06/28/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

Denominations as Mission, Not Like-Minded Membership

What is the future of "denominations"?

Each fall, during an introductory college course to Christianity, we discuss the significance of the four marks of the church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. After viewing an image of the varying threads of denominations, we discuss whether or not this picture is a perversion of the original hopes for the Christian church. Is this a picture of unity made possible through infinite diversity? Or is this a picture of unity fractured?

Next week, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will gather in Pittsburgh for a denominational meeting. Current discussions in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) question whether there is a need for a new break in the family tree or if it is possible to retain unity despite great disagreement. With great prayer, leaders are laying out a myriad of options all intended to strengthen individual churches to better serve Christ's mission in a broken world.

The word denomination has an etymology that challenges the very mission of the church. With its roots in a 14th century Old French word, the word denomination implies "the act of giving name to." That injunction, while the beginning of what makes Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and others unique, must not be their end. The very act of giving name to might just be what keeps the church alive.

The biblical tradition has incredible stories of christening by naming. From the calling out at creation "Light," "Day," "Night," "Sky," the nomenclature of creation identified the intricacies of God's world. As the creator God called people like Abram and Jacob, they took on new names to mark the difference faith in the Lord had made in their lives and so Abraham and Israel were named. The very act of naming is the first vocation of Adam, who labeled the llamas and termed the tamarin and tapir. Naming is what gives new dignity to Legion; a new mission to Simon, Andrew, James and John; and life to the church as the early followers in Acts called out the name Jesus Christ amid the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Today, the church remembers the extraordinary power of the act of "giving name to" each time we christen a child at Baptism. Alongside their given family names comes the very name, "child of God."

As we consider the many issues facing denominations today, the act of "giving name to" cannot be simply names that provide lines of delineation. That would be the slow fracturing death of the church. Instead, the act of giving name to must be the essential mission of the church. Instead of becoming lost in the staid nouns of our denominational names, the hope for the church is energized when we take on the active verb of giving name to those who are lost, hopeless, disenfranchised, broken.

The act of giving name to like-minded people: liberals, conservatives, orthodox, heathens is all too easy and simplistic. Living into the beauty and complexity of the baptized Christian name of each individual might just be what energizes a fractured church. Religious traditions are at their worst when naming becomes delineating: Samaritans, Sadducees and Pharisees are just a few New Testament examples. Instead, the stories that carry hope into the 21st century are names like Luke, Lydia and Legion. When Christ gave name to their value in this new Gospel-mission, kingdom-vision movement, their lives were changed and so are ours.

Ranjit, an incredible musician, took the "act of giving name to" as a personal mission when he traveled to India to use his faith and musical gifts with street children in Bombay. For children whose names are rarely uttered with love, Ranjit blessed them by creating a song from their very names and teaching them the melody. That very melody might so aptly be called, "Child of God." In his song, the act of giving name to is the starting point of salvation.

Perhaps our denominations can be saved by remembering naming as a missional call rather than as the boundary lines of delineation. For those skeptical that the church going out into the world to sing a song about naming might just save the future of denominations, I beg to differ. For each person named by Jesus the Christ, from Andrew to Zaccheus, the foundation of the church was called and blessed and loved and shaped.

Amid conflict, naming divisions, dogma and disappointment is all too easy. Perhaps differences of opinion might be kept in check by focusing on the name of our neighbor in need. This is where unity matters. Our naming should be directed to their service.

Let "denominating" not be the end of the church through our fractured and delineated theologies. Instead, let it be the beginning of our revitalized mission.

This blog first appeared on the 'Faith and Leadership' e-magazine of the Duke Divinity School.