Monday, June 23, 2008

As Old Denomational Labels Die, Here's My Proposal For Some New Ones

(Quick note: A big "hello" to a new member of the masthead, Queen Conger, a former High-School-teacher-turned-Mommy who has a story to tell, with proper punctuation and spelling... Hotsy McFarland would be pleased)

Yesterday I made the statement (not unique, or new to me) that it is impossible for Christians to "go to church". You can only "go to church" if church is an entity separate from where you are. As the old Sunday School songs goes, "I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together". If you are a follower of Jesus, committed to being a part of his community, you are "the church". Thus, the church goes we go. People don't "go to church". The church goes to people.

Part of my reason for preaching for preaching this message is that the dominant paradigm for the church has been to figure out how to get people to come to it, in the sense of the church being an institution that you can join or not join. For most of the past 1700 years in western culture, people became part of a local church based of their family history or cultural background. This is still probably true for many American church goers. Pappy was a Lutheran or a Baptist or an Episcopalian, so I am also. But as the number of people who grew up in churches continues to decrease (and the percentage of people who grew up in a church but now no longer attend continues to rise) the old pathways to church membership have proven a might less fruitful than in the past. If your Pappy didn't take you to church, you aren't gonna attend a church you never grew up in as a child. Hence, the church has had to become more "culturally relevant" in order to survive..

and as our culture is materialistic and entrepreneurial in nature, the church has become so also.

That's really where we are now. People "shop" for a new church, much like they look for a pair of jeans. How well it "fits" is based upon the style of worship, the preaching style and quality, programs and services offered, the "friendliness" of the people attending (which is kind of subjective), the quality of the plant where the worship and whatnot are conducted, and the theology/praxis of the congregation. This consumerist approach to church involvement has forced major shifts in the Christian world, slowly rendering the old denominational labels irrelevant.

I mean, think about it... how many people know who Martin Luther was, let alone understand what a "Lutheran" is? Methodists received their name in the 18th by those who were actually making fun of their very organized, scheduled, and methodical approach to spiritual development, worship and outreach. Who knows that now? What percentage of the populace could tell you what a "presbytery" is, or could tell the difference between a Southern, American, Swedish, Primitive, or Northern (all different denominations) Baptist? All of these names emanated out of a time and place in history most people know, or care, very little about. What's more, now a United Methodist church in, say, suburban Dayton can conduct itself and practice faith a whole lot differently than a United Methodist church just down the road. Hence, as the institutional church changes, we need new labels to re-align around both as a means of helping the "consumer", but also as a means of helping us determine our own identity. So, here's my proposal for ten new "denominational labels" we can give ourselves that would make more sense for at least this moment in the 21st Century

1) Traditional Music/Liturgy Never-Change Denomination: These are churches that predominantly use music and liturgy written by dead European males in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. Churches like these might engage in some forms of social justice ministry or might advocate taking some action on the "right" side of the culture war, but the real unifying factor in the congregation is around its music and liturgy. These churches pledge to never go to more contemporary forms of worship that the members might find offensive even if it means it ultimately will fall out of step with the community its located in or dominant culture. The main thrust of this denomination will be raising the necessary resources to keep it going "as is", meaning that the instruments (organ, piano) will be maintained, vestments cleaned and replaced, additional classical musicians added when needed, the building and grounds maintained, and a pastoral leader employed who can rock the boat in other areas (like outreach to the poor) but not in worship style or liturgy.

2) The Family Chapel Denomination: These are churches that, despite the denominational label (or lack thereof) are really exist for the benefit of one particular family in the community. The hallmarks of this church are that they are usually very small (less than 100 people) and the committees/boards of the church manned mostly by members or friends of the particular family that identifies itself with the congregation over multiple generations. The church remains committed to tradition (in a particular worship style, calendar, etc...), keeping costs low (because the family only has so much money), and generally one or two mission projects that have taken on historical significance with the members. People from outside the family are welcome as long as they don't demand a lot of change or challenge the family's position of power. The main thrust of this denomination will be to let these churches do things they way they've always done them.

3) The Religious Mall of America Denomination: These are churches that huge (2000 in worship attendance or larger). Their hallmark is being able to offer every type and kind of service to the general public that you can imagine (much like a mall which can offer every different type and kind of product to the public). Since these churches are geared toward trying to appeal to the widest demographic possible, so, since most Christians are moderate to the right theologically, they tend to error on this side of the theological spectrum (although as the mood of the country seems to be moving more to the left, so are these churches). The churches in this denomination are committed to offering options: Multiple options for worship style and time. Multiple options for programing for all ages. Multiple opportunities for counseling or self-help groups. This denomination will help develop pastoral leaders who are excellent communicators, and help churches recruit people from the business, logistics, technology, finance, and marketing worlds to keep the church solvent, technologically savvy, and in tune with what the public demands.

