PET II: The De-Catholicization of the Church

Problems in Ecclesiology Today II: The demise of denominations and the loss of tradition—inculcating a church family in the 21st century

You don’t need a crystal ball to see the future of the American Protestant denominations—and the future does not look good. At the end of his article on Karl Barth’s christology as a theological resource for a “Reformed kenoticism” (IJST 8:3), Bruce McCormack writes the following:
The situation in which Christian theology is done in the United States today is shaped most dramatically by the slow death of the Protestant churches. I have heard it said – and I have no reason to question it – that if current rates of decline in membership continue, all that will be left by mid-century will be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and non-denominational evangelical churches (the last named of which will include those denominations, like the Southern Baptists, which are non-confessional in doctrinal matters and congregationalist in their polity). The churches of the Reformation will have passed from the scene – and with their demise, there will be no obvious institutional bearers of the message of the Reformation.
McCormack writes about this ecclesial crisis from the perspective of theology (e.g., who will pass along the theology of the Reformation?), but I wish to discuss this crisis from the perspective of worship and tradition (e.g., who will pass along the traditions of our ancestors?). Obviously, these two questions are related—the lex credendi and the lex orandi depend upon each other—but they are also distinct. The theological scene is indeed dire, and most people seem to recognize the problem. But I have not heard people discuss the problem facing evangelicals and tradition in the 21st century, which is the more perplexing one, in my opinion.

The question before us is deceptively simple: How do Christians inculcate an ecclesial tradition or family? Historically, this was accomplished through a formal liturgy that was common to all the churches—the Catholic Mass in the West and the Divine Liturgy in the East, both of which (as McCormack points out) will, quite likely, long outlive the Protestant denominations. With the Reformation, Luther and Calvin turned to catechisms to train people in the Protestant faith. After a while, catechetical training faded away as children were reared in Protestant churches and the faith was passed along from generation to another. As with the Orthodox and Catholic churches, a distinctly Protestant family was inculcated through a common form of worship, and this unique form was the hymn. For churches with a lower sacramentology, hymns were their liturgy and hymnals were their Book of Common Prayer. For many decades, the hymnal was the definitive means by which congregationalist Protestants passed on the traditions of their ancestors. American Protestants, in particular, tended to replace theology with apologetics, the sacraments with expositions of the Word, and an established liturgy with established hymns. As a result, the hymnal was—at least up until my parents’ generation—the cornerstone of the church family, the basic building block of evangelical tradition. Evangelical churches rooted in the Reformation were united by a few basic theological axioms and the hymnic tradition, and since theology is generally ignored or confused in most local congregations, hymns were almost all that concretely connected evangelicals together.

But how will Protestants continue to inculcate a tradition in the absence of (most) denominations and in the wake of the hymn’s marginalization? Or, from another perspective, how can Protestant evangelicals inculcate a church “family” when children do not remain in the churches of their parents—something which is difficult today (because children tend to move someplace very far from where they grew up) and which may one day be impossible (with the demise of denominations altogether)? What will form the backbone for an ecclesial culture which continues beyond a single generation? Or will Christians simply reinvent the wheel with each successive generation?

Case in point: We are seeing many young (post-)evangelical churches—sometimes called “emerging” churches—pop up around the country. Many of these non-denominational, non-confessional congregations write their own music and appeal to a particular generation. Here we see the embodiment of this crisis: a church without a hymnic or sacramental or confessional or catechetical tradition. The only remaining link is, of course, the reading and preaching from Holy Scripture, but this is done apart from any theological-exegetical tradition of reading. Each church is its own “interpretive community,” to use Stanley Fish’s terminology. (More needs to be said about this, but it will have to wait.)

