This is part 4 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
One of the saddest facts for some denominational expressions of church is the ingrained tendency for rivalry. Whether its Missouri Synod vs. Wisconsin Synod, or The Church of God (Charleston, TN) vs. The Church of God (Cleveland, TN), or Church of Christ (instrumental) vs. Church of Christ (non-instrumental). Most denominations come hard-wired with divisiveness, separatistic tendencies, and the need to clearly mark the difference between “us” and “them.” When you leave denominational forms of church, these are things that have to be unlearned.
Some leaders in the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently summarized the current situation in the denomination:
Over the past year, a group of PC(USA) pastors has become convinced that to remain locked in unending controversy will only continue a slow demise, dishonor our calling, and offer a poor legacy to those we hope will follow us. We humbly share responsibility for the failure of our common life, and are no better as pastors nor more righteous than anyone on other sides of tough issues. Our denomination has been in steady decline for 45 years, now literally half the size of a generation ago. Most congregations see far more funerals than infant baptisms because we are an aging denomination. Only 1,500 of our 5,439 smallest churches have an installed pastor, putting their future viability as congregations in doubt. Even many larger congregations, which grew well for decades, have hit a season of plateau or decline. We are determined to get past rancorous, draining internal disputes that paralyze our common life and ministry.
Now I will say this: I’m not talking about different ethnic or racial churches. Nor am I referring to different styles or expressions of music/worship/liturgy. But I am talking about taking the minute details that make us different and building entirely segregated groups of Christians based on details that don’t matter to a world searching for the living waters of Christ. Hmmmm – maybe “segregations” is a better word for “denominations?”
I can also add this: I have sat in a room with people who serve in about a dozen differing denominational backgrounds and planned the details of a service of worship together. And then executed the service together as a team of servant leaders. There is hope. Ecumenism is a helpful thing. There is beauty in the diversity of Christ’s body. And even in our diversified beliefs that cause the splits, there is still “one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5).”
Looking at the ecumenical movement it is noticeable that there is an increased desire for unity in the church today. There is a pulling toward a center, with less emphasis on the extreme outer edges that divide us. A quote from Phyllis Tickle:
American religion had never had a center before, primarily because it was basically Protestant in its Christianity; and Protestantism, with its hallmark characteristic of divisiveness, has never had a center. Now one was emerging, but what was emerging was no longer Protestant. It was no longer any “thing,” actually. It was simply itself, a melange of “things” cherry-picked from each quadrant and put together – some would say cobbled together – without any original intention and certainly with no design beyond that of conversation. (The Great Emergence, p. 134)
And a quote from Bob Roberts, on what he thinks it will take to be a pastor in America in the next 20 years:
The ability to work across “party” lines. No longer will we work in isolation from other tribes, denominations, nations, or even religions for that matter – there will be some things that will be necessary that all of us learn to respect one another and get along. For believers, Jesus makes it clear that “they will know we are his by our love for each other” and we have been called to Unity – how in God’s name that will happen will be the greatest supernatural miracle since the resurrection.