A Feature Review of
At The Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge
Jack R. Reese
Reviewed by Robert D. Cornwall
on the reviewer’s website.
It is reprinted here with permission.
Browse his website for other excellent reviews!
It’s a fact; churches across the theological and liturgical spectrum are experiencing membership and attendance declines. You may have heard that conservative churches are growing while liberal/mainline churches are declining. That’s been the conventional wisdom for some time, but recent studies suggest that nearly everybody is facing challenges. So, if you think you’re immune, you may be next. The question for the larger church concerns what the future holds for us. Is it possible to turn things around in Europe and North America? As a pastor and scholar in my sixties I’ve been pondering these questions for a long time, and I’ve tried many a solution but with little success. But if there are answers to be found, one of the places to look might be what Jack R. Reese calls the “Blue Hole.” That is, we may want to look back at our roots so as to remember who we are and why we exist as faith communities. It’s a place I’ve been looking into myself, as I share in my recently published book—Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots. Thus, when I picked up At the Blue Hole, it didn’t take long before his message began to resonate.
At the Blue Hole is a beautifully written reflection or “elegy for a church on the edge.” Jack Reese writes as an insider about how his own faith tradition has struggled of late, perhaps because it has lost contact with its roots. In this book, the metaphor for these roots is “the Blue Hole,” which is a spring that lies a few miles north of downtown San Antonio. It is this spring, this blue hole, that provides water for the city and beyond. Reese writes that this hole is “the soul of the city, the beginning of the river, the reason the Spanish priests three centuries ago chose to build a mission and a settlement downstream, out of which the city would arise” (1). Before the Spanish arrived it was already the source of life for the peoples of the region. It is essential to the life of the region, and yet when drought sets in, everything suffers. So, it is important to remember that for the region the source of its bounty lies “underground, remote, hidden, deep beneath the Blue Hole” (3). It is this image of a source that lies below ground, out of sight, that leads Reese to ponder the situation faced by the faith community he inhabits.
Reese writes about the Churches of Christ, a faith community often known best for their acapella music. He calls on those who share this tradition to return to the Blue Hole, which is the source of its life. Reese is a long-time minister, professor, and leader within the Churches of Christ. He writes out of concern for a community that is losing membership quickly, and if trends continue then the movement will eventually disappear. Reese begins the story with a meeting that took place in Lexington, Kentucky on New Year’s Eve, 1831. It was at that meeting when two communities that shared many similarities, as well as differences, in theology and practice, chose to merge because they believed they shared more in common than not. Because both faith communities prized Christian unity this seemed to be an act of wisdom. So, on that evening the Christians, who were connected to the ministry of Barton Stone, and the Disciples, who were connected to Alexander Campbell, joined together for the greater good of the body of Christ. Out of that meeting came a movement that would eventuate in three primary branches often known as the Stone Campbell Movement. The question raised by Reese concerns how the Churches of Christ evolved from that event in the early nineteenth century and whether there are clues in that event that will assist Churches of Christ in finding their footing for ministry in the twenty-first century.
I read Reese’s At the Blue Hole from the perspective of a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). My faith community traces its roots through that very same meeting in Lexington in December 1831. Thus, we share the same Blue Hole as Reese’s community, though we’ve been separated from each other for over a century. Though we are different from each other in many ways (we’re considered the liberal branch while they’re considered the conservative branch), we too have seen significant declines in membership and attendance, though our decline set in a decade or so earlier. I can’t speak for the Churches of Christ, but as I read, I came to believe that this book touches on things we Disciples might find valuable.
As for the book itself, Jack Reese is an excellent storyteller. This makes the book a joy to read at times, even if at points it leaves us with deep sadness. Reese weaves together various stories, including that of the founders and their descendants, especially on the Churches of Christ side of the family. We learn about the emphases of this larger movement, which include both unity and restoration. He reminds us that holding these two poles together has proven difficult, and among Churches of Christ, the unity message has, to Reese’s chagrin, been largely lost. In its place developed a rather hardline restorationism that has focused on restoring externals such as church order. This emphasis has roots in the early work of Alexander Campbell, but it was understood by Campbell to be a means to an end—the evangelization of the world. For Campbell that would require the churches to unite along the lines he found present in the New Testament. What Reese demonstrates is that while both Campbell and Stone emphasized unity, the more generous spirit of Stone has been largely lost within his branch of the larger movement. In part, that is due, according to Reese, to the neglect of Stone’s emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit.