A quick note about worship and music today. Certainly, contemporary Christian worship songs are, in many respects, the modern equivalent of the hymn. But whereas the classical hymns combined serious theology with music that has lasted for generations—even though C. S. Lewis once described hymns as fifth-rate poetry and sixth-rate music—contemporary songs are almost devoid of theological reflection, the music is generally forgettable, and, unlike with many classic hymns, not reusable. Contemporary Christian worship songs are thus ill-suited for the lofty task of inculcating a Protestant tradition. These songs are like fashion fads: they appear seemingly out of nowhere, dominate the scene for a short period of time, and then fade into oblivion with only a few left still using them, seemingly unaware that they are now out of style.

Though the “emerging” church phenomenon will, like any fashionable trend, fade away at some point in the near future, it nevertheless represents a problem that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon—viz. the de-catholicization of the church. By the “de-catholicization of the church,” I mean a re-conception of the church that sees each individual community as an autonomous enculturation of the Christian gospel. The “catholicity” of the church unites both locality and universality in the person of Jesus Christ, preventing the collapse of the church into either an isolated concretion or an abstract conception. And while many independent evangelical churches have a catholic self-identity, this seems to be subservient to the more important self-identity as a concrete, local enculturation of the gospel. The notion of enculturation, found in many recent works in missiology (see the works of Andrew Walls, for example), understands the church as a kind of “incarnation” analogous to Christ’s own incarnation as a Jew from Nazareth. Andrew Walls calls this the “incarnation principle.” The obvious problems with christology aside, this kind of ecclesiology tends to emphasize ecclesial “relevance” to the local culture as the central factor shaping each local community. While the notion of enculturation is itself unproblematic, the problem becomes acute when enculturation becomes so central that the cultural diversity of the church displaces the catholic unity of the church.

I recently told a person that I am uncomfortable with the way these young independent evangelical churches seem to be reinventing the wheel with each new generation, as if there were no Christian church before this particular community. My interlocutor responded by saying that each generation is its own culture, and thus the church needs to be newly enculturated within that generation in order to remain relevant. I am uncomfortable with this sentiment for many reasons, but I responded by employing the metaphor of a family. If the church is a family, then we are seeing the rise of a family in which the birth of each child results in the death of the parents, and each child raises itself as an orphan. Each child—each young ecclesial community—has no historical consciousness, no concrete connection to the living history of the Christian church, no parents or grandparents, so to speak. Moreover, with the passing of that particular generation or “culture,” the corresponding church must either reconstitute itself or pass away with it. For this reason, the “emerging” church movement has no future—precisely because it has no past.

In conclusion, the demise of the Protestant denominations and the loss of traditions rooted in the history of the church presents Christians in the 21st century with a future full of unknowns. The evangelical de-catholicization of the church is a problem that threatens to continue the modern individualization and privatization of the ecclesial community. Moreover, the marginalization or localization of the sacraments, liturgies, catechisms, confessions, and hymns has resulted in communities that are incapable of passing on the faith from one generation to another. As a result, young independent churches today are orphans without parents; their existence is always locked in the fleeting and intangible present, rather than rooted in the past and living out of the future. In the end, the one remaining foundation for the church continues to be and always will be Jesus Christ. He alone is the basis for the church’s identity: he grounds the enculturation of the community while maintaining its catholicity; he establishes its diversity while ensuring its universality. Because of Jesus Christ, the church of the 21st century need not fear the future, for he “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).


Dustin said…
This series, and this post in particular,is something that I've really been thinking about on my own recently.

While I am wholly unsatisfied with non-denominationalism and the 'emergent' church movements, I'm also unsatisfied with denominationalism period.

As I've pondered this and pondered where my future vocation may lie I've come to the conclusion that precisely because of these tendencies (both a rejection of tradition on the one hand, and idolatrous relation with one's own tradition on the other, and this is the catch-22), I can't see myself as a minister in any tradition, though I once longed to be so. Perhaps I'm too idealistic, but I can never call myself something other that a Christian, nor do I want to. But with this name I affirm that I join together with all the saints who have gone before me and all who will come after me, all who have called themselves Catholic, or Orthodox, or Lutheran, or Reformed. And I affirm that they all teach us what it means to bear the name of Christ and that we should actively seek their guidance and their wisdom.

