A church changing right before our eyes needs its history updated, too.
The second edition of The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation by noted Disciples historian D. Duane Cummins debuted at July’s General Assembly in Louisville. Updating the book first published in 2009, the second edition includes the initial term of General Minister and President Teresa Hord Owens, and how congregations tackled the brutal challenge of 21st century COVID.
The Disciples is published by Chalice Press, the denominational publisher for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Though a mere 14 years passed between editions, Cummins observed a change within the denomination: A new sense of confidence he attributes to the COVID pandemic.
“Disciples clearly saw the reality of a challenge and addressed it with creative imagination and hope—and found they were clearly able to reconfigure the familiar into new patterns. They could boldly transcend the existing world,” Cummins says. “When I compare the many interviews conducted for the 2009 edition, I recall a sense of fear about the survival of the church, lamentation about dwindling resources and declining membership. But at the Louisville Assembly in 2023, I did not hear a single person mention the word ‘survival.’ The tone and mood of people in the several conversations of which I was a participant was a sense of confidence, determination, and hopefulness about our church.”
Other significant changes Cummins noted are the “rich gift” of growing ethnic diversity within the Disciples’ membership and leadership and the technological transformation across the church. He also acknowledges a discouraging statistic: The denomination lost over 300,000 total members between 2009 and 2023—half of the total membership.
Cummins embodies the overlap of denominational knowledge and academic expertise. He has been a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University since 2002. In addition to serving as Moderator, he has also led Disciples institutions Bethany College and the Division of Higher Education (now Higher Education and Leadership Ministries), and served as interim president of both Brite Divinity School at TCU and the Disciples of Christ History Society.
It may be easy to think history only matters to the historians, but Cummins believes that being a faithful leader requires an understanding of a movement’s history.
“Possessing an accurate and current history of our church is an absolute essential to effectively engage our generational responsibility of refining, renewing and enriching the mission and ministry of Disciples in our time,” Cummins says. “That responsibility requires turning to Disciples history. An old mentor of mine, historian Daniel Boorstin, said it plainly: ‘Planning for the future without a sense of history is like planting cut flowers.’”
“History gives a sense of continuity to Disciples, a consciousness of generational unity. It delivers us from the provinciality of the present—expanding our view of the church. One generation alone is rarely enough to achieve significant change. Each generation is equipped with a new language, a new perspective, new insights to sharpen, reaffirm and reinforce the mission and ministry of the church.
Beyond the knowledge needed to lead, understanding a denomination’s history creates a shared identity linking the different parts of the church — laity and clergy, congregations and regional and general ministries, and higher education institutions.
“Disciples’ history teaches us that our mission and ministry is built through a generational partnership, a generational pooling of learning,” Cummins continues. “Disciples are a community of memory, and it is the debate between past and future that forms and guides our life as a church. Understanding our history is critical to that debate.”
Disciples aren’t alone in facing challenges as the first quarter of the 21st century concludes. Christian denominations of all stripes face declining participation and contracting resources. But Cummins finds hope for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the defining tenets of Disciples theology: unity and covenant.
“I believe Disciples have the right mission and the right message at exactly the right time. In this era of unrestrained polarization and tribalism, the plea heard round the globe is bring us together. It is a call for unity. Christian ‘unity’ is Disciples middle name! It is the cause most distinctive about Disciples, our reason for existing.
“Complimenting this identity statement of unity, Disciples are also a people living together in covenant to form the church, binding ourselves to each other in truth and love. Covenant is rooted in awareness, because covenant makes people look beyond themselves, setting aside their self-awareness—enabling them to encompass an awareness of others. With our long heritage of the ideal of unity and with our commitment to living together in covenant, Disciples have a powerful message for the world—a message to be demonstrated, a message to be shared.
“Coupling the newly empowered sense of confidence and our heritage of the noble ideal of unity, made visible by our life in covenant— this gives me solid hope for the Disciples among the world’s humanity.
The second edition of The Disciples is available on ChalicePress.com or wherever you order books. When you order directly from Chalice, you provide twice as much support for the ministry your denominational publishing home.