The End of Denominationalism

I was chatting with a friend from seminary, somewhat lamenting my situation in life (no formal church home, and no denomination that will accept me and ordain me), when my conversation partner, an up and coming theologian, noted the following:

Denominations are just about over anyway.

He’s right. I should not be so distraught over my failure to find denominational acceptance.

I’ve touched on this subject before. The churches that succeed will build networks, inside and outside confessional boundaries. I don’t have much support right now, but I do have support, and it crosses denominational lines. It even includes some nonbelievers, people who have faith in me and the work I have been called to do.

I can build on this. As soon as I have a proper foundation, I plan to.

There will continue to be a place for denominations, especially in place where church culture is the thickest and the need or desire for immediate cultural competency is the strongest. But that very need – which churches spend an awful lot of time and resources catering to – keeps them too inwardly focused. A lot of denominations, as they slowly decline, will basically become chaplaincies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this (ministering to the dying is one of our callings), and it’s the residue of American Christendom where the culture was expected to do the work of faith and character formation (and the denominations would top it off with a bit of confessional catechesis).

But what this also means is that congregations in denominations don’t really know how to form disciples. And I see nothing in the denominations or even many non-dom churches that tell me they know how to live in exile. They cannot conceive of being Christian in opposition to or alienation from the majority/ruling culture. Without a Caesar of their own to love (as opposed to simply honor), because Caesar is (or must be) one of them. In this, sadly, progressive churches are perpetuating many of the worst elements of American Christendom.

In fact, many American churches won’t know how to survive without a culture they can work with and influence. American Christians and American churches have no idea how to live in exile.

And they seem utterly unwilling to learn.

Something I’ve noticed as I’ve wandered Eastern Washington. There are still a lot of churches here. Downtown Spokane is stuffed to overflowing with mission outreach churches serving the homeless and the poor. Whether they do it well or not, I’ve yet to figure it out.

But there are a lot of churches.

However, the most vibrant churches seem to be non-denominational. And in tiny towns surrounded by wheat fields and scrubland pasture, like Odessa, Washington (founded long ago by proud German immigrants), the churches that in the Midwest or back East would belong to struggling denominations have all been given over to pentecostals, or have become “community” churches, or have been abandoned altogether. Even Catholicism is waning here where there aren’t immigrants from Mexico or Latin America.

I’ve not been in a lot of these churches, not yet, so I have no idea what gets preached in them. From what I have heard so far, though, I suspect a fair amount of cultural despair (hope for national and communal revival intertwined with that odd sense of persecution that conservative Christians have always carried with them) combined with an intensely personal Jesus who saves and an insistent teaching of rules for good behavior — right-wing therapeutic deism — which is not the gospel.

It’s not real hope. It’s a false hope that still yearns for and demands the culture, rather than the church, do the serious work.

One thought on “The End of Denominationalism

  1. I got behind in reading here for a week or so, but now I’m caught up.

    Re Denominations: When I was a pre-teen (late 1950’s) I felt some irrational pride that I belonged to a Methodist church, and that the Methodists were the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Don’t know why I thought that was a good thing. Years ago, I read the autobiography of an early frontier Methodist circuit rider, later a bishop in the Midwest. He was partisan about his denomination in a confident way — amused at the inevitable failings of the Baptists and the Presbyterians. It reminded me of sports team rivalries. By the mid-1960’s, when I was graduating high school, the mainline denominations were more like corporations than teams, complete with mergers & acquisitions. The post-Vatican-II Catholics were not immune to this trend. It was all about the management of routine operations of something — and the existence of this something was taken for granted. It’s still the same, for those in denial. Meanwhile, Christ builds the church in ways we wit not of.

    I find more spiritual sustenance in your posts here than I get from any other contemporary source. I am sure the Spirit is with you.

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