Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"Boundaries and Bridges: Do Denominations Matter?"

Address, as prepared for delivery, by John D. Roth, Goshen College professor of history and director of the Mennonite Historical Library, on Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008 at Sauder Concert Hall.

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Good afternoon! I want to add my welcome to each of you to the campus of Goshen College and to this wonderful tradition of bringing the college into conversation with community members. Thank you for coming.

I’m aware that the title of my reflections this afternoon — “Do Denominations Matter?” — is likely to evoke a range of responses. For some of you, the very topic of denominations may feel like a waste of time: Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, who cares? What does it matter? You grew up Presbyterian; I’m a Catholic; you worship your way, I worship my way; in the end, we’re all Christians; denominational differences shouldn’t get in the way. Let’s just focus on Jesus and get on with more important things.

Until, one day, you discover that maybe denominations do matter.

Perhaps your child or grandchild starts dating someone from a different religious tradition—say, a Christian Scientist who believes that sickness is problem of the mind rather than the body, or a Seventh Day Adventist who worships on Saturday rather than Sunday, or someone with very clear views about home schooling and “male headship”— and suddenly you ask yourself why do they believe these things? How is this going to affect my child? What does this mean for our family gatherings?

You might be inclined to say that denominations don’t matter, and then a candidate for the presidency comes along who’s a Mormon and suddenly you realize that, well, perhaps these things do matter.

For most of my adult life, I don’t think I gave denominational questions very much thought. I happen to be a Mennonite. I teach in a Mennonite college, preach regularly in Mennonite congregations. I direct a research center called The Mennonite Historical Library, and I publish books and articles on Mennonite history. Yet I never really thought about the existence of denominations as a very urgent question.

Then, in the fall of 2001, I was asked to participate in a series of formal dialogues initiated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and those conversations changed my perspective entirely. The primary focus of our dialogue was on the Augsburg Confession: a central statement of faith for the Lutheran Church — the glue that holds 66 million Lutherans around the world together, a document that Lutheran pastors promise to uphold in its “unaltered” form at the time of their ordination.

The Augsburg Confession goes back to the Reformation era, to 1531, and the reason the ELCA wanted to talk with Mennonites was because this document that they have cherished explicitly “condemns” the Anabaptists at five or six different places.

These condemnations are both legal – that is, Anabaptist-Mennonites are condemned as criminals worthy of the death penalty – and spiritual – they are condemned to hell. Now I think that it’s safe to assume that 99.9 percent of Lutherans and Mennonites today have not lain awake at night worrying about this. I’ve never looked over my shoulder in a restaurant to see if there were any Lutherans lurking in the shadows!

And yet a central priority for the ELCA is to work intentionally at healing the divisions of the church (“healing the broken body of Christ”). Their leaders recognized that things were not good between us historically, and they wanted to address it. They desired a “healing of memories.”

I won’t go into any more detail about the substance of those conversations other than to say that that experience has had a profound impact on my intellectual and spiritual worldview and it opened the door since then to additional conversations with Catholic, Swiss Reformed and Pentecostal Christians and now, more recently, with leaders in the so-called Emergent Church.

I’m still a Mennonite — perhaps more than ever — and yet these conversations have transformed me. My life has been enriched and my faith renewed by these encounters. And so one reason why the question of denominations interests me is simply personal.

But there are other reasons why this topic is worth thinking about. I’m guessing that most of us here today would say that our religious commitments are not merely a matter of whim, or habit or taste (“you like wheat bread; I like brown bread”), but that our convictions are ultimately grounded in Truth – that is Truth with a capital “T.”

Yet, at the same time, we live in a world where claims to Truth — especially religious Truth — have frequently led to bitter animosities and even violence.

Currently at Goshen College we have students from at least 38 different Christian denominations and five other religions. If you would go through the local Yellow Pages, you will find no less than 69 different denominational options within easy driving distance of the campus. Today, there are 15,000 denominations registered with the IRS, and as many as 34,000 discrete groups of Christians scattered around the world.

