“Wouldn’t it be easier just to switch to a more congenial congregation or denomination rather than fighting?”
It was a question that frequently crossed this writer’s mind after interviewing people involved in efforts to reform their particular denomination or church body. The concern to renew and reform a religion from within is almost as ancient as the religious impulse itself. But the endeavor to enact desired change in a religious institution — whether it be conservative, liberal or mystical — has more likely floundered or resulted in the birth of new denominations than met with much success.
Yet, if anything, renewal and reform groups have increased rapidly in the last decade. For instance, in the Presbyterian Church (USA), there are at least 15 evangelical renewal groups and five liberal organizations working for church-wide change that have emerged in the last decade.
Renewal and reform groups come in all shapes and sizes. A new book by RW’s editor, Trusting The Spirit studies six such groups: the Catholic charismatic renewal, the evangelical Biblical Witness Fellowship in the United Church of Christ, the “high church” or evangelical catholic caucuses in Lutheranism, the ecumenical community Taize, the liberal, dissenting Catholic Call to Action movement, and Jewish Renewal. While not necessarily representative of the many renewal and reform organizations, the six case studies are among the most prominent in their respective traditions. Some of these organizations are small, shoestring operations, while others have taken on the trappings of institutions.
Attempting to gauge the effectiveness of renewal and reform organizations can be difficult. As noted above, when it comes to actually changing the structure of religious institutions, there are not many real successes. The Catholic charismatics have gained acceptance in most dioceses, as well as by recent popes; many charismatic participants have become key leaders in parishes. Yet renewal leaders can point to few charismatic parishes and not much influence in the leadership and structure of Catholicism.
The evangelical Biblical Witness Fellowship in the UCC and Call to Action are marginal in the life of their respective church bodies. They have taken on the roles of the gadflies to officialdom as well as countercultures where alternative theologies and practices (even liturgies in the case of Call to Action) are cultivated.
Although there are exceptions (the evangelical renewal groups in the United Methodist Church, for instance, have had a good deal of influence in the recent conservative turn in that denomination), renewal and reform groups may have only modest influence in their institutions. But they have succeeded in creating distinct identities and resources for their participants that are discouraged or ignored in the wider denomination.
One of the values that participants appreciate about renewal and reform groups is the high level of trust they generate. Because of the lack of bureaucracy and intimate bonds of fellowship found in these groups, participants say they can trust the leaders and, in turn, feel they are trusted to carry out important tasks in the organization. This heightened sense of responsibility may not be found at the more impersonal denominational level or even within congregations where working for a particular cause may result in divisions.
Aside from their obvious differences in theology and ideology, renewal and reform groups tend to follow two strategies. The first strategy is found in what can be called affilation fellowships, in which the renewal or reform group forms a close-knit group and usually has a membership. Members of Call to Action and the conservative Catholic renewal order Opus Dei, derive much of their religious identity from their participation in these groups. In situations where members feel shut out of the mainstream of denominational life — such as Call to Action — the affiliation fellowships serve as refuges that may keep members from leaving their church.
The other model of renewal and reform group, called “resource centers,” provide information, services — pastor referrals, and alternative ways of giving money and receiving benefits — and means of protest and addressing concerns to the larger institution, and generates new forms of cooperating with like-minded believers. Congregations can use the services of this kind of organization — subscribing to its newsletter, or finding a pastor through its referral network — without necessarily joining or accepting its agenda.
The ecumenical community Taize is one example of a resource center. Even though it is actually a monastic community, its services, music and literature are used by a diversity of believers with little interest or knowledge of the community’s beliefs and mission. Both strategies will continue to play a role in renewal and reform, but resource centers seem to fit in best with today’s more decentralized and consumeristic religious environment. This model is flexible enough to allow space for the multiple loyalties and attachments evident among leaders and members of congregations today.