With any luck the mainline church will be dead shortly. As a person who came to faith in the Non-denominational evangelical church and continued in faith in the Mainline Protestant/Liberal Theological tradition this is not an easy thing for me to say. But the truth is that across the board numbers are dropping and church structures and hierarchies – not to mention individual congregations – are hesitant to explore change in liturgy, theology or approach. While not as yet pronounced this same trend is even true for the Evangelical church, where church attendance is down.
For many going into ministry the challenge becomes how they can help churches die with grace. Of course denominations will not die off altogether and there will always be those churches – left and right – that are pursuing things in a more radical direction, helping ensure their life and growth.
The denomination as we know it is a modern institution, based in centralized power structures. In many ways they are reliant on the printing press as their model of thinking – as is much of modernity. In this way denominations are used to thinking in centralized systems of power and governance. Models of European royalty for example – inspire many denominations such as the Lutheran and Anglican churches. Others are based off of models of democracy – Presbyterian and other congregational models – but are still reliant on models of control with strict rules around membership, doctrine and gender participation.
As I said our denominational systems will not die off altogether, to the benefit of all. If new, post-modern and ‘emerging’ systems are to come into prominence they will be less reliant on systems of control and centralization and more reliant on thinking systems inspired by the Internet. If we are wise in our approach our denominational traditions will and can become the seedbeds by which new forms of faith emerge.
Just as the printing press provided a means by which Luther could spread his views, and represented the cultural/philosophical shift by which his reformation could happen, so to does the Internet represent a shift of the same cultural and philosophical significance. Facebook is to the postmodern reformation what Guttenberg was to Luthers.
Emerging church leader and author Tony Jones has blogged on– and is apparently working on a dissertation about –the post-denominational, emerging, and relational church. Jones contends that the mainline church, a product of the modern world, is seeing its last days. As I mentioned above I push back against Tony’s assertion, believing our traditions to be vital for the new forms Christianity will and can take. But I agree that systems of control based on modernity need and must go, becoming less the law of how we do church and more the poetry of how we view spirituality.
Having come from the non-denominational world – which I mark as being something much different from the post-denominational world – I value the do-it-yourself, bottom-up thinking that many of these churches are reliant on. In contrast to the mainline church these churches thrive on people in the pew taking inititiative to make ministry happen and place greater importance on the idea of the priesthood of all believers.
In the Mainline world I value the poetry of the liturgical and intellectual tradition as well as the systems and structures put in place to assist ministry in happening. Additionally I value the diversity of thought I find within and between congregations and the vast theological diversity, which is so lacking in much of the Evangelical world. For all its flaws the liberal theological tradition has brought us liberation theology, women’s ordination and the social gospel As a living tradition it continues to bring us questions around LGBT inclusion, our relationship to the earth as well as post-modern and post-colonial approaches to faith.
In its best and healthiest form the post-denominational church would combine all of these worlds. The DIY attitude of the Evangelical church and the formation of structures to assist in ministry as well as the preservation of the liberal theological tradition. Too often people are critical of the mainline tradition but overlook the theological contributions they have made to the living theological tradition. If a post-denominational church means only mirroring the non-denominational Evangelical world in policy and practice then the gift of faith has been lost to future generations.
The OpenSource Post/Denomination: From Guttenberg to Facebook
While they do not necessarily claim the title of ‘emerging church’ the Progressive Christian Alliance mirrors the possibilities of the post-modern, post-denominational progressive church. Structured less like European royalty or constitutional democracy the PCA follows more a pattern of connectivsim. Connectivism is a term that refers to the economic possibilities of an Internet inspired – or Open Source – economic model. While the PCA has a leadership council it’s main mode of governance is Facebook and email listserves. This provides a flat or horizontal mode of interaction that allows all members and guests to contribute to the wider conversation.
In an Anglican or Lutheran church Bishops sit at the top of pyramids dictating the rules of conduct, worship and theology down the pyramid. While parishes may dissent in liberal or conservative directions it is expected that people will play by the rules. Even democratic churches like the Presbyterians have rigid rules for involvement which maintain strict boundaries of who is in and who is out.
A connectivist church allows each member, congregation, house church, ministry and chaplaincy to be a node in a distributed network of mutuality. These nodes are in many ways examples of Ken Wilber’s idea of the Holon – parts that are wholes that are themselves parts of a larger whole. Using this network ground up movements can be created and formed that help sustain, gift or even push back against the larger network. Instead of waiting for a Church Committee on _______ Ministries in the PCA, female, queer or disabled members have the power to connect, combine and comment from the ground up. Power is not situated in the pulpits or Leadership Council but in the pews.
This DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude allows more flexibility in local congregational planning, worship style and theology. Open Source or Connectivist denominational management allows for a stronger sense of the priesthood of the believer. In response to various theological issues – the Manhattan Declaration, the oil spill etc – all members are able to give feedback, critique, insights and ideas to how they respond as a post-denomination.
The shadow-side is that as an organization the various nodes in the network can wait in vain for any sort of top down encouragement or initiation. Members can also find themselves alone – over worked and exhausted trying in vain to connect with like-minded friends.
As I said before the post-denominational world in addition to being a Facebook world and not a Guttenberg world also combines the best of the non-denominational/Evangelical with the Mainline. The PCA as a function of its leadership council hosts a yearly Gathering where members meet, discuss, debate and direction and recommendations are made. Post-denominational models must include and transcend what have come before.
Death, or Life and how to Love It!
The Mainline church is dying. As Christians we know that whenever we speak of death that means something exciting is about to happen, resurrection can happen at any moment. Denominations will never die off completely and if luck is with us the remaing congregations will be the ones that were incredibly progressive and innovative, creating seedbeds for denominational renewal.
Ultimately we are living in the greatest philosophical shift since the printing press. As a necessity new models will emerge and take their place in the Christian conversation of this century and the emerging movements we see now will in a hundred years time be the very models that the next revolution will have to push back against as the prepare for the next evolution of faith.