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Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:25-28)
Denominations after Christendom
One of the surprising aspects of our church’s journey into ECO was that it forced me to confront the reality of the fact that Christendom, in my little corner of the world, has come to an end. Christendom, if you are not familiar with the word, describes a situation in which the Christian church holds a privileged position within the dominant culture. Actually, it means that even if you are familiar with the word, but you know what I mean.
Christendom means that the culture supports and even rewards you for your Christian faith and practice. Christendom means that someone would think twice before scheduling an event on a Sunday and Christendom means that telling a new neighbor that you are a pastor would elevate your status in their eyes. Christendom got its start in 313 with Constantine, was ubiquitous in the West for 1500 years, and in this country has been dying at differing rates in different geographical regions since the early 1960s.
I believe that denominations as they have existed in this country over the past 200 years or so, have been especially effective in supporting a connectional approach to ministry, but only within this peculiar context of Christendom. Insofar as our culture has given recognition, honor, and even power to organized expressions of the Christian faith; denominations have done a good job of regulating and allocating those cultural benefits on behalf of the local church.
When I graduated from seminary and was ordained into a local church, I could take pride in the fact that I was a sanctioned leader in a respectable church and wasn’t one of those so-called pastors at an upstart church with a funny name like ‘word of life’ or ‘harvest fellowship’. Yes, my denomination annoyed me at times, but at the same time I can’t deny the fact that it grounded my identity as pastor in something that felt connected to the larger culture.
Since joining ECO, I am no longer under the illusion that our culture cares that much about our church as an institution, my credentials as a sanctioned leader of the church, or its connection to some denominational body. In fact, as I recently read some denominational periodicals’ coverage of the latest round of ‘hot button issue’ debate, nothing said about the issues themselves struck me so much as the self-importance exhibited by advocates on either side of the issue. Does anyone else really care how Presbyterians are going to land this time around? I’m reasonably sure that there aren’t too many people out there waiting for Presbyterians to weigh in before they decide where they stand on an important issue.
So if the relative power and significance of denominations is tied to the viability of Christendom, this suggests that denominations, as we’ve known them, don’t have much of a future. So where does that leave those of us who are called to lead the local church, but also believe strongly in the value of connectionalism? I think that this means that we have to imagine some kind of connectional body that doesn’t exist primarily to regulate and allocate cultural recognition, honor, and power.
Jesus Shaped Identity
I think, in fact that that is precisely what ECO is attempting to do. And I think that where we can see this imaginative task at work is when we apply the value of ‘Jesus shaped identity’ to the denominational level. Jesus called his followers to lead without power; to lead self-sacrificially as servants and at some point that has to effect how we structure our connectional life.
In saying this, I don’t want to come across as institutionally naïve. I understand that any human institution will ignore the issue of power only to find it submerge and resurface in unhealthy and capricious forms throughout the organization. As custodians of the message of salvation and overseers of local churches made up of broken humans, we have access to life giving or life destroying power that must be regulated carefully. And as leaders, we must be held accountable for how we handle this power.
What we don’t have, however, is access to cultural power. This is a bitter pill to swallow for some, but once swallowed can have some delightful effects. It liberates us from the burden of building a ‘culturally respectable’ institution with an established place at the center of our mainstream culture. It allows us the freedom to be a counter-cultural movement whose members relate to one another more like revolutionaries working in the fringes than figureheads jostling for a place of honor at the front of the parade. It frees us from the exhaustive task of building an unwieldy bureaucratic machine for the sole purpose of institutional survival. And above all, it allows us to live riskily – to die to self; and be agents of a King whose power is not of this world.