Saturday, September 08, 2007

Denominations: What are they good for?

This is a bit belated, but D.W. Congdon has a must-read post at The Fire and the Rose on the future of Protestant denominations. It is no secret that the Protestant churches are in crisis, both here in America and abroad. D.W. cites Bruce McCormack, who has written that "if current rates of decline in membership continue, all that will be left by mid-century will be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and non-denominational evangelical churches... The churches of the Reformation will have passed from the scene – and with their demise, there will be no obvious institutional bearers of the message of the Reformation." A chilling thought!!

What I find so valuable about D.W.'s post is that he locates the problem in worship and tradition, not theology (although he admits that the two issues are not unrelated). Simply put, the established Protestant churches have failed to "inculcate an ecclesial tradition." I couldn't agree more. What's missing from many Protestant churches is anything distinctive, anything to give their members a unique identity. Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others have all merged into a bland, homogeneous soup. These denominations have different histories and theologies, but most members aren't aware of these differences since they rarely manifest themselves on Sundays.

D.W. helpfully identifies five means by which traditions have historically been preserved in Protestant churches: sacraments, liturgies, catechisms, confessions, and hymns. All five have been marginalized in recent decades - the sacraments ignored or trivialized, liturgies radically revised or discarded, catechisms not used for the young, confessions unread and unknown, and hymns replaced by contemporary praise songs. To borrow Tillich's terms, gone is both "Protestant principle" (in the form of catechisms and confessions) and "Catholic substance" (in the form of sacraments and liturgies). It's no wonder that the churches are emptying. Of course, it's possible that this decline can be reversed but I'm not sure the leaders of mainline churches are up to the task. In their urge to be relevant, they keep repeating the same mistakes. They don't understand that the way forward requires going back to the past and reclaiming the traditions that have been lost.

In the end, it may prove impossible to save the "denomination" precisely because it's not worth saving. It's an artificial concept that emerged fairly recently and only in the American context. Moreover, it's profoundly uninspiring - who wants to be a member of a mere denomination when they can be part of The Church. That's why I've always been attracted to Robert Jenson's notion of Lutheranism as "a confessing movement within the church catholic." This movement transcends the boundaries of any particular denomination and has no existence apart from the universal church. Denominations are at most emergency institutions with penultimate significance. So perhaps we should shed no tears at their demise. But the question remains: can the confessing movement known as Lutheranism survive in America without them?


Chris said...

Reading your post makes me think less about what we in the Main Line are muddling and more about what those Evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have - from worship & tradition to theology to cultural context (which I think is a huge factor) - that make them so "successful."

Nonetheless, I too have been wondering recently if Lutheranism and the Main Line needed to become weirder, for lack of a better term. What makes our churches more than an innocuous Lions Club with a cross? In what way can our churches foster in its membership a unique identity that stretches throughout the week and not just experienced in Sunday communal practices, a way of life that flows from the font to the cross?

I don't want to overstate the "success" of the three traditions you mentioned - lots of butts in pews/chairs may or may not mean much - but . . . one of the tools they each give their members is a strong piety that nourishes and sustains their membership throughout the week. Whether it is daily Mass or a weekly schedule of Bible Study and prayer services, or a rigorous spiritual/devotional practice that individuals and families can practice apart from the communal gathering, these traditions offer numerous patterns for practicing and sustaining faith everyday. We in the Main Line are so wed to culture in a compromise that says (mostly) everything's ok and we are hardly able to propose a daily piety that might distinguish us because that would call into question our 20th century identity of being indistinguishable from the culture at large.

I'm increasingly coming to the belief that a strong daily piety is key to sustaining and nurturing faith and forming a Christian (Lutheran?) identity.

D.W. Congdon said...


Thanks for the high praise! I think you've done a better job explaining the problem in summarizing my post than I did in the original post itself! In any case, the problem is one that I have been wrestling with for some time -- without any real answers. I suppose what this situation does is force me to remember that the church itself is not indispensable. We are merely Christ's servants. Barth has a great insight in his Romans commentary, where he speaks of the church as one particular crater or stream (to use two different metaphors) which God has chosen to use in the past. But God is not bound to this particular imprint in history; God may decide to change streams and form a new crater. The churches may come and go; what remains constant is our hope in Jesus Christ.

