On Denominations and Open Doors
One of the highlights of our last week and a half or so in Greater Vancouver and Vancouver Island has been the opportunity to reconnect with some of the many good friends we made during our six years out here. Aside from the irritation of fighting a cold almost from the moment our holiday started, it has been a great time filled with great conversations and great people.
One of these conversations took place a few days ago when I had the chance to spend the afternoon with two good friends from my time at Regent College who are both living and working here in the Vancouver area. A nice lunch was followed by a walk down by the ocean where the conversation ranged from theology to family life to denominational issues to memories from our time at Regent.
Near the end of our afternoon, my friend put a question to us: “What effect did your time studying at Regent have on your faith or your view of God?” After a bit of a pause, all three of us offered some variation of the theme that it had given us a “bigger” view of God than the one we had received in the course of growing up in the church. We had encountered a God who was more generous, more mysterious, more beautiful, more attractive… A bigger and a better God.
Ironically enough, all three of us had national denominational conferences looming on the immediate horizon. The Mennonite Brethren National Conference is underway in Winnipeg, MB, while the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly I will be attending begins tomorrow here in Vancouver. Denominations are commonly associated with drawing boundaries, reinforcing borders, clearly demarcating the nature of God, the requirements of faith, the way of salvation, etc, etc. Denominations are often associated with shrinking and limiting rather than expanding our view of God. For many people, the very existence of denominations points to failure and disunity in the church, and a lack of credibility to a watching world.
There is some truth to these critiques. Too often, denominations become obsessed with preserving and articulating distinctives, with arguing about why they are right about God and everyone else is, if not flat out wrong, then perilously veering toward the precipice of error. Too often, denominations can spend more time and energy attempting to justify their ongoing existence as an organization than they do celebrating and working with the good that is being done by others with different views. Too often, the generosity of the God we believe in is (sadly) demonstrated by the generosity with which we treat our fellow Christians.
Is it possible to believe in a big and generous God from within the “confines” of a specific denomination? Unsurprisingly, as a pastor from within a particular denomination, I would say that it is. While my graduate education took place in an inter-/trans-denominational school, my view of God is not simply the product of my years of formal academic training but also of a lifetime spent worshiping in specific communities of faith shaped by specific historical narratives and guided by specific convictions about the nature of God and the journey of faith. I didn’t always agree with what I learned in these communities, but they have played a crucial role in shaping who I am today. Even though the God I first discovered in church looks a bit different from the God I believe in and follow today, I met God through a denominational lens. I could not do otherwise. Nobody encounters God but through the historical, theological, and ecclesial contexts of their own time and place.
And so, the three of us head off to participate in our various ways with our various denominational conferences. There will be different controversies to address, different politics to deal with, different issues and personalities to navigate, different things to celebrate and praise God for. I won’t presume to speak for the others, but I think that I will go to my conference with a mixture of realism and optimism. I will go with the glad conviction that God is far bigger than the way in which the group of people I am journeying and worshiping with through this small slice of space and time understand him. I will also go with deep gratitude for the way in which denominations have opened doors of faith for me, and pointed the way, directly or indirectly, toward the ongoing discovery of a big and generous God.