March 25, 2011

Maybe you consider yourself a "branded" Christian--Presbyterian,
Baptist, Catholic.  Maybe you don't hold your brand loyalty close.

Either way, you've wondered about denominations.  Do they matter for religious life today?

It's a question Presbyterians are asking right now--is our denomination
dying... and if it is, is it worth saving?  I've spent most of my life
as a member of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations and am ordained
(and I get a paycheck) in that tradition.  I've attended two
non-denominational seminaries (Union NYC and Fuller) and have worked in a
church for six years that is functionally non-denominational (Marble
Collegiate in NYC).  My own experience with denominations is that they
are small-minded, culturally-limited, and completely necessary.

Denominations are the vehicles by which people experience Christianity. 
There is no Christian life that stands outside of the Christian family
tree--and the branches are all denominations; even non-denominational
churches are responding (in their structure and substance) to
denominationalism.  Denominational identity 1) shapes the structure and
style of worship, 2) denominations validate certain ways of thinking and
talking about the experience of God (and invalidate others), 3) they
communicate in their organizational structures how the tradition
understands power, authority, and proper modes of decision-making within
the community of the church, and 4) they do the work of translating a
transcendent concept ("church") into a particular cultural setting in
which it can be lived by flesh-and-blood bodies. 

If you say that denominations don't matter, you're not giving credit to
how much denominational "vessels" shape our experience of the faith.  If
you were to attend worship at Marble Collegiate Church in New York, a
member of the Reformed Church in America, you would receive the
sacrament of Communion four times a year (a vestige in some Reformed
churches).  How central would the sacrament be to the Christian life if
you attend Marble, as opposed to the Church of the Transfiguration
(Episcopal) around the corner, where they share the Eucharist every
day?  Juxtapose the centrality of the sermon at Marble against your
local Catholic parish--or measure the sense of the Spirit's movement in
human bodies in an Episcopal Church against the movement in bodies in a
Pentecostal Church.  The things churches emphasize in their common life,
the things they leave alone, the things they do well, the things they
couldn't do if you paid them--these differences are embedded in the
particuar histories of the respective denominations.  In many cases,
denominational uniquenesses were chosen and upheld by the originators of
the denomination out of a sense that God needed them to be that
particular way.  It's not an exaggeration to say that the founders of
many church movements that became denominations bled and died for their
uniqueness.  Theologically, Christians may talk about being "one body"
and having "one Lord, one faith, one baptism," but every denomination
does something unique that distinguishes itself from the others and
makes the experience of the faith within that tradition substantively
different for those who inhabit it.

Denominations are what shapes your experience of Christianity.  The best
analogy for denominations I can come up with is that of a family's role
in an individual's development.  It is the air you breath, the water
you swim in.  It's dysfunctions are yours.  Its modes of being seep into
your unconscious mind, even if you can't name them until you end up on a
therapist's couch decades later.  Denominations are family--love it or
leave it, you will always have one.

But as important as denominations are in principle and in practice,
particular denominations still teeter precariously on the verge of
irrelevancy for the Christian life, as Presbyterians are finding out.

Denominations are cultural constructs.  They take their shapes and forms
and ways of "doing Church" within particular socio-historical moments. 
Presbyterianism grows out of 16th century Western Europe; it is
impossible to tease apart the influences of those origins from the shape
of Presbyterian life.  Denominations don't "unlearn" the customs and
habits of their genesis moments, because those customs and habits get
woven into the core statements defining who and what that tradition is
and believes.  Presbyterianism, deeply embedded in 16th century Western
Europe (and arguably even more deeply embedded in mid-20th century
American culture as the central pillar of mainline Protestantism),
struggles to adapt itself to the cultural patterns, aesthetics, and
philosophical modes of 21st century America.  Is anyone surprised?

Denominations feel permanent because they last; they last because they
work.  The ones that survive manage to capture a way of being Christian
that makes sense to people.  Ironically, "making sense" to a critical
mass of people in a given cultural context may be exactly what ends up
infecting a denomination with the disease that eventually kills them. 
Denominations "divinize" their longevity and success, and forget how
contextually-rooted and therefore transient their corporate life really

The Presbyterian Church USA may have a "sickness unto death."  It may
have been infected by last century's "success"; it may be playing out
Reformed Protestantism's seemingly endless process of one-upsmanship and
schism; it may be one denomination among many that is being overwhelmed
and transformed by seismic sociological changes that are shifting
American living patterns, ways of thinking, and cultural connections. 
This may be death--or just a change that feels like a death.

I hope the PCUSA doesn't die--not soon.  I think that the way it makes
decisions is pretty amazing--trying to grant power to the people in the
pews.  Our polity system tries to protect minority perspectives while
granting majority rule.  Presbyterians have an ordination process that
emphasizes good theological education and psychological health among
clergy.  Our theological tradition has valued theological depth, and
because of that depth, it has valued theological diversity.  It's a good
denomination.  It actually works pretty well.

But even if it dies in my lifetime, I won't weep.  It will die because
its inherent limitations made it unsuitable for modern life.  Some other
denominational identity will have grown up to replace it. 

Christianity does not--it cannot--exist apart from the structural
vessels that hold it.  Denominations are flawed human creations... but
without them and without the ways they allow us to be people of faith
together, we have no access to a God any larger than the God of our

Originally posted at A Minister's Life.


on traditions and names

Thanks, David, for an interesting article. I was shaped by two quite different denominations as a child and young adult and am shaped by one today that differs from the first two. The people of the two churches that were most formative for me were quite conscious that they sat in denominational traditions. In my current circles, it seems many folks are unaware of or uninterested in denominational distinctives. Something you didn't mention...some denominations die but are resurrected as new denominations under the old names. And often those in the pews and behind the pulpits don't recognize they're in a new place.


Denominations may be dying, but new alignments of Christians will occur ... some denominations but fracture, some may twist themselves into the new alignment, new denominations may be born. But that's the nature of things, don't you think?