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The Joys of Non-Denominationalism

July 18, 2013

Twelve years ago, our Church paved the parking lot. After 145 years of gravel and grass, there was asphalt.

The Sunday after paving, a group of men were inspecting the work. After a general sense of nodding and approval, one elder, a life-long member and highly esteemed by all, said,

“We need to send a thank-you note to the United Methodist Conference.”

The rest of the group was taken back. In 1996, the congregation had experienced a difficult separation from the denomination. After decades of loyal membership, the Conference wanted to close the Church, and merge them with a larger congregation. Cynically, the membership at the time thought the Conference wanted the Church’s farm to cash out.

“Why would we send them a thank-you note?” asked one of the group.

“Well,” said Bob, “We’ve been able to pave the parking lot with the money we’ve saved by not it sending to the denomination.”

He was right. Peoria Church, with about 75 members had been sending nearly $10,000 a year in apportionments to the denomination. They hadn’t missed an apportionment payment since they joined with the Methodists around World War I.

The separation was sought by the parent denomination, not by the congregation, but through it, Peoria Church has learned an important fact: There are many joys in being non-denominational.

Now, there are dogs in the animal shelter who have better pedigrees than I have when it comes to denominations. I grew up Episcopalian, got involved with Campus Life in high school, and I attended a Church of God college. While on campus, I attended Churches of God and a Wesleyan Church. When home on college breaks, I attended my home parish (Episcopal) PLUS two nondenominational Churches: one small Church was led by a former United Methodist pastor and the other large one by an Assemblies of God pastor.

(Oddly enough, one of those nondenominational congregations no longer exists and the other is a shadow of its former self.)

After marriage, poor Karen dragged along with me. We attended the Episcopal Church for a while until the drunken priest misbehaved. From there we went to a different Church of God, and then landed in the Society of Friends through some family connexions. After the Quakers chewed me up and spit me out, I  went to a traditionalist Anglican parish for a while, did supply preaching for the Presbyterians and Baptists, and, in 1999, landed in the non-denominational parish I now serve as pastor. I work full-time in a Church of the Brethren home and have a weakness for Orthodox icons and an inclination for ritual.

There are many times I think I need to find a denomination and stick with it. As a pastor, there are advantages when it comes to ministry support, education, and fellowship. For the people of the Church, there are attachments to a wider sense of mission, youth camps, conferences, and events for spiritual growth and nurture. It would be less frustrating to have resources at my fingertips rather than constantly reinventing the wheel.

I think about those things UNTIL Karen or I run into someone and have a conversation that goes something like this:

“The [yearly meeting-conference-district-diocese] is losing so much money. The Church in [town] split. The [liberals-conservatives-evangelicals-charismatics] left because of [homosexuality-abortion-authority of Scripture-denominational identity] and they’re meeting at the [motel-school-cemetery Chapel-old Church that recently closed].”

OR

“We’ve been talking about [homosexuality-abortion-authority of Scripture-denominational identity] for over 30 years now and no one seems to budge. If only the [liberals-conservatives-evangelicals-charismatics] would set aside their agenda, we could all get along.”

OR

“Oh, he got out of the ministry. They wouldn’t give him a serious parish because of his stand on [homosexuality-abortion-authority of Scripture-denominational identity].”

OR

“I don’t know how they can call themselves [name-the-denomination] and allow [fill in A) a hot button issue; or B) change in worship style; or C) the latest technology in worship].

Ad nauseum.

Don’t get me wrong – being non-denominational can be tenuous. I have to preach intentionally on some very important subjects:

– The Church is far bigger than our little group in an Indiana corn field

– Christians come in all colors, languages, ethnic groups, nations, etc.

– It’s important to interact with other Christians on a regular basis, through service, prayer, interdenominational worship experiences, etc.

– I am grateful to have a congregation that is faithful and strong enough to keep me in my place, as well. They know I am a pastor and nothing more. I do not want the Church to be a personality cult and they are the right people to prevent that from happening.

At the same time, there is great joy in not being tied to a denomination.

First, our focus is local. We find this to be fulfilling, especially in Christ’s commandment to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” There are those who say, “well, the Pakistani (or others far away) is your neighbor, too.”

Fair enough. But my experience is that is easy to “love” Pakistanis (or others far away) by sending a check to the mission group or denominational board. It is far more difficult to take a meal to a shut-in neighbor or to comfort the woman who was in a late-night argument with her boyfriend the night before.