4) The Hippy-Dippy Post-Modern Denomination: The hallmark of these churches is that they either don't sound, look, feel, or think like most other churches, and they like it that way. Maybe, someday, the way these churches do worship, fellowship, discipleship, administration, and service will become the new normal, but more likely than not, most of these unconventional communities will go by the wayside. Their appeal will be too marginal to survive among the greater populace or, they'll lack the necessary communicator or creative staff (paid or volunteer) to the kind of tactile or visual things they want to do in order to reach people. This denomination will flourish mainly on the coasts and in large urban communities loaded with young, educated, professional adults (which begs the question, "Are they really post-modern and cutting edge, or are they really the new sanctuary for the intellectual elite?"). In any event, churches in this movement will be mashing together eastern orthodox iconography, cutting edge technical ministry, world or alternative music, and flat hierarchical structures in order to appeal to those not into more conventional forms of institutional religion.

5) The Loose Association of House Churches: In an effort to get back to simplicity and take control back from so-called established religious authorities, people are forming their own churches in the living room of their house. The focus of this movement is for people to feel accepted (particularly those who have a hard time in conventional social situations), an end to passive faith practice (where people just sit in a pew and go home at the end of a service - you can't hide your presence if only 14 people are coming together in some dude's living room), and rejection of the institutional model of the church (whether that's bishops/DS's, or formal denominational structure, or even church governance models that include representative committee groups making decisions on the behalf of everyone else). Nobody is paid, there's no plant overhead, and no denominational obligations (hence this being a "loose association" as opposed to a denomination). Because of the anti-institutionally religious nature of these things, they have a hard time working with other churches, but are effective in cooperating with social agencies here and abroad. The quality of these things will be wildly unpredictable, so the role any central body will be to establish some basic principles that need to be agreed to (mostly in terms of accounting, relational boundaries, and some rudimentary theological positions), and not much else.

6) Health and Wealth Denomination: The main aim of these churches is to teach you the secrets of being rich, staying healthy, and keeping a positive attitude. Right now this is the fastest growing denomination in the world. Not only are these kinds of churches growing rapidly in American urban communities (particularly among minorities), but among the poor living south of the equator - where life is very difficult but, thanks to globalization, wealth creation is more possible than it has ever been - this kind of Christianity is becoming dominant. Many of these churches will look like "Religious Mall of America Churches", but they will differ in the sense that wealth creation and materialism will really be at the heart of the message and purpose of the church, while the "RMAC" churches will emphasize healthy relationships, theological education, recovery groups and many others kinds of services and programs. This church's message will be embodied in the person of the pastor who will become one of the wealthiest (if not THE wealthiest) person in the church. And the richer he or she (yep, there'll be "she's".... just ask Joyce Meyers).

7a) Social Activist Denomination: This is made up of churches that are passionate about only a very small sliver of justice issues relating to one of the following: race, gender, sexual orientation, economic justice, the physically-challenged, or homelessness to just name a few. These kinds of churches are so committed to their particular cause that virtually all their time and energy goes into it, and it only.

7b) Moral Majority Denomination: This is made up of churches that are passionate about political issues from the perspective of the "Moral Majority". They become more energetic and enthused the closer they get to an election.

8) Middle-of-the-Road-One-Size-Fits-All-But-Not-Particularly-
Well-Mid-Major-Church: Despite three national championship losses in three years (one in basketball, two in football), I am a life-long Ohio State Buckeye fan. For those who don't know, the Bucks play in one of the strongest, or major, conferences in Division I NCAA athletics: The Big Ten. Because they play in a major conference where sports are big deal, and often a catapult to a professional career, they tend to attract bigger, stronger and more talented athletes. But while I root for OSU, that is not where I went to school. I am an alum of Miami University. The sports teams at Miami play at the Division I NCAA level


they do not play in a "major conference". Rather, they play in the Mid-American Conference, which is largely made up of smaller state schools with small athletic budgets. They call these conferences "Mid-Majors", because they can earn the right to play on a major stage (the NCAA Basketball Tourney or a major college football bowl game) but the conferences' athletes are generally as big, fast, or talented as they are at the bigger schools.

