By Graham Glover –
Seriously, what’s so important about the membership one holds in a particular church body these days?
Does one’s denominational affiliation really mean what so many of us theologians wish it did?
Don’t misinterpret what I’m asking. The theological differences between church bodies are immensely important. I’m a lifelong member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for a reason. As one who daily works alongside clergy from other denominations, I fully appreciate why Christendom is not united. Church bodies don’t just disagree on cursory and stylistic things. They disagree on substance. Their divisions are strong. And I don’t anticipate things changing anytime soon. It might even get worse. Our disagreements will likely become deeper.
But are these disagreements and divisions really that important to the average layman?
Again, don’t misinterpret what I’m asking. Some of our laymen are fully versed on the teachings of our respective church bodies. Some of them have left denominations over theological disagreements. We Lutherans should appreciate the need to separate over doctrinal differences…
I’m just not sure that most Christians care a whole lot about these things anymore. I don’t have quantitative data to back up my hypothesis, but I’m guessing such data is out there and my experience tells me I’m right.
Consider the following: How can someone living in Colorado during the summer, attending a non-denominational mega-church that fully embraces contemporary worship, which talks little about doctrine, then move to Arizona for the winter and attend a small, but vibrant LCMS parish that worships with the Liturgy and is deeply committed to discussing theology? Or what about the Soldier that grew up Roman Catholic, attends Mass on Christmas, Easter, etc. and even seeks out the Catholic chaplain for confession when things are tough at his Unit, but jumps at the chance to go to the Protestant field service and commune with a Presbyterian chaplain, and is also about to marry an agnostic? Then there are Christians who couldn’t tell you much about what their denomination teaches, only that they have always attended those type of churches or that they were drawn to that particular congregation because the people seemed nice. Try asking Christians what really separates them from other Christians and I doubt you’ll get much. “Church X is more traditional” (whatever that means). “Church Y has communion every week” (but don’t presume they know what their church confesses about communion). “Church Z has an awesome band that plays some cool songs” (even if they can’t remember the lyrics…it’s the instrumentation they love). “Church XYZ reached out to me when I was going through a rough time (a wonderful gesture, but why weren’t you going there beforehand). Or, what I get all too often from my Soldiers, “I don’t know why I go there. I just do” (no comment necessary…)
These examples are all too common. I think they are or are becoming the norm. And yet they still don’t fully explain why so many Christians these days go to or become members of a particular congregation/denomination. I’m increasingly convinced that individuals join a particular congregation and/or denomination, not because of their stance on theological issues, but because of the cursory and stylistic things I suggested aren’t really that important. They go and join for the most unchurchly of reasons.
Maybe I’m wrong. I wish I was wrong. But I don’t think I am.
I think church membership is very important. But I’m an LCMS clergyman that is fully immersed in the talk and practice of theology every day of my life. Which makes me the minority – both in vocation and in thinking about the significance of church membership.
What say you?