"Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

Clay Shirky

That money quote was dropped by Clay Shirky last month at South by Southwest, and it’s an idea that he’ll spin out in his forthcoming book.  He’s also blogged about it. And Kevin Kelly has weighed in at The Technium.

I’m on the record about my belief that Protestant denominations were solutions to a problem that we no longer face and, as such, they will cease to exist — at least as we know them — in short order.  Of course, the institutions will fight for their own existence (and I do think that institutions act — that is, they exhibit behaviors.  But I wonder if my readers who continue to defend the existence of denominations and think me uncharitable for rooting for their demise will feel the same after reading the posts above…

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  • Jason Derr

    Tony –
    My problem with your anti-denominational stance is that 1) you have yet to put forward a solution other than the non-denominational model , most of which lacks accountability structures. 2) My other issue is that you fail to identify many of the so called evangelical and non-denominational structures you champion as being denominational: Calvary Chapel and Vineyard, for instance, claim to not be denominations but they are a networked association of churches united by doctrine and a governance structure. THEY ARE DENOMINATIONS.

    My other issue is that you are not working with the ideas of emergence from evolution. Include and Transcend. Denominations are not going to go away and they are not going to stop contributing to Global Christianity. In evolution new models include previous, working models.

    I say all this to you as a person investigating what it would mean to create post-mainline churches. By this I mean churches that can identify their roots and histories (Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Metropolitain Community Churches, Evangelical Covenant Church) and are able to ‘name and claim’ the gifts of their traditions in a way that contribute to the present tense realities of the world. As you and others have identified Church 2.0 will be very much inspired by a facebook world.

    I would love to see post-mainline churches that 1) include the radical, culturally relevant DIY evangelical spirit 2) maintain the intellectually honest and dedicated Progressive theological tradition and 3) include, but transcend, their denominational roots, structures and gifts.


    • Jason,
      While I understand your frustration with my stance, I have in fact set forth a solution — a relational ecclesiology — which I will flesh out further in my dissertation. I don’t know that I’ve ever championed Vineyard or Calvary — in fact, I think that they are clearly functioning as denominations, and I’ve said so often. And, finally, yes, I think that denominations will evolve; a few will close their doors, but most will morph into something virtually unrecognizable to their founders…

  • Jason Derr

    Or I could say it like this – denominations will be with us, even as a new shape emerges. Those previous structures, if we do it right, will contribute to the new whole. They will continue to be a blessing to us.

    Can we welcome the death of Lutheran/Methodist/Anglican/Pentecostal/MCC/ECC churches but also maintain the gifts of these traditions for the new whole?

  • Tony –

    I’d say this isn’t just a denominational problem, but the “complex business model” way that many individual churches (large and small) operate. I’m of the opinion that many churches try to provide solutions to problems (especially socially) that most people do not face so therefore they are obsolete and irrelevant.

    Think it’s possible the church can just go away too?? 🙂 Well especially the paid “pastor for every age and segment of society” portion would be a great first step!

  • I love your radical heart, Tony. I love your willingness to say it bold and clear (like when you wrote about Adam W.C.’s ordination back in the day) and I love your vision of a world without self-protective power structures. 🙂

  • If John Franke is right in his analysis of truth as an irreducible plurality, then denominations aren’t necessarily the problem. The problem is exclusivism, elitism, lack of mutual respect and cooperation within the worldwide body of Christ.

  • Jay

    I have no quarrel with Clay’s (and by extension yours) premise that institutions are beasts geared by definition toward survival. Of course, some could argue that human beings are often wired in a similar way, and react to change in many of the same ways as the institutions. My decision to cast my lot with an institution that is a dinosaur and pisses me off a great deal of the time is based in a hope of transformation, the same hope offered to us in Christ. By nature everything is stacked against the institution to change, but then again we worship a God who uses the most unlikely things to bring forth the Kingdom. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

  • Two thumbs up!

    One of my favorite quotes from “The Shawshank Redemption” is:

    “These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized. ”

    My take on it is that we seem to be re-entering the “hate ’em” phase and many are willing to leave them behind…and that is a good thing!

  • great quote John. many may be in the “hate ’em” phase but it seems most of evangelicalism is in the “depend on them” phase.

    expecting paid clergy and financially “successful” churches to get rid of the walls and rid themselves of institutionalism is like expecting an addict to just let go of their habit. it’s difficult to do alone. many need a little push.

  • I said this same quote today to a group of college students about non-profits and service organizations. Once the service becomes institutionalized, it is a never ending cycle of self-promotion and validation of the organization’s existence.
    Like non-profits, churches are not immune to this evil of the system. Clergy and church staff have to validate their work and positions. This creates a cycle of constantly making people aware of the problems that they are conquering; but if the problem ever were fixed, they would be out of a job.

    I too think (and hope) that denominations will pass away in order to create a non-institutional, non-funded version of the good news.

  • I dare to predict that whatever the “institutionalized” church would be replaced with, would struggle with the same problems rather sooner than later. Does anyone really believe that there is systemic evil inherent in certain structures because of the structures themselves? As long as there’s a desire for power and control within us, there will always be a degree of corruption and misuse of power within the visibible church. I wish it wasn’t so but has history taught us anything different about human nature and tendencies? I’m not saying it isn’t worthwhile pursuing these ideals but let’s be realistic about the long-term outcome as well!

  • Jason Derr

    Appologies for using Calvary and Vineyard as examples – i too often here them championed as the examle of the non-denomination. I went for easy examples. And i welcome the transformation of existing structures, as they are living traditions. I would love to hear more about your idea as I am putting ideas together for a post-mainline theology.

  • Tony wrote:
    “a relational ecclesiology — which I will flesh out further in my dissertation.”

    Nice…looking forward to that!

  • Tony, I’m curious about the rise of emergent “hyphenates” within denominations — emergent types who hold their denominational heritage while working out what emergence means within denominational contexts.

    Do you think the morphing and evolution you predict for denominational bodies will be made possible by the presence of these hyphenated emergents within? Are the barbarians not at the gate, but instead taking over the asylum?

    Or, for a better metaphor, yeast spreading within the loaf?

    Just curious if you try to guess at the mechanism by which an institutionalized denomination will do precisely what shirky says they can’t do (morph, change, and adapt).

    Thanks as ever for the stimulating thoughts,


  • I’m wondering what exactly are the problems that denominations are (or were) solving? Is it protection for smaller/minority religious traditions? Are they different for different denominations?

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