All of us claim in some way to represent the Body of Christ. All of these groups look at the emergence of the early church in the book of Acts and say: “Yep, that’s us at our birth; we represent the outcome that Jesus was intending for the church all along.”

And we scratch our heads and wonder how can that be right? How can we live together with such a range of convictions about Truth? And if faith is more than just a matter of personal taste then why shouldn’t we proselytize other Christians and encourage them to join us?

It might be interesting to ask yourself what image comes to mind when you think about these 69 denominations in our community. Are they all just branches off a single tree? Do you envision the various denominations as individual trees making up a single forest? A “diverse ecosystem” of Christian communities? Or perhaps my denomination is a mighty oak tree surrounded by a lot of weeds? I think these are questions worth thinking about.

Finally, I think the question matters because we are living in a time when the traditional structures and familiar patterns of Christianity in North America are undergoing profound changes. Regardless of whether you think these changes are good or bad, I think anyone who cares about matters of faith will want to pay attention to them.

In the short time that we have together this afternoon, I would like to offer some reflections on denominations from three different perspectives.

I am by training a historian – and so my impulse in the face of any interesting topic is to ask about the historical context: where did denominations come from in the first place?

Then I’d like to draw on the field of sociology and review some recent data about what seems to be happening to denominational identity today.

And finally, perhaps most controversially, I’d like to reflect theologically on the question of denominations. Here I will move beyond description to offering an opinion. I do so knowing that you may well disagree. And I look forward to that conversation.

I realize that this is a lot of material to cover, so it will be a view from 30,000 feet presented in a rather over-simplified form, but we’ll try to follow a few threads and see where that leads us.

Historical background
From the perspective of 2,000 years of church history, one could argue that denominations as we know them today are a fairly recent invention — only a couple hundred years old. A very simple overview of their emergence might look something like this:

For the first 1,500 years of church history, there was only one church: the holy, apostolic, Catholic (or universal) church that traced its authority back through St. Peter to Christ himself. Anyone who was not part of the universal church was either a heretic (guilty of bad faith) or an infidel (someone outside the faith). But there was only one church.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century challenged the universal claims of the Catholic Church, but retained the principle of unity in the form of the “state church.” Thus, the Treaty of Westphalia recognized the legitimacy of three faiths — Lutheran, Reformed and Catholic — but it preserved the principle of church unity by granting each prince the right to determine the religion of his territory (“whose region, his religion”). With some adaptations, the state church model continues to be the dominant pattern of church organization in Europe today.

The structure of religious organization that emerged in North America looked quite different. It was not that religion was banished from the public square — as we well know — but the Constitution and later amendments formally embraced the principle of the separation of church and state. In this context of religious pluralism, the freedom to worship (or not to worship) as one pleased became a hallmark of the new republic. Within this free market of religious opinion, denominational structures emerged as voluntary church bodies, organized (or “denominated”) by confessions of faith, membership lists and the cultivation of a distinct identity.

In general, one can say that denominations have provided their members with “boundaries” and “bridges” — boundaries, in the sense of cultivating a distinctive group identity, but also bridges, in the sense of helping the group organize for outreach and relationships with the broader world. These bridges and boundaries found expression in three main areas.

In the first place, denominations helped congregations nurture specific forms of worship, beliefs and ethics that distinguished them from other groups. They did this by publishing confessions and catechisms and curriculum; by credentialing pastors and by creating seminaries and denominational schools to promote distinctive beliefs and to guard theological orthodoxy.

At the same time, denominations took on an important organizational or institutional function. They oversaw things like programs and budgets and fundraising efforts, usually based in an official church headquarters in one of the nation’s large cities. Denominations promised efficiency: they consolidated local mission initiatives into unified boards and agencies; they created social service and relief programs, organized fraternal aid societies, and promoted men’s and women’s organizations. Denominations created logos, and letterheads, and flowcharts and policies; they became record-keepers — tracking membership and tabulating finances. And they took responsibility for preserving their records in archives so that official, often self-congratulatory, histories of the denomination could be written.