Loving neighbors means being part of the neighborhood, being there, knowing them and being one of them. The local, non-denominational congregation knows families, issues, situations, and needs in ways that a conference office in Indianapolis simply can’t.

Second, there is a wealth of resources to draw from. In our worship, we use the United Methodist hymnal as our core of worship (with the U.M. logo and name thoroughly expunged as ordered by the denominational hacks back in 1996). This gives us access to the rich hymnody of generations of Christian faith.

But we aren’t limited by that. Our Eucharistic liturgy is a very simplified version of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The core of our baptismal liturgy is from the hymnal (without references to the U.M.), but we’ve returned to the practice of the parish in the 1850’s of baptism in the river and we have chrismation at baptism. At the same time, we have special music from very free-traditions and guest speakers of many stripes. For the lectionary, I use the one in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

Third, there is the money. I can’t get over the taxation of local congregations to support conferences and denominations. Some do it very simply and basically. The Quakers are simple and tight-fisted by nature and their denominational assessments are minimal. Others are not so much. For example, why on earth was Peoria Church sending nearly $10,000 a year to the denomination for a membership of roughly 75 persons? Their total annual offerings are only around $40,000 a year.

Often, denominational money is spent in ways that local parishioners oppose, and oppose absolutely. I have never met a member of a denomination who opposed sending money to the [yearly meeting-conference-district-diocese] for camps, Sunday School, charitable work, missions, etc. I even know people who think it’s a good thing to support the denominational officials who have an important function to perform.

However, it’s when denominational hierarchs begin funding things not related to Church that the trouble begins.  Advocacy groups, “social justice,” union membership, political candidates, and other issues have had their fingers in the denominational till and, as a result, have caused denominations to founder.

I remember when I was in high school I was a youth delegate to the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio convention for two years. One year, the main banquet served some sort of soy-based product as the main dish because farmers were destroying the land and polluting the earth. I had a hard time explaining that to the farmers in our rural-oriented parish in Findlay. The other year, I became aware that we were meeting in one hotel in Cleveland with preference over another because the hotel we were in was “union” and the other was not. My awareness was piqued by the fact that the non-union hotel was significantly less expensive, yet we were using God’s money to “make a statement.”

The bishop’s agenda superseded the interests of our local parish.

Fourthly, without denominational constraints, we are allowed act as adults. In denominational situations, there is a sense of mothering that often becomes “smothering.” In my fourteen years at Peoria, we have given thousands of dollars to missions around the world, paved the parking lot, helped many neighbors with utility bills and food, raised hundreds of dollars for people in crisis locally and regionally, built an addition to the Church, built a pavilion and playground, and have kept up with the daily expenses of maintaining the Church property.

And we’ve done it without consultation from a denominational supervisor.

This adult relationship fosters trust in the Church and in the relationship with me as pastor to everyone else. I am a pastor: I do not know about plumbing, heating, painting, etc. The trustees do that. I am a pastor: while I do know management (I do that full-time at work), it is more important for the lay leader to conduct Church business because it is his Church. I am a pastor: I respect the value of everyone in the Church, from the unemployed to the retired, from the pre-schooler to the college student. No one is better or worse than anyone else – we trust each other, respect each other, and, in a word, we love each other.

Finally, there is freedom. When we make a decision on a local level, it is not undone by someone in Marion or Lafayette or Indianapolis. When we want to make plans, we just do it. We have our by-laws and constitution, our committees and work groups and they work freely and independently AND cooperatively with one another. We have a structure that fits us, we don’t have to conform to a structure that is imposed and not a good fit.

There is also that sense of freedom to be what the Reformers were looking for 500 years ago. Martin Luther’s rediscovery of “the just shall live by faith” broke chains that had bound Christians for many years. Luther and the other reformers replaced institutional Christianity with faith that empowered men and women – individuals – to be who God wants them to be.

This last point is really the main point. As a Christian, my identity is not in the denomination (or non-denomination) I’m attached to. My identity is in Jesus Christ. With faith in Him, the life of God is available freely and unending. It is because of Jesus Christ that I know God’s love, His mercy, His patience, His grace, and have that “peace that passes all understanding.”

God was not incarnate to make me an Anglican. He didn’t create the world so we all could be Brethren. He doesn’t move in the lives of human beings to make us all Catholics. He didn’t institute His Sacraments so that we can exclude each other from them. He didn’t suffer and die in order to create rules and regulations; rather, He conquered death by His own death so that we who are entombed in the sorrow of this life may have His eternal life.

To me, that is the greatest joy of being non-denominational.

 

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One Comment
  1. One of your best — maybe the best!

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