Monday, May 04, 2009

Denominations, Non-Denominations and everything in between

On the front page of today's paper, the annual Prayer Walk in Greenup County was one of the lead stories. In the text of the article, the organizers said that everyone was invited because the Parade was "non-denominational." Now, my wife says that I am too particular about things, especially the correct use of words, though not necessarily grammer. For example, there is no such word as "irregardless." Even if there was such a word, it would be redundant since the prefix "ir" actually means "regardless" or "in spite of everything." Regardless, for a "particular" guy like me who reads, "everyone is invited...the event is non-denominational" is like reading "everyone is invited...the event is for women."

I guess it was Mrs. West, my fourth grade teacher, who first introduced me to the meaning of the word "denomination." It literally means, "of a name." The prefix "de" means "of" and "nomina" means "name." It typically was a word that assigned value as well as a name. For example, when one cashes one's paycheck, the bank tellers might say, "In what denominations would you like your cash?" I remember a bumper sticker popular in the 80's that read: The First Church of Elvis, we welcome all denominations but prefer 50s and 100s (as in the denomination of the currency). As our culture has gotten more and more casual, even our humor pokes fun at our having become conversational slovens (sloven: n. One who is habitually careless, especially in appearance or presentation. NOT one from Slovenia.) (Slovenia: n. A country in central Europe pop. 2,010,000).

With regard to churches or faith communities, it would seem that if your church has a name, it would have "denominated" itself. Of course, we popularly understand denominations as multiple congregations who associate with one another or are unified in efforts based upon belief or practice. For example, I am a clergyman in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We are a denomination. Aside from having "named" ourselves, our congregations share in basic beliefs, of which, the essential and mandatory belief is, Jesus is the Christ. I am still unclear as to how that makes us different from other denominations. I think that even Roman Catholics believe that one. We share similar practices, such as baptism my immersion (not submersion...that's what submarines do) and the celebration of Holy Communion at least weekly.

"Denominational Church" is the "dirty" way many refer to the Churches that were once viewed as "Mainline Protestants." Mainline Protestants are essentially the Protestant denominations that greatly influenced the social and political fabric of the United States in its formative years. Presbyterians, Methodist, Baptists and Episcopalians all provided the leaders and basic cultural tenets upon which this nation was built. During the cultural revolution of the 1960's, many of these denominations found themselves on the wrong side of the issues. Their clergy and members marched with Civil Rights activists, were in solidarity with women's suffrage movements and supported the efforts by unions for better wages and working conditions. Many conservative clergy and members, that is, those who were opposed to African Americans voting, women receiving equal pay in the workforce or safe working conditions for our nation's labor force, formed new denominations that now promote themselves as non-denominational (adj. Not restricted to or associated with a religious denomination). I would have defined it as "not of a name or a no name Church." Parenthetically, I find it interesting when dictionaries define words by using the word's root. For example, nonliving: adj. That which is not living.

The Rev. Dr. Jerry Falwell of the famed Thomas Road Baptist Church once proclaimed "the Mainline Churches are now sidelined Churches. Amen?" Technically Baptists would be included in the Mainline designation as their heritage dates back to the formative years of our nation with the establishment of a Baptist State...yes dear friends, Rhode Island was originally founded as a State where Baptists could practice their faith and organize their communities without interference from other Christian denominations. You gotta love US History 101.

Non-denominational churches eventually became congregations that were truly independent and autonomous. Many of these kind of churches, unrestrained by policies, practices and leadership checks and balances, grew into what we generally call "mega churches." These congregations are a unique blend of contemporary evangelical doctrine, mixed with Pentecostal undertones and powered by culturally relevant methods, including a mix of self help sermons and Top-40 styled music. These congregations, including Saddleback Church and Willow Creek Church have given rise to a unique concept of multi-campus churches or what I would call, "mini denominations." Congregations will start either as an intentional effort by these mega churches or already established congregations will adopt the mega church produced methods, faith statements and curriculum. Generally, conversation about particular Christian beliefs are kept generic enough to appeal to many kinds of people who, although they may differ theologically, share similar social beliefs. These congregations may be populated by people who have vastly different opinions on Speaking in Tongues, Baptism and the Nature of Christ, but will be unified on social issues such as abortion, prayer in school and the definition of marriage. Their unique blend of style, format and research of demographic trends (Willow Creek's model was a direct result of the pastor's door to door interviews of what people wanted in a "church experience.") propelled them to the forefront of the battle for America's cultural context. These self described non-denominational Churches are now more organized and connected then the often criticized institutional, denominational or mainline churches (Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.).

Recently, churches like the 1.3 million member (5 million worldwide), 13,000 congregation strong "independent" Christian Church, affiliated with the North American Christian Convention (not my definition of independent) and the over 6,000 congregation strong Churches of Christ (the name identifying those congregations within the Restorationist Movement that do not use musical instruments...not my definition of independent) have promoted themselves as non-denominational. As an outsider to these two denominatio... uhhh...groups, it looks more like they are trying to capitalize on a phenomenon within the Christian sub-culture than an accurate portrayal of their identity. Incidentally, both of these groups were once affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), born from the early 19th century revivalist movement led by Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. The schism (n. A separation or division into factions) occurred when many Disciples of Christ congregations began conversation with the already established Mainline Churches on matters of mission, justice and ministry. This ecumenical (adj. Concerned with establishing or promoting unity among churches) gave rise to a new word. The word "interdenominational" (adj. Of or involving different religious denominations) became all the rage.

As time went on, the culturally appropriate way of referring to gatherings of people from different faiths for a common purpose, like a Prayer Walk, would be to refer to it as interdenominational. The problem is that if a Christian defines themselves as non-denominational they don't really have anything with which to "inter." However, if we call the gathering non-denominational, those of us who identify ourselves as spiritually formed by a denomination, would have to leave part of ourselves behind. I'm not sure how an Episcopalian could leave behind their understanding that the Church maintains its apostolic faith via the apostolic office of Bishop or a Presbyterian keeping herself in good order through adherence to the Westminster Confession. I think that is what I liked about the word "interdenominational." Everyone could bring their particularity but still unite for a common purpose. Still, non-denominationalists, which at this point in the article have become a denomination, demand unity of purpose on their terms alone. You may only unite with them if you agree to adhere to what they think is important, whatever that might be at the time or for the event. Those of us who are interdenominationalists, now an alliance of those of us who were sidelined by Dr. Falwell, wonder why we can't be who we are in a spirit of toleration.

Fundamentally, the two words express different ideologies of Christian unity. Non-denominationalism says we can be unified by ignoring or at least playing down those aspects of our identity that might be divisive. Interdenominationalism says we can be united by tolerating and, even at times, celebrating our differences as unique expressions of God's gift of diversity to His catholic (adj. Universal, [a] Of or relating to the universal Christian church. [b] Of or relating to the ancient undivided Christian church. [c] Of or relating to those churches that have claimed to be representatives of the ancient undivided church. [d] culturally understood as relating to the Roman Catholic Church) Church. I like that word "catholic" but I am afraid that article might be even more complicated than this one.

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