A few weeks ago, The Lead at the Episcopal Cafe quoted an article by Ken Carter, who argues that churches need denominations. He contrasts denominations to sociologists who argue that we are entering a post-denominational phase.
Certainly the particular denominations that make up the mainline traditions are losing their distinctiveness. Episcopalians are no longer only prosperous WASPs who enjoy early cocktail hours. Lutherans chant. Congregationalists use the BCP for weddings. However, individuals raised in one denomination will go to any church that has a strong leader or a vibrant Sunday School.
But as Ken Carter implies, churches are more effective when they organize together. They can harness resources. They can protect hard working pastors from poisonous congregations and hard working congregations from narcissistic pastors. They assure some modest degree of reliability by establishing set norms amongst the professional clergy. They can assist congregations, who work as volunteers, by providing professional help when they need it.
So yes, churches need denominational structures.
But I am skeptical that any particular denomination is necessary. I am certainly part of the Episcopal team and will argue its superiority to any who will listen, but the facts on the ground remain that individuals will go where they prefer, outside of denominational structures.
But why not fewer denominations? Why does metropolitan New York need Lutheran, Episcopalian and Methodist bishops? Do we need different payroll companies, property management teams, and deployment structures? Isn’t this an enormous waste of resources? What churches need are some mergers. Not necessarily at the congregational level, but perhaps at diocesan central.
Megachurches are not effective because the pastors are good theologians, or because they don’t have denominations. They are effective because they understand economies of scale and provide the services people want. The stakeholders in denominational polity, however, have too much to lose. Is there any bishop who wants to give up the purple or the salary that goes with it?
I don’t think we need to adopt a megachurch model. But the numerous congregations that have deteriorating physical plants, poorly paid priests, and lack the resources to serve effectively require better, more daring, approaches. I don’t think there is one way to go about addressing the impending collapse of many mainline churches, but it’s about time we explored more audacious and risky forms of collaboration.
We do need bishops and the organizational structure they provide. But we probably need fewer of them. Eventually, denominational centers will be forced to recognize that their role is not to feed off the resources of parishes, but to enable them to become vibrant. They will become consultants to local congregations, providing services that can be adequately streamlined. This may be about providing meeting space or educational opportunities; payroll services and greater ability to reduce costs.
Churches clearly need structure. And the mainline church needs restructuring. But it is not likely the stakeholders, the priests and bishops, who will force this change. It is the laity who are doing it. We still need to ask why many choose the non-denominational congregations rather than our own ossified ones.