Thursday, March 5, 2009

In Defense of the Denomination

I realize this is all uncited and has no historical proof. This is because I am lazy. If I ever try and publish this in slaughtered tree form, I will have footnotes and everything, I promise.

When folk first started the non-apostolic denominations (here I'm speaking most of the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Congregationalists, and their ilks) in America, they had one goal in mind. They tended to stick with their theological (and, therefore, to some degree, ethnic) confessional brethren, but the purpose of national denominations in the states was not a confessing church on the European model. Rather, they were hoping to do ministry.

A regular-sized congregation in this country has relatively limited reach outside their own sphere. Certainly, there are opportunities in their local areas, and sometimes they can afford to send mission trips to nearby/cheap nations, but they can't afford to build and maintain hospitals, schools, or any of the other staples of international missions as far away as Africa or Asia.

When this was recognized in the 18th (ish) century, local congregations of similar theological background banded together, not for governance, but to pool their resources, to send missions to the places that need them most desperately. These purely local movements grew into national ones, in which governance became folded into the more ministerial functions. But international missions were a prime goal of the American denominations.

I would that I had data to give you. I do not. But what I'm hearing these days is that, as denominations, our funding for international missions, and for mission work in our own country, is falling. We are turning inward, asking why we should give our hard-earned dollars to local governing bodies and the national conventions above them.

I am committed to the Church of Jesus Christ universal, and to my membership of it. I am also, to a lesser extent, committed to my national denomination - to the PC(USA), not because I think it's the most lucrative, or the most powerful, but because there are structures in place in my beloved presbytery meetings for trying to convince people, and for being convinced. Real dialogue is a possibility, and we can learn from one another even as we disagree.

So, my Presbyterian brethren, I beg you - stick with us. From the bottom up, we need to continue to be committed to the goals and ideals of a denomination concerned with mission, and with helping people, as Christ called us to do.

And from the top down, we need a revitalized call to missions, both at home and abroad. In these dire days, there is more need than ever for real engagement with our problems. Like President Obama's vision of government, let our churches be committed to solutions, not parts of the problems.

There is a second part to this story, coming soon to a feed reader near you...

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