Most of us are suspicious of institutions. They’re big, out of touch, impersonal, pushy, and so on. Our gut says, “less government.” We don’t see bank tellers or develop relationships with them anymore. Kids get lost in today’s factory schools and are too often bullied by peers. Facebook changes privacy settings without asking us about it. Security breaches allow hackers harvest our personal data from Target and many other corporations—sometimes even from the government. And at church, we want spirituality rather than religion. This does not bode well for denominations.
Denominations—like many religious institutions—have been in trouble for a long time. I thought I’d sit down and try to list a few reasons why.
1. Historically, and still theoretically, denominations coalesce around theological distinctives. Where there was choice, long ago, matters such as predestination or the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Lord’s Supper or children’s baptism played a part in helping people to join different, competing camps. Of course, long ago there often was less choice than we imagine now. You joined the church of your sovereign, or your nation, or your village. And if you didn’t, you were in trouble. My own Mennonite ancestors fled persecution in Reformed Switzerland to find religious freedom in somewhat more liberal, but still Reformed, Netherlands. Their children mostly married Reformed spouses. The truth is that most people actually belong to the church they do due to accidents of birth, race, location, and even war even if the denominational roots of those churches are in ancient doctrinal conflicts. Churches have never really examined the causes (simpler) and consequences (much more difficult) of this reality, and what it means in light of its own story that it is all about distinctives. Unfortunately for denominations, the big “accident,” of history these days is secularism and religious relativism.
2. These days, however, people know about as much about that history, or theological distinctives, as they know what is in those User Agreements you click in order to download new apps. For most people, the “original” doctrines are anachronisms. It isn’t necessarily that they disagree with them. The vast majority of denominational members don’t know much about them. If they do, they know the content of their own doctrines, but have never seriously wrestled with alternatives. The reasons for this lack of understanding in the pews are complex. The issues that led to the formation of denominations don’t seem very relevant anymore—so much junk DNA. We don’t go to war with Mennonites or Catholics. Most issues that separate today’s denominations seem irrelevant, abstract, or are not at all understood. Not nearly as many people read theology as in the old days—say from about the seventeenth century till about fifty years ago. So people are poorly informed.
3. In the absence of deep understanding of theological distinctives, people sometimes coalesce around moral issues instead: abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, corporate crime, the environment, poverty and so on. They find communities on the Internet, and in media, that loudly trumpet particular moral positions on these issues. These virtual communities are like silos—all filled with a single point of view, and separated from other communities with different points of view. People become very emotional about their perspectives. In this environment, denominations find it hard to keep everyone on the same page. People would rather stick with their virtual community’s perspective on these issues than bow to
what the denomination (tries) to insist on.
4. One of the largest groups of leaders and paid employees in most denominations, the seminary faculty, is understandably deeply engaged in doctrinal distinctives. They seem unable, unwilling, and always unimaginative when it comes to helping denominations deal with this massive shrug of the shoulders when it comes to what they as theologians care deeply about. Few know their names, look for their opinions on the internet, or can understand the relevance of a life spent trying to understand Rupert of Deutz on the sacraments.
5. Denominational bureaucracies (including most seminaries) are deeply committed to the status quo. You can hardly blame them. Fundamental change is always controversial, and that risks (at worst) schism and (at best) the slow erosion of dissatisfied members elsewhere (or more often than not, out of church altogether). Holding the line on budgets and staff while churning out more and more memos and workshops and reports is safe, but inspires no pastor or member in the parish.
6. You have to do the Exegetical Twist to justify denominations or their central concern for doctrine Biblically. Churches were named by the city they were in. Theoretically faith, hope and love are the most important realities. While much in the New Testament over time morphed into a thousand theological views, doctrine itself is rarely presented there as, “you must believe this version of the truth,” rather than, “that version.” I realize this oversimplifies things. But it is hard to imagine anything other than a friendly “maybe this, maybe that,” discussion between the apostles about words such as “begotten,” “virgin,” “catholic,” “descended into hell,” never mind whether or not women could preach or whether Mary bodily ascended to heaven, or the practice of naming saints. Ironically, one doctrinal matter they probably all agreed on—the immanent return of Jesus—was something they were all wrong about.
7. Denominations have always been about doctrine, in theory. But in truth, the glue that holds people in denominations is usually ethnicity or community. Modern culture, on the other hand, is increasingly multicultural. Every new generation has a harder time understanding why they ought to go to mom and dad’s church with other Dutch or Scots or Lithuanians than the previous generation.
8. Denominations, while having a semblance of unity and homogeneity based on their shared dogma, are ironically much less homogenous than they seem. When I worked as editor for a denominational magazine I travelled from one end of the denomination to the other. I was constantly amazed by how dissimilar the churches I visited were. Many were aligned with right-wing evangelical politics and attitudes. Others were most definitely not. Some were still very focused on doctrinal distinctives, while most were not. Some were deeply committed to being ethnic islands (though few admitted it). Others were cosmopolitan. Some leaned charismatic, others Baptist, others to piety, others to political activism or social justice, and others again to nothing much of anything. When so much substantive difference exists between different congregations in one denomination, the unity they share is more imagined than real.
9. People might care about doing something with the Baptist or Catholic congregation down the street, but could care less about national or international ecumenical organizations. All politics, and nearly all church, is local. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it doesn’t bode well for denominations because the lack of interest for stuff happening beyond the town line is the same lack of interest people have for denominations. This is doubly so when being on the boards or being sent as a delegate to these ecumenical organizations is usually understood as being a reward for especially well-connected clergy or church bureaucrats. It just doesn’t get traction in the pews.
10. Pastors are often stuck with their denominations for very practical reasons--pensions, denominational jobs, the trouble that goes with convincing a congregation to change course. And of course, there is legal recourse that denominations use to keep congregations on board, too. But pastors resent these practicalities, and congregations don't like the coercion.
So, as I noted above, people are suspicious of institutions: their coercive ways, their fine print, their focus on what seems irrelevant to life here at home. This distrust is easily projected on church doctrines and documents and rules and regulations and bureaucracies and old boys’ clubs and national personnel. I sympathize with some of these objections but worry about others. The bottom line, however, is that it is hard to imagine that much time or energy ought to go into preserving a largely unresponsive, tone-deaf, sixteenth-century, nexus focused on less than strategic realities. Real church, basic church is congregational. If we could undo the ties that bind us into denominations, I’m pretty sure we’d soon develop new ties for community and education and mission that make a lot more sense, would be far more responsive, and much less coercive than what we have now.
Or maybe a few denominations will pioneer new ways of being denomination. The United Church of Canada is floating ideas for a radical new structure in a document called “Fishing on the Other Side” ( http://tinyurl.com/p5u9vdy ). It offers a vision for a great strategic retreat from the structures that bind us today, and bears careful examination—even by people who belong to other faith communities.