One of my former teachers, Dr. David Lose of Luther Seminary, wrote a short article on his blog, “In the Meantime” (online available: http://www.davidlose.net/2012/06/five-reasons-denominations-are-passe/, June 19, 2012) suggesting that while he is a pastor within a Christian denomination, a teacher at a denominational seminary, and is committed to his denominational heritage and theology, the time of distinct and separate churches has passed in the North American context and, “can’t find it in me to shed many tears about it.” To play my hand and show my cards on where I come out on this one, I can’t seem to shed many tears about it either, yet I know there is still something to be celebrated in our life together. The ruins left behind are beautiful, left to the glory of God from a former age.
In an article in the The Lutheran Magazine titled, “Pulling Together or Fraying Apart,” (February, 2011), Stephen Bouman, former bishop of the New York Metro Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and current Director of Synodical and Congregational mission at the ELCA’s Churchwide office makes the case that even though mainline denominations are going through turmoil, shrinkage and apparent less relevancy, there is no greater network that operates globally, networks service organizations and provides funding for ministries and mission that simply would not happen without our shared resources and vision. Point taken. Maybe we are not dead yet. In former days old ruins were quarried to build what came next. Maybe we need not walk away from our denominations as empty old cathedrals of little value, but could take with us the valuables that could enable us to rebuild. I’d like to offer five steps forward (suggesting how we might move beyond our current configurations), and three steps together (how we might still walk together – “synod” does mean walk together after all).
Five Steps Forward (Moving beyond our current denominationalism)
1. We should stop asking – how can we survive? Resurrection came only because of death. Let’s start there, think about what our mission is as people who follow a risen Christ, and gather whatever people, resources, partners and structures are the most efficient to help enable us to get there. In other words, let’s stop worrying of the assets we might lose and instead focus on being followers of Christ organizing for mission.
2. We should stop reinforcing the doors and instead go outside. Why are we so afraid? What if we just saw a ministry need and responded? What if we saw a need for a church and planted one? What if we saw a population not being reached, and reached out and included them? What if we cared about a cause and didn’t stare out our windows afraid of what might happen if we fail, but instead just acted out of our core convictions and pulled as many partners into the conversation as possible? Jesus already sent the church by the power of the Spirit. What are we waiting for?
3. We should get over the fact we cannot do everything. Do two Lutheran denominations each need two separate Malaria Campaigns? Why not find the organization who is fighting Malaria the most effectively (or whatever concern we have) and join their effort? To ask for partners, we need to be partners too. There are a lot of concerns in our world, and there are a lot of good efforts being made. Our crumbling structures no longer allow us to try to have a full menu of everything “our church” or “this church” is doing. It is time to prioritize what we do well. We can support and participate in efforts others are doing well rather than recreating our own version of them. God is active using people everywhere! Let’s join-in.
4. We should look sideways, backward and forward. Christians have been around for twenty centuries, all across the world, dealing with a wide variety of contexts, challenges, and concerns. There are examples of things that went well as well as things that went poorly. As we learn about our brothers and sisters around the world and across the centuries we might learn an insight that can help us in our turbulent time.
5. We should realize that the fringe is where the Gospel preaches best. In the West the church and the state have been allied for too long. Maybe the best place for the church is not in the church with the white spire on the town green, or inside the cathedral next to the state house on the marketplace. Maybe we get too caught up in our own church polity or politics, insider concern at the neglect of those around us. Maybe we should focus less on speaking to the culture as if they are listening to us (they stopped listening long ago), and just focused on the ministry itself. We are called to the margins. Maybe we can do that best if we find ourselves in the margins too, rather than as part of the establishment. Jesus said, “The Spirit is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18). The line people like to say is “Jesus has left the building.” It’s time we rejoined him there.
Three Steps Together (Why denominations are still needed)
1. Denominations are like families. Like it or not, the cultures within our denominations have the same language, heritage (a lot of times in a literal sense), theology, worship practices, etc. For many years if not centuries we kept to ourselves. Now we are a lot more neighborly with our fellow Christians, and I’ve learned many things from non-Lutheran friends. However, your family is your family. Mine drives me crazy a lot of times, but I’m not going to leave them or renounce them. My Lutheran family is the same way. Sometimes the institution drives me crazy, but they are my family too. I love these people as weird as they are and as strange as they behave. You know what? I’m one of them and am equally goofy and bizarre.
2. Denominations bring people together. Sure, we fight. Sure, some people leave. But when I am with my colleagues for a pastor’s Bible study, or at a synod assembly or youth event, I remember that I am not out here alone. We share our struggles, challenges, heartaches, joys and celebrations. When a few others and I started working on a new mission start for young adults it was my peers within my denomination that I turned to first for support, help and partnership. My judicatory provided the funds to get started and issued the call to a mission developer. Granted, a lot has happened on the grassroots, and there are many volunteers, but it was my denomination that gave us common bonds, trust and resources to get moving.
3. Denominations have a wider scope than we can come up with on our own. Lose wonders if we need as many seminaries, publishing houses, and structures as we currently do as a stewardship issue – the redundancy costs a lot of dollars. He doesn’t suggest this, but the alternative of having no seminaries, camps, colleges, campus ministries, publishing houses, social service agencies, global mission partners, etc. would make ministry a lot more difficult without these assets in place. Our foremothers and forefathers created many of these intuitions from scratch, from the bottom up – with heart and soul and at great personal cost. We are the beneficiaries. We should care for them as good stewards, combine where necessary and rethink their mission. But to leave them behind would be a great loss.
Who we are – Living Stones
Many challenges face all of us within the institutional church, whether it is our national structures, regional judicatories or even our local congregations. Many get discouraged because change is difficult, and it seems like more and more everything is crumbling around us. But we need to change. We are being called forward. Like David Lose, I am not shedding any tears over the transition into the next great form the church is going to take. Yet, like Stephen Bouman I am not ready to ditch my family in search of something better.
Church bodies (as we define them now) are part of the body of Christ to be sure, but they are neither Jesus’ whole vision for us, nor are they the full realization of the promise of what it means for us to be baptized into his life, death and resurrection, to know him in the breaking of the bread, and recognize his voice in the opening of his Word. We may feel like we are wandering, but Christ is our cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20). We are living stones (1 Peter 2:5). Living stones need not be stationary. The church is a movement, in the process of becoming, always following Jesus but never quite there yet, stepping out of the grave yet somehow lingering there.
We are THE WAY. We need not shed tears for the places we have been, but joyfully give thanks for the time well spent and the steps well taken. The Spirit is calling us to take new steps along THE WAY. It may require packing up our things, putting a few stones in our pockets, saying good-bye to old friends as we say hello and greet new ones. It is scary, but the future is open. This is a time of excitement and anticipation as much as it is one of loss and confusion. The path is before us to explore, discern and discover. Are we brave enough to take a step forward? By the Spirit’s aid, I pray we will. David Lose, Stephen Bouman and many others are already ahead on the path. I’ve got a backpack full of things to take along with us. I’m eagerly tying my laces. Tie yours too, and let’s walk together.
“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’” (1 Peter 2:4-6)
(Posted on Castle Church Door, June 29, 2012. http://castlechurchdoor.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/walking-through-the-ruins-responding-to-david-loses-five-reasons-denominations-are-passe/)