Perceptions, after all, are perceptions. They are beliefs and opinions based on how things seem and not how they are. They may be informed more by biases and fears than they are reality.
It is a process very similar to what a couple or a pair of friends may go through before one or both break off the relationship or friendship. It is far harder to part company with someone with whom we are on good terms, so we begin to notice small faults that we previously ignored and magnify them, or we imagine faults where there are none. The object is to make the other person in our own eyes undesirable as a spouse, partner, or friend. This makes breaking up with them easier and simpler and yes, guilt-free. It enables us to pursue a relationship or friendship with a more attractive or interesting or otherwise more desirable person without them in the way.
A part of this process is to convince others that a relationship or friendship with that person is undesirable so that they will support and affirm our decision. In the case of clergy and congregations they not only want others to support and affirm their decision but also to join them because joining them is very strong way of affirming and support their decision. The more who join them, the more supported and affirmed they are going to feel. Ultimately, it boils down to, “Yes, we are making the right decision. See how many other clergy and congregations agree with us.”
It is comparable to the reason that teenagers give their parents for doing or wanting to do something of which their parents may not approve, “But all my friends are doing it!” The thinking is that if a number of people are doing something, it must be okay to do. This, however, is flawed reasoning. Because a large number of people are making the same mistake does not make that mistake any less a mistake.
As with case of a new relationship or friendship, the new denomination or church network or independent, non-denomination church status may prove not to be what we had thought that it would be. The person for whom we rejected our old spouse, partner, or friend may prove over time to not be as desirable as we initially thought them to be. They may have their own share of faults, flaws and shortcomings, that we did not notice when we first met them but have become all too apparent.
This is likely to happen when clergy and congregations join a denomination or church network in formation. With an existing denomination or church network, they have some idea of what challenges they may face. But this will not be the case with a new denomination or church network or independent, non-denominational church status.
When it comes to becoming a independent, non-denominational church, a congregation and its clergy cannot assume that it will do well on the basis of the experience of other churches which have taken that step. Every church is different as are its circumstances. An aging church with minimal connections to its community is not likely to flourish while a young church with many connections to its community may have a far better chance of flourishing.
A substantial number of churches in every denomination in the United States is experiencing declining attendance. The factors contributing to the decline in attendance are complicated, and disaffiliation is not likely to be panacea for this problem or the other problems of a church.
While independent, non-denominational churches are doing better than denominational churches, this is not necessarily going to happen when a church takes the step of becoming independent and non-denominational. Other factors come into play.
While the grass may appear green and lush on the other side of the fence, this may be an illusion. We may see it as greener and lusher than the grass on our side of the fence because we want it to be. The grass may be just as brown and sparse as on our side of the fence. It may be worse.
While proponents of disaffiliation may paint a rosy picture of the future of a particular church and those opposed to disaffiliation a more dismal picture of its future, a church needs to conduct a realistic appraisal of what it will be facing if it adopts a particular course of action. A new denomination or church network will not be able to offer much of a safety net for clergy and congregations that join it. Those who become independent and non-denominational will have no safety net at all. It needs to take a hard look at its community and its possibilities for growth. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen a growing number of churches closing their doors, both conservative and progressive churches.
When churches that identify themselves as Biblically orthodox disaffiliate from a denomination or break away from a denomination, they weaken the Biblical orthodox witness in that denomination. They reduce the presence of self-identified Biblically orthodox clergy and lay delegates in the denomination’s governing bodies. They also reduced the number of self-identified Biblically orthodox clergy in the ranks of the denomination’s clergy. Their departure may actually make a major contribution to what they fear may happen in the denomination. They may believe that they are doing the right thing, even quote Scripture in support of their decision, but they would have served God better if they had stayed. Discerning what is the best place for a church to serve God is not something that can be done in a few short weeks, much less overnight.
In the late nineteenth century evangelical Episcopalians unhappy with developments in the then Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA broke away from that denomination and formed the Reformed Episcopal Church. As a result, the Episcopal Church lost its evangelical wing and what those who had departed from the denomination feared came to pass. They had removed a major obstacle to these developments, themselves.
The Reformed Episcopal Church initially experienced a period of growth and expansion and then plateaued. 144 years later the Reformed Episcopal Church is in a number of ways indistinguishable from the Episcopal Church. Primarily it is more politically and socially conservative than the denomination from which its founders broke away.
In the 1970s a number of Episcopalian clergy and congregations broke away from the Episcopal Church over women’s ordination and prayerbook revisions. They would form the short-lived first Anglican Church in North America which quickly fragmented into a number of small jurisdictions. The Anglican Mission in America formed in the closing decade of the last century would eventually split over reaffiliation with the second Anglican Church in North America. The second Anglican Church in North America formed in reaction to developments in the Episcopal Church in the first decade of this century has held together so far, but it has a number of internal divisions. For a number of clergy and congregations who joined the new denomination, it has not turned out to be what they had hoped that it would be. It is moving in a direction with which they are not entirely happy.
While the proponents of disaffiliation would prefer only to look at the upside of disaffiliation and to have others join them in looking at its upside, disaffiliation does have its downside. It will have consequences that will affect the denomination from which a church is disaffiliating but also the church itself.
For some churches it may be an easy path to take but for others it will be fraught with all kinds of perils. In the meantime, the denomination in question may be losing the wide range of diverse opinions that it needs to fulfill Christ’s mission for his Church.
We live in an increasingly diverse world and face challenges which require diverse approaches. We must tailor our approach to the challenge and not expect one approach, our preferred approach, to meet all challenges. That calls for a diversity of thinking and not a “my way or the highway” approach.