Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Are there too few mainline denominations?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

My last blog raised the question of how we can structurally support innovation in The United Methodist Church. I argued that this is a particularly important question for those interested in mission since mission is a primary form of innovation for the church.

This week I will look at a common strategy for evangelical Christians in the United States to support innovation: innovation through organizational multiplication.

There are many more evangelical denominations in the US than there are mainline denominations, and more are being created all the time. There are something along the lines of 10,000 denominations in the US. A couple dozen of these are mainline Protestant, a dozen or so are Catholic, and a few dozen are some form of Orthodox. The rest are evangelical Protestant denominations. Many of these denominations are tiny, but there are a lot of them.

There are also many evangelical para-denominational, interdenominational, or non-denominational organizations. These include cooperative ministries, non-profits, educational institutions, media outfits, and a whole slew of other forms of organizational life.

Because evangelicalism has a decentralized and personalized sense of authority, evangelicals frequently feel free to go ahead and start their own thing, whether that’s a church, a denomination, or a religious non-profit, without needing to seek authorization from others. The bar to create new organizations is low, which leads to more new organizations.

Thus, innovators can easily start their own (separate) structures, which will then suit their own needs and support whatever form of innovation they are engaged in. Of course, not all new denominations or other evangelical organizations are innovations. Some are created to resist innovation and keep things the same. The point is, though, that if an evangelical Christian in the US wants to do something innovative, they often feel divinely authorized to create their own new organizational structures to support that innovation without needing the say-so of existing organizational structures.

This leads to a free-market approach to religious organizational innovation. Some innovations find support and succeed, and some don’t, but the innovators are empowered to develop and accountable for developing their own thing.

Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argue that such a free-market approach to religion that provides more religious choices is good for religious adherence. Thus, more evangelical denominations may mean more evangelicals. Of course, questions may persist about the depth of discipleship and the accuracy of theological and moral understandings developed through a consumerist approach to religion. Paul says untruth sells (2 Timothy 4:3). But if the goal is members and you accept Stark and Finke, then this approach is a good strategy.

In terms of mission, more organizations may also mean more missionaries and more money for mission if there’s more opportunities to get involved and a lower bar to entry. Again, there may be questions about whether this is the “right kind” of mission. Pictures of orphans bring in donations, even if those orphanages have negative consequences in their communities. Yet following Stark and Finke’s argument again, there’s a reason to think more options for mission = more support of mission.

The number of mainline denominations, on the other hand, decreased over the twentieth century through a series of mergers and a disinclination to start new mainline denominations. This lack of religious options and competitors on the mainline side may be one reason for mainline membership decline starting in the mid-twentieth century, if you buy Stark and Finke’s argument. By contrast, evangelical membership only began to decline in the last decade or so.

Mainline denominations also generally reduced the number of organizations conducting mission over the 20th century as they merged organizations responsible for men’s and women’s work and domestic and foreign work. Organizational consolidation may have decreased interest in mission among mainline Protestants.

Thus, one answer to the question of organizational support for church innovation in The United Methodist Church would be to have more United Methodists go off and form their own organizations, separate from the current structure. This argument is sometimes advanced in favor of UMC schism.

I’m not making that argument here. But I think the appeal of this approach to Americans does put the onus on those committed to some form of continued organizational connection to provide an account of how innovation can still happen within that larger organizational system. I’ll offer one such possibility next week.

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