Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Living in a Post-Denominational World

You’ve probably heard the word postmodern. While I could give you a definition, it probably wouldn’t do us much good because I believe we are now living in a POST postmodern world. Some call it post-millennialism or metamodernism. For sure: we have become much more intensely fragmented and individualistic as a society than ever before. It interests sociologists because they yearn to know more about (1) who we are, and (2) how we arrived here. It confounds political scientists, politicians, and political parties because the delineation of what a “Democrat” and a “Republican” is no longer easily identifiable and has no steady platform (much to the chagrin of party leaders and politicians). And, more to my context, it frustrates church and denominational leaders because denominational labels may or may not accurately describe the adherents within. While there once used to be a few “rebels” in every denominational crowd, you’d have to work awfully hard to stand out now, because we’re all over the place. 

Because they are the denominations I know the most about, consider: 

·      What is your average Southern Baptist, person-in-the-pew’s beliefs and practices? Well, it depends.

·      What are your average United Methodist beliefs and practices? Well, it depends.

·      What is your average ______________ beliefs and practices? Well… you get the idea.


That’s just in the United States. Consider a wider worldview: I’ve been to Methodist, Church of Ireland/Anglican, and Catholic churches to worship in Ireland and England. They are very different from their counterparts in other parts of the world (and I should point out that there are significant differences between Irish and English churches in each of those traditions).


It might be fair to say that we are of SIMILAR mindset where the Body of Christ is concerned. But we find some mighty differences in places far and near. Often, two United Methodist churches in the same town may find themselves at vast variances with each other in beliefs and practices.


When it comes to denominations, annual conferences, and local churches: how and where will ultimate decisions be made about how a church organizes itself, how it identifies itself, and how it lives out its faith? Like it or not: it won’t be made by clergy, lay leaders, annual or general conferences, synods, or conventions. It will be made by people in the pews. The people who attend from Sunday to Sunday. The people who put themselves and their resources into the church offerings. The people who will vote not by a show of hands or marking a ballot, but by their feet. 


They don’t care what an institution or even a local church votes to do, because we are in a post-postmodern society that values institutions less and local opinion (namely, “me”) more. You don’t like the President, Governor, or member of Congress who is elected, you can simply say, “Not my president,” “I didn’t vote for them,” or “The vote was rigged.” That’s not my conjecture, that’s the present reality.


We American Christians, particularly we Protestant ones, may have to admit something similarly about Christianity: we are living in a post-denominational time. People have more affinity to the people they know in their Sunday School classes and the small groups that they choose to belong to than their church’s doctrine and beliefs. The words conservative and liberal have started to lose their definition and power as some who claim those words to describe themselves are not the definitions we once had for them. Even the words “traditional,” “orthodox,” and “contemporary,” are not helpful or even accurate. 


Institutional, dyed-in-the-wool United Methodists – as well as those who are not – are worrying and strategizing about a schism or split in the church. However, as the world has gotten smaller by improved (and sometimes inaccurate) information, gotten more complicated and political by a pandemic and the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, the impending split means less and less to the most important people in the church: the people in the pew. Their priorities – the people in the pew’s priorities - are not the priorities of the clergy or laity in power. The sooner clergy and laity in power recognize this, the better. Our privilege doth speakest too much.


My unofficial research in this has happened in the area of the Three B’s: Bible studies, Ballgames, and Bars. Most folks love Jesus, but they are suspicious of church and church institutions. They don’t trust conferences or caucuses. The very folks who are in the midst of church conflict, those who are championing whatever cause, are the very same folks that nominal and skeptical Christians view with suspicion and distrust. Even Jesus warned us to be aware of those who practice their piety in front of others.


What would I do in the case of United Methodists? I’d suggest starting local and working our way up instead of starting at the top and working our way down. Institutional mistrust, demonizing of individuals in leadership positions, “cancel culture” and “bumper sticker culture" will not cure what ails the local church nor profoundly affect much less change the beliefs and resolve of the person in the pew. Rightly or wrongly, most local churches are affinity-based. They like each other or they wouldn’t gather together. United Methodists might be better off being a looser connection of churches, since that is the reality already. Forcing the square peg into the round hole is something that just doesn’t work in a post- postmodern society. It certainly doesn’t work in a post denominational church. 


What about the infamous “Protocol” for United Methodists? I think we ditch it in favor of a new one: if a church wants to disaffiliate with the denomination, let them go with a blessing. If there are debts to settle, let them be settled. Some local churches will find themselves at an impasse with 50/50, 60/40 votes and will have to struggle through it… like all other things in life. A “split” in the denomination is not going to fix a conflict in a local church. 


I know that pride and power won’t allow for a “looser” association of United Methodists, and post- postmodern America is quite anti-institutional at the present. While we may be able to use church and secular law to force actions upon congregations, or may be able to entice folks to leave for another denomination, no one can provoke or prevent the vote taken with church members’ feet. Much to the chagrin of those present United Methodists and future Global Methodists, some people are going to choose “none of the above.” There are more than two doors to choose from. The typical person in the pew sees us acting more like Congress than the Church. 


If history is any indicator, it is much easier to divide the church than to multiply it. Unfortunately in the United States, the division is all taking place amidst subtraction that was already present in Christianity as a whole. The causes may seem just to the fighters, but the math is very bad. If we’re to live in a post denominational church, those who are fighting the hardest for the United Methodist or Global Methodist Church will have the worst time adjusting to the new reality.