Why We've Got Bigger Things to Worry About than the Death of Denominations: Community and Ministry in a Post-Denominational World

By Derek Penwell

Congregations in a Post-Denominational World

We live in the most mobile, and often the most disconnected culture in the history of the world. Young people are told from an early age that success in life requires a college education. After graduating college, often with a mountain of student loan debt, young people find themselves in the awkward position of having to find jobs less according to vocational and personal compatibility or prospects for advancement or even for geographic proximity to family and friends than for whether a job will pay them enough to pay back the back.

Consequently, with few exceptions, we’ve created a society that requires the possibility of mobility as the price of admission. Follow the money.

“It says here that you are exceptionally well qualified for this position. If we offer you the job, are you prepared to move to our Schenectady branch?”

“Do you have anything in the midwest? I’d kind of like to stay closer to my family.”

“Next.”

This mobility has resulted in paradox of young adults who aspire to independence, yet eagerly desire to maintain interpersonal relationships. This paradox places a new set of demands on the church.

Congregations must recognize that young adults aren’t looking to “join.” They appear less interested in community as a tool to accomplish some other purpose than in community as a place to make and keep friends. This raises challenges for congregations in what appears to be a post-denominational world seeking to provide a safe place where friendships can be made and community can develop among young adults.

On its face, this attachment to friendship for its own sake can cause alarm in older generations in the church who’ve traditionally understood church to work in almost the exact opposite way. In the past denominations helped provide the kind of social stability I’ve been describing, a world in which friendships endured because people tended to stay in the same places.

Denominational loyalty was a hallmark of this social stability. After becoming a part of a denomination, either through birth, conversion, or transfer of membership, people tended to identify with that denomination indefinitely. There was a time when it was common to hear someone self-describe as a “fourth generation Methodist,” for example. Today, denominational loyalty seems a quaint bit of nostalgia, like the gilded memories of neighborhood soda fountains and day baseball.

The religious stability that existed as a result of denominational loyalty served as a foundation for a stable world in which people could count on friendships that endured over a lifetime. Emerging generations, however, tend to have much less invested in particular denominations than older generations, viewing churches through the consumerist lens of cost-benefit analysis.[1] They care much less about denominational history or doctrinal purity. As a result, they certainly seem to care less (shockingly so to longtime denominational stalwarts) about the survival of the traditional denominational bureaucracies that underlie mission work and educational initiatives.

A Conversation (Brief Interlude)

I had a conversation recently with the new co-chairs of our outreach ministry. Both women had joined our church and our denomination within the last five years. As we reviewed the budget, one woman looked up and said: “What is this line item?”

“Oh, that’s the money we send to the denomination.”

“Really?” she said. “That seems like an awful lot. It’s over half of our outreach budget. What do they do with that money?”

“Well, that money goes to support the mission work of the denomination.”

All that money goes toward mission?”

I was getting a little uncomfortable. “Not in the strictest sense, no.”

“In what sense then?”

“Part of it goes to overseas mission. Part of it goes to mission here in the U.S., our advocacy for justice, support for ministries of compassion. Part goes to education. Part goes to support ministerial search and call. Part comes back to the region. Part goes to cover the administrative costs.”

“Sounds to me like a big chunk of it goes to paying people’s salaries to administer programs that have nothing to do with the kind of ministry we’re trying to do right here.”

Really uncomfortable, I said, “Look, we have a historic commitment to support the initiatives of our denomination. That’s just the way it works.”

“Fine. So, what do we get in return?”

“Lots of stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Well, we get the satisfaction of supporting and belonging to something on a national, even a global level.”

“Hmmm … I’d like the satisfaction of actually doing ministry. That’s a lot of money for something that sounds curiously like institutional maintenance. Just think of the amazing things we could do right here with that kind of money.”

“You’re just going to have to trust me on this one. Ask ______ and ______. They’ve been around forever. They’ll tell you we’ve got to do this.”

Part of the reason we are in a post-denominational world, and part of the challenge facing mainline denominations going forward is wrapped up in that discussion. It’s going to be harder and harder to make that argument to people who have no broader sense of the scope and breadth of denominational history or it current vision for mission. As ______ and _______ grow older and become less involved in the life of the congregation, the people capable of making the argument for maintaining the institution will be fewer and fewer.

