Introduction: Trouble ahead.
It’s no secret that denominationalism, a form of church life invented by Americans for America, is in trouble and has been so for some time. Denominations are splitting (or have already split), several over the issue of same sex marriage. Others are rocked by sexual scandal, lately the Southern Baptists and including notably the Roman Catholic Church. And many, if not most, denominations are losing members.
In my neck of the ecclesiastical woods—small Reformed churches—there seems to be the beginnings of a wholesale reshuffling of denominational life. The precipitating issue is same sex marriage, but in this dispute other fault lines are exposed. Denominations that were already small are fast becoming smaller still.
Not that it wasn’t already complicated. I’m no expert on this, but I easily came up with a list of denominations in the Dutch Reformed tradition with varying degrees of genealogical relationship with each other. They include:
The Reformed Church in America
The Christian Reformed Church
The Protestant Reformed Church
The United Reformed Church
The Canadian and American Reformed Churches
Netherlands Reformed Congregations
(All of these, by the way, are represented in my smallish hometown of Lynden, Washington.)
I’m sure there are more. The list does not include the many Presbyterian churches of various kinds which would lengthen it considerably. And now, in addition to these denominations, we have newer groups of Reformed churches that may or may not claim denominational status. Among them are the Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Kingdom Network. Prominent among Presbyterians is a new denomination with a trendy name, ECO, a conservative breakaway from the PCUSA. And within the Christian Reformed Church, we have the Abide Project, which just held a convention in Oak Park, Illinois, and which has made noises about not abiding in the CRC.
But there’s more, much more. For example, in this list of congregational affiliations, where would one slot the Acts 29 network originally established by Mark Driscoll but now free of him. Or the mostly website-based organizations like The Gospel Coalition or Desiring God or Redeemer City to City or, for that matter, the online Reformed Journal? Or the Willowcreek Association? Or the Purpose Driven Network? Or all the parachurch organizations that have grown up in and around the church?
In the midst of this welter of new ecclesiastical initiatives and dissolving denominations, two long-term trends must be kept in mind. One is the trend towards non-denominational churches. More churches are independent of any denominational affiliation. This is especially true among megachurches. And the second is that fewer and fewer people are going to church. The data are not in yet for the post-COVID church, but it appears, at least to me, that churches across the board will be smaller. The COVID shutdowns gave cover to people who were already on their way of out of church—not just out of a specific congregation but out of the church entirely. Short of a whole new work of the Spirit, they will not be coming back.
So, yes, denominations are in trouble. But trouble is also opportunity, opportunity to rethink church. With that in mind, let me propose a number of theses on denominational life (how many yet to be determined), some hopeful, some not so hopeful, nailing them not on the church door but on this blogsite for all of you to consider and perhaps debate.
- Start with this: Splitting Is So Much Fun (Or How the Faith Became Homogenized)
Every time I move to a new community, I find a church close by and join it—committing myself to worship and work with that company of God’s people. I’ve never been anything other than disappointed: everyone turns out to be biblical, through and through: murmurers, complainers, the faithless, the inconstant, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring moralizers, glamorous secularizers.
– Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, 101
Drive across the countryside where I live, and you will find among the berry fields and dairy farms churches, lots of them, mostly small, scattered about like so much ecclesiastical flotsam. Which in a way they are. They are, many of them, the result of church splits. They bear names that speak of the aspiration to get it right this time: Truth Tabernacle (Home of Old Time Religion), Freedom Church, Amazing Discoveries, Healing from Above, Change of Heart, Abundant Life.
It was not always so. When I grew up, churches were mostly in town, and they included in their name for clarity’s sake the denomination of which they were a part: First Christian Reformed, Faith Reformed, Central Lutheran, Birchwood Presbyterian, St. Joseph’s Catholic, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and so forth.
And denominations mostly stayed in their own lane. If you were born Episcopalian, you stayed Episcopalian. Born Lutheran, you stayed Lutheran. Born Christian Reformed, you stayed Christian Reformed. Not all of this was noble, of course. Often it was a desire to stay among one’s own people. Sunday morning was the most segregated time in the American week. We were segregated by race, ethnicity, class, and more. We talked a good theological game but what it came to was often a kind of tribalism. In my hometown, you saw bumper stickers that read, “If you aren’t Dutch, you aren’t much.” Sunday morning was a weekly celebration of being us.
But the glue that once held together congregations and denominations is no longer strong enough to resist the tendency for churches to come apart. Ecclesiatical fusion is losing out to ecclesiastical fission, as witness the small churches scattered across the countryside. Churches seem always ready to split, in countless ways, some of them theological, some not.
