Are Denominations Done?

(Note:  This one is a bit longer than usual!  I’ve been pondering it for weeks amid mountain climbing, fishing, golfing, and recovering from water ski falls.  You may want to read it in bits and pieces.  Always interested in comments, questions, reactions.)

In 2001, I attended a seminar in Arizona led by a well known consultant of an organization created to help “mainline denominations.” I was surprised to hear him say that churches would be better off if they removed the name of any denomination from their official name. He referred to a growing Lutheran Church in the Phoenix area which had no reference to Lutheran in its name. It was simply called “Community of Joy.” Perhaps it is a radical different idea from the word “Lutheran”. His favorite was a church called “Saddleback” led by a minister from the Baptist background.

A few weeks ago the national, bi-yearly meeting of my own denomination met in Minneapolis. I have been one of the some 6000 “Facebook friends” of the outgoing moderator, Bruce Reyes-Chow, over the past year. As his term as Moderator ended, he mentioned relief in being able to give opinions now without concern for their affects on the whole denomination. I then noticed a few other responses in which ministers and “regulars” questioned the value of even having such entities as a denomination any longer. One opined how the outgoing Moderator was a good leader toward something beyond denominational identities. I looked up the Moderator’s own parish, which he founded, which also bears nothing “Presbyterian” in its name. But if you read the church’s web page beliefs, it is very Presbyterian and Reformed in its content.

When I was in seminary, Alvin Toffler’s book “Future Shock” was published and we all were encouraged to read it. Amazed at the projected changes Toffler foresaw, none were more remembered than his prophecy that the days of “Westminster type assemblies” were numbered. In his view, it was time to move to a more direct contact with people as they grew together into networks with increasingly fast ways to communicate and exchange ideas. It was time to allow much more pluralism to flourish than in trying to keep a group together by a centralized bureaucracy following the limitations of a majority vote.

In my career as pastor, I attended two of our denomination’s annual meetings. The first occurred in 1987, shortly after I had returned from a study of meditation and silence in India ashrams. As we gathered along the white sand shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, I felt overwhelmed with the amount of business attempted with a few leading the debates and the rest voting, interspersed with “worship services” to keep us centered. As arguments continued over social and theological issues, I found myself struggling to maintain interest, and often I would slip out to sit on the beach to practice the new meditations I was learning. Later I read reports in which some cynically stated that neither the church nor the world was any better off from such meetings.

I attended another national meeting in 2003, after being elected to moderate my local Presbytery of area Presbyterians. At the time our local group had lost about 50 percent in ten years and we were slated to lose another 50% of within ten more. I was surprised to be nominated to such a position, but after a spirited debate about my “reformed qualifications,” I squeaked by the opposition to be installed for a three year term. I presided over area “business meetings” and was an observer at the national meeting, this time was in Denver. It had changed in some neat ways since my 1987 visit. This time we had Native American music, Tai Chi movement opportunities, a labyrinth to walk to prepare for or unwind from one of the meetings and even a room to just sit and be silent. But still, I wondered about the value of such a meeting with so much time trying to discern the truth and right theology and the rules to be enforced in our local churches through pastors and those governing in the dwindling jobs of local presbyteries. I remember the Jehovah Witnesses were having meeting at the same time nearby. Their theme and workshops were on how to expand and grow larger!

Today, the questions of our need obviously remain and even felt I’m sure by the departing national Moderator. Larger religious bodies seem to dwindle each day. Such collections as Presbyterian began in the 4th Century when the Roman Empire Catholic Church came to power under the Emperor Constantine. Then the leaders could easily enforce their beliefs and rules upon followers, followers which in most cases were forced “conversions.” They literalized the stories of Jesus, actually in existence for over 10,000 years. Creeds were written and given all the power of the Roman Empire to be confessed. Millions would die for protesting, disbelieving, or refusing to join the powerful “denomination.” Communities and countries were given choices to convert or perish, to keep the faith as proscribed by the “fathers” or be excommunicated or worse, executed. Overwhelmed with its power, it embarked on disastrous crusades to take back the so-called Holy Land into the Christian domain.

In the 16th Century, with the invention of the printing press, the Protestant reformation occurred. The rapid dissemination of information was too much to control. Indeed, a whole new renaissance sprung up which saw many break from the Roman Church. Many formed their own power structures. A beginning of respect for peoples’ opinions emerged in democratic and representative structures. In Seminary I wrote a paper on the Reformation which could have been subtitled, “More Popes!” More wars and bloodshed occurred between countries enhanced by bitter religious issues. Some groups went so far as to break away from any area or country wide type of control, leaving the issues to be decided by local church communities. The later were led by the Baptists and other Free Churches, but it seemed the majority of Christians remained in some sort of binding structure. Presbyterians took over Geneva, Switzerland and later, for a time, Scotland. If the structure grew large and powerful enough, it would replace the Roman Church as the official State church such as the Lutherans, Presbyterians and Anglicans, but not without bitter bloodshed. Other countries remained officially Roman Catholic, as taxes and monetary support were demanded along with one’s following the rules of the faith in confessions, attendances, and rituals. Some countries flipped back and forth from one denomination to another, pending on the military leadership. A few such as the Amish and Mennonites, separated further from centralized structures refusing to even participate in national political affairs. Naturally they were hated and found hospitality in few countries. Coming to the new American continent was the best option for their survival, which many if not most did.

