Mobile Sheep and Stable Shepherds: The Ecumenical Challenge of Porous North American Denominational Boundaries

Article excerpt

A Timely Question

Observers of the life of North American Protestant churches have noted for some time the movement of large numbers of members between church bodies. Ironically, this traffic of Christians across denominational boundaries is occurring at a time when many mainline Christian denominations are concerned, sometimes passionately so, with their identity. While many have commented on the stable or shrinking memberships of mainline Protestant churches and have offered some theological analyses of this "malaise," there has been a lack of reflection on the porosity of denominational boundaries between North American Protestant churches from the perspective of ecumenical theology.(1) In this essay I contend that the reality of porous denominational boundaries need not be read as the problem that it often is. Rather, I contend that some erosion of denominational loyalty is a clear sign of ecumenical progress. In these reflections I briefly review some of the statistics of North American Protestant churches as they relate to denominational loyalty, then argue that an ecumenical challenge for North American churches is to reframe the issue of porous denominational boundaries as part of the ongoing process of ecumenical reception. I further argue that parish ministers must shoulder a great deal of responsibility in this reception process.

While members join and leave the Roman Catholic Church as well as Protestant churches in the United States, I focus my analysis here on mainline Protestant churches for two reasons. First, research shows that American Catholics are far more hesitant about switching to Protestant churches than Protestants are in switching to another Protestant denomination.(2) Second, ecumenical dialogues among mainline churches have reached a point of maturity that Catholic-Protestant dialogues have not. Current discussions between Catholics and Lutherans on the proposed "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," for instance, focus exclusively on the neuralgic point of justification and do not include issues of mutual recognition of ministries or eucharistic hospitality. Because mainline Protestant churches are now at a point in which there is - at least officially - openness to other traditions, I believe that church leaders should now examine denominational loyalty and switching in a new light.

Denominational Switching as a North American Fact

Many North American Protestant Christians baptized and raised within a given denomination become members of other church bodies as adults. This switching has been going on for over a generation. Nationwide surveys of the U.S.A. discovered that many of those surveyed had switched denominational affiliation. In 1952, twenty-one percent indicated that they had switched; in 1965, twenty percent; and in 1992, twenty-three percent.(3) Detailed research conducted by Hoge, Johnson, and Luidens surveyed persons confirmed in American Presbyterian churches who were between thirty-three and forty-two years old in 1989. In their sample, fifty-two percent were churched, that is, belonged to a congregation and attended at least six times a year. However, only twenty-nine percent were still members of Presbyterian churches. Six percent belonged to fundamentalist churches; thirty-nine percent to other mainline churches, and seven percent to other churches.(4) Statistics from denominational bodies that record the transfer of new members from other church bodies as a discrete category also reveal that members move from one denomination to another in the tens of thousands in a single year. For instance, during 1994 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America received 21,087 members from non-Lutheran congregations.(5)

While the statistics document the fact of mobility between denominations, interviews with North American Christians indicate that denominational affiliation by itself no longer reliably distinguishes the faith and passions of one set of believers from another. …