Yet a third important role that denominations in North America came to play was that of preserving ethnic or cultural identity. As various immigrant groups made their way to America, denominations served ethnic subcultures by helping to keep alive traditional practices and folkways — preserving memories of the old country, encouraging young people to inter-marry, and giving the group a sense of divine blessing in a new and strange land. Thus, we don’t generally find it odd to use ethnic or cultural adjectives as a way of describing specific denominations — Norwegian Lutherans, Scottish Presbyterians, Irish Catholics, or Swiss Mennonites.

Now this description of denominations — focused on beliefs, organizational structure, and cultural identity — is admittedly quite simplistic. But I think it does offer a kind of framework for understanding the role denominations have traditionally served. And, by the same token, a way of understanding some of the dramatic shifts that we are now witnessing in denominational structures in North America today. Let me turn now to the sociologists and some of the studies that have been tracking those changes.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, a whole range of indicators have suggested that denominational allegiance — especially among Catholic and mainstream Protestant denominations in the United States — is on a steady decline. Now statistical evidence regarding things like church membership and religious practices is not always easy to establish; it turns out, people tend to lie about some of these things and groups define membership in very different ways.

Still, even if the figures are not 100 percent certain, everyone agrees that religious attitudes and practices in the United States are undergoing some profound changes, which I want to summarize very briefly.

First, the percentage of adults who claim “no religious preference” is steadily rising, jumping from 7 percent in 1991 to 16 percent today and the percentage of young adults who have “no religious preference” is nearly twice that. So fewer people are ready to identify themselves explicitly as Christians.

In addition, loyalty to particular denominations is clearly eroding. Of the six mainline Protestant denominations — all of which have been losing members for 40 years — worship attendance declined in real numbers by some 12 percent between 1994 and 2005 and that number is even larger if you consider membership as a percentage (or “market share”) of the total population. This is true of Mennonites as well.

At the same time, the average age of members in most denominations is steadily increasing. Among Mennonites, for example, the average age has jumped from 49 to 54 over the past 15 years, while the number of young people under the age of 45 in our congregations has declined from 54 percent to 30 percent.

Over the past decade, virtually all denominations have faced significant budget reductions, with declining dollars available for missions, publications, education and administration.

Meanwhile, the tendency to move freely from one denomination to another has become much more common. In 1955, only 1 in 25 people changed denominations in their lifetime. In 1985, the figure was 1 in 3. Today it is closer to 1 in 2. Nearly 20 percent of 65-year-olds have switched denominations three times or more. According to a recent survey, one-third of Mennonite Church USA members agree with the statement that “church denominations do not matter.”

What is emerging is less a culture of “disbelief” than the rise of what can be called “generic Christianity” — that is, Christianity floating free from a particular denominational tradition. Let me give three quick examples:

  1. Increasingly, young adults — say 18-30 year olds — are inclined to say something like “I’m spiritual, but not religious” or “I believe in God, but not the church” or “I can worship in nature just as authentically — maybe even more so — than if I were in the pew on Sunday morning.” Anyway, who’s to say that your opinion about a particular interpretation of Scripture is any better than mine or a dozen other interpretations? Young people talk a great deal about spiritual life. Yet allegiance to traditional denominations is almost not on the radar; it’s simply irrelevant.

  2. A second form of “generic Christianity” can be seen in the rise of so-called “mega churches,” almost all of which are explicitly “non-denominational” or take pains in their church names and publicity to downplay denominational affiliation. Mega-churches, of course, are very large and their numbers are growing. In fact, more than half of all church-going Americans attend only 12 percent of the churches in the United States.

