By Steve Bobbitt
Ira North. is dead. And the accolades have poured in. Brother North was the long-time preacher for the church at Madison, Tennessee, near Nashville, often touted as the largest church of Christ in the world. During his 30 years there, the membership grew from 400 to more than 5,000.
This critical note of his passing is not intended to judge him unfairly. Rather I wish to evaluate his significance to the churches. It is safe to say that many of our churches will never be the same because of his influence.
Brother North excelled in turning churches aside toward the social gospel. That simply means that he embraced the philosophy that a church has a social duty as great as, if not greater than, its spiritual responsibility.
North came to Madison in 1952. Prior to that time, few churches of Christ had social programs on their congregation agenda. Most churches devoted their efforts and funds to supporting preaching brethren out in the field and to training their own members to grow spiritually. Some city churches were quite large, but the general attitude prevailed among brethren that a larger number of small churches was better than a smaller number of large churches.
In the aftermath of the war, new winds began to blow among the churches. In the zeal to take the gospel to foreign countries, a few large churches put themselves forward to organize and oversee great teams of smaller churches. These multi-church teams were overseen by a “sponsoring church.” This church would be responsible for selection and maintenance of the preachers in various countries. The smaller churches would provide the funds.
At the same time, influential preachers began to advocate vast relief programs for survivors in the war-striken countries. The idea was that great brotherhood-wide benevolent programs would win the favor and gain the ear of the people. Thus benevolence would prepare the people for evangelism.
And it worked. Glowing reports came back about incredible interest and amazing results due to these great giveaways. The same approach began to be used at home. Churches which had once relied only on the gospel to attract members began to initiate all sorts of social programs designed to win the favor and gain the car of their neighbors. And it worked. Small churches became large; large churches became huge.
The results were too good to be true. The brethren found that the old-style preaching was not acceptable to the new. style members. Sermons on the identity of the Lord’s church and the authority of the Scriptures began to disappear. Debates came to be viewed as an embarrassment. Influential churches and popular preachers were busy forging a new image for the churches of Christ.
The April, 1977 issue of Nashville! magazine featured North on the cover identified as “Nashville’s Most Powerful Preacher.” But the article demonstrated that Brother North’s power lay not in preaching, but in promoting the various social programs. A few of them were mentioned: a church-operated summer camp, Meals on Wheels, Saturday Samaritans, furniture warehouse, and sewing and clothing rooms. North was quoted: “Beautiful, mysterious, wonderful and glorious things happen to the church of Christ in our day and age that gets involved up to its neck in a great program for the poor, the lowly and the downtrodden . . . It seems the more we give ourselves and our money and our hearts to help the poor, the lowly, the homeless, the retarded and those in need, the more the good Lord blesses us with new people, new resources, new financial strength and a depth of love for our Lord and for our fellow man.”
Just as Ira North came to typify the new-style preacher among the churches so Madison came to typify the new-style church. In 1968 Norman Vincent Peale’s magazine Guideposts gave its annual Church Award to Madison, citing the church’s childcare programs and hat-making classes.
In the July 22, 1975 Nashville Banner columnist Teddy Bart wrote, “Let’s open the churches. Let’s use them. Not to preach and berate those unfortunate victims of modern society like drug users and alcoholics, but to kindly and compassionately help them. In a non-proselyting manner the churches could do what the Great Society tried to do and couldn’t . . . Under the direction of Dr. Ira North, the Madison Church of Christ has been a remarkable effective social action institution for years. Hot meals for the shut-ins, help for the aged, day-care for children of working mothers are but some of the services this church has provided. We need more full-time churches like that.”
A church which envisions its mission in terms of social programs cannot long maintain doctrinal identity. Compromises are inevitable. In 1971 Brother North was a featured speaker at the North American Christian Convention of the independent Christian Churches. He spoke on the Madison story, giving their secrets to denominationals. [I wonder why Ira Rice did not write North up the way he has pursued Chuck Lucas, Lynn Anderson and others.] In 1978 he was co-chairman of a committee organized to create an inter-faith memorial in Nashville. Brother North later resigned, but the spirit of compromise was manifest.
The life of this brother helps explain why the churches of Christ are divided today. Brethren may talk of the specific issues of church-supported childcare institutions, sponsoring churches and the like, but the basic reason that the churches are divided is that some accepted the image made popular by Ira North while others did not. I mark his passing with sadness.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 12, p. 360
June 21, 1984