TULSA, Okla. — The turning point for Jeff Walling came two decades ago at a church youth conference. Sitting with arms folded, he listened to 3,000 teenagers singing and praising God with a guitar accompaniment — and felt ashamed.
Mr. Walling, the son of a Churches of Christ preacher, had adamantly held to his group’s teaching that using instrumental music in worship was wrong. But as he heard the youths worship, he began having doubts.
Now Mr. Walling and other Churches of Christ leaders are at the forefront of what could be a seminal moment for their fellowship — a potential reconciliation with another group of independent congregations 100 years after the two became recognized as separate.
Neither group speaks of itself as a “denomination” and the distinction between the two can be confusing to outsiders.
Local congregations, known collectively as the “Churches of Christ,” shun practices not contained in the New Testament — in particular the use of musical instruments in worship. The “independent Christian” or “instrumental” churches, use musical instruments and generally associate with the annual North American Christian Convention.
But the two groups have common roots.
“I have struggled mightily with this. Not this moment, as much as getting to this moment over the last 20-plus years,” said Mr. Walling, the pulpit minister for the Providence Road Church of Christ in Charlotte, N.C., during the Tulsa International Soul Winning Workshop. The annual meeting is one of the nation’s largest gatherings for Churches of Christ members.
This year’s workshop included independent Christian speakers, and prominent preachers from both groups shared keynote addresses.
The two groups claim a combined 2.6 million members in 20,000 U.S. congregations. But some, particularly within Churches of Christ, aren’t excited about the possibility of reconciliation, as they believe that to compromise on the instrumental-music issue is akin to risking one’s salvation.
They maintain there is no New Testament example of instruments being used in worship, and that Christians need to be silent where the Bible is silent.
“While we love our brethren very much, we don’t feel that we can approve unauthorized worship,” said Phil Sanders, the minister at the Concord Road Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn. “Until we can get past that issue, we can’t approve the reuniting of our fellowship.”
What its followers call the “Restoration” movement has roots in central Kentucky, where Barton W. Stone was a frontier preacher in the early 19th century. In 1803, Mr. Stone formally withdrew from the Presbyterian Church.
A year later, he signed “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” which denounced titles of distinction such as “reverend” and said congregations had the right to self-governance and to choose their preachers. It declared that “the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven” and that other books “that stand in competition with it” should be disregarded.
In 1832, Mr. Stone’s movement joined with a similar movement led by a western Virginia man, Alexander Campbell. Churches in the Stone-Campbell movement typically were autonomous, practiced adult baptism by immersion and took the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, each Sunday.
The movement slowly began splintering after the Civil War, with one of the major reasons being the use of instruments in worship. A formal split between those that did and did not use instruments was first recognized by the U.S. religious census in 1906.
During the 1920s, another split began among the instrumental group, resulting in what now are known as independent Christians and the more liberal Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) headquartered in Indianapolis. The informal unity discussions do not involve the Indiana-based group.
In recent years, churches from the two conservative groups have begun working together. In 2003 in Lexington, Ky., the city’s largest Church of Christ partnered with an independent Christian church to plant a Hispanic congregation in a downtown building.
In 2004, the board of elders at an independent Christian church in suburban Seattle voted to merge with a nearby Church of Christ, a move the latter congregation’s elders supported.
“Why did we get together? Because God wanted us to do it,” said Milton Jones, the preaching minister at what is now known as the Northwest Church. “We were just trying to do what God wants us to do. We didn’t feel like we had much of a choice.”
Similar discussions about reunification took place in February during the annual “lectureship” at Abilene (Texas) Christian University, a Churches of Christ school, and will occur in June when the North American Christian Convention meets in Louisville, Ky.
Unification movement leaders feel that, working together, the two groups can do more for the glory of God than they could individually — even if they don’t agree on everything.
The worship assembly is not the only place to demonstrate unity, said Wade Hodges, the preaching minister at the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa and the director of the Tulsa workshop.
“We can be unified building houses together, drilling water wells in Africa together, doing something with an AIDS clinic in Africa,” Mr. Hodges said. “I think that’s more powerful unity than saying, ‘We got you to sing with an instrument or lay down your instruments.’ It’s not an either-or. It’s got to be a both-and.”