    They tend to have “attenders” rather than “members.” They usually have a carefully planned worship hour, with contemporary, upbeat music and a well-polished sermon. They offer a smorgasbord of specialized programs and, perhaps most important, they connect you into a broader community that is inclusive, nonjudgmental and welcoming.
    But gone are the traditional hymns, mention of denominational headquarters, or reference to specific theological doctrines or controversial ethical issues. We are not in the business of building denominations,” one well-known leader said recently, “but of building the Kingdom of God.”

  3. Still others have been frustrated with traditional denominations because they haven’t taken a clear enough stance on one of the “hot button” social or political issues that really matter to them — like abortion, or homosexuality, or opposition to the war.

    So if you move to a new town and really care about one of these issues, you are less likely to automatically show up at the local Presbyterian, Methodist or Lutheran church, and instead you’ll look for something like a “Community Clear-Where-We-Stand-on-Homosexuality Church; or the Main Street Affirms-Women-in-Leadership-Church; or a “Living Streams Really-Great-Contemporary-Music Church.”

But in all of these instances, the same general trend is clear: denominational distinctions matter less and less to the average Christian. The explanations for this fairly dramatic shift away from denominational identity vary; it’s a genuinely complicated question. Without exploring the various explanations in great detail, it might be helpful to recall the three functions that denominations served, and to simply note that all of these traditional roles seem to have changed dramatically.

People today, for example, tend to be far less inclined to assume that religious Truth can be entrusted to experts in some distant seminary or church headquarters. We tend to be less trusting of people in authority to tell us what we should or should not believe. In addition, study after study has suggested that people in the pew were never all that well informed about what, exactly, an Episcopalian or a Presbyterian or Methodist actually believed. Church-going practices always did tend to be more related to family systems and cultural traditions than to abstract reflections about theological doctrines.

Moreover, the number of “parachurch” institutions — things like church growth seminars, leadership training consultants, independent mission agencies — has exploded in recent decades. We have come to discover that our denominational institutions are not the only game in town. In an age of mass media, global connectivity, and aggressive marketing, it’s clear that there are plenty of other players out there, doing interesting things and often presenting their programs with more sophistication and appeal than our church institutions have been able to keep up with.

And finally, even though recent immigrants and the elderly may still count on the church to preserve ethnic identity, younger people are far less inclined to appreciate the social or cultural role that churches once played. In an increasingly homogenized, consumer-oriented society, few people look to their denominations as the carrier of a distinctive culture, the primary source of marriage partners, or the hub of ethnic activities.

Theological: How to evaluate these trends?
So far, most of my comments have been descriptive in nature — a historical overview of the emergence of denominations and a summary of recent trends that seem to point toward the demise of traditional denominational structures. How should we evaluate all this? Are these trends to be celebrated or lamented? Here I want to shift to the theological portion of my talk and offer some personal perspectives for your critique and commentary.

There would be many people — perhaps some of you here today — who would regard the declining role of denominations as a positive development — “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

After all, you might argue, isn’t a divided church a scandal for the Christian witness to the world? Didn’t Jesus pray that the church would be One, just as his Father in Heaven was one? Didn’t Paul plead with the church in Corinth to live in unity since “the Body of Christ is not divided”? In 1957, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a scathing book called “The Social Sources of Denominationalism,” in which denounced denominations as simply a structured way of representing the larger social divisions of class and race within the Christian church. Denominations, he lamented, are “an accommodation of Christianity to the caste-system of human society.”

This, it seems to me, is one side of the argument — interesting to hear how it plays out in your mind.

But there’s another side to this argument that I think we also need to consider, namely, that Denominations Do Matter and that the trend toward “generic Christianity” should be resisted. Let me make this case quickly and then invite you to respond.

My first point in defense of denominations is a simple, practical observation, namely, churches that have no denominational connections often place themselves under the authority of charismatic, individual leaders who are accountable to no one. These congregations may flourish for a time, but they quickly fade when the leader passes from the scene or they go down in a fiery crash when the leader begins to use the church for his own gain.

