An Identity Thing – Liberal, Conservative, Denominational, Non-Denominational, Christian, and Personal
Lutheran theologian David Lose recently (June 19) posted five reasons he believes denominations as we know them are on their way out.
1) Denominations are confusing in a post-Christian world and often an impediment to mission… most people in the various denominations have little sense what they mean and no one outside them really cares.
2) The differences between the major denominations are relatively minor…. Across the board the major Protestant denominations share a biblical canon, confess the major ecumenical creeds, and observe the same two sacraments.
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.
4) Political differences outstripped theological ones decades ago. Let’s face it: progressive Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian congregations have a lot more in common than do progressive and conservative congregations in the same tradition.
5) Denominational affiliation often represents the triumph of ethnic and cultural loyalties over theological convictions…. This has always made it difficult to reach beyond one’s ethnic enclave because interested seekers, even if they were attracted to, for instance, Lutheran theology, had to accept it in the form of German chorales or Swedish traditions. (source)
About a month later, Ross Douthat asked in a New York Times column (July 15), “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” He said that liberal Protestant denominations are on a trajectory to “change, and change, and die,” implying that conservative Christians are more or less on the right track. Diana Butler Bass corrected Douthat in a blog the next day, explaining that
“conservative denominations are now experiencing the same [decline]. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America’s most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination.” (source)
She then adds these sobering words:
Decline is not exclusive … to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.The real question is not “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?
Conversations like these might discourage committed church leaders who are struggling with any number of divisive issues and downward trend-lines. But they also might challenge us all to find a new and better way for our named congregational networks to do some fresh thinking about who we are, because our denominational struggles, make no mistake, are not merely about structures or policies or image or politics: they are about identity.
Our denominations help us to identify ourselves primarily in terms of imperial affiliation (Roman Catholic), structure of governance (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregational), a defining practice (Baptist, Quaker), an ethnic or regional origin (Anglican, Southern Baptist, Dutch Reformed), a founder (Mennonite, Lutheran), or – perhaps most ironic, a “none of the above” (non-denominational). But they don’t tell us why we’re here, what we stand for, what we value, what we love. They may tell us where we came from, but they don’t tell us where we’re going or why it matters.
What hopes and values hold us together? What is our ethos evolving into? What are we against, and what are we for? What difference do we hope to make? Who are we?
If we were a corporation or non-profit organization struggling with these questions, we would say we have a branding problem. On a more personal level, we might say we have an identity crisis. Growing numbers of us don’t want to be identified with the ecclesial squabbles, inter-religious hostility, institutional rigidity and bureaucracy, exclusive or defensive anxiety, or financial obsessions of our denominations. We don’t want to be branded by crimes and coverups, divisions and polarizations, nativism and xenophobia, or partisan politics disguised in clerical vestments.
But even if we check “spiritual but not religious” on a survey, many of us do want to be identified as followers of God in the way of Jesus. We do want to be identified as people learning to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We do want to stand up and be counted as disciples, as agents of God’s kingdom or commonwealth, as lovers of God, neighbor, stranger, outcast, and enemy. We are willing to give, sacrifice, serve, and suffer for the right identity.
I’ve been thinking about religious identity a lot lately. My current writing project explores the connection between intra-religious identity and inter-religious hostility. (Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road?) I’ve become convinced that in this regard, David Lose, Ross Douthat, and Diana Butler Bass are all right: change is brewing and our denominational status quo is unsustainable.
For Catholics and Protestants, liberals and conservatives, for those who know they’re declining and those who think they aren’t, change is in the air. Whether that change will be for the better or worse depends in large part on all of us, the faithful. Are we humble enough to admit that even if “our” status quo might be better than “theirs,” it still may be woefully deficient? Do we believe what we proclaim about death and resurrection, or do we desperately need to “save our lives” at all costs?
Many people are familiar with the work of Otto Scharmer and “Theory U,” a way of describing organizational death and rebirth that is often pictured like this:
A group at the upper left of the U, fiercely loyal to “patterns of the past,” almost certainly feels superior to a group nearing the bottom: “Look how far and how fast they have declined!” they’ll say. But in fact the group nearing the bottom is ahead of them in the process.
Conversely, folks at the bottom feel like failures, having let go of almost everything in their descent. But it’s only at the bottom, according to the theory (not to mention Alcoholics Anonymous), that a group rediscovers its identity and reconnects to its Source. It’s only in death that resurrection can begin.
I came across from a quote from Otto Scharmer recently that captured what’s needed in the descent – a descent we’re experiencing in the church, yes, but also in government, politics, economics, education, the environment, and almost every other area you name. “What’s missing today,” he said, “is a high-quality discourse on rethinking the design and evolution of the entire system from scratch.”
Our future may indeed include the dissolution and extinction of our historic denominations. But it may hold their rebirth into a new identity, something larger, higher, deeper, and richer than we can see now. If we dare to engage in some “high-quality discourse on rethinking the design and evolution of the entire system from scratch,” I dare to believe and hope that something new is trying to be born among us, and our current struggles need not be the pangs of death but could become the pains of birth.
I imagine that my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist friends have their own version of death and resurrection they must go through, and their own language to describe it. But for me as a Christian, I can almost hear Jesus saying, “Those who want to save their identity will lose it. But those who are willing to lose it for my sake will find it.”