|Dallas Pastor Swims Upstream to a
In an era of catastrophic decline for mainline congregations, Doug
Skinner, pastor of Dallas’ Northway Christian Church, stands apart. Since
his ordination in 1980, the congregations Skinner has served have
maintained themselves, even grown, progressively more prominent islands
of strength in a rapidly-vanishing sea. What is it that allows one minister to
have success swimming against the tide while so many around him
Los Angeles native Skinner grew up in the Episcopal Church, where his
parents were active lay members. Doug’s first call to ministry came at an
Episcopal Benedictine monastery in California, when he was a lad of
twelve. Skinner understood that call originally as a call to the monastery.
His intention was to go directly to work as a monk and devote his life to
prayer. God, the Benedictines, and his parents had other ideas. Skinner
jokes that it was easier to embrace the call to monasticism at an age when
he still thought girls had “cooties.”
But the call didn’t go away. In his teen years, the “Jesus People”
movement swept through the nation’s youth culture, giving voice to those
discontented by a Christianity of form without content. Skinner found
himself swept up in it, never journeying away from God but journeying
instead toward a more vital witness to his faith.
He found his home in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in part by
reading Leo Posten’s Religions in America. The denomination, with its
traditional emphasis on the authority of scripture and Christian liberty, just
seemed right to him. His first experience in the denomination was as a
senior in high school, working with youth in a new church start in southern
Doug graduated from high school in LA and enrolled in Northwest
Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. Before and during his college years,
the religious movement which spawned Churches of Christ and Christian
Churches around the nation was in the process of splintering for the
second time in its history. The first splintering occurred at the beginning of
the 20th Century, as the historic Christian restoration movement divided
over the issue of instrumental music in worship.
Conservatives opposed instrumental music on the grounds that what the
New Testament did not specifically permit in church life must be avoided.
They veered away to become today’s Churches of Christ. Progressives
preferred to see the silence of scripture as permissive rather than
restrictive. As such, they embraced such things as instruments in worship,
missionary societies, and inter-church cooperation. The second split
divided those who were willing to embrace becoming a formal Christian
denomination from those who believed it more faithful to maintain their
Though the battle over the so-called Restructure of the Disciples
movement raged bitterly in other parts of the country, it largely fizzled in
Oregon where Skinner went to study. There, the line between Disciples
and “independents” remained blurry. Family ties ran too deep. The two
sides refused to split, cooperating in ministries like Northwest Christian
College. Skinner himself embodied this Oregon openness. His wife, Mary
Lynn, grew up in the independent Christian Church tradition.
Though a partisan recruiter called his college experience “skewed,”
Skinner himself loved the Northwest experience. The richness of his
double major in Christian ministry and New Testament Greek was excellent
preparation for seminary and beyond. He realized, though, that someday
he would have to choose between Disciples and “independents.”
Skinner felt comfortable with the language and style of the independent
Christian churches, but lamented their tendencies to legalism and
literalism. TCU’s Brite Divinity School among Disciples and Emmanuel
School of Religion among independents both recruited him actively.
Skinner’s impulse was to split the difference. He enrolled in Fuller
Theological Seminary in 1975, rather than attend either of the “official”
The Fuller experience reinforced for him the quality of what he had already
learned at Northwest. “I’d already read all the books,” he laughs. The
chief drawback for Doug was cost. Very little financial help was available.
Still, Fuller provided the context for the second great call experience of his
life. In chapel one day, Fuller’s president lamented the evangelical
seminary’s tendency to pull its graduates away from the mainline
denominations. It turned too many United Methodists into free Methodists,
too many United Presbyterians into independent Presbyterians, and too
many Disciples of Christ into independent Christians. If evangelical voices
are going to be heard in these historic denominations, he said, Fuller’s
graduates needed to consider staying put. Doug decided in response to
cast his lot with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
On one level his decision has been profoundly good for the congregations
he has served. Skinner was deeply influenced by Philipp Spener’s Pia
Desideria, a book he considers a manual on how to spiritually renew
ossified traditions. He made Spener’s book a centerpiece of his ministry.
Among Spener’s most important points is his commonsense assertion that
twenty minutes of Bible study a week during a sermon is not enough. In
each of Doug’s congregations and indeed among Disciples at large he has
taught significant and challenging Bible studies.
After starting at Fuller, Skinner decided to transfer to TCU’s Brite Divinity
School, consciously choosing to be a “conservative Disciple.” Skinner
says Brite Divinity School forced him to reexamine the foundations of his
Christian faith by insisting he read other perspectives. For him, Brite
presented an opportunity to weigh a variety of positions, accepting some
and rejecting others. He says he came away from it strengthened in his
convictions rather than weakened, a “conservative by means of a liberal
He believes his extensive background in Biblical studies before Brite was
what made it possible for him to be enriched by the experience. Many
evangelical Disciples have noted that Brite’s curriculum, like that of most
mainline seminaries, assumed its students already had a strong
background in Bible. By the time Skinner started there in the mid-1970s,
such assumptions were out of date.
Through the combination of his ministerial success and his determination
to remain within the Disciples, Skinner has become the “safe conservative”
among generally-liberal Disciples ministers. It hasn’t been easy, he says,
and the pain has come from both sides. He was pained when fellow
evangelicals in Disciples Renewal broke bitterly with the Disciples during
the 1990s. Quoting Protestant Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, Skinner says “I
agree with their content, but I object to their spirit.”
Skinner has also been pained by the actions of the Disciples biennial
General Assembly. In successive assemblies in the late 1980s, Disciples
declined to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Savior and voted
down a high view of the Bible. When push came to shove, Disciples
flinched from a passionate embrace of Jesus as the only Savior. “We didn’
tvote Jesus down,” Skinner says. “We tabled him.”
Looking around the church today, Skinner wonders whether the “safe”
conservatism he has always seen as the fulfillment of the call he received
in seminary is enough. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is
evaporating around him. The denomination’s National Benevolent
Association, once one of the 50 largest charities in the United States,
imploded in scandal. Carefully-crafted funding agreements from the
Restructure period of the late 1960s have fallen apart, done in by
shrinking numbers and shrinking dollars. The denomination’s hundred-
plus year old magazine went bust in 2002. A church that numbered 1.8
million members when he joined it now counts fewer than a third that many.
Where will it end? The body as it now exists will die, he says flatly. The
church that is replacing it will be evangelical and “brown,” dominated by
Third World Christians. One of the greatest challenges facing mainline
churches is whether or not they will accept that emerging church as their
reality. Still, he grieves the present situation, hoping that Disciples don’t
simply merge themselves out of existence by necessity. Instead, he hopes
for a re-imagining of ministry, one that leads to a church that will limit itself
neither to personal salvation nor to social justice. Instead it will live in the
dynamic balance between the two.
Through it all, Skinner has held on to his belief not in resuscitation but in
Resurrection. He has asked only for the right to be present among
Disciples, to hold on to what he calls a “generous orthodoxy.” He has
been granted it.
As the ship sinks around him, though, he wonders if that was enough.
John Cunyus is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work may be viewed
online at www.JohnCunyus.com
©2006, John G. Cunyus
All Rights Reserved.