Jack R. Reese. At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021. Paperback. 242 pp. $21.99.
Jack Reese’s new book At the Blue Hole is not a Sunday-school curriculum—although it should be read by everyone concerned about the future of Churches of Christ. It is not a study of the history of the Restoration Movement—although historical insights fill each chapter. It is not a Bible study—although the spirit of Scripture drips from every page. In this book Reese does not engage in biblical exegesis—there are no extended discussions of key biblical texts. Instead, Reese engages in cultural and historical exegesis—which should be of particular interest to readers of this journal. In At the Blue Hole, Reese mines the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement looking for deep truths and formative practices, forgotten moments and recurring patterns. And his historical and cultural analysis leads him to write this love letter to a dying church.
A Dying Church
That the Churches of Christ in the United States are dying is one of the key points of his first chapter. Drawing on data from Stanley Granberg and Tim Woodroof, Reese notes the following (16):
- Most of the congregations in the United States are small and getting smaller.
- 92% of them have less than 200 members.
- The average Sunday attendance nation-wide is 94.
- More than half of the congregations in the country average only 34 members.
- Around 60 congregations per year in the US are shutting their doors for good.
What do such numbers mean for the future?
- Church membership is expected to decline from 1.1 million to barely 250,000 in the next thirty years—less than a fourth of where they are today.
- The number of Church of Christ congregations in the United States is likely to drop from 12,237 in 2016 to only about 2,800 in 2050, an 80% decline.
While the news is certainly sobering, it also opens the door to hope. As a patient will not seek treatment until he admits there is a problem, so Churches of Christ will not seek helpful resources until we are awakened out of our denial and complacency and come to grips with the dire reality of our situation.
There are resources out there for churches to draw upon. The book’s central metaphor is of a river meandering its way across the landscape, being shaped by its environment, making twists and turns, at times uniting with other tributaries, at times dividing into smaller streams, and ultimately finding itself a long way from its source. Reese argues that the resources to sustain us are to be found there at the source of our movement, buried in our past.
But instead of rushing to list the resources, Reese takes us on a journey to show how we came to be where we are. “This story will take some time to tell. The story is too important to tell quickly” (6).
For the bulk of the book, Reese focuses on three key moments from our past where choices were made—choices that not only represent our past but choices that shape our present. Because, as Reese frequently reminds us, “Choices have consequences” ( 37).
Two Movements Unite
The first framing story takes place in 1831, in Lexington, Kentucky. There, two representatives of the Stone movement and two representatives of the Campbell movement met together to discuss the possibility of uniting. The four men met and prayed for weeks. Then on New Year’s Eve, two congregations met together, and a representative from each group addressed the gathered crowd. After they each spoke, Barton Stone offered the right hand of fellowship to Raccoon John Smith, who was representing the Campbell movement. The two shook hands, and the union was confirmed. The next day, New Year’s Day, 1832, the two congregations celebrated communion together.
Reese introduces the scene in Chapter 1 but then dives deeper in Chapter 3. He makes it clear that there were significant differences between the two movements, but their unity was not based upon something as simple as agreeing with each other; rather, it was based on a passionate desire for unity that overcame the differences between them.
The Peacemaker and the Pallbearer
The second key story is a funeral in 1929, but again, Reese is in no rush to get there. It is fourteen pages into the chapter before you know whose funeral it is. Along the way, Reese discusses James Garfield, Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Samuel and A. L. Cassius and offers an extended discussion of how churches are shaped by their culture.
The funeral was for T. B. Larimore. Since the union of 1832, identities began to harden and positions had begun to calcify. When the Civil War broke out, it not only marked violent division within the nation, it also highlighted division within the Stone-Campbell movement. T. B. Larimore was a giant of a figure who may have baptized over 10,000 people in his lifetime, but he steadfastly refused to take sides in the arguments of his day. He was criticized by both sides, but he remained in good relationship with both Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ until the day he died.
The pallbearer was Foy E. Wallace Jr., who would become editor of The Gospel Advocate and, later, The Bible Banner. His hard-charging temperament, his uncompromising style, and his black-and-white theological positions stood in sharp contrast to the humble and gentle Larimore. It would be the spirit of Wallace, not that of Larimore, that would continue to dominate Churches of Christ throughout the rest of the twentieth century.
Freedom and Conformity
The third key story takes place in Memphis in 1973. While the first story focused on unity in the movement, this chapter focuses on the quest for restoration. Campbell set the tone of the movement with his series “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” But for Campbell, restoring the ancient order was a means to an end: Restoration would lead to unity, and unity would lead to the thousand-year reign of God on earth.
Over time, this millennial vision was lost, and restoration of the ancient order became the goal itself. This was exemplified by the meeting in Memphis, where four men—Lynn Anderson, Landon Saunders, Harold Hazelip, and Batsell Barrett Baxter, all associated with the Herald of Truth—were interrogated before an audience of some 200 preachers. At issue were questions like church cooperation and the role of the Holy Spirit.
Reese points out that there were two fundamental flaws behind this line of questioning. First, the quest for restoration had become focused on externals, not core matters of the heart. Second, this quest demonstrated confidence in the ability of humans to come to agreement on all matters.
Resources for Life
Reese ends by identifying seven resources that flow from the wellspring of our heritage and can provide life and hope in the days to come.
Resource #1: Unity as the Wellspring of Grace
Unity must become a priority once again. And unity requires hard work—often including repentance and confession of past wrongs.
Resource #2: Restoration and Life
Here Reese describes the difference between bounded-set thinking, which focuses on drawing lines and establishing boundaries, and centered-set thinking, which focuses on the core issues that unite us.
Resource #3: Reasoned Inquiry
Churches of Christ have a long history of valuing education and reason. We should not be afraid to ask questions, listen to others, and be willing to change our minds.
Resource #4: An Ear for Harmony
Churches of Christ are known for singing in harmony. This requires us to listen to each other. Singing, then, whether a cappella or with instruments, could be a spiritual discipline that teaches us to listen and respond to each other.
Resource #5: Living Generously
While many congregations are wary of participating in “social justice programs,” our heritage contains a strong current of people willing to help those in need. Here Reese highlights David Lipscomb, who risked his own health to minister to cholera patients in Nashville in 1873.
Resource #6: Apocalypse Now
Campbell exhibited a confidence in the ability of humans to bring about the kingdom of God. But Stone exhibited an apocalyptic vision, in which his confidence was not in human ability but in God. Rather than embracing the power structures of this world, Reese calls on us to embrace the power of the Holy Spirit.
Resource #7: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
These two practices have played a central role in our heritage. But too often we have focused on the requirements of these practices and have missed their essence. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Properly understood, these practices change us and empower us to put others ahead of ourselves. Only by embracing our death through baptism and the Lord’s Supper can we experience God’s power to resurrect the dead and give new life to the dying.
At The Blue Hole is not a how-to book. It does not offer quick remedies or simple formulas. It will not satisfy those who are looking for black-and-white answers to some of the issues challenging churches today. Rather, it points us to helpful resources and asks us to do the hard work of telling the truth about our present situation and our historical choices that brought us here. Only then can we move courageously into God’s preferred future.
Professor of Bible