Denominations provide a necessary ballast, stability and accountability to individual congregations. They serve important functions like holding property and managing funds; they represent your congregation to the broader Christian church; they help like-minded congregations organize for missions and relief work. So there are functional reasons to retain denominations, but this is not my main argument.

Even more important than these practical considerations, is the fact that denominations — of one sort or another — are impossible to avoid, which is to say that there is no such thing as a “nondenominational” church. There is no such thing as “generic Christianity.” The idea that we will be united if we “just” believe the Bible or “just” love Jesus is an illusion. This might sound a bit abstract, but bear with me on this.

From the very beginning of the church at Pentecost, Christians have struggled with the basic question of how their faith would be expressed in time and space, how it would be embodied.

You may recall the debate between Paul and Peter over how the good news of the gospel should be translated into a Gentile context. Later, Paul acknowledges that there are some apostles teaching “in their own name.”

The epistles are filled with admonitions regarding appropriate moral behavior and worship practices, making it clear that members of the early church were not of one mind on these things. The early church fathers struggled mightily with questions of orthodox belief and sorting out the range of acceptable difference from the boundaries of heresy. Eventually, groups like the Montanists, Arians, or Donatists were declared to be heretical.

Even after the Catholic (universal) church lay claim to being the true Body of Christ, with the pope in Rome speaking on behalf of God as Christ’s vicar, questions of identity were not resolved. Here we need only note the on-going claims of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople and the eventual break between the Eastern and Western church formalized in 1054.

The Reformation marked a new kind of challenge to the unity of the church. When Luther insisted that the authority of Scripture trumped the claims of the pope and tradition and that he “would accept no rules for the interpretation of Scripture,” the “genie was out of the bottle.”

When other reformers began to claim that same freedom for themselves, the result was not merely the division of the church into Lutherans and Catholics, but the splintering of the Catholic church into as many groups as there were theological lay people ready to apply their own rules for interpreting Scripture.

What this suggests is that our understandings of faith will always be expressed in the particularity of language and culture and form. Our beliefs are never “free floating” or “universal.” If anyone tells you that they are part of a non-denominational church, that they have no human-made doctrine, that they just preach the Bible, and are simply “Christian,” don’t believe them. It’s simply not true!

The pastors of non-denominational churches interpret the Bible according to some theological tradition; their Sunday Schools use curriculum that comes from somewhere; they are going to have some definition of heresy. There will be some behavior that is unacceptable if you’re going to be part of their fellowship.

Anyone who claims to be “nondenominational” is simply willfully blind to the historical traditions and biblical interpretation that is shaping their understanding of faithful belief and practice.

Incidentally, it is precisely those churches who have the sharpest clarity about their beliefs and expectations — Mormons; Pentecostals; some Baptists — that are growing the fastest. And the independent churches who are attracting members around sharply focused issues are, in the end, not “non-denominational.” They are simply creating new denominational identities of their own. They are the reason why there are now 15,000 Christian groups registered with the IRS.

How Do Denominations Matter? How Do We Treat Each Other?
Denominations matter for me because they are unavoidable. Identity will always be expressed in a particular form, with particular beliefs, practices, rituals and traditions. So the real question is not “Do Denominations Matter?” but rather “How Do Denominations Matter?”

If, as I’ve suggested here, denominations in some form or another are unavoidable and if we believe that our faith points us in some important way to Truth, then how are we to live together on a campus that has 38 different claims on that Truth? Or in a community with 69? Or in a country with 15,000?

Here’s the rub: I’ve just argued that boundaries of some sort are inevitable; we cannot express our faith apart from culturally-bound structures. Yet it is precisely the particularity of our identity — especially when it deals with matters of Truth — that can easily become exclusive, arrogant, oppressive and even violent. And our impulse, in the face of these real problems of arrogance and exclusivity, is to pretend that we can somehow escape all this by saying: “Denominations don’t matter” or “Let’s all just be Christians” or “Christianity is the problem, so let’s just be nice to each other,” which —as I have argued — is no solution at all since we will inevitably end up replacing the particularity of one identity with that of another.

