Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Faith Works 1-8

Faith Works 1-8-11

Jeff Gill


Organized Religion: Don't All Laugh At Once!



Other than missionary stories, I didn't know about a "church" beyond my own church until my junior year of high school.


We had our pastor move to Florida to take a church there, and the "region" helped out a great deal; that's what my denomination calls the part of church life that might be known in your communion as a diocese, a synod, presbytery or conference.


They helped lay leadership organize a search committee (unlike in Catholic or Methodist churches where the pastor is sent by the church hierarchy), and connected us with an interim minister while we looked, who served with us almost two years.


When I went to college and got active in campus ministry, I attended regional events that brought together youth and young adults from around our state, and ended up serving on an ecumenical board that connected a number of "middle judicatories" of different faith traditions together.


Then I went to seminary, and got to see denominational hierarchy at work, up close and personal. It was . . . interesting.


Becky Garrison and I are almost exactly the same age, but her experiences of denominational structures are much more ambivalent . . . OK, negative, than mine have been, and I wouldn't call mine too awful good.


Last year she wrote a book titled "Jesus Died For This?" with the word "this" in bright, testy red. It's a bit of a personal memoir, to some degree a travelogue around the (western Protestant) Christian world, and generally a critical look at the developing forms of church that are arising as most of the Protestant world is seeing traditional or formerly called "mainline" church bodies implode.


Some will find the word "implode" a bit harsh, but the catastrophic declines in membership, attendance, and giving to national/general denominational structures really can't be described any other way.


In the wake of that devolution are two phenomena: a rise of decentralized if not entirely non-denominational forms of local church that tend to the more charismatic or Pentecostal in their worship format & leadership, even among formerly mainline Protestant folk. The number of non-denominational churches has tripled, from 5 to 15% of US congregations just over the last decade.


Then there's something called "emergent" church, which is a broadly persistent if numerically small expression of local church community.


Emergent church is a special interest of Becky's, and she knows most of the well-known players in that world -- as well as showing us, in her book, what some of the unknown forms look like.


Boomers (as measured in an AARP study using born from 1946 to 1964) have shown a dramatic drop in having "a great deal of confidence in organized religion" accompanied by a corresponding increase in "hardly any confidence at all," the drop being to barely 10% with, and some 27% utterly without.


That's a growing third of our largest demographic group with no confidence in organized religion.


Organized religion – for most, that's not denominational structures, that's a mix of two things: the clerical leadership that most often comes from somewhere else, trained by the denomination and our most visible representative of that body (whether we clergyfolk see ourselves that way or not), and the structure of the functional (or dysfunctional) congregation. Whether it's called a board, a consistory, a session, a vestry, or a leadership team, that's the face of organized religion to the people both in and out of the church.


When we fight, we split, we carry out our disagreements in public (or unsuccessfully try to hide them), we are the image of organized religion to everyone looking on.


It's not that churches shouldn't ever fight – sometimes, as in a marriage, no fighting means no communication. The question is HOW you work through disagreements, and your end product shouldn't just be another dispute, but some kind of concrete expression of your ideals & intentions in action.


When churches ONLY fight, or at least that's all people know of about us, and they don't see much else going on, they think "heh, organized religion. Yeah. Right."


Which is why I really like Becky's latest book, "Starting From Zero With $0," which is about "Building mission-shaped ministries on a shoestring" as the subtitle says. It has ideas for pretty much any sort of congregation. "Jesus Died For This?" outlines why people are skeptical about what churches can do; "Starting From Zero" gives us all some good guidance for what we ought to be doing.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he's heard all the "organized religion" jokes there are, probably. But see if he's heard yours, at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.