BJ Gallagher of the Huffington Post shared a parable:
God and the devil were walking down a path one day when God spotted something sparkling by the side of the path. He picked it up and held it in the palm of his hand.
“Ah, Truth,” he said.
“Here, give it to me,” the devil said. “I’ll organize it.”
So illustrates how many Americans feel about religion. As John Black of CNN reported, “Gallagher says she’s SBNR because organized religion inevitably degenerates into tussles over power, ego and money.”
If Americans are continuing to identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), how are churches, which are often considered the embodiment of organized religion, responding to this trend?
One common approach undertaken by many churches involves presenting an identity that avoids the common characterizations of a more formal or traditional church, including presenting itself as a church that focuses more on loving God and people than on church doctrine, on cooperation and unity more than its ministry distinctives, and denouncing church “politics” as a distraction from the gospel.
As a result, church doctrine, ministry distinctives, and the inevitable politics of church cease to be a church-wide concern and is regulated to the church leadership, at least initially. The church attendees are then encouraged to focus on loving God, people, the gospel, etc. without having to concern themselves with the organizational aspects of church, which is what the paid staff/professional ministry leaders should address.
But this is a false dichotomy. The reality of the nature of church will always break down such artificial walls between the organic and the organizational. Loving God and people is itself a doctrine of the church. A church proclaiming its focus on “cooperation and unity” is often a way to signal that they are above those other churches who look down on working with others. And is there anything more political these days than to categorically say you denounce politics?
As long as the guiding principles of the church remain as abstract concepts devoid of any practical implications, this approach encourages a clergy/laity divide: the ministry leaders will figure out all the details and the congregation just needs to show up and respond.
How does this tend to work out? The most prominent example may be how a church views its statement of faith. If a church does publicize their belief statement or guiding creed (many local churches don’t), its often limited to the inerrancy of the Bible, nature of the Trinity, and other general topics that nearly all similar churches already agree on. Yet when new churches are started, it’s rarely because those Christians were unable to find a church that believed in the accuracy of the Bible or in the Trinity, but rather because of other issues at play, issues which modern church creeds rarely touch on. So such statements of faith only mark the most basic of Christian beliefs and serve no purpose in explaining why a church should not close its doors and join up with another down the street that has the same core beliefs.
In the business world, companies are more prone to be upfront about their beliefs. Airbnb for example, requires users to subscribe to a “statement” before they can complete their transaction:
“Before you continue: Whether it’s your first time using Airbnb or you’re one of our original travelers, please commit to respecting and including everyone in the Airbnb community. I agree to treat everyone in the Airbnb community—regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age—with respect, and without judgment or bias.”
If the user does not “commit” by pressing the agree button, her reservation is cancelled. Whether one views this particular statement as helpful, there’s no doubt that the company is being transparent about its standards for the Airbnb “community” and has drawn the line in saying what that community values.
Historically, the use of creeds and statements of faith have sought not only to help churches be publicly transparent about their distinctive characteristics, but to orient and educate new believers to the fundamentals of Christianity and how they can be a edifying member of the congregation. This process of catechism (derived from the Greek term meaning “oral teaching”) was a systematic way to inform those in the church about not just the what of Christianity but the why and how. Not every single issue or topic needs precise explanations of course, since some opposing beliefs can be held by those within the same church (for instance, the nature and use of spiritual gifts), but topics affecting how a church is organized, governed, and practiced requires (by its very nature) consensus from all those within the church. However, public written explanations of a church’s beliefs and practices are increasingly minimized and obscured.
Theologian Fred Sanders has noted that the Christian statements of faith throughout history have played a central role in maintaining the proper nuances of key doctrines such as “God in three Persons” within the church. Yet today, embracing such statements are often dismissed by believers. According to Sanders:
“The spirit of our age ignores history, distrusts institutions, values emotions more than words, and hankers after novelty. For moderns, the loftiest goal is to be authentic, to speak spontaneously from the heart, giving voice to unique insights from our own points of view. For this mindset, the idea of reciting a set of ancient words in public agreement with a group is, if the word be allowed, anathema.”
Some Christians view such statements of faith as unnecessary – isn’t the Bible enough? But to claim “No creed but the Bible” is a self-defeating creed. Carl Trueman has argued that every church embraces a creed when that church uses its own words to summarize the Bible.
“The only difference,” says Trueman, “is whether one writes the confession down, so that others may scrutinize it and judge whether its teaching is consistent with Scripture, or whether one refuses to do so, in which case one’s beliefs are essentially identified with the teaching of Scripture and placed above such scrutiny.”
Churches that avoid consistent use of creeds are often what author and pastor Doug Wilson denotes as liturgy-starved: unaware of the history behind the various approaches to church ministry, Christians often pick and choose what they like without realizing that many times such practices are intrinsically at odds with one another. A church’s understanding of who can baptize others, for example, may contradict what it believes about pastoral ministry. In short, churches without a clear and public (i.e. written) vision often adopt practices like a child plays dress-up: Pentacostal stockings, Baptist swimming trunks, Lutheran football cleats, the leather jacket of Finney-evangelism, and the fanny pack of American pragmatism.
While this informal approach to church life appears to endorse authenticity, churches without a robust statement of faith (or churches which do have a detailed creed but never explain or reference it) effectively spurn transparency and possibility of self-evaluation. Church practices are then largely assumed and unquestioned. When pressed, church attendees are unable to explain why their church only takes Communion once a month, why they had no say in the election or dismissal of a pastor, why women can be deacons but not pastors, or why the church budget is not made publicly available.
Creed-less churches that enjoy strong, long-term, and transparent leaders can often negate such pitfalls for years, but unless the church has created a culture where the vision is kept in the forefront, the next generation is very likely to gravitate toward just another charismatic leader with a different charismatic vision.
Yet in churches that see changes in leadership every five to ten years, the symptoms of lacking a creed become far more pronounced. When a crisis arises in such a church, and the leadership inevitably makes a decision that the rest of the congregation struggles to integrate into their definition of healthy church practice, the result is that inquisitive church members are confused and apathetic members are further encouraged to remain distant spectators. Additionally, ministry leaders and volunteers in creedless churches are commonly ignorant of why a particular ministry operates the way it does: “That sounds like something you should ask the pastor.”
Alternatively, Gregg Alison, in his Sojourners and Strangers, argues that during times of disagreement, a statement of faith can serve to unite a church:
“[A] possible contributor to a splintering church is their lack of a confessional framework for working out internal problems. A confession could helpfully refocus the attention of church members on the essentials of the faith that powerfully unity them. This would put into perspective all secondary or tertiary matters that pale in comparison to the truths which bind them together.”
If statements of faith are critical to unity and transparency within a church, what issues should be addressed that are essential to the function of the church, as well as clearly answer the questions everyone —in and out of the church— is asking?
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a five-part series on church trends, with an eye toward faith and religion within the Imperial Valley. The first article, “Trends on the Spiritual But Not Religious,” on can be found here.