It’s no secret that Tony Jones is not a fan of denominations. He writes about it quite a bit, and also links to others. This week, while two denominations are having assemblies, he linked to a post by David Lose titled “Five Reasons Denominations are Passe.” It is a worthy read that I commend to you. Of his five reasons, I find the first and third particularly compelling:
1) Denominations are confusing in a post-Christian world and often an impediment to mission.
3) Inordinate amounts of funding are spent on maintaining denominational structures and bureaucracies, money that could be spent on mission.
After this week of General Assembly, I’m feeling more and more discouraged about denominationalism. I’ve been open about my suspicion of institutions and my sense that much of the institutional maintenance that makes up denominational work is a waste of God’s time. This week hasn’t helped allay those feelings.
Before I left for Pittsburgh, I preached a sermon about the General Assembly and the connectionalism of our church. In it I tried to articulate what I find valuable about our denominational endeavor. Here is the pertinent section:
No congregation—and no single approach to Christianity—is sufficient to be the church. We need each other to be what God has called us to be in the world.
This week’s General Assembly will be contentious and divisive. As our denomination dwindles and our unified mission in the world hangs in the balance, there is much at stake. We must find a way to be church together.
Now, I’ll admit, having been involved in a large and complex congregation like Fourth, the Presbytery of Chicago, and the denomination as a whole, it is easy for me to grow weary of the incredible amount of time, energy, and resources it takes to maintain these institutions. When it comes to councils and structures and institutions, I’m often left feeling like we are wasting God’s time when we ought to be involved in more pressing missional needs
Yet it occurs to me that perhaps God is in fact calling us, in this time, to figure out how to live together as a divided people. It would be so much easier to go out and serve the world on our own. It would be so much easier to be our own little Presbyterian island in the heart of Chicago. It takes so much effort to be a connectional church. The costs of connectionalism are incredibly high. But maybe—just maybe—this is part of the witness God is calling us to share with the world.
On Wednesday, when we celebrate the birth of our nation, we will do so as a deeply polarized people. As election year politics will continue to remind us, perhaps the United States is also as divided as it’s been since the Civil War. And perhaps it could be argued that our divisions are preventing us from fulfilling our civil calling as a democratic nation as much as the divisions of the church are preventing us from fulfilling our ecclesiastic calling as a democratic church. Perhaps part of God’s good news for the world is that it is possible for deeply divided people to live together as one.
For me, the best missional and gospel function of denominationalism is for the people of God to figure out how to live together with divisions and model this for the world. Perhaps I am despairing that this may not be possible in the PC(USA). The divisions of this assembly run deep. The narrow votes, inflammatory rhetoric, resignation of the vice moderator, and reluctance to change systems that are not working are all discouraging.
I think we need a paradigm shift away from winner-takes-all parliamentary conflict toward polarity management. I think such a shift would open our hearts and minds to new ways of being Presbyterian together