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Brian D. McLaren: Denominations do invaluable things

A major figure in the emerging church talks about what’s good about denominations, the challenges the organizations face and some “wild ideas” for the future.

January 19, 2010

Editor’s note: As the Christian landscape changes, leaders must ask and answer a new question: What’s the future of denominations? This video is part of an occasional series that offers the thoughts of people across American Christianity on this vital issue. To see the entire series, click here.

Denominations are important because they embody an ethos, provide connection and are able “to see and solve problems,” said Brian D. McLaren,  an author, pastor and public speaker.

But denominations must turn from a “problem focus to a goal focus” if they are to remain relevant, especially to young people, he said.

McLaren is a pastor and intellectual leader in the emerging church. He is the author of a number of influential books, including “The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix,” “A Generous Orthodoxy” and “The Secret Message of Jesus.” McLaren has appeared on Larry King Live, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, and Nightline. His work also has been featured in Christianity Today, Christian Century and the Washington Post.

He was a college English teacher before 1982, when he helped form Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Baltimore-Washington area and became the church’s founding pastor.

McLaren spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about the future of denominations. The video above contains additional comment on this topic.

Q: As the founder of an interdenominational church, how would you describe the state of Christian denominations today?

What denominations do well:

  1. Embody an ethos.
  2. Conserve treasures.
  3. Support relationships.
  4. Protect physical assets.
  5. Protect and preserve human assets.
  6. See and solve problems.
  7. Create policies.

 

Questions to consider:

  1. Which of these functions does your denomination carry out?
  2. What does your denomination do well that should be added to the list?
  3. Which are essential to the vitality of congregations?
  4. Why are you a part of a denomination?

There are a handful of things that denominations are doing extremely well. The first is they embody an ethos. It’s almost like a brand name but it’s a true identity that denominations must conserve. Second, they conserve treasures. Those treasures are a whole range of things such as doctrines, memories and virtues. Third, denominations support relationships. They help people find local churches; they also support regional relationships, national and global relationships.

Next, denominations play an important role in protecting physical assets: buildings, universities, publications and all the rest. They also have to protect and preserve human assets, taking care of clergy and other people important to the community. They provide things like pensions, insurance and professional development. These are very important tasks.

Next, I think denominations are doing a good job of seeing and solving problems. Finally, when you see and solve problems you want to keep those problems from happening again, so you create policies. That to me would be a list of the things that denominations are doing extremely well.

When it comes to the future, each of these strengths now needs to be modified and evolved in order to face this changing world. The fields of journalism, economics and education are undergoing profound changes; this has to happen for denominations as well.

Denominations now need to pay attention to the evolving of an ethos. An ethos that was formed in the 17th century or the 19th century needs an update. Who do we want to be? Not just who have we been? The articulation and pursuit of that ethos is critical for denominations.

Then they have to not only protect old treasures, but to enhance those treasures by bringing in new treasures. That involves some deep theological work, engaging with new questions and making sure that our tradition is not a dead but a living tradition.

Denominations need to go beyond supporting relationships to actually expanding relationships. We all know, for example, that most of our denominations are racially segregated. The changes needed won’t happen by accident. There has to be intentional work -- not just in dealing with race, but maybe even more difficult -- dealing with social class. Social class segregates most of our denominations. What will it mean for us to really build more broadly there? There are also global relationships, and relationships across denominations and, increasingly, the expansion of relationships across religious boundaries, too.

Next, from preserving physical assets the challenge will be to leverage physical assets. In some cases this will mean shutting buildings and deciding what to do with the conversion of the physical assets into liquid assets.

How are we going to reinvest that money? The development of human assets becomes tremendously important. And I think denominations will have big opportunities here, if they seize them. Not just to see how we can put people through the traditional pipeline of leadership, but how do we develop new kinds of leaders? How do we recruit leaders from new sources?

Denominations are good at seeing and solving problems but now they’re going to have to see a whole new set of problems and turn from a problem focus to a goal focus, because when you focus on problems you assume everything’s okay, thinking, “We just have to keep solving the little glitches that come up.” When you say we’re not where we need to be, then you have to deal with something beyond problems. That’s where vision becomes so important.

Finally, I think denominations have created a huge body of policy, and that policy is good at keeping bad things from happening. But what happens when we don’t have that many bad things happening? We just have a lack of good things happening. We need a conversion from being policy-making organizations to being policy-reducing organizations where we create “free-trade zones.” We create zones with a different kind of policy that encourages creativity rather than tries to preclude or solve problems.

We all accept the idea that denominations are institutions, and I think most of us are beyond the point of seeing institutions as a bad thing. We see them as essential, important things. We might say that institutionalism is a bad thing, or the institution loses its external mission and its whole purpose for existence what in politics we call regime continuation.

That brings to the surface the real challenge, maybe the deepest challenge for denominations.

When the seas are smooth and you’re the crew of the ship, you just have to deal with a breakdown in the engine room and solve that, and a small leak over here and solve that. You’re in the problem-solving mode. In a storm, you’re in a very different situation; suddenly you have to get all hands on deck to deal with rapidly changing conditions.

It’s no longer about keeping things at equilibrium. Now we’re dealing with constant external change. Add one more detail: What would happen if we got lost and now we don’t even know where we are or where we’re going? Now the crew is in a completely different situation. It’s the difference between institutional maintenance and institutional management and institutional leadership -- the kind of heroic, transformational institutional leadership that’s needed.

A lot of us talk about the fact that we live in an increasingly post-Christian environment. Others would say post-Christendom environment, where the church no longer works from a position of power but works more from the margins. Some people lament that. They wish we could get back to the good old days of Christendom.

