Saturday, July 16, 2011

More thoughts on denominations

I have spent a great deal of time in the last few years thinking about denominations. When I was a child, your denomination seemed like a pretty big deal. Did you identify yourself as Lutheran, as Baptist, as Catholic, as Episcopalian, as Methodist, as Assemblies of God? There were a few -- a rarity in my youth -- who did not see themselves as "Christian" at all. Because most of us shared the basic assumptions of Christendom, denominations were a big deal.

Today denominations seem less important. People drift from Presbyterian to Wesleyan to Nazarene to Foursquare at ease, like drifting from an Italian restaurant across the street to Mexican, or maybe downtown to a burger joint. The big question seems to be, what fits your appetite?

Lately, though, I have been thinking differently about denominations. I have come to believe that our traditional denominational structures are a serious liability to the Church of Jesus Christ. Why?

First, denominations have an institutional inertia that inhibits their members from following Jesus Christ. Anyone who buys into the denomination's identity has to navigate through structures of authority, committees, policies and procedures in order to do anything. Often by the time we navigate these twisted roads, the opportunity -- the call of God's Spirit -- has moved on.

Second, denominations practice a collective self-deception. Most denominations see themselves, in some measure, as the church. Rather than recognize realistically that the church exists far beyond our denomination, we put on blinders and only see our own traditions, our own congregations, our own leaders. Strangely, these blinders are removed at the very top and the very bottom of denominations. The titular head of a denomination is usually involved in some kind of ecumenical talks with other denominational leaders, and so this individual, or a very small team of ecumenical workers in the nosebleed seats of the denomination, see close-up the work of various church bodies. At the far end of the spectrum, those "members" of a denomination who are at the very bottom and feel less loyalty to the denomination may surf from one congregation to another, partaking of Vacation Bible School, food distribution, worship and communion and Bible study in many different congregations with ease and comfort. These consumers recognize that there is little difference between the various initials on the church signs they pass. For the masses in between, however, the denomination defines the reality of the church.

Third, denominations create complacency. One chilling example of this in our own day is the way mainline denominations look at each other and feel better about the cascade of descending statistics. It's as if a busload of people rocketed off the top of a cliff, but as they're falling, they look around and say, "Sure, we're going down pretty fast. But look around -- everyone who was on the bus is doing exactly the same thing, so it's probably okay." I've heard this reasoning over and over again from mainline church leaders who comfort themselves as they look at the drastic drops in membership, giving, mission, outreach, and every other measurable statistic for their denominations. They review the salient statistics but then say, "All the mainline denominations are experiencing similar declines," as though that makes everything okay. Should they not rather say, "How do we make changes that will stop this decline?" Instead, they go on in their complacency and their members who look to them for leadership are pacified when they should be outraged and motivated.

Fourth, denominations create an inherent temptation to compromise. Denominational gatherings and resolutions always shoot for the lowest common denominator. Rather than pursuing the excellence of knowing Christ and following his Spirit's lead, denominational policies must be voted through, so they are inherently insipid and inoffensive.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There are huge liabilities to creating political institutions within the church.

There are a few counter-arguments. Some respond to these thoughts by saying, "Yes, but there is a need to gather together and define orthodoxy. We need to agree on statements of what is true Christianity and what is not." There is a long and honorable history of this argument going back at least to the Council of Nicaea in 325 a.d. when Constantine called the church's leaders together to establish some answer to the question of Arianism. However, let me quickly point out that denominational structures are NO guarantee of orthodoxy. We've seen just in my lifetime that denominations can assent collectively to grievous, non-biblical heresies and feel proud of themselves the whole time. The existence of denominations (see "complacency" above) allows congregations, church leaders, and believers to avoid the responsibility to 1) know scripture and 2) know the tradition of the church's belief, what has been considered orthodox and what heresy.

Some say that denominations allow us to do more ministry together than we can do separately. I disagree. Thriving congregations generally are thriving in part, at least, because they are actively engaged in ministry to their local community and across the world. Dying congregations may faithfully send delegates to their denominational gatherings, but they are rarely involved in life-giving ministries locally or globally. What a denominational membership does is allow the illusion that we are doing something by sending a few dollars away each year to support "mission". Denominational leaders support this illusion by telling stories of the grand things that are accomplished each year with the use of these dollars. In reality, if each congregation was motivated to do ministry (not just maintain itself) in its local community, we'd have many more thriving congregations -- and those who would not do ministry would shrivel up and fade away, and that would be okay.

So what would the church look like without denominations???


  1. Love this post.
    Honestly, I don't like when someone asks me my denomination. I always want to say, but never bold enough to, is "What does it matter? I'm a Jesus follower". And I usually bet the reason they ask is because they have preconceived notions about denominations and have put some label or sterotype on them. And on the flip side, I have witnessed such pride and arrogancy come out of some that almost spew "We're NON-demonitional" as if to say they are better than those that are. I'm not ashamed of my denomination but for me, it's not that important.

    I'm thankful for Martin Luther, his work and his witness. I'm thankful for the reformation. I often wonder what Luther would have thought about a denomination named after him. Makes me think of Paul when he appealed to the Corinthians not to have divisions on who's following who.
    I love your blog Pastor Jeff and I always read it. I rarely comment for fear of sounding stupid....but God's pushing me and stretching me. Having more boldness in sharing my voice is one of them.
    And to answer your question, I think the church without denominations would look like a big beautiful gob of goo, of all peoples who just want to love Jesus and each other. (sounds like Heaven don't it? :)

  2. Stacy,

    Thanks for your thoughts -- great stuff! I agree that sometimes the "non-denominational" label gets thrown around like it's the best denomination out there. Sad. And Luther would certainly not approve of an institution -- or more accurately, a bunch of institutions -- bearing his name. I've been trying the last few years to approach Martin more like a human role model, and less like an inspired prophet. It's more work, but I think it's a good way to approach him.

    And I love the idea of "a big beautiful glob of goo, of all peoples who just want to love Jesus and each other" -- it does indeed sound like heaven!