The Irrelevant Church

IrrelevantA week ago I wrote about The Obsolete Church.  In that post I suggested that while the little c church (local congregations or communities of faith) remains vital the big C Church (denominations and other institutional expressions) have become obsolete.  That post generated more feedback in a variety of forums than any piece I wrote all summer.

Apparently “obsolete” is not as clear of a word as I thought it was.  As a result, I will try to build on what I said in that piece by adding a new word that I understand to overlap with that word: “irrelevant.”

In response to a recent interview question from Frederick Clarkson about what kind of church is emerging, John C. Dorhauer – General Minister and President of the United Chuch of Christ – labeled institutional expressions of religion “irrelevant.” He responds:

What is emerging is the authentic endeavor of people engaged in spiritual practices and disciplines that they find deeply meaningful. They experience institutional religion as stale, irrelevant, and unable to fulfill their spiritual longings and desires.

Additionally, Dorhauer, himself the leader of a denomination, believes our future church

is and will be far less committed to a denominational identity than the institutional church. Practitioners won’t find meaning in declaring loyalty to a denomination. They will not only sample the best practices from a variety of Christian traditions, but their spiritual horizons will invite them into a larger spiritual field.

So What?

I was born, baptized, raised, confirmed, and spent all of my growing up years in a congregation with strong ties to a Mainline Protestant denomination.  I have spent my adult years serving in lay and pastoral positions in congregations that have all been affiliated with Mainline Protestant denominations.  In other words, I have invested a great deal of myself into communities of faith that have supported the very expression of church that I am arguing has become obsolete and is increasingly irrelevant.

I applaud denomination leaders, especially John Dorhauer, for identifying our present reality honestly.  I recognize that the very construct of denomination has been and for the most part continues to lean heavily upon a modern understanding of organizational or institutional authority.

I am in the midst of preaching an extended sermon series on key words in the Christian vocabulary. The series is based loosely on Marucs Borg’s brilliant book Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored (HarperOne, 2011).  In this volume, Borg argues that core words like salvation, Bible, sin, and heaven should be redeemed rather than replaced. For redemption to be possible we must be willing to let go of the dominant understandings that rose to popularity since the Enlightenment.

In a rather similar way, I believe we should not throw out the word denomination nor the idea of denominations/networks.  We must, however, be open to divorcing them of their meaning and structure inasmuch as either is a thoroughly modern invention or construct.  We must dig deeper. We must ask the hard questions about purpose and value. We must be willing to reimagine in big bold ways what denomination can and should be and become for a postmodern era.

  • Do you agree or disagree with the irrelevance of the American Church with a capital C in the ways it is most commonly expressed today? Explain.
  • If you believe denominations have become irrelevant, then what steps do you think would be most helpful to restoring some degree of relevance for our postmodern era? Alternatively, if you believe denominations remain relevant share why you hold this view and offer some wisdom to beginning bridge building work with those holding an opposing view.

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