Others of us think no, it actually compromised our message to be in that position of power. We’re better off seeing ourselves at the margins. When you’re at the margins, you rediscover yourselves as a movement as well as an institution.

Q: How do you see the Christian church in the future?

In the future we have to see ourselves as a missional movement. We need to be able to go to a 16-year-old, 18-year-old, a young adult and say, “This is a place to invest your life” -- whether it’s as clergy or as a committed member. We’re not asking you to invest your time and money to keep something from the past going. We’re asking you to invest your time, money, energy, skill and passion to be part of a movement upon which an awful lot depends. That’s the kind of message that is worthy of inviting a young person’s involvement and worthy of keeping adults involved through their life cycle.

When you lose that, you lose younger people because just maintaining something from the past isn’t a worthy goal in their mind. A lot of us would say, “Thank God that it’s not a worthy goal.” Because we’d hate to see their best energies diverted away from a movement that could make a difference in the world to maintenance of some rituals and practices of the past.

I grew up in a what you might call a fundamentalist denomination. It almost bordered on a sect. Then, in my years as a young Christian, I became involved in a wider array of denominations. I saw beauty, goodness and values in each of them. I saw weaknesses and problems in each one. What struck me were not the differences between denominations but the commonalities.

I ended up becoming a church planter of a church that was nondenominational. I would have been happy to join a denomination, if a denomination would have brought me more benefits than it brought me liabilities. That just never occurred. There were some real costs to not being part of a denomination. We had to take care of our own insurance. I was in charge of my own professional development. I had to create my own groups for mentoring and peer accountability. There were practical costs when it came time to borrow money to buy land and build a building. It’s not easy to go to a bank with nobody standing behind you.

But, if I were to add up all of those costs and compare them to the liabilities of most of the denominations that I could have joined, the costs were worth it. To maintain the possibility of freedom, to maintain a lack of being sucked into a lot of internal politics that would distract us from external mission.

Now, you might think, having said that, that I’m against denominations, but that’s not true at all. I believe that denominations do invaluable things. If they all disappeared tomorrow, we would have to start rebuilding them the next day. They’re inevitable and important, but we need to reduce some of the liabilities and increase what they bring to the table for young leaders, like myself at the age of 26 beginning a new congregation.

Q: Working in your own church, how do you relate to denominations?

The future is ecumenical, and ecumenical means two things. It means having a tradition, but it means not being limited by your tradition. There’s a paradox in an ecumenical identity. Most of the leaders that I see in whatever this emerging phenomenon is, they want real connectionalism. They want a connectionalism that enhances cross-confessional connection. They don’t want a limiting connectionalism; they want an expanding connectionalism.

That, to me, is one of the great opportunities as we move forward. It parallels the struggle between Internet-based news and old-fashioned newspapers. It becomes pretty hard to think you’re better off to only read The New York Times and nothing else versus seeing the same story covered in six or eight different outlets. There’s something analogous to that in this whole emerging church phenomenon.

Just as an example: In the last week I’ve talked with some young church planters and other seasoned leaders; one is Episcopalian, but he is reading Jurgen Moltmann; this Lutheran theologian is helping this Episcopal priest. Meanwhile, I was with a Baptist who is reading Richard Rohr, who’s a Franciscan. People are saying we need cross-pollination. It is very important to the future of our denominations to view themselves not as narrowing alleys but as portals into the widest sense of the Christian tradition.

Q: Could you give some examples of how denominations might function as portals?

Often denominational leaders ask, “What do you think we should do?” If I were to throw out some wild ideas, I could do it under the categories of each of those strengths I spoke of at the beginning of this interview.

Take the strength of ethos. What would happen if denominations decided to change their names? That’s a crazy idea, but in another sense being defined by your polity is kind of crazy, too. We’re Presbyterian, we’re Episcopalian. Think about what it would mean to change your name.

I talked about the preservation of treasures. What would happen if we took some of our old treasures, our creeds and so on and we said, “They’re great, but the church is a living tradition?” So a major goal we have is to write new commitments -- not creeds, but commitments. Here are the things we want to do, and now let’s write new creeds to help us achieve those commitments. It’s a wild idea that could make a difference.

Denominations do a great job of supporting relationships but they need to expand relationships. What if denominations were to set a quota of a certain number of clergy they need to recruit from outside their denomination? For example, a Mennonite can do things for Pentecostals that Pentecostals can’t do for themselves. Pentecostals can do things for Episcopalians that Episcopalians could never do for themselves. That idea.

Denominations leverage physical assets. What if they were to put the assets from every church that shuts down into a fund for the development of new ministries? What if that money were sequestered to launch creativity? We’re going to recycle the death of old institutions into the birth of new things. Crazy idea.

What if we said that pastors are like teachers, they need the summer off? What if we required pastors to have an annual four-week learning sabbatical, aimed toward their personal development? Would we get more creative and high-quality work in the other 11 months?

Under the category of setting new goals, what if we focused on behaviors rather than results? For example, we could say we want our churches to evangelize. We can say that and set a goal, but that doesn’t make it happen. If we said we want our members, beginning with our clergy, to join civic organizations so that they have relationships outside the church. That behavior could produce more results than setting a goal for new people.

And denominations are great at setting policy. What if one of their policies was to create a policy-free zone, a free-trade zone, so to speak, where new things can start with a different set of rules? Here’s another way to say it: What if denominations were to plan to start a new denomination under their name, or maybe with a different name?

These are just some crazy ideas that help me break out of some of the ruts we get into.