This is not new. Read Paul’s letters in the New Testament, and you see at the very beginning of the Christian movement the tendency to divide is already at work in the church. Paul is constantly trying to hold together the churches he founded. But these days, churches—at least, the churches I know—seem more inclined than ever to divide in ways large and small. Sometimes it’s church-sized chunks that break off to form a new congregation (usually somewhere in the countryside); sometimes it’s a single family or person who has had enough and leaves for another congregation or for no church at all.
But you can’t take account of what is happening with churches by noting only the splits. Some churches are growing—or, at least, were growing until COVID. Not just growing, but metathesizing. These churches have thousands of attenders (many don’t do membership anymore). The formula is mostly the same: emotion-grabbing worship (usually contemporary music led by topflight musicians), children and youth (the kids have to want to go), preaching (fetching and practical), and edginess. What makes the church edgy keeps changing with the length of the senior pastor’s hair. Or with the brand of sneakers he—usually he—wears.
The theology of these churches is mostly garden-variety evangelicalism. In a book on the New Calvinist movement (I’ll be writing about the New Calvinism next), Brad Vermurlen calls these churches “mainstream evangelicalism” (Reformed Resurgence, 58-62). He portrays it as a vast melting pot of popular Christian theology. Mainstream evangelicalism, he says, “includes Calvinists (and, for that matter, complementarians and social conservatives). But it also includes Arminians (Wesleyans), semi-Pelagians, and egalitarians—cessationists and charismatics and everything in between” (61). George Marsden once defined an evangelical as anyone who likes Billy Graham. These days it might be anyone who likes Rick Warren. It’s generic American church.
Here’s the point: churches split over all sorts of specific things from the preacher’s sermons, the music (often the music), or the color of the carpeting to, occasionally, an actual point of theology. But when people leave a given church, they don’t seek out a church with the same theology, only better. Suddenly what mattered much in their previous church doesn’t matter much at all. Reformed people don’t seek out another Reformed congregation. They seek out a church that seems to do church well. Someone I know who had suffered through years of acrimony at a local Reformed church now attends a generically evangelical megachurch. He says, they don’t fight over everything. It’s nice to be in a place that just gets things done.
Perhaps. But often what looks placid and well-organized on the outside is not so placid on the inside. Churches are churches; people are people. When Mars Hill Church in Seattle was going great guns and seemed the coolest church in America, the staff were suffering under the constant abuse of the pastor, Mark Driscoll. Things were not going well, but most of those gathered in the services didn’t know that. They thought Driscoll could do no wrong.
What people fail to see is that organizational structure matters. It matters in churches. Denominationalism is a form of church structure. It was first articulated as a solution to what was then a particular American problem: the multiplicity of church groups in a land in which none of these church groups could claim to be the established church. Recognizing that each of these various groups—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics, among them—is true church denominated into a variety of smaller units was a way to recognize both the unity and the diversity of the faith. The idea of denominationalism declared that they are all church of Jesus Christ.
What this idea introduces is a shift in what constitutes heresy. Heresy is in general a difficult matter to define (although Synod 2022 did attempt to give a sort of definition to heresy; on this more in a later post). Mostly, instead of defining heresy, the church has pointed to this or that belief or practice and said, There, that’s heresy. As recently as 2019, the synod of the Christian Reformed Church did just that. It pointed to the teachings of Kinism—the notion that the races (such as they are defined in kinist theory) should stay separate, apartheid by another name—and said, “There, that is heresy.”
More important than a definition of heresy are the consequences of such a declaration. Declaring something a heresy means that anyone who espouses the teaching so declared thereby has stepped outside the bounds of the faith. This is a serious matter. One can no longer worship with such a person—a person, say, who holds to Kinism—and believe that you are worshiping the same God. Kinism can’t be just another denominational position. With respect to Kinists, it’s shake-the-dust-off-one’s-feet. When the CRC declared Kinism a heresy, it declared that Kinists are not welcome in the church. They are not to be regarded as fellow Christians.
What denominationalism recognized is that not all differences between Christian groups are heresies. We can be one in Christ and still be denominated into a variety of ecclesiastical expressions that differ a good deal in theology, organization, ecclesiastical culture, style of worship, and much else. Anglicans can recognize that Baptists are still church, and Wesleyan Arminians can in the same way recognize Reformed Calvinists as fellow Christians. Matters that are regarded as confessional—at least were so regarded in the 17th century—like election do not prevent people from the local CRC from inviting the Arminian-inclined Methodist church across the town square to share worship on Thanksgiving Day. We Reformed people might regard their views on election as mistaken but that doesn’t prevent us from recognizing them as fellow Christians.
Denominationalism in effect broadened the Christian tent. But it also provided a way for denominations to preserve a particular tradition and to carry on an internal conversation about what a given tradition should be and where it should go in the future. In this way, denominationalism resists homogenization. Denominations provide congregations some shelter from the prevailing cultural winds. Or should do so. One of the functions of a Reformed denomination, for example, is or should be to distinguish what it means to be Reformed from generic evangelicalism.
