Monday, February 16, 2009

Don't Squeeze the Cottenelle: Or, "Would You Switch Denominations Before you Switched Toilet Paper?"

Tomorrow I'll be speaking, along with Dr. Michael Slusser, a Catholic theologian and priest, to a ministerial fellowship in Fairbault on the topic of "Ecumenism: How it Affects Our Churches and Ministries" (or something along those lines.) We'll be centering our discussions around a 2008 Pew Forum "Religious Landscape Study" which concluded that American religious life is "both very diverse and very fluid." The study surmises: “Looking only at changes from one major religious tradition to another (e.g., from Protestantism to Catholicism, or from Judaism to no religion), more than one-in-four U.S. adults (28%) have changed their religious affiliation from that in which they were raised." The numbers get even higher when the switch happens within a major religious tradition. Reinforcing the Pew study, the Ellison Research firm released findings which showed that Americans are more likely to switch their denominational affiliation than to switch their toilet paper brand. Many are less likely to go from Charmin to Cottonelle (or Crest to Colgate) than from Methodist to Catholic. There are a good many denominations to choose from, even in smaller town like Fairbault, and many folks may not know much--or care that much--about the differences (in particular the historical and theological differences) between them. George Lindbeck's famous insight that, at a sociological level, doctrines function like "language games," serving to distinguish denominations from each other while allowing ecumenical fellowship around other important points of commonality (such as ethical issues) may be reaching a breaking point. The distinctiveness of each denomination's language games may be blurring away recognizable boundaries, allowing for a free and easy switch of church membership and involvement.

The question this phenomenon raises, as Dr. Slusser puts it, is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing--and why? Does this change reflect a move in a positive direction? Does it suggest that people are willing to jump denominational ships in order to experience personal spiritual transformation? (i.e. that they are perceptive consumers of what brings them spiritual health?). Does it suggest that denominations are enough alike that such switching is relatively easy? Or, does it suggest that our churches are losing the ability to state clearly--and within historical continuity--our doctrinal and liturgical distinctives? Or, if they can state them clearly, that they are unable to convince their adherents to commit to them--at least not more so than they're committed to Crest or to Cottonelle?

What about you? Do you embrace the "fluidity" of American religious and denominational identity or do you think it is course that needs correcting?

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