Couple that with emerging generations that have very little denominational loyalty and very little in the way of an impulse to join institutions, and you have a recipe for increasing difficulty for denominational survival—if what you mean by survival has to do with maintaining structures, with their administrative and personnel costs.

Back to Congregations in a Post-Denominational World

In the denominational world older generations often saw participation in the church as a necessity for salvation, as way to get involved in a worthy cause, or as a socially approved activity. In other words, the church was viewed as instrumentally useful in the service of larger projects (i.e., getting to heaven, doing the work of compassion and justice, networking, etc.), and friendship was an outgrowth of associating with other people to achieve these other ends.

Older generations, because society and one’s social networks tended to be more stable, could count on friendships that endured over a lifetime due to geographic proximity. You could make friends in kindergarten, graduate high school, and go to work together in the factory, mine, or quarry. If you didn’t work together, you went to work on the farm, and your friend started up down at the family drug store in your hometown. Or, if everyone went to college, you and your childhood friends often returned home to set up shop, hang out a shingle, or join a practice among the same familiar faces. You could often count on knowing the same people, having the same friends over the course of your life. Chances are that, after having grown up, you belonged to the same church you and your family had always attended.

In other words, older generations didn’t need the church to make friends—they already had a whole network of friendships developed early on. People could join churches based on a variety of factors—denominational loyalty, worship style, doctrinal purity, commitment to justice, or connectedness to desirable social networks—and trust that friendship was available, whether from the institution or among their antecedent social networks. I call this affiliate community. People affiliate with a group based on some prior commitment to an ideal or project.

“You guys do VBS? Great! My kids are little hellions.”

From these affiliations community can grow as people join together around some higher calling.

“This place is great! I see your kids are hellions, too. Maybe we could get them together while we go to Krav Maga. It’s the official self defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces, you know.”

That’s not to say that older generations didn’t make friends at church via affiliate community; they did. Recognizing the implicit expectations of social stability among older generations, however, helps to point up the different need the church fulfilled in the past. Church, for older generations, is where you go to get stuff done, and if you make friends along the way, so much the better. But if you can’t count on social stability to make and keep friends, the church becomes a different kind of place altogether.

Young adults, because they live in a world where social stability can no longer be assumed, need to be more creative about developing and sustaining personal relationships. I call this kind of association attachment community, where people come together because of a need to attach themselves to a group of people for the purpose of cultivating friendship.

“You guys drink beer? Outside of work , I don’t really know anybody in this city. I’ve got to find some people to hang out with. Otherwise, I think I’m going to go Krav Maga on somebody. It’s the official self defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces, you know.”

The church has an opportunity in this itinerant culture to be a place for making friends.

“That’s not what the church is for.”

Why not?

“Because, the church has more serious business to attend to than whether some young person has anybody to go bowling with on Friday night.”

The smart-aleck response that comes to mind is: “Really? How’s that working out for you? Got young people knocking down your doors to get in?”

The more measured response is: “Perhaps, the church in a post-denominational world needs to imagine itself differently. Instead of understanding itself as an institution that needs to attract people to get things done, it should begin to see itself as a gathering where God promises to be, and where people can flourish as the communal beings God created them to be.”

A gathering where God promises to be, where people can flourish as the communal beings God created them to be.

What do I mean by that?

The gathering, of course, has to do with the deep yearning for community I’ve been describing. The purpose of this gathering is to draw people God loves together so that they can draw strength from one another as they seek to find their lives, which allows them not only to live but to thrive.

“Put that way, the whole thing sounds like another attempt to use the church to meet individual needs—in this case, the need for community.”

I can see how it might first appear that way. Bear with me a moment, and let me see if I can be more clear about this.

The kind of reorientation of purpose I’m describing—one that views the church first as a gathering seeking to live out its purpose as human beings created for friendship in community, I think more nearly describes the kind of church described, for example, in Acts 2:44–47:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke break together at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Now, it may very well be that this earliest description of the church is nostalgic, an idealized account of something that never really existed, except in the imaginations of those who longed for a church that only seemed possible in simpler times. This charge is not particularly damaging to what I’m trying to describe, however, because the “ideal” is precisely what I’m after. If the question is “What should the church be?” it seems plausible to go back to the earliest idealized accounts of what the church was supposed to look like.

