The multi-denominational path

by Kristin on July 15, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Tim Pritlove

The church I go to identifies itself as “multi-denominational,” which seems just about perfect for me.

I grow so weary of denominational loyalties, debates and wars. It all places too much focus on how we’re different rather than what we share in common. Talking about denominations tends to reinforce stereotypes, which has a way of slowing important change to a crawl.

But this morning, as I was scanning Twitter and trying to decide what to write about here today, I ran across this tweet from @hughlh:

Reformers emphasize justification by faith & forgiveness of past sins. Anabaptists emphasize new birth & power to live as Jesus’ disciples.

It pointed out differences, but it triggered something in me, shifting my grazing glance into full-on chewing and digestion mode.

Forgiveness of past sins, contrasted with new birth. Huh. Or perhaps leading to new birth. Interesting. A movement from what’s past to what’s ahead. Sounds like a really simple, powerful explanation of my own experience sorting out my beliefs. It even mirrors the denominations I’ve encountered along the way.

A bit of this and a bit of that from the buffet of churches

My first big transition was from my United Methodist upbringing to a highly Reformed setting as a student at Calvin College. Believe me, that was a shocker. After a decade of membership in Christian Reformed Churches (and a Presbyterian Church of America church, also theologically Reformed), I stumbled upon my current church fellowship, which has strong Mennonite (Anabaptist) roots.

I don’t think about all of this denominational stuff that much, because I tend to think it doesn’t really matter. When I’m involved in a church, I’m mostly wrapped up in the particulars of that specific community—the pastor and how he (or she) preaches; the congregation and how thoughtful or diverse or social-justice-oriented they are; the music and whether it helps me worship more than it annoys me. If I like the church community itself, I just don’t care all that much about the denomination (unless it happens to be one that is highly problematic for me on a number of levels, but this post isn’t about that).

But @hughlh’s tweet has caused me to think, again, about denominations. In the end, it doesn’t encourage me to believe that one denomination is necessarily superior to the other. It makes me realize I’ve learned different things from different churches, and they’ve played into one another well, balancing me and leading me to where I am now.

So why do we tend to either take an “it’s all good” approach (I’m fine with your denomination as long as it doesn’t intermingle with mine), or an “you’re all wrong” approach (that’s where all those jokes come from, about how surprised people will be when they see who else is in heaven)? It doesn’t have to be so black and white.

An overview of what I learned where

Here’s what I learned, in linear progression. (Keep in mind these are just my personal experiences with particular churches, not a theological thesis or overview of these three denominations.)

Laying a foundation: From the United Methodist Church, I learned liturgical structure, reverence and awe, the Apostle’s Creed,  and the alto line for all the great Methodist hymns. I also learned the importance of opening your doors to the community, and showing God’s love by helping others.

Moving beyond my sinfulness: From the Christian Reformed Church and Presbyterian Church of America, I learned what it means to be saved by grace—that we’re all inherently prone to messing up but we’re loved by God in spite of it, and we don’t have to do anything to earn that love. I also learned how to apply what I know about God to all areas of my life, whether I’m being environmental, deciding how to spend my money, or writing marketing copy for a client.

Living as a new creation: And from the Mennonites and Anabaptists, I’ve learned that I am not simply caught in an endless cycle of messing up and being forgiven—that is not the ultimate purpose or pattern for my life. I can be transformed into a new creation, and can effectively work as a disciple to bring bits of heaven (or the heaven-like ideal) here to earth. Today. Right here in Urbana, Illinois. Making that happen involves living in community with others and a lot of hands-on work.

Just as I wrote last week about becoming more comfortable with a “potluck” format for tasting faith, I think there’s much to be gained from seeing what different denominations have to offer, and how those offerings can be pieced together into a more full story—or more satisfying meal, as it were—for each of us.

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  • Rick

    From the Baptists I learned not to smoke, from the Reformers I learned not to ride my bike on Sunday, from the Lutherans I learned I can go to church on Saturday, from Monty Python I learned that cheese maker are blessed and from my parents I learned to love Jesus.

    P.S. four of these are intended to be funny.

  • Kristin T.

    Rick, HA! I love it. A great comment—both funny and meaningful. I think I can even guess which four are intended to be funny. :)

  • Emma

    Being young in experience, I tend to think denomination gets a lot of hype these days. Simply, it may be non-foundational doctrine and scriptural interpretation (when to baptize, how often to take the Lord’s Supper and in what fashion, who plays the various roles within the church, etc.) and liturgical practice. Liturgy meaning merely “the way we worship.” Therefore, I feel like I should be at home at any bible-based church I find myself in. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love,” right? (Galatians) In the church setting, let’s hope what’s expressing itself most is our love for Christ. We’re going to be in heaven worshiping together — why not get started here? Meanwhile, if I believe scripture appropriates infant baptism, and if I find meaning and sincere worship in hymns — super! As long as I appreciate the journey of those on the other end, with due “brotherly affection,” knowing they also make up the body of the Lord’s beloved. As for the quote — I really don’t get it. They seem inseparable. Justification and forgiveness are the foundation that introduce and enable us to new birth and power. Without justification (itself a gift), there is no power and birth. Where there’s no birth and power, forgiveness has not yet been understood.

