Why bother with General Convention anyway? The future of denominational identity

A couple of blog posts to help put GC 2012 in context.

First from David Lose: Five reasons denominations are passé.

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, eliminated various divisions or boards, or extended the times between major assemblies or conventions, denominations are still expending vast sums of money to prop up dated denominational bureaucracies. Would it not make sense to conserve resources by efficiently combining structures? Are seven or eight struggling denominational publishing houses better than one robust one? Where there are three beleaguered denominational seminaries in a single region, might not one healthy pan-denominational school suffice? (And we haven’t even started on congregations!) Think of what might happen if the savings were channeled to funding creative media campaigns that didn’t extol the virtues of one denomination but taught the Christian faith.

His other reasons include denominational identity is confusing, even meaningless in a post-Christian world; differences among denominations are relatively minor; and often denominational identity depends more on ethnic and cultural loyalties over theological conviction.

He concludes:

Bottom line: while I love my denominational heritage and am all for a robust theological identity and spirited theological conversation, I’d give up denominational identity and structure in a heartbeat if it meant a more unified, comprehensible, and compelling witness to the Gospel. How do we move in this direction? To tell you the truth, I haven’t the foggiest idea. (I know that I don’t think non-denominational churches are the answer, as they’ve essentially become denominations minus any sense of organization.) Do I even think it’s possible, given how much we have invested in our denominations and the good work they still accomplish? Again, you’ve got me. But I do know it’s time to raise these questions and initiate a conversation about mutual collaboration and mission that runs far beyond anything our parents or grandparents would have dreamed possible.

There’s a great deal to ponder here, although I wonder if there aren’t significant incarnational aspects of theology, liturgy, and polity that are expressed via the traditional denominations, aspects that can be lost if one adopts “generic” Christianity. People respond to and experience God differently and the denominations may be in part an adaptive response to those very real differences.

Meanwhile, Laura Everett ponders the disappearance of denominational identity on facebook:

A scan of my peers on Facebook turns up more personalization; I invite you to do the same. Many of my clergy friends are not using their singular denominational labels instead preferring labels like: “Christian Unitarian Universalist Witchy Trancescendentalist Jungian” (a UUA pastor), “Open Minded Evangelical Protestant Christian” (an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor), “Critical Thinking Faith, with a dose of common sense realism” (a dually ordained American and National Baptist minister), “Cake or Death?” (an Episcopal priest), and my favorite “Don’t make me jump a pew” (a United Methodist pastor).

Everett is Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and wonders about the implications of shifting denominational identity for the ecumenical movement.

Whatever her concerns, I think Lose is right to locate a central problem for the future in bloated denominational structures and organization. There is news today that a group of bishops has proposed a resolution to reduce TEC’s asking from the dioceses from 19% to 15%. That’s the percentage of diocesan budgets that is supposed to go to the Episcopal Church. That’s the amount of money that can’t be spent on local projects, on outreach in local communities, congregational development, church planting, Christian formation.

But Lose points to something else, as well. The energy we spend on denominational matters is energy taken away from local efforts, including local ecumenical efforts. One of the questions I’ve asked repeatedly is how Madison’s downtown churches can work together effectively on issues that matter to us and to the city. We don’t work at all together, or very little, and often efforts to come together are thwarted by the realities of life, by busy schedules and the like.

The analogy between bookstores and the church

David Lose, whom I respect immensely, wrote recently on the parallel decline of bookstores and institutional Christianity:

This means things may – actually, strike that, things will  – look different. But it may also lead to a renewed sense of the nature and purpose of our congregations.  After all, there are a lot fewer book publishers and bookstores than there were a decade ago. At the same time, more people are reading – print books, ebooks, blogs, webzines, etc. – than ever before. The question isn’t whether people will keep reading, but who will help them do it.

The same is true, I think, of congregations. This present generation reports a greater interest in mystery, the divine, and spirituality than has any generation in a century. So the question isn’t whether people will seek God, but rather who will help them find God

Then I came across this. In 1931,

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Read the whole article.

The rise of book publishing, “the paperback generation,” perfectly mirrors the growth in institutional Christianity in the twentieth century. The decline in “bricks and mortar” retailing, perfectly mirrors the decline in institutional Christianity.

What should we conclude? Lose is right: “The question isn’t whether people will seek God, but rather who will help them find God.”