Sadly, though, the Richland Hills congregation has drifted further and further away from the truth. The minister, Rick Atchley, is a proponent of “getting back together” with the Christian Church, even if no changes are made in worship style or view of the Bible.
Now, the latest. On December 3, it was announced that the congregation would be starting an instrumental worship assembly on Saturday nights. They are simply following the lead of other liberal congregations that have begun similar services on Saturdays or Thursdays.
Christian Chronicle writer Bobby Ross, Jr. wrote the following report:
The Richland Hills church in Texas — the largest of the nation’s 13,000 a cappella Churches of Christ — has decided to add an instrumental worship assembly with communion on Saturday nights.
Jon Jones, an elder and former pulpit minister at the 6,400-member church, told the congregation Dec. 3 that Richland Hills’ elders “fully and completely” endorsed the decision.
“There is unity in our eldership, and we are so thankful for that,” Jones told church members at a combined adult Bible study, according to a video on the church Web site.
Elder Roger Dean characterized the congregation’s overall response as “extremely positive.”
“Frankly, we did not know what to expect,” Dean said. “We felt like it was going to be pretty difficult, but it has not been. … People are truly supporting the leadership and the eldership.”
Senior minister Rick Atchley — a national leader in efforts to foster better relations with instrumental Christian Churches — told the congregation the decision should help ease crowding at Richland Hills’ two Sunday morning services. Moreover, he said, it will allow the congregation to “reach more people who need Christ.”
“We didn’t make this decision on a Tuesday and announce it on a Sunday,” Atchley said in the adult Bible study, citing much study, prayer and fasting by the elders. “This has been part of about a three-year journey that the leadership has been on.”
Two of the congregation’s 17 elders resigned as a result of the decision, a church member who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Christian Chronicle. Dean, one of the remaining 15 elders, confirmed that he understood the decision
had prompted two elders to resign.
But John Wilbanks, one of the elders who resigned, said the timing was coincidental. Wilbanks said he remains an adult Bible class teacher at Richland Hills, has a “deep appreciation for the leadership” and offers the elders his full support.
“I love Richland Hills,” said Wilbanks, who had no comment on whether he had told members an instrumental service would not occur on his watch.
Elder Mikel Faulkner’s resignation was announced Nov. 19, the same Sunday as Richland Hills leaders first informed members of the decision. The church bulletin praised Faulkner’s “many years of selfless service” and said he had decided it was time to serve in a capacity other than elder.
Faulkner, who remains a member at Richland Hills, declined to comment on the instrumental service, telling the Chronicle, “I have nothing to say about that. Thank you for your call, though.”
Atchley declined an interview request from the Chronicle, saying he didn’t want to discuss the new service until it launches the second weekend of February.
“I do not want to give the rest of the fellowship the idea that I am trying to promote instrumental praise anywhere else,” Atchley told the Chronicle. “What we are doing is a missional decision for our congregation, and while we are not trying to hide our decision, neither do we wish to flaunt it.”
In the Dec. 3 Bible study, Atchley told Richland Hills members that “there has never been a moment’s discussion of changing the name of this church or our affiliation with Churches of Christ.”
But he said Richland Hills must put the kingdom of God and Christ’s mission above concerns that the change might hurt the congregation’s standing or influence among Churches of Christ.
At the same time, he suggested to members that Richland Hills’ decision might “inspire many other Churches of Christ to be courageous in their kingdom efforts, and it could help stem the tide of gifted young leaders who are leaving.”
“My e-mail is flooded with messages from elders and preachers across the country encouraging this church and praising us for the decisions we’ve made,” Atchley told the church. “I know this: If our fellowship stays on the course we’re on, our future looks bleak. Someone has got to be a leader.”
A growing but still small number of Churches of Christ nationwide host instrumental praise gatherings outside of regular worship services where the Lord’s Supper is offered. A few congregations — including the 1,700-member Farmers Branch, Texas, church — have added instrumental services with communion. But Richland Hills is, by far, the largest and most influential congregation to do so.
“I greatly appreciate a cappella praise,” Atchley told Richland Hills members. “There is no intention of this leadership to force anyone to worship any other way if that is their choice. … But I firmly believe that if Richland Hills is to be most faithful to God’s word and Christ’s mission, we must become a both/and church with regard to instrumental and a cappella praise.”
Atchley told the congregation he would address biblical concerns of adding instrumental worship as well as the church leadership’s justification for offering communion on Saturday nights in future Bible lessons planned in December.
But the Dec. 3 study dealt with the nature of churches making tough choices. Too often, Atchley said, churches have looked at decisions as “either/or” — either Christians can worship God with instruments or vocal praise alone is acceptable to God, for example. But many times, questions are “both/and” — meaning Christians can worship God with instruments or with their voices only, Atchley said.
Atchley drew a biblical parallel to Acts 15 and the early church’s debate over whether circumcision should be a requirement for Gentiles to accept the gospel. While circumcision was a longtime tradition of the Jews, the mission of the gospel
required allowing Gentiles freedom in that regard, he said.
He pointed to Acts 15:19, where James said, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
Atchley acknowledged that Richland Hills could lose some members to other churches as a result of allowing instrumental worship.
But he said, “We’ve already lost too many over a question that’s way too unimportant.”
It is truly sad that this has to be reported, but as long as people continue to question what God has to say, there will be further apostasy. Pray earnestly for the congregations at which you worship, and pray also for those that have already fallen away. May they see their error and come back to God’s plan for His Church.
I find it particularly sad that this decision cost the congegation two elders. Maybe that should tell the congregation something.
Finally, to the final thought of the story. What’s so “unimporant” about mechanical instruments of music? We need to remember that, when we come together for worship, we are there to do God’s will and praise Him. THAT’S important.