    Loved your divorce post, by the way. It’s a sticky mess of an issue. I’m afraid I would have run from my husband at times if I could have (because I hadn’t yet realized my struggle was within myself). Thank God he stayed by me in the worst of it. On the other hand, I know an emotionally abusive marriage can restrict and pin down where God wants to edify and build up. Through the “releasing” of a marriage, I feel I’ve seen God’s work unfold. It’s too much of a contradiction for my mind to take sides — which I should be absolutely thankful for!

  • Pace


    Your post has gotten me thinking about my experiences with denominations of other religions.

    From Unitarian Universalism I learned that spirituality and ritual don’t require religion to “work”.

    From Reclaiming I learned the importance of self-care, sacred communication, and safe space.

    From Feri I’m learning about personal power.

    From Sufism I’m learning humility in the face of the Divine.

    Thanks for stirring up some interesting thoughts! (:

  • Emma

    So, I was thinking about this in the shower (TMI? Lots of people think in the shower), and I think the conflict in the quote you used is about the verb tense of “justified.” If one once lived in a big mess, was justified and forgiven, and focuses on that glorious truth exclusively, there’s a lack of vision for what to do with the new discipleship. However, if one focuses on their new life more than God’s saving (forgiving/justifying), there could be danger of emphasizing works, and forgetting the complete power of God. Rather, if we see “justified” as a status, rather than an event, we carry that boldly (with power, as by new birth) into our futures, and look back at the same time. I have confidence because I am justified. It’s not just not that I have been redeemed, it’s that I am redeemed.

  • Kristin T.

    Emma, thanks for the thoughtful comment! I love the simplicity and directness of the “faith expressing itself in love” verse from Galatians. I think the issue here—the difference between what @hughlh was saying and what you’re saying is the difference between an ideal and a reality. Here’s what I mean: The idea of it being as simple as “faith expressing itself in love” and the idea of being “at home at any bible-based church” is a wonderful *ideal*, but it just isn’t the reality we live in. Different people take different approaches to the Bible, and walk away with different interpretations and applications. As a result, there are different denominations. While many of them embrace the same general big picture (the big picture that you rightly point out includes BOTH forgiveness and new birth), they still tend to emphasize different parts of the story. That’s why I walk away from various churches with different pieces of the puzzle in hand. I don’t know—does that make sense? (Thanks for what you shared about the divorce post, too. I love how you put it, that a bad marriage “can restrict and pin down where God wants to edify and build up.”)

    Pace, thanks for opening up the conversation to include other religions, which is something I have some knowledge about, but not personal experience with. I hope more people will share their “what I learned” lists!

    Emma, I’m glad you followed up (and I’m glad you think in the shower!). This is great: “if we see ‘justified’ as a status, rather than an event, we carry that boldly (with power, as by new birth) into our futures, and look back at the same time.” I think your points help me make my point (which perhaps I didn’t do clearly enough in the post): Different faith communities emphasize different aspects of the story; I’m thankful I’ve been immersed in more than one denomination, so I can better grasp the whole story.

  • Blackwasp19

    I think we can and should promote that the Christian faith is a mosaic of denominations with different emphases. Yes (I believe) there are branches/denominations within Christianity that are not orthodox – Biblically not in accordance to any denominational creed – and we must take great care to be aware of that; but we must advance ecumenical-ism. Without having this diversity we get a type of “Denomo-centrism” – akin to cultural ethnocentrism.

    Ethnocentrism does not deny that there is some sense of broad cultural truth (i.e.a society that values rape should always been considered out of the fold), but it also gives room for things to be expressed differently. For example, filial piety, a typically southeastern/eastern Asian quality of honoring ones parents – though more robust than that – seems in opposition to the friendship model that is found broadly in the American context. But both of these express loving ones parents.

    I would argue that many denominational differences are based as much on tradition as theology. Just as the rhythm and tradition of societies, overtly religious or not, create ideas and modes of thought, denominational tradition and culture form theological ideas and emphases Denomo-centrism does the same things as Ethno-centrism; it blinds us from the wisdom of another perspective.

    Societies (denominations) are beautiful things as long as we see them as apart of a human (Christian) mosaic that collectively represents a truth that is robust, powerful, magnificent and holy.

  • Kristin T.

    Blackwasp19, you’re sounding an awful lot like a grad student! :) I absolutely agree that “many denominational differences are based as much on tradition as theology”—I don’t think most people who have grown up within a single denomination their entire lives can really explain why they believe in something like predestination. It’s a tradition they’ve embraced. I also agree that “Denomo-centrism does the same things as Ethno-centrism; it blinds us from the wisdom of another perspective.” That is exactly what I’m striving to avoid.

  • Senior Pastor Jerry Parsons

    You are spot on!