In discussion about a forthcoming UK project with Jonny and some others from various networks on Friday, the question was asked “where do we want to be [with this project] in 5 years?” In the ensuing debate the question was then raised: “in what way is what we are doing not the establishment of a denomination?”
This set me thinking about what is going on in the Emerging Church, and perhaps in particular in Emergent in the US. In 5 years time, will this all boil down to another denomination? Are we plotting the same basic trajectory as Vineyard, with MClaren as Wimber, the same exciting conferences, and broadband playing the part of the Spirit? And will this exciting freedom distill down to something… different when the second generation comes? Is this the inevitable fate of any movement?
Let’s be clear from the start, this is not about a value judgement on denominations. It’s not ‘denomination bad, non-denomination good.’ Denomination faith has basically been a framework that has kept the Church going through thick and thin. But the price for this soldiering tenacity is a perhaps always a limit on free expression. Either way, we would be foolish to walk blindly on without considering what the various paths would be likely to hold.
The Wiktionary entry on denominations is, I think, excellent:
1. The act of naming or designating.
2. That by which anything is denominated or styled; an epithet; a name, designation, or title; especially, a general name indicating a class of like individuals; a category; as, the denomination of units, or of thousands, or of fourths, or of shillings, or of tons.
3. A class, or society of individuals, called by the same name; a sect; as, a denomination of Christians.
One might say that you become a denomination as soon as you name something. The ‘act of naming’ is important. It is a marker, a fixed point from which an inevitable boundary is made around. The immediate problem with naming though is this: who is allowed to take that name? In other words, to name, to denominate, is to have to set up some means by which one has to decide who is in or out. And the inevitable solution to this issue is ‘we need some kind of authority structure.’ Which someone needs paying for. And I guess they could use an office and…
Let’s say that we (chance would be a fine thing) have a sudden interest in ‘Complex Christianity.’ A movement begins. Disparate people begin to meet and share ideas. They get excited. Organize a conference. Loads of people come. “We want to go further with this” the people cry. So someone is employed to do some networking, some paid work to co-ordinate.
Then some joker starts calling their group ‘The Church of Christ the Complex, Royston Vasey.’ What do we do? Should we stop them? What if what they are doing doesn’t share our values? Some people might go their expecting one thing, but get disillusioned when they find something else. We need to protect people from fraud. We ought to stamp this out. And have some official channel by which people might become authentic ComplexChurches™. Flip forward 10 years and the kids who were brought along by their parents can’t stand the damn thing with its constricting value statement and list of rules… One of them happens on a book about Evangelicalism, and starts a group called The New Evangelicals… It’s popular, a movement begins…
To be honest, I hope that the Emerging Church can break this cycle. As I’ve written in the book, what I’d love to see is a new ’emergent church’ evolving… with local incarnations as different as need be. It is a very human temptation to give names to networks of relationships, and thus give them structures and power. To name is in in-corporate. To make a body out of a group. A body that needs a head…
It is interesting to note Christ’s response to a potentially similar situation. In Luke 9, two disciples are caught arguing about who would be the greatest; who would have the most power. “And Jesus took a little child and said ‘whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me.’” Luke then makes the point even more strongly by adding “Master, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and tried to stop him because he’s not one of us.” Don’t, said Jesus. He never gave the 12 a special group name. Nor did he give a name to the movement he started. Nor did he want people being stopped who used his name. To do so would have been to draw a line about who was in or out. Instead, he told his disciples that the very act of inclusion in his name was the way forward.
In our discussions on Friday we agreed that it boiled down to the issue of how you interpreted inclusion. You can do it top-down: issue a set of rules/values for people to sign up to, and if they don’t they’re out and the lawyers get called. Or you can develop it bottom-up. The name as node: a central resource point from which people can freely connect to others. Sure, the ‘denomination’ decides the governing dynamics, but after that, it lets the thing go free to evolve and develop from the relationships that make it up. Ideally, nothing would require naming, but this requires a degree of trust in the people involved, and intelligent systems of feedback to ensure that people can work out for themselves what is good or not. It also requires trust in the Spirit to work in people. Trust in the only name that we actually need. Trust in the one who names us, but has no name.