on the same sunday as the ‘great communion’ service to be held later than day, i enjoyed the sermon.

there was, however, one glaring omission: at no time today during worship was there a single mention – or even an acknowledgment of – ‘world communion sunday.’ not one. ken’s sermon was about being ‘one’ and being united across that which keeps us apart. but, there was no acknowledgment that today christians around the world were setting aside their doctrinal differences to commune with one another as christians alone: no baptists, no lutherans, no episcopalians, catholics, methodists, or church of christ, only christians. we just forgot to mention it. i hope it was not intentional, but how could we not even mention ‘world communion sunday’ on a day dedicated to unity? instead, we mentioned thomas campbell a lot and we plugged the planned alternative to world communion sunday, ‘the great communion,’ celebrating the restoration heritage with a special announcement pleading with members to come to the special service. but on this sunday dedicated to unity and being ‘one,’ there was no mention of ‘world communion sunday.’

i sat in silence, disheartened.

we talk a good game. we speak of ecumenicism and unity. but apparently, unity is only something you can experience with the university church of christ in malibu if you are a part of the restoration heritage. it is easy to be friends with our friends; even jesus says so (matt 5:46). i left the 11:00 am service saddened. i was not angry, just sad. we can be so much, but the leadership of our congregation appears to be far too focused upon the ‘brand name’ of the ‘churches of christ,’ rather than focusing upon using this church’s unique talents to lead and define what it means to be a congregation on a university campus committed to christian higher education. we are too worried about preserving ‘the brand,’ and not focused upon serving others and teaching our students to think critically about our own movement.

it makes me wonder: how committed was the presbyterian minister thomas campbell to preserving the ‘presbyterian’ brand? he knew all too well that those church leaders who seek to preserve their denominational heritage can only look backward, never forward. perhaps this is why our numbers are dwindling, core members are moving elsewhere, and students are looking elsewhere to worship. campbell left behind his denominational brand and sought a new ecumenical start by establishing a movement focused on christ, not a denominational brand. yet, here we are 200 years later, arguing that our students aren’t familiar with, aren’t honoring, aren’t remembering, and aren’t maintaining the ‘church of christ’ brand. there is a reason they don’t want to honor their denominational brand; ironically, it is the same reason thomas campbell failed to honor his.

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as for the great communion service at 3:00 pm, i know very little. i did not attend. i hope they filled elkins and had a great time. my goal was not to undermine the service, rather, from the beginning i have sought only to ask people to consider why we worship, what it means to be a member of the ‘church of christ’ (as a denomination), and what it truly means to be ecumenical. i hope that in writing these words publicly, i can continue to contribute to the conversation about the present and the future of the churches of christ, come what may.

8 Responses

  1. Odd indeed. Our UMC minister made it a point that we are celebrating World Communion Sunday, and he noted that it was also being celebrated by Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, and other Christians. The UMC has an entrenched hierarchical structure, but they do like ecumenical programs. It makes them feel relevant. :)

  2. Exodus 20:4

  3. michelle,

    it is interesting to note that mormon and restoration movement architecture and motifs are similar, as is the theology behind them. because the early growth among the mormon church and the restoration churches (churches of christ, disciples of christ, etc.) took place about the same time, this should not be surprising. both movements were highly iconoclastic and took exodus 20:4 and other prohibitions against any graven images seriously. this was in part a reaction to the high church experience of catholicism and anglicanism, but was also done out of a lack of finances.

    i wrote a paper for dr. stuart love in 2000 comparing the architecture and symbolism in the buildings of the churches of christ to that of the mormon temple in los angeles. the la mormon temple has a nature room for visitors and those of us not fortunate enough to grace the insides of the temple, but other than the golden statue of moroni pointing towards downtown (east), the architecture is boxy, devoid of imagery and symbolism, and is rather plain, just like church of christ architecture.

    even the auditorium the university church uses for free on the pepperdine campus is plain, lacking symbols, and nary a cross appears in it anywhere. with the exception of that reliquary to st. thomas campbell, it’s very plain.

  4. matt 5:46 – for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? do not even the tax collectors do the same?

  5. First of all it is not my intention to find fault with your place of worship but rather note I think you have a very valid point and one that very few people would even take notice of.

    As individuals and as a society we struggle with our own graven images. Cars we drive, clothes we wear, our status etc. These “things” do nothing but separate us from one another. Which for some reason we think will make us feel good. We go to church in the hopes that we can direct our thoughts and desires to Christ who is the ultimate example of what we hope to become like. I can see how it is disturbing to you to find that on this particular day of world communion that a feeling of separation is created particularly when it is contrary to the original mission of Thomas Campbell and Christ.

  6. well said.

  7. Michelle, a segment on Nightline speaks to your notions of idolatry … you might like to see this: http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/in-the-news/pastor-mark-on-nightline-10-05-09
    I think this pastor is saying something many Christians ought to hear.

    Dr. Cargill, I’ve just discovered your site a few minutes ago…amazing. I need more time to explore.

    This particular article reminds me of something a Church of Christ preacher said 28 years ago in Searcy, Arkansas: “The sons of pioneers are not pioneers, they’re settlers.” These kinds of comments made the preacher popular with students at nearby Harding University, but not so much with faculty. Oddly, while it made him popular with students, it seems not to have motivated them to actually DO anything with this information.

    My generation (same as your preacher at Malibu) was about rebellion and reformation, and we’ve been so busy trying to ‘fix or repair’ church, we’ve failed to recognize the value of restoration and focus.

    You make some outstanding observations … now what?

    Here’s what I’m trying to do: Instead of reacting to someone’s reactions, I’m just starting over. Forget unity for a moment, and fix our eyes on Jesus.

    I think we’d find that if all believers focused on Jesus and moved toward him, we’d discover that he would be a “vanishing point” on the horizon of life, and that since we were all headed for the same destination … unity would just happen naturally.

    Instead of choosing between hanging out together and being nice vs. being stapled or glued together … let’s grow together.

    I wish I had all day to spend reading stuff on your website. It’s just awesome. Thanks for taking the time to do it.

  8. I agree, Dr. Cargill does a great job at stimulating thought-provoking discussion. He also takes an unusual amount of time and consideration to respond to posts.

    Thanks Kirk for that link, I enjoyed it. I especially liked the mention that all “idols” will ultimately disappoint us.

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