American national church denominations are not as old as people think.
We have no real memory before national denominational corporations, because they started before any of us saw the light of day; but not long before…
They came into being with the advent of the railroad.
For instance, with Lutherans, we used to gather, more or less, in state-sized groups:
-The Pennsylvania Ministerium
-The Ohio Synod
-The Iowa Synod
-The Missouri Synod
-The Wisconsin Synod
The railroad changed all that. It made a national bureaucracy and national gatherings (assemblies) possible and affordable. This new transportation method also created the big political party conventions.
Nothing lasts forever.
These statewide church groups merged into national groups which merged some more. Along with the “Peter Principle,” they advanced to their level of incompetency: they became politically and economically unmanageable.
There are many reasons for the demise of national church corporations:
1) Many, if not most young adults, prefer being part of cool indie projects to being “tools” of large corporations.
2) The mergers have created coalitions with incompatible viewpoints (sexuality, etc.)
3) Lutheran versions (more so than other brand names) of these corporations tend to operate as closed systems (tightly controlled roster, Lutheran seminary requirements, etc.).
4) These corporations, in efforts to hold things together and make structure and function coherent, have discouraged innovation by entrepreneurial types.
5) For whatever reason, these corporations have very strained relationships with their best practitioners.
6) Generational and ethnic diversity issues have become too heavy for the corporations to carry.
This does not mean that church brand names are a thing of the past. It just means that the national church corporation is unraveling before our eyes. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is nothing wrong with this and it should not be seen as a failure–every human organizational form has a life span.
This does not mean that faith families and connectional Christianity are dead.
Post-denominationalism is just a reality that is emerging. I want to clarify: this does not mean post-brand-name.
This means that the national corporations are failing and will continue to fail. There is no point in any effort to “renew” them.
I don’t know what the post-denominational world will look like. But I do know that:
-Railroad-era national conventions are a thing of the past.
-Coalitions will replace national corporations
-The effort to form smaller, new “theologically correct” corporations to replace national denominational corporations will fail if they follow the template of the national church corporation (parliamentary conventions, national office, official rosters, closed systems, etc.). That’s railroad thinking in a Twitter-world.
-The influential congregations within faith families will fill the leadership vacuum, along with the more innovative evangelical seminaries (Fuller, Asbury, Gordon-Conwell, Bethel, Luther, etc). Classic “div schools” (Chicago, Yale, Union) will become irrelevant to church life, as will “company shop” seminaries of dying corporations.
-A lot of people won’t be able to separate the faith family names (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) from the national corporations. Some of those names might not survive because of this. Hard to say.
-National leaders with a clear life message and a New (Social) Media presence will rule the roost. If it doesn’t matter on Twitter, it doesn’t matter.
1) Think both/and, not either/or. We are in a postmodern era.
2) Stop trying to renew the denominational corporations.
3) Find new ways of being connectional.
4) Resist the temptation to build up new theologically “correct” corporations which are infected with the same terminal virus.
5) Find ways to embrace the good things about your faith family and preserve them for the future forms which will emerge.
6) Take social media seriously. Very seriously.
7) Be willing to let people of color and Global South Christians take the lead. It’s their churches that are doing the best. The New African Churches are very post-denominational and organizationally effective.
8) This will take time; perhaps a whole generation. Practice patience.
It’s a brave new world. Let’s watch it emerge, together.
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