Denominations: Pangs of Death or Pains of Birth

By Brian McLaren

Lutheran theologian David Lose recently posted five reasons he believes denominations as we know them are on their way out.

1) Denominations are confusing in a post-Christian world and often an impediment to mission. Most people in the various denominations have little sense what they mean and no one outside them really cares.

2) The differences between the major denominations are relatively minor. Across the board, the major Protestant denominations share a biblical canon, confess the major ecumenical creeds, and observe the same two sacraments.

3) Inordinate amounts of funding are spent on maintaining denominational structures and bureaucracies, money that could be spent on mission. Even though every denomination I know has in recent years cut way back on spending, denominations are still expending vast sums of money to prop up dated bureaucracies.

4) Political differences outstripped theological ones decades ago. Let’s face it, progressive Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal congregations have a lot more in common than do progressive and conservative congregations in the same tradition.

5) Denominational affiliation often represents the triumph of ethnic and cultural loyalties over theological convictions.

Lose’s list might discourage committed church leaders gathering for denominational assemblies this summer. But it also might challenge them to find a new and better way for our named congregational networks to get a fresh vision for a more vigorous and vibrant future. After all, does it make sense to identify ourselves primarily in terms of imperial affiliation (Roman Catholic), structure of governance (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregational), a defining practice (Baptist, Quaker), an ethnic  or regional origin (Anglican, Southern Baptist, Dutch Reformed), a founder (Mennonite, Lutheran), or, perhaps most ironic, a “none of the above” (non-denominational)?

What hopes and values hold us together? What is our ethos evolving into? What are we against, and what are we for? What difference do we hope to make? Who are we?

If we were a corporation or non-profit organization struggling with these issues, we would say we have a branding problem. On a more personal level, we might say we have an identity crisis.

But we do want to be identified as followers of God in the way of Jesus. We do want to be identified as people learning to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. We do want to stand up and be counted as disciples, as agents of God’s kingdom or commonwealth, as lovers of God, neighbor, stranger, outcast and enemy. We are willing to give, sacrifice, serve and suffer for the right identity.

I’ve been thinking about religious identity a lot lately. My current writing project explores the connection between intra-religious identity and inter-religious hostility.  I’ve become convinced that David Lose is right: Change is brewing and our denominational status quo is unsustainable. Our future may indeed include the dissolution and extinction of our historic denominations. But it may hold their rebirth into a new identity, something larger, higher, deeper and richer than they are now.

I dare to believe and hope that something new is trying to be born among us, and our current struggles need not be the pangs of death but could become the pains of birth. Surely we are making choices today – in our words, our attitudes, our prayers, our actions – that will help one future or another come true.

Brian McLaren, a prominent Christian pastor and author, is a leading figure in the emerging church movement.

Categories: GC2012

2 replies »

  1. Perhaps we must die in order to be reborn, dying to our former self. The metaphor of death is one of embracing the darkness to walk confidently in the footsteps of Jesus.