While the book’s first chapter lays out the dilemma currently faced by the Churches of Christ, Reese begins to trace the origins of the current malaise within the movement to the contrasting visions of two leaders who come together at a funeral in Santa Ana, California, that took place in 1929. The person being laid to rest and thus remembered at the funeral was known to be a peacemaker within the tradition. One of the pallbearers that day was the new young pastor of that church. This new pastor took a hardline perspective on matters of the faith. Eventually, this young hardline pastor would become one of the defining leaders within the Churches of Christ. As a result, choices were made, and those choices have had consequences. Some of these consequences are seen today in an unwillingness to change and adapt to new realities. Reese believes it’s not too late to halt the decline, but if the churches are to take a different path than the one they’ve been on, they will need to touch base with that Blue Hole that feeds the soul.
Chapters three and four explore the two foci of the movement: unity and restoration. We encounter representatives of both trajectories, which the founders tried to hold in tension. Unfortunately, their successors have been less able to hold them together. Thus, among the Churches of Christ, Stone’s emphasis on unity that is rooted not in agreement on externals but the presence of the Holy Spirit has been lost. Instead, a hardened version of Campbell’s restorationism has been embraced. For those who follow this trajectory, the goal is to restore the church’s golden age that is described primarily in the book of Acts. While freedom was one of the central values of the movement in its origins, that original commitment to freedom has given way to a need to conform to a pattern or blueprint. That is a problem since change and adaptation do not come easily when conformity is prioritized. Both of these chapters deserve our attention. For Disciples, who have tried to keep the emphasis on unity alive, they (we) might find the chapter on restoration helpful so as to find balance. For Reese, restoration itself is not the problem. Rather, it’s the focus on externals that is the problem.
Chapter five takes us back to the Blue Hole so we can discover some of the resources available to the churches. Of course, there are choices to be made. He specifically names six resources, which I believe are worth exploring not just among Churches of Christ, but also among Disciples. These six include a thirst for unity, an embrace of restoration focused on the right things (that is not externals like church order), reasonable discussion (dissent is welcome), engaging the spiritual discipline of harmony (here he reminds us that Churches of Christ often sing in four-part harmony, almost always without instruments, so must listen to each other), generosity with one another, and embracing the idea of being an apocalyptic people. That final resource, becoming an apocalyptic people, is intriguing. His definition of apocalyptic is different from what you might expect. He’s not talking about looking forward to the end of the world, Armageddon, or the rapture. Rather, he speaks of becoming a countercultural people, and that requires that Churches of Christ (and Disciples also) embrace the Holy Spirit. To do that, we’ll need to reconnect with the movement and message of Barton Stone.
Reese writes At the Blue Hole out of a deep concern for his people. He wonders if there is a future for his community. He writes in the Epilogue that “this once-vibrant church is on the decline, at least on the surface, at least in America. The evidence is pretty clear.” If there is to be a future, and Reese is hopeful, then “congregations are having to make hard decisions about who they are and what they do, about what is the gospel and what is not. Part of that involves re-engaging with the broader Christian community (unity) and giving up the idea that the true church has been restored. At the same time, he’s not calling for the churches to give up their heritage, such as acapella singing in worship and a strain of pacifism that exists in some corners of the movement. If they can do this then those elements they’ve embraced, such as baptism and the Lord’s table, will become more than duties to be performed in obedience to some law they discerned in the New Testament. Instead, they will become once again expressions of God’s presence. But choices will have to be made and those choices have consequences. Ultimately, what Reese offers here is a chance for repentance, of turning back to the source of the movement, so they may find their way into the future.
At the Blue Hole is a beautifully written book that is offered as a gift to one particular part of the larger body of Christ, and yet I believe it can be a word of hope to the larger church. As I noted, I am a minister within one branch of the larger movement that looks back to this Blue Hole. I also am connected to a number of people within the Churches of Christ. A local university of which my son is a graduate is related to the Churches of Christ. These people, whom I’ve come to know, reflect many of the emphases brought forth in this book and I’ve been blessed by the relationships. So, I resonated with his stories not only because of a shared heritage but friendships as well. He reminds us that renewal of the churches is not an easy task, especially when conformity to a narrow pattern is required. That’s what happens when a community believes that they, and they alone, have restored the true church. When this is true there is no need to look back at the founding visions or to learn from the larger church. Nevertheless, choices have consequences. The good news is that there is a Blue Hole from which to draw life-giving water if only we will return to the spring that gives life and drink deeply from its life-giving waters. Jack Reese offers us a clear guide as to how to get there.