The Death of the Denominations

Amid protest, song and fears of a denominational breakup, United Methodists at their quadrennial General Conference decided yet again not to decide anything regarding LGBT rights.

But in a groundbreaking move, the delegates from the U.S. and abroad voted 428-405 on Wednesday (May 18) to allow the church’s Council of Bishops to appoint a commission to discuss whether to accept same-sex marriage or ordain LGBT clergy.

Source: Methodists postpone debate of gay issues that could split denomination | Religion News Service

We’re at the beginning stages of a few societal transitions (revolutions?) that will take decades to shake out fully here in the United States.

One has to do with economics and the emergence of efficiency as a market motivator.

Another, perhaps related shift, involves the erosion of our collective agreement that large groups can or should represent us and be central to the formation of our individual identities. Whether that’s the Republican or Democratic parties during this election cycle of historic high “unlikable” ratings, our relative shift to anti-Union attitudes, or the continuing and rapid decline of mainstream Protestant denominations, we’re certainly seeing new dynamics in play as we emerge from the shadow of the 20th century and head towards the middle of the 21st.

With two world wars and a decades long Cold War, the U.S. was defined by the concept of representative nationalism in the last century. Christian denominations saw their largest number of members in the 1950’s, political parties became increasingly powerful, the Evangelical movement soared, broadcast media gave us our news and views, and our sports team became religions… all while we fought off the Japanese and Nazi’s and then the Commies and added “Under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance and “One Nation Under God” to our currency.

Sixteen years into this new century, we’re still under the last century’s shadow. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as centuries, decades, and years themselves are artificial lines that we try to carve into our young species’ conception of whatever time is… but these lines do provide interesting parallels when we look back and ahead in our own individual minds.

Sixteen years into the last century, we were in the midst of World War I and coming to terms with the notion of a “League of Nations” or some sort of a worldwide governing body that would help us resolve disputes before they became the type of quagmires that resulted in that terrible war. The U.S. was entering the age of the automobile, more access to information and news than ever before with the mediums of radio and newspapers, our market economy was taking shape as a world player, and our economy was being transformed from largely agrarian to industrial due to the development of new technologies and means of production.

Sixteen years into this century and we can see many parallels. We are still wrestling with the idea of worldwide governing agreements (economic and political) and weighing the difference between isolationism and globalization. We’re in the middle of a series of regional wars and conflicts that are shaping our military and foreign policies into something that will look different in the coming decades than they had been before. We’re entering the age of the automated car, we have more information available than we could ever ingest through the medium of the web and the coming revolutions in virtual and augmented realities. Our market economy is still taking shape and evolving with the global market as well as our own needs and realizations here about inequality, poverty, capitalism, and morality. Our economy is transitioning from a largely industrial one to a service-based economy due to the development of new technologies and means of productions. Robots are building robots.

One thing that is markedly different, in my mind at least, is our conception of identities. We are coming to terms with realizations that not all Democrats, or heterosexuals, or Methodist, or transgender, or white people, or video game players look the same or can be put into neat and tidy demographic boxes. Whether that’s due to the nature of the influence that the web (and increasingly social media on the web) have had on our society or some other mix of variables, it’s hard to define. However, those of us who were born in the 20th century have to realize that we still have one leg in a century defined by large groups governing identities whereas the 21st century seems to be presenting an emerging realization that large groups are perhaps not the best hook to hang our identities on.

I feel that as we navigate the years and decades ahead, we’ll see more and more that groups such as the United Methodist Church or the Republican Party or the local Chamber of Commerce will fade in importance, perhaps to the point of dissolution into smaller units. The democratization that the web has brought to our culture in the U.S. is a double edged flame from Prometheus… it gives us light and freedom but it demands new responsibilities and awareness. If you were born in the 20th century, I hope you realize that our world has changed as has the culture(s) of our country. Grow and learn or get out of the way.

Our government’s representative democracy serves us well because it is intentionally messy and “slow” in dealing with issues that our collective national cultures want addressed quickly. However, our religious denominations and political parties perhaps should take a different path rather than using time as a tool of obfuscation and avoidance.

Just as our notions of forms of government or economics evolve over time, so will conceptions such as denominations and political parties. They will both probably exist at the end of the 21st century, but they’ll certainly look different.

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