Saturday, June 19, 2010
Over the past twenty years, a remarkable shift has taken place in American religion. While most of the large Christian denominations in the US went into decline, "nondenominational" Christianity - typified by megachurches like Lakewood, Saddleback, and Willow Creek - experienced an explosion of growth. Nondenominational churches grew from less than 200,000 adherents in 1990 to over 8,000,000 today. When grouped together with those who identify only as "Christian" or as "Evangelical", this group comprises 11.8% of the US population.
Part of the success of nondenominational churches has been their ability to harness the shifting winds toward postmodernism in American society. In a culture that chafes at authority, tradition, and establishment, any sign of "your grandmother's church" has to go. In the place of stained glass, hymns, pews, and robes, nondenominational congregations have embraced nondescript buildings, rock music, theater seating, and jeans in an effort to attract religious "seekers". Instead of conforming to the catechisms and creeds of a single dominant tradition like "Calvinism" or "Lutheranism" - nondenominational churches provide individuals who are frustrated with denominational divisions with the freedom to draw from a variety of Christian beliefs and practices.
In spite of their disillusionment with Christian denominationalism, these independent congregations see no reason to insist on visible unity. A national or worldwide structure over all the churches conflicts with a postmodern vision of the Church as a decentralized network of Spirit-led and Bible-listening believers.
So, then, is the nondenominational movement the answer to the scandal of denominations? Are we moving into a new age of post-denominational unity? While the culture may be moving toward a “post-denominational” future, I believe that denominations continue to have an important role to play in the quest for Christian unity.
First off, they confront the reality that the Christian Church is sadly but visibly divided. I am glad that so many Christians are eager to move past our denominational divisions – but if all local congregations drop their denominational labels and become “Grace Church” or “Bible Church,” this division does not go away – in fact, it is amplified (from 10 denominations to 1000 congregations)! Without a common history and tradition, people tend to create their own personal version of Christianity (or their pastor's version) – and any overarching unity that exists seems to resemble the surrounding culture more than Christianity.
Denominations provide a history, a language, a tradition in which to live out the Christian faith. Each denomination brings its own gifts to the larger body of Christ. In order for the Church to truly move toward a visible undivided (nondenominational) church, we must first listen to “the grace given to you in Christ” in our brothers and sisters who are committed to different traditions from our own. Then, we can struggle together to find creative ways of building common ground while remaining faithful to our own own tradition. This is difficult ecumenical work, but I believe it is the best way to take each of our denominations beautiful and unique voices and blend them into a unified, harmonious chorus.
Lastly, while postmodernism includes many positive developments - including the humility that is essential for Christian unity - more and more people are feeling adrift, isolated, and disconnected. It’s hard to devote your life to something when all truth is relative, when everything is ultimately meaningless. This is why I know many friends my age who are finding peace and rest in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which claim historical apostolic authority. In my own experience, I feel deeply committed to my own Methodist tradition – and yet still realize that my denomination is only one small part of the Christian Church and that we are called to “be one".
The way to work toward healing the divisions of the Reformation (and beyond) is by understanding and appreciating the differences of the denominational traditions – not pretending they do not exist.