Instruments of worship warfare

Here is a sticky question: What is a reporter supposed to do when writing a story about a religious group that does not see itself as a denomination and strives not to use traditional (remember that word) language to describe itself and much of its work? Do you use the traditional terms and explain that the group being covered does not use them or do you use the group's unique terms, knowing that you'll need to translate them for readers? We are talking about the Church of Christ, specifically the movement that is best known for the fact that its churches do not use musical instruments in worship. Yes, this is the crew in which our own Bobby Ross Jr. is a leader and editor. He had to opt out of commenting on the following story for obvious reasons. His decision may have something to do with an expression among the various churches on this "Restoration" or "Stone Campbell" branch of the American Protestant tree: "We don't have bishops. We have editors."

Another thing to mention: I grew up as the son of a Southern Baptist minister in Wichita Falls, Texas, right on the edge of West Texas and the Panhandle. Most of the people I was around called the Churches of Christ the "West Texas Churches of Christ" because their churches are almost as common in this region as 7-11s (and even more common than Southern Baptist churches and, folks, that's saying something in Texas).

This is a colorful and unique (that's a compliment) movement. You can get a sense of that in its Associated Press Stylebook reference, which states in part:

"Each local church is autonomous and operates under a governing board of elders. The minister is an evangelist, addressed by members as Brother. The ministers do not use clergy titles. Do not precede their names by a title. ..."

Now, with all of that said, here is the top of this report from The Oklahoman, ripped from the front lines of the worship wars, which are especially symbolic in a Church of Christ context:

A local minister who helped launch a controversial worship service with musical instruments resigned last year after his relationship with the church's elders had deteriorated.

Recently, however, Mark Henderson was back in the pulpit at Quail Springs Church of Christ -- this time on a mission of peace.

Through the urging of several church members, Henderson and the church's elders participated in a mediation program offered by Billings, Mont.-based Peacemaker Ministries. The mediation meetings in February were described by several men involved as "difficult," but they resulted in an outpouring of repentance and forgiveness from both Henderson and the elders. ... Specific wrongs were aired in what was called a public mutual confession.

Yes, it was that controversial that music instruments were used in worship services. That leads us to the passage that raises some interesting questions about history, vocabulary and newspaper style.

Henderson served as pulpit minister at Quail for 9 1/2 years. He and elder Steve Hopkins both said that he and the elders agreed on starting a new worship service using musical instruments in 2008. It was a break from Church of Christ tradition. Most Church of Christ congregations do not use musical instruments during church services, believing there is no precedent for it in the New Testament.

Henderson saw it as a way to offer something different, particularly for the church's young people. The change caused an uproar in the Churches of Christ, especially after a story about it ran in January 2008 in The Oklahoman.

As I hinted earlier, the key word that will raise some eyebrows is "tradition," as in "church tradition."

The problem is that, instead of "tradition," many people in a Church of Christ context would see that as "Tradition," which is a word that is associated with Catholic, Orthodox and, perhaps, Anglican churches.

Tradition is, in other words, a fighting word that is linked to some of the very liturgical and doctrinal questions that are at the heart of this movement's fervent belief that its independent congregations are helping "restore" the church to the purity of its early roots, before the advent of what it sees as man-made "Traditions" that have hurt the faith.

But is "doctrine" a better word? Doctrine might sound, well, like these churches have a creed or a catechism. Would it be better to say that this is the movement's "interpretation" of scripture? That, however, would imply that Church of Christ is a body that makes that kind of decision for its autonomous congregations. Notice that the story says that "most" Church of Christ congregations do not use instruments in worship.

This is very important issue for these churches. Trust me on that.

More than a decade ago, a man I shall identify only as an intellectual who is active in the Church of Christ told me that, in the circles he runs in, it doesn't really matter if someone believes in the Virgin Birth, the Second Coming or maybe even the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, "as long as you believe that the Bible says you can't play a piano in church." That's overstating matters things, to say the least. But reporters and editors in the Southwest have to find a way to deal with style issues of this kind.

OK, folks in Church of Christ pews and pulpits: What think ye? What word was The Oklahoman supposed to have used in this case?

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