That’s Me in the Corner, Losing Faith in Denominationalism

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

Comments

  1. Duncan MacLeod says:

    Hi John,

    We haven’t met before, but I’ve followed your work through the MCC closely and with great appreciation for the shared vision you, Tod, and the others arrived at. I was raised, nurtured, called and ordained in the Evangelical side of the Presbyterian family tree, but have found my theological convictions to be rather more on the Progressive nature in the last several years. I realize these binaries are not particularly helpful, but they intimate, at least, dialogue and dna that we understand. And, the blend of conservative and progressive viewpoints has made me a man without a home, so to speak, in the wildly divided denomination in which I now serve.

    I read the MCC report with great eagerness because I saw in your analysis and recommendations another attempt at reaching for something new….a call to draw our attention to worthy work, creative work, new beginnings, bold experiments. I got excited about that. I remember a call made to Tod while I drove across the badlands of the west, and I said, “if you need 10 churches to start a new presbytery, count me in….” In the meantime, I worked towards structural changes in my local presbytery that would allow us to move forward in creative ways. I politicked, I glad-handed, I dialogued, I cajoled and convinced, I made phonecalls to “both sides” of the aisle and pitched a new structure, what I called a “Regional Covenant Community”….it was, I think, a very good idea. And, when the moment of decision came, it was soundly defeated in the face of an option to pursue familiar paths with familiar polity. I saw the same thing happen on a national level with the defeat of the substance of the MCC recommendations. I know, in some way, how you must be feeling now….and I share your disappointment.

    My thoughts lately have me wondering if the solution to what ails us lies within our own body, or if it must lay outside….in other words, I am not convinced that we, the PC(USA), are going to be able to come up with the right way internally. We have become too mono-cultured (the great, ironic truth, despite the narrative of a divided church), too staid, too tied to familiar ways….we even express longing for something different…but, apart from anecdotal experiences of newness, as a whole we are unable to generate renewal or creative solution. As we saw in Pittsburgh, we are not able, collectively, to risk what we are for the sake of what we could be. We need, I think, something that we don’t have, or have lost.

    I want this church, this congregation I serve, to be connectional…I agree with your sermon points, as an individual expression of the gospel, we are not sufficient by ourselves. But the energy being used to maintain these particular connections, historically weighty as they are, seems to me to be now wasted. I want a home, a network, a set of collegial congregations that will spur us on to greater things, inspire us to mission, challenge us in our weaknesses and celebrate our strengths. And it may be that should be sought in a new context….a new context where we, as a church, will have to let go our our comfortable and familiar place and take on the role of novice, initiate. Where we will learn instead of teach….because we have a lot to learn.

    I am searching for that. That search takes me, now, on paths that are unfamiliar…to denominational structures and networks that are new. It is both heartbreaking and enlivening.

    I hope you find great comfort and encouragement as you get home to the congregation that you are called to lead and the community that you are called to transform. I am so very glad that you all boldly charted a path towards change and renewal….and I pray that the “no” of the denomination will result in the gift of clarity.

    Apologies for the blog-length comment….. :)

    Kind Regards,
    Duncan MacLeod

  2. Amos 3:3

  3. Watching from a computer at home and work, it isn’t a pretty picture all the time. Neither is the picture of couples, families, classrooms, universities, or non-denominational churches. No spot where we’re together is smooth. Is alone better? How do we understand our history then? Would we keep reinventing ourselves? Who could afford the training institutions for our clergy? Even the library for them? And isn’t a joint framework for global mission and political movement hopefully more successful and enterprising than a tiny church out on the plains trying to make a difference on its own? Be together at the table, share food, and love one another. Those were the words and we find it hard, hard, hard to live them. But they’re still the words.

  4. Denominationalism is at the root an act of separation: we are these, and not those. Maybe that isn’t the best way to express a unified mission in the world. Nothing splits like splitting; it’s just going to go all the way down. Likewise joining.

    Don’t see why you can’t be your own little island of Christianity in the heart of Chicago (with your own unique flavor) and still connected to all the other little islands elsewhere. “We are here, and not there” isn’t the same thing at all.

  5. I think we’re living in a time where there is strong ideological pressure — from all sides — to disbelieve in institutions. The political arguments these days are for or against government, not so much for or against specific versions of taxation, or other policies. There’s a danger lurking out there that our critique of denominations — and my colleague David Lose offers some very cogent points — will turn people off entirely from learning how to work together to share authority and agency. It’s always worth asking in whose interest the critique resides. Who would be hurt by getting rid of denominational structures? Let’s ask that question from the standpoint of Christ’s steady presence with the anawim. Let’s always keep the gospel in front of us!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Below are links to blogs that provide a range of reflections on the GA meeting and the Presbyterian church. We hope that these will spark you to engage in faithful conversation with others about issues facing the church and world. My Life as a GA Commissioner Day 9 and Beyond by Jodi Craiglow In the Middle: Intersection between Age & Wisdom by Theresa Cho That’s Me in the Corner Losing Faith in Denominationalism by John Vest [...]

  2. [...] in this post after the proposal was defeated. John also has a recent post about his doubts about denominationalism, and I agree with him about finding ways of being together that don’t inflame the [...]

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