Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Is Denominational Idenity Important?

Popular opinion would claim that denominational loyalty has been declining for decades. We see our young people grow up, move away, and too often drop out of the church of their youth for other faith groups. Friction over communion fellowship, especially within conservative Lutheran circles, demonstrates that many people see little value or purpose in such distinctions. Church signs reveal much about this seeming decline as the denominational label is reduced, hidden, or dropped entirely to appeal to a broader range of unchurched or church-shopping visitors.

Recently, as many are aware, the ELCA made the headlines of the major newspapers when they approved the full inclusion of openly gay pastors. Yet one wonders: How many people in the pew paid attention enough to really care? And how many congregations within that denomination shrugged off the decision as something far removed from their little corner of the world? Will this decision create a ripple or a tidle wave of desent? I fear that it might be more the former.

In the course of taking in new members from other church bodies I have found that many people have little to no awareness of what their previous denomination taught. Even Roman Catholics are amazingly ignorant of what their church believes and teaches. And how many times have you heard someone say regarding Lutherans and Catholics: "Well, they seem to be pretty much the same"? I have, and too many times to count.

A study by the "Faith Communities Today" documented that denominational loyalty is actually fairly high in some areas. Interestingly enough that is true of the ELCA according to that study. Of course, this does not hold true for all, and anecdotal evidence seems to continue to point to a general weakness of such identity, at least in my experience.

Among pastors the same experience exists too. Some treat their denominational identity as a mere label with little implication to how they teach or practice their faith. Some, on the other hand, become so sensitive to it that they suffer great guilt when they see their denomination stray from their own convictions. Denominational identity can be either bane or blessing to clergy, depending on how they view it.

Many of the mega churches today are becoming mini-denominations in themselves. I recently read in Christianity Today that some are even forming their own seminaries. Their pastors, who appear regularly in the mainsteam media and on their own televised programs and services, publish books and conduct seminars and workshops that seem more popular with mainline pastors than their own denominational resource. Even within the LCMS I suspect that many of our largest churches see little need for denominational headquarters. They individually support their own missionaries at times, and self-publish.

So what is the future then for denominations, especially within places like the LCMS? Are the days numbered now for the large mainline synods? Will the future of our synod involve more and more splinter denominations, such as ELDoA? And how do we strengthen denominational identity among the people of the pew? Certainly the steady steam of beaurocratic fliers and prepackaged programs does not hold much promise. Will the recent shock of the ELCA's decisions produce a revival in more conservative quarters such as Missouri? We'll see.

I believe that much depends on the individual pastor's teaching and practice. He remains the living icon of their denominational identity. If a given pastor ignores the church body, chances are great his people will remain ignorant of what is occuring outside thier walls. If the altar remains open to any and all during Commnion, the erosion of this identity will continue even faster.

Denominational identity, however, should not be seen as a mere 'brand name.' At its best it should hold before the world a witness of the church's confession. In the past to say "I am a member of the Missouri Synod" meant something about what you believed. To some degree it still does. The future is unwritten as to how strong that will remain.

P.S. In case the point of the picture above escaped you, check out the article "Denominations, Toothpaste, and Toilet Paper: Just the Facts Ma'am" by Mark Roberts. Would you believe that some Protestants are more loyal to their toothpaste brand than their denomination? They are more loyal to other things as well. Read his article, it's rather revealing. You may also wish to check out his article "What's Good About Denominations?" Dr. Roberts is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), yet his article seems quite applicable to other denominations as well.

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