The idealized church in Acts 2 describes a group of people, the primary description of which underscores the desire to be “together.” The impulse to congregate makes a great deal of sense for the early church when you consider that this newfound faith left them at odds—both with the Jewish faith of their childhood (which very often meant from their families and friends) and with a hostile political culture (which had just made a political example of their leader/rabbi by a very public execution).

Moreover, the author of Acts draws attention to their common life together, characterized by their willingness to share everything. When referring to this passage many commentators focus on the economic component, particularly the phrase indicating that the community, which “had all things in common” would “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This inclination to pool their goods is extremely important and shouldn’t be glossed over. However, I think the passage is speaking about more than just the willingness of the early church to run church sanctioned yard sales.

Sharing all things in common apparently also included their time and their affection for one another. The text continues, pointing out that “day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people.” In other words, they became friends.

They hung out together. They ate food together. They sought one another’s company.

What came out of all this congregating? That is to say, what is the progression of events set down by the author of Acts?

Those who believed came together. They shared a common life, including their resources, their time, and their affection. They spent “much time together,” breaking bread and enjoying one another. Out of all this togetherness emerge two things: worship and expansion.

It seems important to note that worship appears, at least in part, to be the communal response to God’s having called these people to share “much time together.” Having broken bread together with “glad and generous hearts,” the first thing the author of Acts says they do is start “praising God.” Worship, at least in this telling of it, breaks forth from a people who love each other and take every opportunity to be together.

What happens next? People see all of this comity and friendship and fall all over themselves to be a part of it. The opportunity to make friends, to find shelter from an often hostile world, to be a part of a community held together by something greater than a collection of individual interests appears so attractive that “day by day” new people show up and want in. In this way, the church isn’t just a collection of individuals seeking to get their social needs met; it’s a polis that helps people to identify what their truest needs are.

It strikes me that the church today might take its cue from this earliest idealized description of the church.

What Do I Envision?

In a mobile society I believe the church needs to begin to think first about how to bring people together, to cultivate relationships that are difficult to form as people grow older. That is not to say that churches need to leave behind their commitment to worshiping God or to seeking justice or to educating and forming the faithful. It is to say that those things can be the product of communities called to together by God, rather than places that seek to form communities for the purpose of accomplishing those things.

Am I saying it’s wrong to gather people together to accomplish some greater goal, or that working together can’t produce community? Absolutely not. At times when people can assume a stable culture where friendship and community is a durable product of being located in a single place over time, I think associational community can work just fine. But in a time when the culture seems to force dislocation and rootlessness, when friendships are often fleeting and difficult to cultivate, being a place where the initial appeal revolves around getting things done is going to be a hard sell to emerging generations.

Something like a pub or coffee house ministry—almost cliché in some circles and misunderstood in others—if not viewed as just another slick marketing tool to bait and switch a desirable demographic into the church, has the virtue of providing a non-threatening space in which people can gather to make friends. The focus is first focused on creating space and not on creating new members.

“Fine. But what if those people don’t ever join the church?”

What if they don’t? They weren’t scratching and clawing to get in anyway. Why not just do it because it’s the right thing to do? People who have no other community need a place to belong. Whether the church ever benefits from it, why not just provide it as a service because we’ve been called to minister to a world struggling to keep its head above water?

In a post-denominational world, the church is going to have to learn to love ministry, service, loving people because that’s what we were created and called by God to do. It should quit spending all its time figuring out all the angles by which it might benefit from ministry. Ministry is not a marketing tool, designed to sell something; it’s a vocation, a way of life.

Whether or not denominations survive intact should be of less concern to us than that the gospel is lived out. And if our highest priority is living out the gospel, then we’re going to have to spend more time thinking about how we can produce great and interesting ministry out of the stable foundation of community, and less time worrying about how to prop up flagging institutions.

  1. (http://www.kon.org/urc/v10/gargiulo.html)  ↩