Tonight I am speaking to a group on campus regarding denominations. And because I’m not positive on the format of the discussion or what kind of questions I may be answering, I thought I would get a head start and begin thinking about denominations. Instead of delving into the intricacies of individual denominations, I thought a better starting place would be to take a broad look at denominations in general, discerning both pros and cons of denominations.
Let’s begin with some drawbacks. Here in America, a plethora of denominations exist which is not the case around the rest of the world. The mass influence of denominationalism is unique to America. However, with a large variety of churches to choose from, Christians easily revert to consumers of church. Just this morning, while in the coffee shop, I overheard two people discussing their current round of church shopping. Christians have become passive as far as church goes – they simply go to consume the gospel presented. Church has been reduced to the latest commodity and when we begin to deal with commodities, the priority becomes keeping up with the Joneses. So we see the rise of churches that tend to cater to the masses, watering down the gospel and the meaning of church in order to attract more members to church. Denominations have only accentuated this consumeristic ideal. If a group of people within a denomination does not completely agree with all the doctrine or practice, they simply go start their own church, and in turn, a denomination (well, sometimes anyways). This consumeristic mindset has made church about the parishioner – not about God, but about the personal preferences and the most entertaining or emotion-stimulating church service.
Another downfall of denominations is that they can easily regress into traditionalism. As one professor often reminds us, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” How profound that statement is. But I have often found that many students leave their churches and can tell you everything about the beliefs of their denomination and can recite all the catechisms, and yet there seems to be something missing in their faith. And maybe it’s faith in God. Maybe their belief has been entrusted to the institution of the church and not in the living God. And so even though they can tell you everything about the faith, it is not something they have actually experienced. Along with this, sometimes there is not a space within the training of students to express questions or doubts. The beliefs are presented in a straight-forward, matter-of-fact method that any other belief or question appears as blasphemy. In this way, denominations can serve as a choke-hold, limiting the creativity of Christians and also their cognitive capacities when it comes to thinking about God and their faith. Instead of learning to be faithful to God and to follow God, they learn how to be good Christians, how to tithe, how to uphold the denomination’s beliefs. They rely on a faith that is not their own, parasites sucking the faith out of everybody else.
One last con I would like to mention. Denominations can, at times, splinter the church rather than unite it. The body of Christ becomes divided between Presbyterians and Methodists, Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church, Lutherans and Catholics and the list goes on. Everybody thinks their beliefs are right and often criticize and sometimes condemn people for attending a church not in their denomination. Subtly, churches become pitted against one another, competing for parishioners, and always trying to get one leg up on the other churches. Every denomination begins fighting for their own survival rather than trying to build the universal body of Christ.
This has gotten too long; I didn’t expect to write this much for the cons section. So I guess I’ll continue tomorrow with the positives offered by denominations. And I’d love to hear anymore drawbacks of denominations. This was just a preliminary overview. And if you are disgruntled at any of these cons, I’d really like to hear why. But then again, maybe you should wait until you read why I am a fan of denominations before you chastise me too much.