The Baby and the Denominational Bathwater

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It's popular to talk about life in a post-denominational world. In fact you run the risk of being described as clueless and out of touch to argue anything else—an anxious old codger holding onto the past (or the 1950s anyway). And—fair enough—as a sociological statement of fact, we do live in a post-denominational world.

The phrase "post-denominational" might even be a bit genteel. It might be closer to the truth to say that we live in a world in which denominations no longer matter, where denominational affiliation is an albatross around the neck of any parish that makes too much of the connection, where denominational association is instantly identified with everything that is bureaucratic and bad about "organized religion."

I would be among the last to argue with my younger colleagues. I try to listen even more carefully when they say things that cut across the assumptions that have shaped my life's work, and one of the assumptions I have lived by is that denominations would probably dominate my lifetime.

I can also be one of the harsher critics of denominational structures. With a handful of exceptions, I think that most church bureaucracies beyond the parish level are bloated, expensive, self-serving, unaccountable, and dangerously out of touch with the people in the pew. So, on one level, I have no problem at all living into the brave, new post-denominational world, in spite of the fact that I am not a congregationalist and I really do believe in church unity and the larger entities that are the body of Christ.

But here's the problem: If denominations are dispensable, then why not disband them entirely and create a pan-Protestant reality like the one the early architects of the ecumenical movement envisioned? Or, better yet, if the Protestant confessions of faith mean that little, then why not simply return to the Catholic Church? After all, Benedict is waiting . . .

The answer, I think, is that we can't and shouldn't because there is a baby in the bureaucratic bathwater. That baby is the tradition, beliefs, and experiences that gave our respective denominations birth in the first place. Other than a distaste for yet more hierarchy, an all-male priesthood, and a doctrinal position or two, there really isn't a reason not to go back to the Catholic Church—unless those confessions of faith really matter.

Post-bureaucratic is one thing. Post-traditional—a church without a theology, without a specific experience of God, or specific ideas about God—is another thing entirely. To believe in God is to believe something about God. And to claim otherwise is simply unaware or dishonest.

Ironically, then, we find ourselves at a rather strange place in Christian history: There has never been a time when it has been more important to be tolerant, more important to listen, more important to be generous and gentle. But there has also never been a time when it has been more important to be clear about what we believe, never a time when it has been more important to recover the distinctives of our denominational stories.

Scott Kisker, who makes a similar case, is right. The future of Methodism (whatever the size of the Methodist Church) lies not in being "mainline," but in being authentically Methodist. And the same could be said—each from its own tradition—for Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples, UCCs, and Lutherans. No one has ever embraced a mainline God or has been baptized into a mainline church. There is no "mainline" theology or a "mainline" experience of God.

"Mainline" is, as Kisker notes, a means of saying, "We are not fundamentalists." Or as Richard Rohr observes, mainline Christianity is a religion invented by people who, more than anything else, want to avoid saying anything so clearly that it offends somebody. Is it any wonder, then, that the commitment to "mainline" Christianity is as weak as it is?

By all means, then, throw out the bureaucratic bathwater. Cut budgets. Put an end to the interminable commissions. Shorten national conventions so that more people can participate. Spare us the pontifications of church leaders who don't want popes, but want to speak ex cathedra on countless issues. Put denominational leaders back to work on the ground, with the people. Demand accountability from denominational offices. Focus anew on mission. I'm all for that kind of post-denominational world.

But don't sacrifice the baby; the theological distinctives of a denomination are a record of the lessons learned by a group of people on the spiritual journey together. They are part scrapbook, album, birth certificate, and family story—and like a family without those things, we would be lost.