This is not exactly a happy thought for most traditional Christians, but I see now why McCormack always recommends this commentary to future pastors in training here at Princeton Seminary. He knows that we are often lulled into thinking that the church is the final reality, when it is really contingent upon God's free grace. The church is God's chosen creaturely witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but sometimes we need a healthy dose of Barth to remind us that what is eternal and essential is Christ himself, not our ecclesial institutions.

Still, it's a depressing thought for those of us living through this dark time ...

Lee said...

I wonder if you took a poll what proportion of Lutheran pastors would agree with Jenson's characterization of Lutheranism as a reforming movement within the church catholic. And how many would still agree that justification by faith is the article by which the church stands or falls. After all, these two things are supposed to be related, right? The purpose of the Reformation (at least in its Lutheran form) was/is to reform the church in light of the gospel of justification (including worship, the sacraments, the Christian life, etc.).

And yet it seems to me that most mainline Protestants are entirely content to remain Protestants and don't see themselves as part of a reforming movement.

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Thomas Adams said...

Thanks for the great comments – I apologize for my slow response. I agree with Chris that the Mainline churches could stand to get a little weirder (the remark about Lions Clubs with crosses is all too true). Not that we should deliberately try strange stuff, but we shouldn’t be afraid of emphasizing those things that have historically set us apart. In the Lutheran churches, this would involve giving the confessions a more prominent role in our preaching and congregational life. This would hopefully lead to a greater appreciation of distinctive Lutheran teachings regarding justification, christology, the sacraments, etc., as well as a sense of our continuity with the Christian tradition. And daily piety is key – people need to feel like they’re making a real commitment.

D.W. – I’m surprised by your comment that “the church itself is not indispensable.” Are you referring merely to particular churches (like the RC or Methodist churches) or to the “one holy catholic and apostolic church”? If it’s the former, then I agree – no given church is absolute. But won’t there always be a church? After all, isn’t the church the body of Christ?

Lee – You make a good point about the complacency of most Protestants; we’ve lost the sense of urgency that was so vital to the Reformation. The biography of Luther that I’ve been reading makes it clear that he saw himself only the leader of a movement, not as the founder of a new institutional church. I think we would be both better Lutherans and better catholics if we continued to understand ourselves as a confessing movement for the sake of the church catholic. And we would probably be a more exciting group to hang around!

Pastor David said...

I think Jenson well-describes what is most essential to the Lutheran tradition - indeed, I found his systematics to be a really compelling read. Part of what I think is needed is for us Lutherans to get our head around a real, concrete ecclesiology. In part, I think that the finger can be pointed at the disproportionate influence of the Pietest tradition in American Lutheranism, which I think really muddied our thinking about ecclesiology and the ministry. Can we pull it off - a unified, concrete, and compelling ecclesiology? I'm not sure, but I hope so.
(BTW, yes, Oberman's biography is one of the best).

Andy said...

Like you, Thomas, I'm surprised by D.W.'s comments regarding "the church" -- sounds like a bad conflation of Church and institutions. The Church is indispensible, but our denominations are not.

One of the problems I have is that we have filled the concept of denomination with two different and unrelated concepts. On the one hand, we think of denominations in terms of our theological and liturgical traditions. On the other hand, they are (de facto) primarily organizational entities to manage legal and financial affairs on behalf of our congregations. Both of these things are very useful, but they are (or at least ought to be) unrelated.

I agree (I think) with Pastor David's suggestion that we need to recover a more vibrant ecclesiology. But how would we define it? I don't think our historical efforts of trying to reconcile "marks of the Church" with an ecclesiology based on historical continuity are likely to be helpful. I think we need to go back to a "gathered and sent" concept and develop a missional and eschatological ecclesiology.