The Denouement of Denominations

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to serve as the Scholar in Residence at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. You can listen to my sermon (on the Didache and what it has to teach the church today) at the bottom of this page.

My main public lecture was titled, “Why the United Methodist Church Is the Most Screwed Up Denomination,” a title that was chosen by the pastors! It was an interesting time. As seminarian and youth pastor Teer Hardy reports, he was surprised that so few of the parishioners at Aldersgate knew what happened at the UMC General Conference in May:

For me, a seminary student and candidate for ordination, this relationship between the congregation and denomination was an eye-opening moment in the conversation.  No wonder local congregations are not worried about paying their apportionments the same in which clergy are.  For clergy it can be a “career move” and for the local congregation there is no penalty.  Even appointments are based upon the overall success (or lack of) a pastor as they lead their congregation.  If congregations are not as “attached” to the denomination as their clergy are required to be does the congregation really understand what is required of UMC clergy (elders)?

Now, today comes a report from Gallup that Americans’ trust in “organized religion” is at an all-time low:

Many people are asking me what the future holds, and I’m hesitant to speculate. On the one hand, you’ve got David Lose suggesting one mega-denomination, but that seems about as likely as Esperanto finally catching on.

I’m currently reading Diana Butler Bass‘s compelling new book, Christianity After Religion. She suggests that the U.S. is at the front-end of the Fourth Great Awakening. In the past, I’ve accused DBB of putting lipstick on a pig in her writing about denominational Christianity. This book is far more realistic — even dour — but she hasn’t yet convinced me that a new Awakening is in the offing. I’ll report back when I finish the book.

My guess is that Christian communities are going to get smaller and more diffuse. More house churches, more small start-ups. Less property, less bureaucracy.

Yes, I’m agreeing with George Barna. So sue me.

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  • Tripp Hudgins

    George AND Tony on the same page? Surely this is the end times! Ha!

    Okay…Thanks for this affirmation of what many of us are thinking. Now, can you follow up with a post on leading in such a time? What does it look like? Popularity or pastoral celebrity? Perhaps. I don’t know. “Successful leadership” is often construed as “growing something.” I’m not sure it is.

    • Marshall

      Depends on what is being grown, isn’t it?

      • Tripp Hudgins

        Perhaps, Marshall.

  • John Golden

    The link to Gallup doesn’t work. Here’s where I found it:

    It’s hard to separate out organized religion here. The only institutions that scored higher than church are the military (75%), small business (63%), and the police (56%). 4th out of 16 institutions. In the wake of many scandals and publicly embarrassing feuds.

    But what is “confidence” in this sense? I trust my church to… How do people fill in the blank? Stand up for morals? Spread the gospel? Help those in need? I see this as a call to churches to be relevant and trustworthy, not disband. You earn confidence by demonstrating competence.

    • Curtis

      I agree. Placing 4th out of 16 institutions is not a bad showing for religion. The general decline in confidence in all institutions speaks more to a growing, general cynicism in our society, not to bad feelings directed soley toward churches.

  • Tracy

    One could get vertigo reading too much online in one day. First Carol Merritt wrote convincingly in the Christian Century that this is no time for clergy to become bi-vocational (what used to be called “tentmakers”) and asked us to consider the plight of young clergy. “Mainline churches are very, very wealthy,” she says, and “can’t we shake this tree?” Then I read the Wall Street Journal’s (I know, ugh) dire reflections on the Episcopal Church –(1/3 the size it was in 1970, fighting expensive lawsuits and selling the Bishop’s house!!) — and then I read you.

    So it looks like each of us has to decide– Do we sit at our denominations’ bedsides and whisper, “walk into the light,” or join those telling them to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

  • Anna Cowitz

    Tony is such a broken record on this end of denominations thing. Wish he’d spend his time on something true and helpful. Kinda surprised he would ever be considered a scholar…

    • DRT

      Typically, but what do I know, scholars are people who spend a lot of time with a particular subject.

  • Lausten North

    He does have data Anna, maybe you could engage in the debate. I fear he is right about the small congregations and un-franchised Christianity. I fear it because it as dangerous as what happened with psychologists suggesting to children that they had been molested in back in the 1980’s. There is no review of what is being said and what is being done in those house churches. Even though authority could be completely messed up, at least there is authority in denominations, some sort of process for grievances. The processes may be flawed, but if there is no process, there is nothing to fix, it all depends on charismatic leadership. Dangerous. The movie “Higher Ground” addresses this very well.

  • Marshall

    Tony, thanks for that teaching on the Didache. My teacher used to say all the time, after demonstrating some basicly impossible exercise, Just try your best. One time he said, Winning and loosing is so superficial [contingent], but if you always try your best, whatever happens, you don’t need to feel ashamed.

  • Brian

    It seems your long standing irrational aversion to denominationalism painfully clouds your opinion of DBB’s writings. Lipstick on a pig? Strange, I have read her books (and yours as well) and find little to validate your claim. If anything, I find her views more compelling, especially from a long view.

