Why do churches split? What happens to a congregation when it reaches the point of “enough is enough” or “this is no longer for us” or “we are not sending ‘them’ any more money”?
Denominations dwindle. If we look, we see it everywhere. And while denominational executives and drum-majors like to say that “churches are dying” — and while there are certainly many congregations that bite the dust — that is not actually the truth. When a congregation breaks itself off from the larger body, like a pinch of crust from a larger loaf, it does not always die. It doesn’t even usually die.
We treat our fellow congregants like family, because they ARE family; and the house of worship and fellowship is like our home, because it IS our home. Therefore, if we are among the bits and pieces of what was once a dominant denomination on the landscape of the American continent, the failures of the experiment continue to haunt us — and not only as congregations, but also as sub-cultures of a congregation, families (from tiny to extended) and as individuals.
In this blog, the context of observation is “Southern Churches” because that is what the blogger knows best. Southern churches have typically been, at some stage of their life-cycle, a part of a larger body. While there are various names, the common name is “denomination.” Can you name some of the dominant denominations? Can you identify a denomination or two which is shrinking in numbers of members and of churches?
Southern churches were often planted as a part of a movement which morphed into a denomination. Southern churches were often sponsored by a denomination; but many churches are a part of a denomination because they affiliated — they joined up!!
But in the hearts of congregations which are part of a larger body there is a looming fear that they are not really a part of the body of Christ alone — they are also a part of the body of a DEMON-I-NATION. And as a part of that particular body, they exist with fear in their DNA or their adoption experience that if they grow disenchanted with – or worse still, disagree with — the larger body, and should they decide to “go it on their own” their land and building and charter are subject to CONFISCATION. The ultimate indignity.
Where does this fear originate?
In the Southerner’s perspective, the fear is the residual fear implanted by the government way back during the “Confiscation Era” as exercised in the Confiscation Acts of the dominant party: the Republican Party (and during the period of history in question, the Republican Party of Lincoln was the Northern populace, by and large, and was the party which drove the movement to crush secession and all ‘who or which could have been associated’ as well. In other words, Southern churches rightly feared confiscation of their property as a result of doctrinal, polity or financial differences with the status quo because they were trained to fear it. The “Confiscation Acts” of the Yankee Government lingered in the air like the smoke from Sherman’s fires and were woven into the fabric of fear engendered by “death sentences for Confederate soldiers and imprisonment of any who aided the same, and taking of the property of any who were in any manner associated.”
And so we witnessed a post-Depression era fragmentation of denominations across the South as a most natural occurrence when the expansion of government influence/assistance/oppression (depending on your point of view) materialized; and we continue to live in that legacy today.
Mega-churches has become one answer. Multi-campus churches are another. If we are big enough, we can stand against the influence of the Church machines to herd us back into the fold. Or we can just be small, make little or no noise, become essentially undesirable because we remain impoverished. A mega-church is nonetheless merely a piece (larger than a bit). Multi-campus churches are a collection of bits, which together make up a piece. The analogies can go on ad nauseum.
Some will argue with this perspective, and arguments are welcome. If you would like to expose yourself to the scholarship of church history, which is taught by some of the best faculty in the land (who do not likely adhere to the argument set forth of this blog by any stretch of the imagination) then join us in the journey to become more informed Followers and Disciples and Servant-Leaders of Jesus Christ through the courses we offer through the Disciples College and the Mission for Biblical Literacy.
Bob Harris, President
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