In connectional systems (United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, etc):
- pastors are assigned to churches
- churches are accountable to meta-church agencies and boards
- church buildings and property are owned by the meta-church (the denomination) and held in trust by the local congregation.
In congregational systems (United Church of Christ, Southern Baptist, etc) or individual congregational churches:
- Pastors are selected by the local congregation.
- churches are accountable only to their own rules and regulations (which is not terrible, look at the excellent structure in place when Ted Haggard was removed from his church)
- local congregations own the church building and property.
While both are legitimate ways of doing church, Connectionalism has taken some hits in the last month, especially to our sisters and brothers in the Episcopal Church.
First, the schizmatic churches in the Episcopal Church have wrested ownership of the church property (you know…the ones that the denomination owns and the local congregation holds in trust) from the denomination. In other words, they have taken from the denomination that which for its entire existance has been considered to be the denominations. There have been isolated incidents of this previously, but this is a major change in denominational understandings and in understandings of local churches holding property “in trust” not “owning it themselves.” It’s a terrible step, in my opinion.
At a time when denominations are floundering — even the Southern Baptist Convention is losing members — the formation of another denominational-like structure runs counter to all the congregational trends of the past 40 years. Study after study — the latest by Mark Chaves of Duke University — confirms that increasing numbers of churches choose not to affiliate with any denomination.
Further on this point, the article collected the responses of why congregations want to dis-affiliate from the denominations. Let’s look at these from a HX.net perspective:
- Leaders of these churches don’t want to get caught up in politics. It tends to drive away newcomers.
- Translation: Leaders of those churches have not succeeded in changing the denominational structures or policies in ways that are agreeable. So they want to take their ball and go home where they can play in their own sandpit. Instead of continuing the conversation, they opt to leave for their own echo-chambers where their perspective is shared and reinforced, not challenged.
- They’ve dropped many of the trappings of the Anglican Communion, such as vestments and formal Anglican titles (rector, vestry, senior warden, etc.)
- Translation: They have moved away from a sense of unity and common purpose/history with their brethern and sought to remake their local congregation in their own image, not reflective of the denomination. Impossible? You’d be surprised how many anti-denominational sermons and actions I’ve witnessed in the denominational churches I’ve worked with.
- They’re used to giving away money for specific projects and are unlikely to welcome a superstructure that demands monetary commitments.
- Translation: At least in the United Methodist Church, people want to stop paying mission shares (apportionments) because part of it pays for the General Board of Church and Society which is at the cutting edge of promoting social justice and thus has to take controversial stances in the name of promoting human rights. They want their money to go to only like-minded projects…again, the echo-chamber.
- They’d rather avoid fresh battles over the role of women or the use of the Book of Common Prayer.
- Translation: There’s a fresh wind of the spirit blowing through denominational structures, and they want to shut the door.
At Hacking Christianity, we are fascinated and disturbed by the ecclesial echo-chamber, or the ways in which we customize our lifestyle to avoid dissonant messages and reinforce our beliefs. It is my firm belief that this trend towards anti-connectionalism is another facet of the echo-chamber: entire churches becoming like-minded that they disaffiliate from the meta-church.
Hacking Christianity takes an anti-authoritarian viewpoint on most things. That’s our own bias, admittedly so. Connectionalism has its flaws and we expose them here. But the structure and the spirit of connectional churches helps keep us talking to one another, keeps us appointing different pastors to churches to get them to grow, moving pastors when they become cults of personality, and, basically, keeping the conversation going. Otherwise, connectional churches risk falling into echo-churches (ooo, that’s a nice new term).
- Thoughts on connectionalism? Are you familiar with connectional or congregational churches?
- If you are congregational, in what ways do congregational churches keep from becoming cults of personality or a like-minded echo-chamber?
- Other thoughts?
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