Monday, May 5, 2014

The End of Denominationalism

            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” ( ). 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.


  1. Another thought provoking post John. Thanks.

    There is a lot of truth in your post, some of it uncomfortable. When I reflect, however, on denomination in my life as it is worked out mostly in city and classis I think more about it as a sort of a tribe.

    Most of us in our cluster have relationships with pastors outside our denom and that's cool, but what we have together is also something special. Doctrinal differences make for productive relationships but so do doctrinal similarities, and shared history.

    I also agree, however, that our churches don't share as much benefit from these relationships as we do, but they do bear some.

    It also strikes me that many of the reasons we see denoms as outdated could also be applied to families. You don't need a family to produce children. You can use sperm donors and surrogate mothers. You can raise them in institutions, etc., but we'd be horrified by such a thing. Families afford children context and that context is vital for formation and identity.

    You might push the congregational aspect again but not how even non-denoms approximate pseudo denominational institutions to fill in their identity, resourcing and networking needs. The recent World Vision fiasco I think demonstrated how "evangelicalism" is itself rather amorphous pseudo American denomination in how it functions.

    Denominations will continue to experience stress for the reasons you state, but I think we'll continue to see churches create larger structures for many of the reasons they developed in the first place.

  2. Paul -- I think that the relationships we have as pastors with other pastors--whether as part of our denomination or neighborhood--will always be there. But we don't really need denomination to have these relationships (though maybe we do need the Lilly Foundation!). I agree we'll continue to see congregations or small groups of local churches band together to do go things, even if denominations continue to whither. As I noted, above, "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."

    One thing that denominations have been good at is mobilizing people to support development--disaster work, and to develop policies responsive to difficult realities like abuse, safe church policies, and a place for troubled churches to seek help. But even here there are plenty of parachurch organizations that do the same.

  3. I have been in and out of church most of my life. Now I am out. Our children are out. My wife is still in. Attended Vancouver School of Theology 1973-1976, a summer field placement in Blue River United Church and out again. My only comfort in life an death is away from churchianity. Agonizing over doctrine and religious practice is a discomfort. I choose not to replace predestination with karma. Religion is like a sport or a hobby. Some people a more suited to this activity than others. My bumper sticker reads, "I'd rather be making art."

  4. Religion is like a sport or a hobby--too often absolutely true. The trouble, of course, with this view is that it is over-generalization. For all the churchianity out there, we do also find care, nurture, friendship, support, love, laughter, and fun in congregations. In a society where far too many people are lonesome, congregations (though much less frequently denominations) offer human connection and attachment. If there was only a way to do this without having to organize, and manage, and regulate the human institution. I can't think of anyway that this can be done. I guess if we're looking for the good you can find (and do) in a congregation, you also have to be able to accept and deal with the kinds of troubles that humans working together always seem to create for themselves.

    1. I see the church as an organization that a person can join voluntarily, share in the beliefs and practices. This is similar to joining the Rotary or the local soccer team.

      Some people leave the church because their beliefs have changed. Several of my lapsed CRC friends are now pantheists. And they have joined other organizations that better reflect their beliefs and practices.

      Related to churches are those who would be called unbelievers or outsiders who place themselves outside the denomination. I consider myself one of those. I do not share in the church's beliefs or practices. No amount of fine tuning the denomination will bring me back because I have been a closet unbeliever all my life. I have come out of the closet.

    2. I can only wish you the very best on your own journey. Of course, there is doubt, and there is belief in something else entirely (or in nothing in particular). If anyone, on whatever journey, wants to convince anyone else of the "rightness" of their way to the exclusion of others, they better tread lightly!

  5. There's a ton of truth in what you say, John. Thanks for the clarity.

    My lament is that some of the finest work a denomination can do is something individuals likely never will--i.e., the CRC's stubborn legacy among the Navajo and Zuni in New Mexico. Good night, like all the rest of the palefaces we did it wrong for years and years and years, even though our hearts were in the right place (mostly). Still, we stayed, and we're there yet, more than a 100 years later. We've become a part of rez life, even to Native folks. I doubt that individual churches would or could maintain that kind of sustained action; as individuals we are all remarkably fickle.

    That being said, my wife and I are frustrated by our own stubborn reluctance to leave the denomination into which we were born and where our story lies. What is the tie that binds us to the CRC anyway? Is it simply tradition? Even if it is, is that so awful?

    1. Thanks Jim. Running through my piece, even if it isn't that obvious, is my own long love affair with the CRC (that affair is a bit more obvious in my Aril 14 post). I now belong to a denomination that doesn't have much to be proud of when it considers the big picture of its own involvement with First Nations peoples, going so far as to cooperate with government in wiping out those cultures altogether. I actually think that a lot of the good that denominations do is also being done by parachurch organizations. And I think that sometimes in our efforts to do good as denominations, we forget that what we add to the mix is small compared to what our governments do. One of the things local churches and congregations have to do is leverage their influence on the real big spenders and potential social justice mavens--government. I probably should have left the CRC several years before I did. But it was hard to let go. It is hard to join another. I'm thankful, though, to have found a home in another --- denomination!

  6. reminds me of "reimagining Church by Frank viola I believe... the first read resonated, but was a bit intimidating, and like losing a precious security blanket (hard to let it go like JS mentions), the second read through a few months later, resonated again... however, I'm still crc, and plan to be until God calls us elsewhere...

    definitely agree with the biblical view of Kingdom "churches" based on region, not doctrine... and have witnessed amazing moves of God, when I have prayed and worshipped with the regional body of believers from numerous streams... it's a beautiful thing, and it seems God honors His Church when we cross those man made denominational walls...

    1. I like the idea of churches being defined by their region rather than their doctrine. Unfortunately, in our Enlightenment era, discounting doctrine to the degree that this could happen isn't going to happen. So what next?


What do you think?