Monday, January 19, 2015

What Denominations Are Good For

Years ago, I heard Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft speak. He was born Christian Reformed but changed his mind in grad school. During his talk he explained one thing he thought denominations were good for. As best as I can remember it, he said something like this:

“All God ever wanted was one Holy Catholic Church. But humans had their own ideas, and eventually they divided the church into hundreds of different denominations.

“God, being gracious, decided to make the best of it. And so God conceived of every denomination as a treasure chest, and gave to each a spiritual perspective to hold safe and sound against some future crisis, when the Church Universal would need to relearn just that perspective to carry on.”

Kreeft’s defense of denominationalism is heart-warming, even though one can think of other ways of preserving differing perspectives. Books come to mind, for example! But his vignette raises a larger question. What are denominations good for, really?

A few months ago I wrote a post entitled, “The Trouble with Denominations.” You can find it here: That post generated quite a bit of response, both on the web page and back channel. In the meantime, fairness suggests that I should also write a post on the benefits of denominations. What are they?

The question is especially interesting in view of the fact that many congregations, large and small, liberal and conservative, do not belong to denominations. Independent, nonconformist, and dissenter churches have a long and colorful history of success. So why denominations?

To answer that question, I’ve come up with a list of ten things that denominations can potentially do well—along with a brief cautionary note in most cases. It adds up to a sort of “on the one hand . . . but on the other” commentary.

1.     Denominations are communities of memory. This echoes what Kreeft said. A denomination’s central convictions, borne of some ancient insight or conflict, as well as its stories and heroes from the past all work together to shape a shared outlook and sense of purpose among people in the pew today. On the other hand, many of those cherished memories go back to schismatic battles about points of doctrine now considered mostly beside the point. A lot of toil and trouble, and sometimes blood has been spilled to make our memories and fill our doctrinal treasure chests.

2.     Denominations promote a sense of belonging to something larger and more ancient than most local churches. In a way, denominations, regardless of their ethnic makeup, have a tribal quality that promotes belonging and shared purpose. However, tribe members don’t usually think critically about their mores, convictions, and culture. Tribes are very oriented to the cultural status quo and tribe members are prone to submitting to peer pressure. To top it off, tribes tend to  be unfriendly to, or at least suspicious of, nonmembers.

3.     Denominations can collect resources from all their local churches and strategically use those resources to achieve goals that churches acting alone might not be able to achieve. What sort of goals? New church planting where there is a high potential for success. Support for initiatives undertaken by leaders or churches that have a proven track record. Unfortunately, denominations have too often used their resources to support barely viable churches that are on the wrong side of plateauing membership, or to support central bureaucracies doing all sorts of things that independent churches have shown you can do without. Examples might include holding denominational meetings, supporting international (rather than local) ecumenism, or going through yet another round of denominational restructuring.

4.     Denominations can also used shared resources to support a national seminary that celebrates and builds up the community of memory it is rooted in. On the other hand, as I noted in the essay I provided a link to, above, most seminaries seem more interested in arguing and promoting their distinctive traditions than helping churches engage the difficult realities they face on the ground. And besides, there are plenty of seminaries around North America that do as good a job as the one your local denomination supports.

5.     Denominations can support clergy by offering educational and networking opportunities. They can use their intellectual and financial resources to pull people doing church on the ground together to think and talk about what they face. Too often, however, denominations offer little more than a list of seminars that ministers have to take in order to keep their credentials in order.

6.     Denominations, at their best, promote mutual accountability among local congregations and leaders for doing every kind of good. That is, denominations can provide a forum for, and inspire congregations to share best practices, best rules and regulations, and best understanding of the culture congregations and pastors find themselves in. Okay, so this is a lot like number five, and doesn’t happen much anyway.

7.     In the same vein, denominations almost always have a set of rules that govern how local churches should interact with members, pastors, other churches, and national bodies in a way that promotes the mission of the church, justice and good order. These rules cover matters as diverse as financial transparency, ownership of assets, and mediating disputes. In the United Church this set of rules is called The Manual. In my previous denomination, it was called, The Church Order. Boring as such documents are, they offer denominational members and employees rules for the road that help manage everything from hiring and firing to finances and rules for making congregational decisions. These documents also explain how denominations can hold congregations and members to certain civil or spiritual standards. Unfortunately, such manuals are often far too prescriptive about far too many matters at a time when the culture and laws are changing fast.

8.     Denominations can educate and speak on behalf of members on important, often national and international, matters of social justice. Denominations do so by electing inspired leaders, by supporting independent religious journalism, and by having mechanisms for addressing government. On the other hand, when denominations educate or speak on behalf of members, they often set of a firestorm of protest from members who disagree with such statements. Not that intense discussion about such matters is undesirable!

9.     Denominations can help local congregations navigate the increasingly complex legal environment of our litigious society. How do you do arrange for police checks? Who needs them? What level? What about best practices for health and safety rules in the building? What about workplace violence? Peanuts? Equal opportunity employment? Building access? And so on. On the other hand, most of this information can be found on the Internet, too.

10.  Denominations can enforce individual and congregational adherence to core doctrines or mores through church discipline. But of course, that leads to schisms, fights, and less than stellar PR. Providentially, this doesn’t seem to be a huge problem in my new denomination, which is committed to being a big-tent church.

The bottom line? Because there is staying power in numbers, and because they pool memories and resources, denominations have helped Christianity remain a force in North America. But most denominations soon lose focus on the central convictions that led to their formation, and change their focus from mission to institution building and maintenance. And this, in turn, tends to alienate people in the pews, as well as clergy not well integrated into the power structures. I’d love to see the United Church in Canada, in particular, give serious consideration to: 1) pruning its central bureaucracy by giving it less sway over local congregations, and, 2) by adopting the Fishing on the Other Side report, which recommends doing away with Presbytries and Conferences, while offering some alternative structures, especially for the care and supervision of pastors. Check it out at:

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