Thursday, May 23, 2013

Generic Christians?

Not at the Jordan River, but in that flowing stream
stood John the Baptist preacher when he baptized Him.
John was a Baptist preacher when he baptized the Lamb,
so Jesus was a Baptist and thus the Baptists came.

Bill Leonard begins his post about the trend to abandon denominational labels by quoting the 19th century rhyme above. There was indeed a time when some doctrinal differences were over-emphasized. That time has definitely passed. Leonard describes how denominations came to choose their names and why attempts to "re-brand" will probably be either futile or fatal:

...University Baptist Church, Coral Gables, is now “Christ Journey;” First Baptist Church, Perrine, has become “Christ Fellowship;” Coral Baptist Church, Coral Springs, now calls itself “Church By the Glades;” and First Baptist, Fort Lauderdale, is now “First Fort Lauderdale,” the word Baptist parenthetically attached. ....

As a historian of the Baptists, I’m not surprised by these decisions to drop the Baptist name, given the wide spectrum of Baptist beliefs, practices and public dysfunctions. Yet I hope that congregations find clear historical/theological justification for their actions. ....

.... As denominations became a normative means of organizing church life in England and America, their names became shorthand for distinguishing characteristics of the ever-multiplying Protestant sects. Episcopalians had bishops; Presbyterians had presbyteries; Methodists were methodical; Baptists required immersion; and Pentecostals restored, well, Pentecost.  Restorationist efforts to abolish such divisive names and replicate the New Testament church led to the formation of the Christian Church, the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ – three new denominations.

These days, churches that relinquish traditional denominational designations might consider the following questions: How does abandoning a denominational name impact a church’s historic identity? Will a specific congregation continue to place itself within an identifiable context of Christian tradition or simply lose its memory? What strategies will individual churches have for inculcating identity related to faith, baptism, Holy Communion and theological orientation in contexts that no longer claim a particular historic label? What persons and issues from the past will those churches claim and articulate? Will these faith communities retain a historic center or will they foster a new generation of Christian “nones,” individuals who have a limited or uncertain sense of location inside a kind of generic Christianity?

And there is no generic Christianity; intentional or unintended identity will prevail sooner or later. Thus churches that claim generic names are responsible for introducing members to the legacy of their faith. A church without a sense of history is a church adrift, old or new, liberal or conservative, whatever its peculiar “brand” may be. ....

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