by Rev. Dr. Robert R. LaRochelle
The following are some rather established facts regarding the current state of institutionalized religion in the United States:
1. Traditional mainline denominations have experienced a significant decline in numbers.
2. Mergers and cooperative arrangements between/among denominations have raised questions regarding the relative importance of denominations and whether affiliating with a particular established church is really that big of a deal.
Some would argue that nit picking about the differences between and among Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and the like is wasted energy and really problematic when set against Jesus’ expressed intent that His followers ‘all be one’.
In this brief space, I wish to make a case for the importance of denominational identity. In so doing, I make two points:
1. The unique theological insights that have marked the establishment of denominations need to be preserved. As an example, I would cite the incredible work of a Martin Luther or a John Wesley, among others, work which eventually led to denominations with polity and liturgy that reflected these unique theological contributions.
2. Ecumenism, in its best sense, involves finding ways to incorporate insights and practices from traditions not one’s own. In this regard, I would urge Methodists to learn more about Luther and Lutherans to learn more about Wesley, etc. Particular hymns, for example, from various traditions represent theological approaches and nuances that can help expand peoples’ awareness of the depth of Christian theology and practice.
Contemporary church practice has included a proliferation of independent churches, megachurches, and those with very loose affiliation with historic Christian theology. Many of these churches of a more conservative bent focus on the simple act of ‘accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.’ Many more progressive ones convey a message that actual theology is less important than connection around a particular set of values. They emphasize a conviction that within this church one can hold to a wide variety of perspectives. As a more progressively oriented Christian myself, I am comfortable with diversity of thought within a church. My point is that I would like it if people engaged with and had dialogue around different theological perspectives, including an exploration of their roots.
Basically, what I am calling for is an active, vibrant approach to education within local churches, an education which does not deny, yet rather encompasses the great diversity of the church’s tradition. Healthy, exciting conversations can be had by both youth and adults around topics such as: God, God’s will, sin, afterlife, salvation, etc…The varied, diverse resources of Christian theology and liturgy, born of denominational history, can illumine current conversation and bring it to yet unexplored depth.
I would appreciate if you would discuss the implications of what I am saying for life in a local church community, perhaps your own!
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