Lesson 1: Future Organization

East Meets WestA Sunday School class in one of my sons-in-laws’ congregations was discussing the relationship of the Roman Catholics and Lutherans. A question arose why there was not more unity after 40 years of theological discussions that concluded agreement on just about all issues. These were topped off with a Joint Declaration on Justification, the very thing Lutherans said was all that was needed for our return. The class then mused it would take at least 100 years for the two bodies to accept the findings, because the Church moves slowly.

When I reported this to a friend and respected church historian, his response was if it took a hundred years, there would be nothing left to unite. He did not mean the Church as the community of God’s people would be dead, but that the institutions now identified with her would be long gone. Present statistics and trends indicate denominations as we know them are on the way out.

Quite frankly, they show our present institutions have already lost their power to lead their people. Consider that just about every poll shows that the life styles of Christian people is virtually the same, regardless of what their church bodies preach as their primary marks. The best example is the use of contraception, but the list goes on and on.

One way to read this is to criticize people for not being obedient to Christian teachings. Another is to acknowledge the community is already unified around a life style most Christians have adopted as their attempt to follow the leads of the ever-new Holy Spirit, a unity their institutions do not get. The first way identifies Christianity with a set of doctrines by which an institution identifies itself. The second with a lifestyle that tries to represent Christ with honesty, openness, and integrity in a diverse democratic society.

In truth the Church does not move slowly. The institutional church likes to claim this as an excuse for not changing and a rationalization for preserving its power. However, the Holy Spirit is like fire and wind, quickly spreading, full of surprises. Consider John XXIII’s call for Vatican II and Francis’ election and changes. Consider, too, their speed was based on pastoral care, need, rather than doctrinal purity.

So the first thing I would surmise about the future church is the loss of her institutional framework, for instance the denominations. Statistics show well over half of American Christians born after 1973 worship in churches different from those in which they grew up. Lutherans fell from 9 million people in 1965 to 7 million in 2013. The ELCA lost half a million members in the past 25 years, dropping from 5.2 to 3.9. Everywhere I go Christians are reporting there are no young people in their worship services and few under the age of 55. Although Lutherans have experienced the worst losses, every group, including Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, report frightening trends.

It does not take much looking to see there are all sorts of new churches around, many deliberately emphasizing that they are free from larger church ties and demands. Even those still affiliated, often the most successful, show little interest in their synods.

This does not mean that people are fickle consumers, picking and choosing a little of this and a little of that. They are simply indifferent to the often-silly doctrinal differences the institutions emphasize. They seek a meaningful and authentic Christian life style and being among people who practice that with integrity. They are well aware too often the denominations have failed to provide that, in no way practicing what they teach, and setting awful witnesses for our children.

We can discuss later what might replace denominations. For the present, suffice it to say this loss of denominational loyalty should not cause panic. Dividing the Body of Christ up in such fashion has always been profane. There were always differences between churches and usually divisions, but denominations as we know them were late in coming. We have so many in the USA, because they represent ethnic far more than doctrinal differences. It was only about the 1950s when denominational staffs began to grow and assume new roles.

This does not mean we should stop supporting our larger church bodies. Quite frankly, I have found the contrarian churches give larger financial contributions than the company men and women. But it does mean we should recognize what is happening and press for more speedy creative change and unification. That is what we should be discussing.

Next week, I’ll examine the future of the seminaries as an illustration of what is coming.

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  1. Derek says:

    It has seemed for a while like there are ever more and more divisions and denominations. From the perspective of the ELCA I’ve been hearing about congregations, especially around my hometown, voting to spin off and create new Lutheran denominations since our social statement five years ago. And I keep hearing about the expansion of relatively new movements like charismatics, McChurches, Megachurches, and the prosperity gospel.

    Still, there is a point in that there seems to be a sense of togetherness among individuals. Certainly the taboo of mixing with other denominations seems to have vanished within the crucible of the academic and professional environments I’ve been in. We’re just happy to find each other.

    So perhaps it’s that while there seem to be more and more divisions and denominations, the actual distance is less and less.

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