By Derek Penwell
The Huffington Post
Christians of all stripes are freaking out a little (some a lot). Given the recent bleak news from the Pew Research Center, which indicates that Christianity is on the decline in the U.S., such exercises in hand-wringing are understandable — even if not particularly helpful.
Protestant mainline denominations have seen an especially dramatic long-term decline, once again raising the question of a post-denominational world, in which the ecclesiastical structures we’ve taken for granted all these years appear not to be nearly as permanent as we’ve assumed.
People are afraid. And as soon as you say “post-denominational,” people start getting their knickers in a twist.
“Denominations are important!”
“Denominations provide us with a historic identity.”
“Denominations give us great ways to organize ourselves for ministry.”
“Denominations allow us, by pooling our resources, to do mission on a global scale.”
“Denominations help us find and hire ministers.”
“Denominations hold our pensions.” [Ministers, of which I am one, are particularly sensitive to this one.]
True. All true. But so what?
Please don’t misunderstand me. By speaking of a post-denominational world, I’m describing what I think lies over the horizon; I’m not advocating for or against it. I’m just telling you what I think is happening.
The question to ask: If denominational structures as we know them are heading for difficult waters, how are we going to respond?
“We need to try to stop it!”
Fine. How do you propose to do that?
“We don’t know. You’re the smarty-pants writing books. You’re supposed to tell us.”
But even if I could, even if I had the magic pill that would stop the bleeding and turn everything back to the way it was in middle America in 1955, why should I want to?
“For all the reasons I just gave you–combined ministry, global mission, ministerial credentialing, and support. Pensions, for crying out loud!”
Let me get at this another way. Mainline denominations are afraid. Declining congregations are afraid. People live in fear that one day they may wake up and something they love will no longer be there. Fear. Panic. Do something!
But the thing is, fear is a part of everyone’s life. Given the way our brains have evolved, we carry around with us extremely sensitive threat detection systems. When being eaten by a hungry tiger was a daily concern — and not an opportunity for fame on YouTube-being highly tuned to threats was an enormous advantage. Unfortunately, that level of threat detection sensitivity not only isn’t necessary for most people in our world, it can become a crippling hindrance. But until such time as the human brain evolves enough to catch up with our changed circumstances, nonspecific and often paralyzing fear is going to be an inevitable part of the human experience.
Part of the point of this book about how to survive in a post–denominational world is to learn to live with the fear. Therefore, I want to suggest, following Merlin Mann, that if fear is an inevitable part of our lives, we would do well to find more interesting things to be scared of … in particular, in the church.
You’ve spent time looking at the historical trends. You know about year after year losses –money, members, prestige. You’re afraid. It’s understandable. Here’s the question, though: Why not try being afraid of something other than going out of existence?
- Why not be scared of the fact that there are innumerable kinds of great, creative, meaningful, reign-of-God sorts of work out there needing to be done, rather than expending inordinate amounts of energy worrying about whether your denomination or your congregation will once again muster up the funds to support its bureaucratic infrastructure, or whether the church organizational model has a good enough flow chart, or about whether to “jazz up” the worship service? (Hint: Using phrases like “jazz up” may be part of the problem.)
- Why not be afraid of the fact that there are people outside your walls, outside your normal sphere of thinking, who need what you have to share, and that in concentrating on your own survival you ignore them?
- Why not be more anxious about the relationships you are failing to cultivate and nurture than in not getting all the organizational and programmatic pieces just so?
- Why not worry about the fact that you’re investing more time, money, and energy into maintaining the building than in doing ministry with it?
- Why not be afraid of the fact that rather than a launching pad, your building is a saddle?
- Why not be scared of the reality that there are all kinds of opportunities to offer your church as a gift to your community that are being missed, instead of being afraid that if you let strangers become a part of your church’s life, somebody’s going to leave the gym lights on, or cook stinky cabbage in the kitchen and forget to clean it up, or skateboard in the parking lot?
In a post-denominational world the way forward seems clear: The church must be more concerned with relinquishing any idea of success that doesn’t begin with death, sacrifice, laying down. The church must focus on letting go of the need to ensure its future rather than on grasping for its survival. Letting go means giving up everything, perhaps even the life to which we cling so desperately.
Take heart, though: if you follow Jesus, you already have a pretty good idea what giving it all away looks like.
(Excerpted from the Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World.)
Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.