I'm a missionary in Japan right now and I see very clearly the devastation that tradition can bring. In Japan, on a whole, Christian churches do not associate with churches outside of their denomination in any way. In fact they see each other, often times, at best, as competition, and at worst, enemies. This is in large part due to American (and to some extent British) missionaries exalting a specific tradition over the lordship of Christ (the Baptist missionary at one end of town telling recent coverts not to associate with the Lutherans on the other, and vise versa). And it gave rise to an extreme emphasis on the local congregation as the only 'true' body.

Do I have to be formally inducted into a specific tradition in order to honor and even preserve the ideals and teachings that are wholly good within that tradition? Can't belonging to a specific tradition be just as much of a de-catholizing catalyst? Where instead of a local community, it is rather the tradition itself that is the (truest) enculturation of the Gospel?

These are questions that I've been asking myself recently. And I'm torn. I absolutely see the importance and, indeed, the beauty of the various Christian traditions. But I also question the necessity of it all and wonder if the presence of different traditions does more harm than good. Does it become a distraction from the true goal--Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
Anonymous said…
“It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the One who says : ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ As it says in Heb. 13 : ‘Jesus Christ, heri, et hodie, et in secula.’ And in Rev. I : ‘Which was, and is, and is to come.’ Verily He is that One, and none other is or can be.

For you and I were not alive thousands of years ago, but the Church was preserved without us, and it was done by the One of whom it says, Qui erat, and Heri.

Again, we do not do it in our life-time, for the Church is not upheld by us. For we could not resist the devil in the Papacy and the sects and other wicked folk. For us, the Church would perish before our very eyes, and we with it (as we daily prove), were it not for that other Man who manifestly upholds the Church and us. This we can lay hold of and feel, even though we are loth to believe it, and we must needs give ourselves to the One of whom it is said, Qui est, and Hodie.

Again, we can do nothing to sustain the Church when we are dead. But He will do it of whom it is said, Qui venturus est and in secula. And what we must needs say of ourselves in this regard is what our forefathers had also to say before us, as the Psalms and other Scriptures testify, and what our decedents will also experience after us, when with us and the whole Church they sing in Psalm 124 : ‘If the Lord himself had not been on our side, when men rose up against us,’ and Psalm 60 : ‘O be thou our help in trouble, for vain is the help of man.’”

Martin Luther, as quoted by Barth in the preface to CD I/2

Thanks for the superb quote from Luther. I could not have said it better myself. Of course, knowing that the preservation of the church is secured through the reality of Jesus Christ does not mean we should resign ourselves to tradition-less communities that have 20-year lifespans. But Luther is certainly right to say that tradition cannot sustain the church; only Christ is the ground for the church's identity and preservation in this century and beyond.

Excellent comment about denominations also being forms of a "de-catholicization of the church." I had not thought of that before. Of course, that leaves both of us in a very difficult position.
Are denominations really part of de-catholicization? Have we had a serious discussion about precisely what it means to be "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church"? Maybe we should start there.

Still, great post David. These are serious questions and you are moving in some interesting ways in attempting to address them. I only wish you had come out a bit stronger against the use of the term 'incarnationa'... :-)
I don't think denominations are part of the church's "de-catholicization," but I can see how one might idolize one's denomination over the church as a catholic whole. Of course, abuse does not bar proper use. (The same might also be said for non-denomination evangelical churches, though there are other dangers to be considered as well in such situations.)

I simply took it for granted that the "incarnational" language is theologically illicit. I suppose I could have made this more clear. If anyone wants to discuss it, I am certainly open to it.
Anonymous said…
Good article, David.