  • Nithin Thompson

    As a former UMC member, it is pretty discouraging seeing where the denomination is going. While I agree we will see smaller churches and start up fellowships, I still think there will be bigger churches in some parts of the country depending on the culture that surrounds it. But I’m not a futurist. I think that we need different kinds of churches that will connect to different kinds of people.

  • Brian Barker

    Many ill-informed people describe Esperanto as artificial – other ignorant people say that if human beings were meant to fly God would have given them wings.

    Esperanto is neither or as a failure however this is not true. ; personally I would not be arrogant enough to forecast the future.

    However during a short period of 124 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 29th most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook.Google translate recently added it to its prestigous list of 64 languages.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

    Esperanto is a livin language see . Also, Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can’t be bad :)

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  • Pat Pope

    I was just talking with someone yesterday who mentioned that she never has become a member of the church she attends because she didn’t want to part of the politics that seems to be a part of being a member. I suspect, as I told her, that’s what keeps a lot of people from becoming members. Many will attend, even participate, but just stay on the periphery. I think many churches are going to be forced (since some of them won’t willingly look at this issue face on) to downsize and do less with less as people drift away, do the work of the kingdom apart from the bureaucracy and give less monetarily into those institutions.

    The pastor where I attend preached a good message this morning and talked about how relevance isn’t about more programs (although some are needed are good). Rather, relevance (and I’m paraphrasing here) comes about in the way of transformed lives. So, as we live and embody the kingdom principles, THAT is how we become relevant.

  • Larry (priestly goth)

    A couple of observations:
    the president of my denomination (The Evangelical Covenant Church) in his address to our regional annual meetings spoke of us as a “movement” and pointed out what we as a “movement” were doing in joining together. No one else seemed to notice. If we equate “institutional” religion with denomination, then I think our president was doing a bit of linguistic slight of hand, and yet I think he meant it.

    Related to the above there does seem to be an equation between insitution and denomination. Granted denominations are institutions, but their not the only religious institutions. There are a number of “parachurch” organizations that are forms of institutional religion. I’d even argue that even house churches are institutions unless they are very ad hoc and random. Granted one may have more or less organic institutions, more or less authoritarian, more or less hierarchical, more or less etc., but it seems to me that once you set something up that has a particular form you have instituted it. Movements are institutions as not long ago the Emergent Church had to face and struggle (maybe still struggling with) with being an institution on some level.

    Part of what I see going on is that many people don’t want House Churches or any form of gathering, they want an open ended spirituality. they want faith and spirituality that is always open to the new or the next thing. Which is kind of like being the hipster of religion – Always on the look out for the next cool thing.

    Thus, I really don’t think “relevance” how ever one defines it is the goal of the Church, the body of Christ.

    Denominations in the U.S. are at their origins almost all tied historically to immigration and then assimilation of immigrants to the American religious context. that context is changing and has changed, that institutions (that themselves are superfluous to the institution of the Church) might disappear is neither something to rejoice in nor to be defeated over. At best the Spirit of God used them in their time and place, but if the Spirit of God is letting them die, then we should mourn their passing it is a loss. It is how most of us were formed in the Faith in the U.S. But it should also lead us to ask the question what is the form of the Church, and perhaps our immigrant experience of isolation and then assimilation has hid from us our Mother. The true tragedy is that we have mistaken our nanny for our Mother.
    But that may have deeper roots in the failure of the Reformation itself, and that is a much larger and controversial, but I’d say much more important question than the demise of the denomination.

  • Greg

    No context here unfortunately. What other ‘insitutions’ have dropped by so much and in what ‘institutions are Americans putting their greatest confidence and trust?
    Serious question. I’d love to know

  • dorothy probst

    I sit in 12 step meetings every week. People are seeking God, a God, a No-God, and a Higher Power: I believe we are on the cusp of the 4th Great Awakening. The Church can’t see the forest for the trees. People are wanting the Gospel, but they don’t know it becasue it is packaged in the separating cultures and doctrines of “The Church.” We’re not communicating real, everday spirituality. Why do we hide the fact that “doing the dishes” and “hanging out” are spiritual experiences? At least practicing the 12 steps as everyday experiences is a progressive and forgiving spiritual lifestyle one can share in community. Why do people need The Church, (they think)?

    The diffusion we are seeing in denominations is due, I believe, to “Transmodernism,”and the perception driven by scientific research and popular media that reality, time and matter, is erratic yet has boundries. We’re dealing with a generation that thinks with their feelings, and that’s what Great Awakenings are all about.

  • Steve Knight

    You’re half-right, Tony. Churches in North America are becoming smaller and smaller, but there’s still a trend on the other end of the growth scale, where megachurches are continuing to grow larger and larger, as well.

    The overall size of Christianity is shrinking, so megachurches are a bigger piece of a shrinking pie, but there’s still growth at both ends of the spectrum. It’s the churches stuck in the middle (which happen to be the majority of churches in America, with ~75 members) that are getting squeezed out. Sustainability is increasingly at the margins.

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