In the country there are about 2000 mega-churches that average over 1500-2000 in worship or more. But there are many, many more churches that average somewhere between 400-700 in worship attendance, and I guess in my way of thinking, they're kind of in that "mid-major" category. They tend to be able to offer a lot of different services and ministries, but the quality tends to be uneven because they don't have the resources to do what's necessary to be able to do everything excellently. They also tend to have major holes in their programming and ministry offerings. The children's ministry might be great, but the youth ministry needs some work. Or the traditional music team and choir are super while the less resourced and experienced contemporary worship team is mediocre. Or the preaching might be outstanding, but the plant is outdated and too small. They might not have a singles ministry or anything for young adults because its an area that would take resources to improve, and resources being limited are being used elsewhere.

Mid-majors generally aspire to growth, but a lack of resources, talent, or some other limiting factor prevents that from happening. Hence, these churches are unified in their quest to overcome their size, which does enough to make people happy and proud, but not enough to grow the church any larger. They tend to try to offer more options than they can really afford or do well, which means that a certain level of dissatisfaction with the institution never fully abates.

9) Pentecostal Denomination: These folks, who practice outward manifestations of the presence of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues will always be present on the church scene. Other churches on this list (namely the Health and Wealth churches) will often manifest pentecostal tendencies, but only in hardcore Pentecostal churches will you find receiving the "gift of the Holy Spirit" the focus of the ministry experience.

10) The Community Denomination: These are churches holy committed to the life of their local community. They are part-church, part-community center, part-local service organization. Not only will you find countless community events being held in their building, but the congregation will often be made up of people hold community involvement as a mutual value that they practice by also being a part of various service organizations or through a willingness to volunteer. These churches tend not to be the most biblically literate or theologically-developed churches, but their love is practiced practically through care and service to one another, and others beyond the four walls of the church building.

If you got any others, let me know.


Caron said...

Could your front page be any cuter???

Great article!!! Thank you!

Regarding the "#6" churches, check out and watch "demo." Its excellent!

Justin spoke at my church in the fall and comes highly recommended by my pastor, Dr. John MacArthur.

Anonymous said... if you are no longer going to your grandpappy's church, how does the catholic church continue to grow...out of Joe's family of a bazillion, he is the ONLY one who has "left" the church....each one we have visited, is not culturally relevant, lacks programming, resists bible study fellowship, has little to no children's ministry (exception being ccd), but when we go, the church is packed...what gives???


ElleBee said...

Excellent post. At least once in every message, our pastor addresses how he feels that "going to church" isn't what Jesus intended. It's interesting in our (and many other communities') situations, since we currently worship in a local middle school. He stresses how we ARE the church, wherever we happen to be, whether it is on Sundays in the middle school, Saturday nights at a home group, or Tuesday mornings at the grocery store. It's a unique concept for this "recovering Catholic" girl, but one that I think is being embraced more and more.

bryan said...


Well, first and foremost the Catholic church would be renamed the Traditional Music/Liturgy Never Change Denominational Church which will always - for those who stay - elicit the greatest loyalty of any of the "new" denominations (remember First?). Never underestimate our need for ritual. There's a comfort in knowing that certain things never change even as everything else in the world does.

Also, the Catholic church does a lot of good stuff in the world. Millions of volunteer hours and billions of dollars go through Catholic charities every year. St. Charles here in Lima is incredibly active in ministries geared to serve the poor. They've been a great partner with us as we've sought to alleviate hunger and stand for justice.

Finally, don't underestimate the power of guilt. Turning your back on the RC is a big deal if all your life you've been told bad things will happen to you if you do. We see that a lot in this congregation as our "recovering Catholics" kind of process being in a non-Catholic church for the first time.


Elle Bee said...

Thanks for the shoutout.
I didn't even know you read me. :)

Anonymous said...

i agree on the catholic charities...i just always forget about them...joe's dad is a st vincenct de paul delivery man...

i guess i just don't get that catholic guilt thing...i do see it my beloved, but i still don't get it...what are those nuns and priest saying to those peeps, maybe its the bonding while having a brew and some wine at their gambling night festival with their

amy, wife of a good catholic boy

Tina Dietsch said...

this is a GREAT post!

I bow down to your awesomeness :-)

Matt Parish said...


The Hippy-Dippy one sounds great! I hope they make friends with the Social Activist Denom.

-An Intellectual Elitist