It seems that denominationalism has had its day. A 2009 Barna survey found that denominational commitments have gone squishy in mainline Protestant churches, and Evangelicals don’t fare much better than the rest. After a similar survey, Ron Sellers of what was then Ellison Research said that Protestants are as “loyal to their denominations as they are to their toothpaste.” Denominationalism may recover, but its diseases look terminal. This toothpaste isn’t ready to return to the tube.
Like most everything, this development has its pluses and minuses. Denominations were born of a catholic spirit. They enabled believers to maintain their distinctive beliefs without de-churching the rest of the Christian world. It would be tragic if the decline of denominations left the church less catholic. Plus, without thick denominational loyalties, Christians abandon their churches at the first shimmy of trouble. Once upon a time, Anglicans stuck it out because even an incompetent pastor and an ugly carpet were preferable to joining the Lutherans. Today Lutheranism is a live option. And the Barna survey found that low denominational loyalty often expressed a weak adherence to Christianity itself. Slightly less than half of the respondents were “absolutely” committed to Christianity, and most might be enticed to explore other religions.
I take a more sanguine view. Denominational decline is one feature of our boundary-bursting age, and, if the churches respond rightly, a more catholic church may emerge from the rubble. Theologian James B. Jordan long ago pointed to the recurring pattern of creation, collapse, and recreation in biblical history. When God begins to make Israel new, he first tears down the old Israel. When God gets ready to build a temple, he first sends in the Philistines to rip the tabernacle to tatters. Today’s disorienting ecclesial chaos is a crisis, but crises shake open the doors to the Christian future.
What will replace denominationalism? The real answer is, we don’t know. Especially in times of crisis, the future is never a simple extrapolation from the present. God does new things. Yet we have some reason to expect that one big new thing will have to do with cities.
Back in 2008, the human race turned a corner. For the first time in history (so far as we know!), the majority lives in large towns and cities. Prognosticators prognosticate that within a couple of decades, there will be 5 billion people in cities and towns, especially in Africa and Asia. Seven hundred cities in the world already have populations over one million.
Many churches have noticed this trend and reoriented their ministries accordingly. White flight has gone into reverse. However halting, despite the hiccoughs and errors, it’s hard not to be strangely warmed that many churches aspire to replicate the work of the early church, stunningly summarized by Rodney Stark in one of my favorite quotations: “Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
Mix these two factors together—denominational decline and urbanization—and you have the contours of a new (old) metropolitan model of church. Under denominationalism, Presbyterian pastors in Atlanta reserve closer ties with Presbyterians in Macon or Minnesota than with the Methodist across the street. In fact, the Presbyterian and the Methodist may never meet, even though each could look out his office window and see the other staring back across the avenue, if only they would raise the blinds. In a metropolitan model, the Presbyterian and the Methodist see themselves primarily as ministers in a local community, co-laborers with the Lutherans and Pentecostals and Catholics on the next block, working together to build a semblance of the city of God within the city of man.
Embodying a metropolitan model of the church won’t be easy. One of the primary obstacles is theology. Arcane as they appear, theological differences do have practical consequences, often enormous. When churches work together, they often function as de facto latitudinarians, shuttling their theological differences to the Closet Reserved for Unmentionable Things. That won’t do. Cordial chitchat at the ministerial association won’t be enough. If there is going to be deep cooperation and communion, there has to be greater theological consensus, and to reach a consensus, the churches and their leaders must be committed to the hard work of common prayer, worship, service, and study. A truly metropolitan church will have to be more deeply catholic than we can imagine.
It’s going to be confusing for quite a while, and forging a metropolitan church won’t be easy. But it’s worth the trouble. Where ministers work and pray together to serve the city, remarkable things happen. Today’s confusion is the formless void over which the Spirit hovers until the church is born again.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.