With the birth of the United States, a deeper break came from any recognized state religious Christian religion. Thomas Jefferson sealed such during his first term as President, ridding Episcopalians (formerly the Anglicans) and the Puritans from maintaining civic control to enforce rigid rules over large areas of the new country in New England and Virginia. The Presbyterians never really took over any particular colony or state, but they along with groups like the Lutherans and Episcopalians exercised strict control over each of their particular congregations. They also saw their government basically adopted by the new country. In time, with such deep and expanded freedoms, free churches such as the Baptists and Congregationalists thrived and grew to be the largest group of our country’s alleged members. Smaller groups such as the Amish and Mennonite thrived given freedom to control their own affairs, even the right to refuse military duty as pacifists. Many other independent and community church groups sprung up making our country host to more diverse religious groups than any other. Such freedom has made it increasingly harder for centrally organized, structured, bureaucratic groups such as the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics to attract and keep adherents. One of the largest reasons was growing freedom to explore, ask questions, and use methods of scientific investigation.

Perhaps no other leader exercised this new freedom to question religious beliefs more than Thomas Jefferson. He created his own “Jefferson Bible” by cutting out what he viewed as immoral and erroneous passages. Today, it is increasingly hard for traditional groups, maintained by a central authority or a Westminster type representative assembly to hold things together. It isn’t necessarily just the forms themselves which bother people, but the core beliefs. There are too many emerging opinions and freedoms to explore to keep everyone together in one basket. The internet has recently become the new printing press, but much, much faster. Secrets and information are now circulated at the speed of light.

Some, perhaps led by the outgoing Presbyterian outgoing Moderator, suggest we must learn to adapt the successful ways of our more “evangelical” brothers and sisters. In this we keep basically the same theology and teachings of the 4th Century, but we dress it up in different clothing. We become much more modern in presenting the message with modern electronics and new, contemporary forms of gathering. We use modern rhythms with new catching lyrics and build buildings borrowing the latest ideas from such success stories as Walmart and popular marketing businesses. For many, it works well. Gone are the heavy atmospheres as people are “friendly” and inviting, encouraging people to get into small groups and “pour their hearts out” about whatever. Then can pray with a partner. Can it work? Will it? For many, I’m sure it will. But for others, they soon discern it’s basically the same 4th Century beliefs but with freedom to try out different styles. They want to ask more questions, using what research methods we now have access to, looking at the teachings passed on with increasingly diverse names and formations. They want to have fun in a religious group, but still want to ask their deepest questions without being judged as faithless and pagan.

One of the recent challenges to traditional beliefs of church groups was the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents in 1946. These documents opened up a whole new awareness of the diversity within the early centuries of the church’s formation. We have become aware of a very large group of early Christians who are grouped together in what is called “Gnostics.” These people followed more of an Eastern mode of thinking in being aware or awakened to a spiritual aspect of their being. They viewed the stories and miracles of Jesus as metaphors and symbols rather than as literal truth. They read the readings of a popular first century man named Paul, who after being raised in a very rigid and organized, centralize Jewish background, had a mystical, spiritual encounter which led him into the desert to digest and formulate his new awareness. He spent the rest of his life traveling around like an Eastern sufi or sadu teaching people the awakening to God within. The met mostly in homes and in small gatherings. The growth of people in a multitude of groups seemed to have burst forth vigorously until the 4th Century when those who had literalized the events in a life called Jesus, took control and became officially recognized by the Roman Empire.

Other recent studies have challenged the very historicity of the Bible stories, showing in fairly convincing arguments that the stories of Israel and Jesus were never intended to be history, but more mythology and allegory. These arguments open up a whole other way of using and seeing the Bible, albeit having much of it redone by later redactors and those who wanted to add an “orthodox spin.”

It does seem increasingly clear that in this day of “instant” communications and exchange of ideas, it is increasingly difficult to wield control over large groups of people, commanding a universal philosophy, ritual, and form. Unless the followers remain largely illiterate and out of communication with exchange of ideas, it will require huge amounts of bureaucratic oversight and control to keep the faithful, faithful. Beside this, the leaders of the organizations must themselves stay insulated from much of the literature and current scholarship thinking of the day. They can do this with the busyness and energy required to keep the gears of ecclesiastical engines greased and running, but at great price to honesty and research, to say nothing of times of quiet prayer and meditation. Pluralism seems to have won in thinking and form these days, and unless communications cease, computers discarded, and people stop asking, thinking, and hearing, it will no doubt deepen.