I'm deeply concerned, but not sweating because I know Christ prevails, about the Evangelical church in America, specifically. This is my own "tradition", but I fear she has imbibed an uncritical anti-intellectual posture towards culture---which leads to a desire to be relevant--which leads to our fragmented PoMo culture as determinative of the shape that the Evangelical church takes---which leads to a non-church situation . . . as the "tail" becomes the "head", so to speak.

I think Dustin made some good points on the problem of sectarianism and the subsequent de-catholicization this "attitude" leads to within the "church" universal.

I also think Travis makes a good move towards dialogue on a "starting point". I think the apostolic creed provides some language that deserves to be fleshed out in this regard, by further clarifying our definitions of what it means to be the church catholic. Is it merely visible, invisible, or both/and?
Mykel G. Larson said…
This is one of the best articles/posts I have read on here I believe because it's success, in my estimation, was being able to voice in words why I was never able to "connect" or align myself with these particular reincarnations or reinventions of the wheel.

Ratzinger, when he was a Cardinal, was certainly less kind and labeled these other flavors of Christian faith as being "insufficient."
Derrick said…
Powerful post, David! I really appreciated your take on this portion of the emergent church. I'm not an art expert or anything, and so feel a little sheepish trying to make a postmodern art reference, but it seems that in the sense you were articulating regarding the de-catholicization of the emergent churches constant neo-ecclessial organization and worship is in some sense similar to the artistic concept of bricolage. In Bricolage, a traditional object, style or medium (classicalism or impressionism, e.g.) is juxtuposed and reconfigured to make an explicitly ironic statement or to achieve contemporaneous purpose.

Of course in the Emergent Church's case, the bricolage is often not explicitly intended, nor is it an attempt at a malicious manipulation of traditional values in order to reorientate the avante gard's aesthetic standard. But in many ways it has a similar effect, of which you explained: Bricolage violates the integrity of the historical style for the sake of making an impression in the present. In a sense it moves beyond history to a flat, timeless present without depth or extension, in which styles and histories circulate interchangeably and without need to reference either developement or original context. I don't want to make any grossly innacurate sweeping generalizations here, but it seems any many ways (in my experience) that a pendulum swing towards a totally emergent form of worship circumscribed within the totality of each new generation's enculturated view of things, is a shift away from the historical consciousnsess of Christianity to (what Moltmann would call) the cultus of the timeless epiphany. Each ordering of generational enculturation is a return to the immediacy of point of worship, where the flow of time is itself sanctified by being made irrelevant--by being renewed to reflect the immediacy of the divine in the present life.

I definitely think that there needs to be (and hope there can be) a more nuanced approach to both continuty and reform that can shed the surface level dualism of the two.

I really like your artistic analogy. And your statements about contemporary churches embodying the "cultus of the timeless epiphany" is also a superb point. We see this reflected in the songs sung today. They are all about intimacy and immediacy. What they eschew is history and (along with that) true eschatology beyond the occasional reference to a timeless moment of "rapture" by Christ.

Thanks again for the comment.

Would you care to offer some thoughts about how we might interpret the Apostles' Creed today? I certainly agree that this important document needs to be re-considered again and again. Unfortunately, most Christians have no idea what the Apostles' Creed says, but this is another concern altogether.
Zwingli 2.0 said…
Before fixing a problem, we need to be sure there is a problem.

Maybe it’s a good thing that the conditions for organized Christianity are disappearing. After all, the NT includes a number of passages that seem critical of “places of worship” (John 4:21-24, Acts 17:24, Revelation 21:22).

I don’t think theologians have spent enough time wrestling with the implications of the digital revolution. Sometimes theologians sound like newspaper owners and record executives blaming the public for their own out-of-date business models. The public has moved online; how are we going to react?

I envision a future in which Christians meet online to discuss the Scriptures. With hearts and minds transformed, they’ll get about the business of being “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1) in the world, no longer “holding” worship in special locations at appointed times.

The church is meant to be a little salt, but we act like the main course. The Internet offers Christians the opportunity to be what we're called to be.