So how do we get out of this conundrum?
Let me conclude my reflections this afternoon not by offering an argument – which would only compound the problem — but rather by offering a testimony as to how conversations with others Christians have transformed my worldview.

I don’t know if you will find my experience helpful or not, but at the very least, I hope it prompts you to reflect a bit on your own story.

In the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St. John, we read that at the end of time a great multitude of people – believers from every nation, tribe, people, language (and, I would add, denominations) – will gather together to sing their praises before the Throne of God.

Now, to tell the truth, I haven’t been a big fan of the book of Revelation — it seems to open the door to all sorts of mischief in the church with speculation on the End Times —but about six years ago, a Lutheran friend called my attention to this eschatological vision of all the various peoples of the earth gathering to sing praises to God and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since.

I happen to be a Mennonite in this life — and I’m a Mennonite for reasons that matter to me. But in the course of my conversations with Christians from other traditions, it has become more and more clear to me that all of history is ultimately moving to a time when all of God’s people — from every corner of the earth — all 38 denominations represented here at Goshen College; all 69 groups in our community; all of the world’s 34,000 sub-groups of Christians, and maybe even the rest of the world’s religions as well — are going to gather together in praise to God.

That’s where history is moving and I want to be on the side of history, finding myself on a path that is joining up with all sorts of other people who are also moving in that direction with the intention of praising the one who is seated on the Throne of God.

Today, when I encounter other Christians, one of the first things that I want to know is whether you are heading in that direction too and if you are, I want to walk alongside you in that journey.

A second thing that I take from this vision is that I have a particular song of praise to sing. The eschatological vision of Revelation assumes particularity and variety; these are people from specific nations and tribes and languages, which means that I need to know my song and you need to know your song.

What is the particular gift of praise that you are bringing? How does heaven meet earth in your tradition? What is the form and shape that you give to the Holy? What’s the clay pot that you have used to carry this treasure? How does your tradition reflect the light of God into the darkness of the world?

I won’t know this unless I start asking you questions and I won’t know this unless you are willing and able to tell me about it. What do you know about your song? About the tradition that has given shape to your faith?

Ecumenical conversations have transformed me NOT because every time we meet we simply say, “Let’s just be nice” or our differences are insignificant or “We’re just using different words for exactly the same thing.”

I’ve been transformed because my Lutheran, and Catholic and Calvinist and Pentecostal friends have cared deeply enough about their own traditions to describe them in great detail. And the result is not some soggy porridge of banal agreements but something approaching a full-throated choir — not always in harmony. In fact, I think sometimes my friends are singing off key and they think the same about me. But there is a clear sense that we have a song that’s worth sharing with each other, not for its own sake, but in anticipation of gathering around the throne of God.

I want to encourage all of you here today — regardless of your background — to not only find the particular voice of your tradition but to offer that song as a gift to each other as a gift, not a threat or an imposition, but as something precious enough that you want to share it with others. If you are on that journey of bringing your praises to God, then hold your head high and sing out with gusto. If others are singing, then try to harmonize as best you can.

For the time being, I’m going to continue to sing the song of my tradition, but I do so knowing that ultimately it’s not about my song but about gathering with you and a great multitude of others from every nation, tribe, people and language to give praise to the One who has created, and sustained and redeemed us and calls us back to the full glory for which we were intended.

Until that day, may each of us sing as best we know how. And may we hear somewhere in our imperfect chorus a distant echo of the Great Wedding Banquet of the Lamb.

We have covered a lot of ground. I have suggested this afternoon that the traditional patterns of denominational organization and identity seem to be coming unraveled. Yet I’ve also argued here at the end, that some kind of church structure and form — with boundaries of identity and bridges to the world — is inevitable and even a good thing. Now I’d like to turn to you. What do you think? Does this description ring true? Are the trends that I have sketched here recognizable? Do denominations matter?

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