Thus I believe the age of centralized religious denominations may well be ending. What will and is emerging are groups of people with similar ideas and values who join themselves together in “associations” such as the United Church of Christ, the Unity Church, the Unitarian/Universalists, and the plethora of current Eastern learning groups and numerous television celebrities. It no doubt will just come and continue to emerge of itself. The largest growth of religious interest is in what some term “new age.” It really isn’t new age but a return to some of the freedom of expression known centuries ago, even in the early centuries of the of Christianity. What is so new is the challenge to our church’s orthodoxy and culture.

What I think will typify growing congregations or groups will be more intellectual honesty and freedom to question traditional beliefs such as any group having one up on all others as to the best teacher, guru, savior, sacred writings, or divine insight. Indeed, some of the most attractive groups to many of us leave much more outside than inside. They admit that Divinity is a mystery beyond definition, and that form and material substance are short-lived at best. They realize that if there is a True God, Spirit or Creator Entity, He/She can take pretty much care for Him or Herself without huge, centralized, bureaucratic powers. God doesn’t need worldly enforcers to get the message out to bring people peace and purpose. God doesn’t even need the world!

I see the future of religion as being a much deeper exploration and freedom to discover one’s own spirituality, by which people will come to be in silence together and share, without condemnation, their deepest feelings and insights regarding the Divine, life, sex, political views, or whatever without judgment and anger. People will be encouraged to read what they are attracted to and then share insights freely with others. No “pope” or central committee will be in place to make sure they are not deviates or off track. The only boundaries will be such behaviors, as kindness, gentleness, a willingness to listen, and to live a life of modeling rather than just telling.

Is such a process risky? Certainly, but so are rigid structures of order and orthodoxy. It seems to me that the “free process” is potentially more authentic and historically safer. If we can continue to exist within a country and world of increasingly free press and information sharing, public safeguard and growth in knowledge seem much safer.

My hope is that the future will move more toward freer religious structures and smaller organizations. Teachers will be found in homes, schools, businesses, parenting, coaches, and in the future “Oprahs, Wayne Dyers, Eckhert Tolles, Ken Wapnicks, Jack Kornfields” and many more. Teachers will be found on the internet, in electronic, virtual share groups, in homes and business lunch rooms. Many or most of the best ones may never attain much publicity or fame.

While visiting the Czech Republic in 2003, I discovered anew how this country was once the “Vatican of the North” with the Roman Catholic Church in secure power and control. With the Reformation, it began to crumble and after two World Wars of the past century, it became one of the highest per capita atheist countries in the world. I asked a friend while there if there were any spiritual or religious believers and seekers left. “Oh yes!” he exclaimed. “They are all over, meeting nightly in homes and in small groups.” “Are they Christian, New Age, Eastern or something else?” I asked. “No,” he answered, “they are sort of a blend of East and West into something that seems loving and beautiful.” Later I was given a massage in Prague. I was led into a beautiful room with burning incense, statutes of the laughing Buddha placed on shelves as the music of Enya played quietly though the sound system. I thought I was in a transcendent state most of the hour!

How does this relate to the state or government? By indirect influence in resolution, encouragement and voting. The purpose of the state would be to protect the rights of people to assemble without harassment and ridicule. If boundaries of acceptable standards are transgressed, the state would be permitted to intervene and prosecute as necessary. Monetary guidelines and sexual boundaries (no harm to youth or non consenting adults) would need to be followed and honored in the same way the state mandates them for others. The state or country becomes more of the effect rather than the cause.

I think such a process would have a growing influence upon the affairs of the state. If citizen groups were geared more toward argument, violence and war, as most denominations readily obliged over the centuries, then the nation state would practice such. If the groups evolved to be examples of love, forgiveness, peace and kindness, the influence would again be transmitted. If groups grew in the practice of non-violence and kindness, forgiveness toward each other, the state would grow likewise. The state then becomes more the effect rather than the cause, although there would be intermixing.

Are denominations then done? If used to promote, maintain and teach exclusive ideas about having a special God, a special book or a special savior or a special land, I think they will be “done” or diminished in their power and influence. If they can become more inclusive, allowing for a diversity of opinion and practice, without harming and condemning each another, then groups and some kind of identity can be helpful. Call it “Community of Joy, Place of Love, Home for All, Universal Love” or whatever but with openness to ideas and a desire to allow freedom in the fullest measure. You could even call it Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim or whatever, but you probably will have more work to do in undoing past memories of history and exclusive, brutal judgments on others. But I’m sure it could be done. It became increasingly my goal as a pastor.

This to me is what I think now about what some call a “post Christian” or “post denominational” era. I welcome it. I want to live and teach it. I am so thankful for it and its freedoms. I hope I can contribute to it with my writings, talks, and most importantly, my life.

About David Persons

Retired minister who still writes, speaks some, hikes less, and golfs.
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