I’ll have more to say about this in a subsequent post, but for here it’s worth noting that this function of a denomination requires in part the establishment of a culture in which both the preservation and the critique of a given theological tradition can take place. This is matter of denominational identity. Healthy denominations do not hold single opinions about the issues of the day but a range of opinions, and what is within the range is constantly under discussion. Denominations are, in this sense, conversations over time, and what makes one part of a denomination is caring enough about the conversation to participate in it.
Years ago, when I had been rejected for ordination in the CRC for my views on the early chapters of Genesis, it was pointed out to me by people wiser than I that there were two issues involved in the controversy, not one. One was how I read Genesis. This issue was and is theological, a matter of biblical interpretation. It’s on that issue that the debate at the synod took place. Mostly. It’s on this issue that I was mostly focused.
But underlying the issue of the interpretation of Genesis was another issue: whether I was willing to enter into a good faith conversation with denomination about what I thought and whether the denomination was willing to enter into conversation with me. To some extent we were talking past each other.
It was Henry Stob, the sage professor of philosophy at Calvin Seminary, who bluntly put the question to me. He said, “Clay, what they [those who were making the judgment about me] want to know is whether you are for them or against them.” Not just for them or against them, I realized, but for what they stood for. Was I there to tear the denomination down or to build it up?
Call this the culture of belonging. A conversation needs the safety of belonging. One of the things that the CRC Synod 2022 has betrayed, it seems to me, is just this: the culture of belonging. It has said to loyal members of the denomination, you are no longer part of the conversation.
Decisions like those of Synod 2022 force division. They will make the CRC smaller, not just in numbers, though surely the CRC will lose members, but in its capacity to have the kind of conversations that are necessary now and will be even more necessary in the future.
Nothing new about this either. Denominations have often not acted wisely. But for all that, this is a plea for denominationalism. Denominationalism is an organizational pattern that has proven sturdy and useful for the whole duration of the history of our two nations (Canada and the US). But now, increasingly in the ecclesiastical world around us, another model for church is taking over in evangelical circles, a model that owes as much to corporate practice as to church tradition. The model is the nondenominational megachurch run by staff and an appointed board and featuring a celebrity preacher at the top.
This structure is quintessentially American. It includes a large dose of Hollywood. Pump up the music. Put on a lightshow. Get people’s feet moving. And then preach. Preach what they already think. Only preach it in new ways. How does the old song go? “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. Don’t let your joy and laughter hear the snag. Smile boys, that’s the style.” Preach them into what they already are and tell them that they are God’s elect. At a recent venue, we were singing praise music. Song after song talked about how Jesus rescues us from all our trouble. There we were, mostly affluent, white, middleclass Christians, singing about our troubles, as if our troubles were all the world.
But this structure—the celebrity CEO preacher megachurch structure—new as it is, already has a proven record of failure. Celebrity preachers fall. Often. They fall often enough to suggest that the problem is not this preacher or that but the structure itself. The power that is invested in the person at the top, the lack of transparency, and the lack of outside accountability conspire to produce the same result again and again. You would think we would catch on.
And if the medium is the message, what are these churches saying? That what elevates someone—what makes them worth following—is that lots of others are following them. The gospel of celebrity. Pure Hollywood.
How do we resist all that and find in the midst of the American religion of success the gospel of the Lamb who was slain? My point here is that if we are to ditch denominationalism, as as so much of the church world seems intent on doing, we should think through where that is likely to lead. Will we be better followers of the one who called us to be “poor in Spirit?” Or will we simply baptize the values of a culture that embraces war over peace, the wealthy over the poor, the hip over the outcast, and our troubles over the troubles of the world, and does so, sadly, in his name?
So what are the choices that lie before us? Is there a way to preserve the best of denominational life? That will be the subject of my next several posts. Stay tuned. But for the moment let me not leave you in a kind of despair. Let me circle back to add the rest of the quote from Eugene Peterson with which I began.
As you recall, he was saying that every church he ever joined ultimately disappointed him. The people, as he puts it in that wonderfully ironic statement, always turned out to be biblical: “Murmurers, complainers, the faithless, the inconstant, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring moralizers, glamorous secularizers.”
But, he adds:
Every once in a while a shaft of blazing beauty seems to break out of nowhere and illumine these companies, and then I see what my sin-dulled eyes had missed: word of God-shaped, Holy Spirit-created lives of sacrificial humility, incredible courage, heroic virtue, holy praise, joyful suffering, constant prayer, persevering obedience.
That’s my experience, too. Pray for that.