Jason Byassee: The end of denominations?

What good do denominations do? What would be lost if they were gone?

What if we woke up tomorrow and all the denominations were gone?

Some commentators would cheer. Some, more sanguine, would mourn, but not for themselves. Many of us would be looking for jobs. But so what? The question is not “What if the church of Jesus Christ dissolved?”  God is going to get God’s church — it’s just a question of whether mainline denominations in the United States will be part of that future.

There was a time when I couldn’t have cared less about such an apocalypse. Denominations are bureaucracies, not churches. Who cares if a bloated 1950’s-style corporation vanished from the face of the earth? Does Jesus need these fossils to get his work done? Aren’t these relics of church divisions over issues that no one thinks should divide us anymore?

More than a few denominational execs probably feel this way themselves. But I don’t, not anymore. The criticisms are legitimate. But the implication — that denominations should therefore go away — is wrong.

For one, denominations are like big, crazy, dysfunctional families. They may be bad, but they’re the only family you’ve got. What does a growing suburban megachurch in the South, traditional on social issues and not on doctrine, and a liberal, albeit shrinking, downtown congregation in the urban North, liberal on social issues and on doctrine, have in common? Not a lot. Except that they are accountable to one another. They draw on the same stories. They recognize the validity of each other’s ordained ministers. They share in mission outside their walls. However complicated their relationship, they are in relationship to one another.  In the church we ought not all be the same. We meet Christ in the wince-inducing family members who drive us crazy.

Two, denominations compound the good we can do far beyond what we can do on our own. I realized this recently after Sam Dixon, head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, died in the earthquake in Haiti. I’d never heard of Dixon before he was trapped under the rubble. But it just so happened that on the Sunday after the quake, I stood in a pulpit that he had stood in not a year before. We’re  both ministers in the same denomination, bound to one another by promises we made to God and the church, and his loss meant I, we, are less than we were. But we are also more. I stand in the place of a man who gave his life for the faith (hard for us liberal mainliners to do these days). That place I occupy is now a little bigger, through no act of my own. Earlier that same week, as rescue crews searched for Dixon, a pastor in the Midwest lamented to me how his church’s work in Sudan would be harmed if Dixon wasn’t found alive. People all over the world depended on this man’s ministry. And now he’s gone. Contrast this, if you will, with Sean Penn in his motorboat, compelled by a do-gooder’s heart to do something, anything, in post-Katrina New Orleans. He went and helped, such as he could. But UMCOR helps millions, not in one-time acts of kindness, but with concerted, sustained expert effort every day. God rest Dixon. God give us others.

Three, denominations conserve treasures, as Brian McLaren rightly argues. They know how to maintain a church, train and ordain a pastor, mediate a dispute, distribute largesse, send a missionary. They tell stories without which we would be impoverished.  As more Dixons come along, we will nurture new stories to teach a new generation. It’s immensely hopeful if you think about it.

A friend’s church is facing a $500,000 bill for a new roof. Think on that figure:  half a million dollars. That could do not a little good in Haiti. Feed hungry people in our own town. Isn’t this a denomination at its worst? Spending on itself, ignoring the world?

I asked my pastor friend how long that roof will last.

“100 years,” he said.

Now contemplate that a minute. What a wager to make on God and the church. That for the next 100 years, far longer than the life span of likely everyone in that building, there will be vibrant ministry in that place. People will be fed. Houses built worldwide. Missionaries sent and received back. Stories treasured, doctored a little, and retold. Faith inspired. Jesus broken and spilled and served.

Our denominations are in distress. I sometimes think we need a Newt Gingrich-style slash-and-burn legislator to turn loose in them, ridding us of waste, over-spending, self-maintenance, and bureaucracy. Greg Jones is surely right that the financial crisis has finally forced us to address crises that were festering anyway. It’s hard to preside over a mammoth institution in an Ice Age.  Fortunately, we have marvelous people doing it — Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s energy, creativity and faithfulness give me great hope. But it can’t be easy.

Whatever their struggles might be, these leaders should never, ever, struggle to find hope. If at times, the future looks less than hopeful, they should stop and notice their churches in Seattle and Atlanta, Accra and Kuala Lumpur, that are in relationship to one another without any earthly reason to be. They should think of the blood of the martyrs that moistens the field and brings forth a ripe abundance of fruit. And they should notice that the church is one institution that seems a safe bet to still be around and growing, in some form, in a century, millennium, or more.

“Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime,” Reinhold Niebuhr said. “Therefore we are saved by hope.”

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Faith and Leadership Archives, by Jason Byassee, February 12, 2010