There are a lot of Christian denomenations. Some think that is bad, because they are seen to be evidences of disunity and dissention in the Christian Church universal. Some hope that we might be able to unite all Christians under a single unified institutional church. I think of denomenations kind of like I think of cities. Some cities are great, some cities are not very good. Some have high crime and terrible infrastructure and are in disrepair. Others are growing, dynamic, beautiful exciting and places you’d want to live. Some may fit me really well, others are places I could live without too much trouble. Others probably aren’t for me, and others still I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.
There are a wide variety of church theological difference, style, worship, tradition, history and approaches to life. For me, a fundamental concern is whether or not the church has basic theological commitments of Christianity. The truths found in the early creeds of the church are enough—about who Christ is, and his death, resurrection and basic tennents of salvation. Of course there are differences of opinion about theology such as Justification, church tradition, the work of the Spirit, and organization of the Church—and these are important issues. We should pursue discussion and pursue truth as we seek lives of authentic faith in accord with the teachings of Scripture and the church.
But what I’ve been struck by more recently is that I have concern for the many denominations—and for the weaknesses each of them have, and a love for the strengths that each of them have. As church shoppers know, its hard to find a church that fits perfectly, and the same goes for denomination-shopping—each tradition has its own strengths and its own weaknesses and hang-ups. No matter where you end up, it is important to find a church and get committedly involved in it, because commitment to a local congregation is how God will be able to push you and transform you, and also it will provide you a means to demonstrate your faithfulness to God and His church as you serve there.
But commitment to your church doesn’t mean that you should spend your time demonstrating why your version is superior to other denominations. We want to protect truth from error, but it should also be our goal as Christians to see all Christian churches strengthened and transformed more into the likeness of Christ.
Evangelical Protestantism has its problems. Some prominent evangelicals have converted to the Roman Catholic church recently—including the former head of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, a former Theology prof I knew at Bethel, a couple of formerly protestant professors I know from Creighton, and a number of other prominent scholars. I also have a lot of friends and even former students who have converted. And I think they have for a variety of reasons, but especially I think they recognized a distinct lack of historical and traditional grounding for the Protestant evangelicalism they once held, as well as a disconnect from evangelical subculture. So evangelical Protestantism needs, as I see it, to become more historically aware and conscientious of the historical traditions of the Church to reinvest its practices with meaningful disciplines.
But the Roman Catholic church has issues as well. Of course there is the priest scandal, etc. But the real problem for the RCC is getting its parishioners to understand intelligently the richness of its tradition, and to become more Biblically literate—first by encouraging daily bible reading, and reading the texts for mass ahead of time. Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest recently wrote in an article for the National Catholic Reporter magazine,
“The church needs a massive Bible education program. The church needs to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is more important than memorizing the catechism. If we could get Catholics to read the Sunday scripture readings each week before they come to Mass, it would be revolutionary. If you do not read and pray the scriptures, you are not an adult Christian. Catholics who become evangelicals understand this.” (from: http://ncronline.org/news/hidden-exodus-catholics-becoming-protestants)
Instead of spending time telling Catholics they don’t know the Bible, what if evangelicals prayed that the Catholic Church would be inspired to start this massive Bible education program that Fr. Reese envisions? How about instead of Roman Catholics and Anglicans telling evangelicals that they lack tradition and historical understanding, they prayed that evangelicals understanding of history and tradition would be enriched and that their churches could be reinvested with historical richness that the Anglicans and Roman Catholics enjoy? It is hard for us to have this sort of a cosmopolitan-Christianity mindset, but I think it would serve Christs church well to try to have such a mindset.
Cosmopolitan simply means ‘at home all over’—and the common unifying element of all authentic Christian churches is the gospel—that Jesus brings reconciliation to God through his death and resurrection, and power to live transformative lives for the sake of God. A cosmopolitan Christian would focus on the similarities more than the differences with brothers and sisters in Christ— and hope and pray for the good of the Church universal—across all denomenations. Various Christian denomenations have strengths—and they all need help and prayer as well.
As some convert from evangelical protestant to Catholic, others convert to Anglican, Episcopalians convert to Roman Catholic, and Catholics convert to Evangelical, can we pray across all of those for Christ to strengthen His church through this cross-pollination?
As it is, there is evidence from a recent Pew research study that shows that 1/3 of those raised Catholic are no longer Catholic (and a large number of those who have converted to Protestant are now evangelicals). I pray that those Catholics help infuse the evangelical churches with a newfound understanding of the tradition (if those Catholic converts in fact do know about the tradition). And there are evangelicals (academics obviously) joining the Roman Catholic church. I hope that our former president of the Evangelical Philosophical society, and the Episcopalian Theologian Rusty Reno who converted and now edits the Catholic Voice, and my close friends who have joined the Roman Catholic church from evangelical backgrounds all help to strengthen the Roman Catholic Church and transform it for the better, to the Glory of God.
It is useful to consider the hard facts of conversion in the US. The Pew Forum is a major research group who do various research projects to find out about religious tendencies in culture and society. One of their more recent reports—the report on religious landscape study provides some pretty interesting information regarding conversion patterns in the United States.
There are a few interesting things to note from the survey. First, in the comparisons of what a person was raised to what they are now, nondenominational churches have grown while almost all denomenations have lost adherents. In other words, denomenations are weakening, and the tendency is towards non-denomenationalism.
That more people are going to nondenominational churches is not surprising, especially considering the fact that technically churches like the Evangelical Free Church and the ACTs 29 Network of Mark Driscoll are not denomenations (although I am not sure how they really differ functionally from denomenations). Fewer people are involved in the Lions club, Elks club, Optimists Rotary Clubs, or other such clubs either—people do not seem to gather around those sorts of labeled groups like they once did. But the obvious net effect is that denomenations are not as strong as they once were.
Perhaps the most surprising figure is that 31.4% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 23.9% are Catholic now. That’s a significant drop, and the pew study points out that that the current number would be even much lower if it were not for all the Hispanic migrant population which has helped bolster the Catholic church to counteract the deconversion of other Catholics. That is a disturbing trend. Liberal Catholics likely attribute the deconversions to the conservative positions of the Church on marriage, homosexuality, male priesthood etc, but Conservative Catholics are more likely to blame the Church’s over-emphasis on social justice and loss of latin mass post Vatican II. The Pew Survey seems to indicate that the main reasons Catholics left was due to wanting a more vibrant worship experience and wanting spiritual nurturing they found in Protestant churches. Almost ¾ of those Catholics who converted to Protestant became Evangelicals.
If anything, from these conversion statistics we can at least see that people are hungry and searching for spiritual fulfillment and nourishment. Some evangelicals are leaving their churches for the greener historical traditions of the Roman Catholic church. But as Fr. Reese pointed out in his article on the exodus from the Roman Catholic church, “People are not becoming Protestants because they disagree with specific Catholic teachings; people are leaving because the church does not meet their spiritual needs and they find Protestant worship service better.” Protestants have strong Scriptural teaching and dynamic worship services, the Roman Catholics provide a wealth of historical tradition and reflection on spiritual and theological issues from Centuries of teaching. Our hope should be that God will use the strengths of each of these to bring about a stronger church universal—a more biblically-literate Roman Catholic church, and a more traditionally-rich community in the evangelical church. Whether or not this is a real possibility, it seems like this Christian cosmopolitan attitude would be helpful as we pray for the future of Christ’s Church.
If you want to check out the data yourself, the section on conversion statistics starts on page 25: http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf