In reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat I was struck with its implications for denominationalism. One of the problems facing all major denominations is that they are experienced as a top-down hierarchy in an age when such top-down structures are viewed with distrust by many people. According to Friedman, one of the significant realities contributing to the flattening of the world is the ability of the computer/internet/webpage development that is empowering the individual. In developing his thesis, he spoke of how through technology one can form communities of interest in a way that could reinvent civic life and reinvigorate our democracy. It provides the means by which the individual can participate in the larger process. He spoke of it in terms of politics and business, but it made me wonder about what could take place within the church.
We see increasing evidence of individual churches charting their own course independent of their denomination. They even arrange their own international connections with other churches and communicate with them via the internet. What would be the impact of inviting individual Christians and churches to share in the struggle to make a corporate witness beyond that which is possible by one church? In essence, the denomination could bring before its membership the theological challenge of the witness of the denomination around a variety of concerns. For example, how should Christians reach out to other Christians who are suffering in Palestine while at the same time being sensitive to the concerns of their Jewish neighbors both in Israel and next door to many of our churches. (This was an issue that the Presbyterian Church has faced recently. Only the way that it happened was that a resolution was brought before the national body and the general membership was not even aware of the issue let alone having an opportunity to seek to have input to the actions of the church. Only after the national meeting voted did the various thoughts and feelings of the membership find expression. In many cases the responses were a negative reaction rather than a considered theological response.)
What I am proposing is that one of the denomination’s tasks is the enabling of individual churches to experience the breadth of Christianity that is reflected in the larger Christian community. Thanks to technology, such a conversation is not restricted by geography or national boundaries. The Gospel sounds different to a person living in poverty or experiencing an oppressive national situation than it does to someone who experiences a relatively comfortable life. Yet the church is made up of believers from a great variety of contexts and each need to hear the other. Theologians and biblical scholars should be engaged to craft the faith issue at stake.
It should not be a question of a majority vote and the paralyzing of the church at the level of the lowest common denominator of its membership. Christians, like most citizens, respond first out of a combination of fear and perceived self-interest. But the task of the larger church, like the task of the pastor of an individual church, is to bring the gospel to bear on the issues that confront us. Since many members of local churches were not born into the denomination of the church to which they belong, they do not have any inherited loyalty to those who work beyond the local church. If they could be engaged in such an ongoing conversation, augmented perhaps by local pastors reflecting on such issues from the pulpit, they could begin to experience their membership in the larger community.
I’m sure this needs thought through much more thoroughly but this is a beginning of how we might learn to be the church at a time when hierarchal structures are dyeing.