Thursday, October 4, 2012

The changing role of denominations

Much has been written lately about the demise of denominations.  Some question if they still have value in the 21st century.  Churches are leaving their denominations for a variety of reasons while others are changing their denominational affiliation.  For some churches this is related to theological differences between them and their denomination while others feel the denomination they have belonged to for decades is now a hindrance to their ministries.  As a judicatory leader in a mainline denomination I still believe there is value in denominations, but I also recognize that many need to make some significant changes that may be difficult.

The primary advantage to denominations is the same as it's always been.  Belonging to a denomination and/or an association allows churches to do things together they could not do by themselves.  The church I pastored was giving 15 percent of its offering to our denominational mission program when I left.   It was a sizable amount of money for a church our size, but by itself it would not have supported a missionary more than five or six months at the most.  Alone, our overseas mission support would have amounted to very little, but when added to the gifts of thousands of other churches our denomination was able to fund mission work around the world.

A few years ago I went with several individuals to an area of Appalachia to help winterize a couple of houses.  About 15 individuals from seven churches in one association was part of this effort.  Every church in that association but one is bivocational.  Alone, none of those churches could have done what we were able to do together.  Sadly, it seems that seldom do churches in associations get together for ministry any more, but that day was a prime example of what can happen when they do come together for the purpose of ministry.

In addition, denominations and judicatories are able to provide resources to their churches, assist when problems arise in the church, assist in finding pastoral leadership, offer training opportunities, and provide a connection with other like-minded churches.  And, they are able to do that with a personal touch.  In our Internet-connected world, virtually anything a denomination can offer is also now available online through some para-church organization, but what you lose by using those resources is the personal touch from a person who knows your church, has visited your church and its leadership, and has a vested interest in seeing your church succeed.   That is an often overlooked advantage that comes by being connected with a denomination.

Despite these advantages denominations can bring to their churches, there are some things they need to address if they want to survive and thrive in the 21st century.  For the sake of brevity, I'll just touch briefly on three.

They need a clear identity.  Many denominations have been in turmoil for years over controversial social issues.  While some have taken definite steps to say where they are on these issues, many others continue to try to manage them by developing yet one more task force to study the issue.  Studying an issue seems to be a safer place to be than to actually state the official denomination stand on the issue, but the continual stress around these issues does nothing but erode trust in the denomination.  With decreasing trust comes decreasing dollars which may explain why many denominations today are struggling financially.  Here's an idea for denominational leaders.  Grow a spine.  Take a stand.  Stop trying to appease both sides on these issues because all you're doing is hindering the work of God's Kingdom.  At least if you'll simply issue a definitive statement about the position the denomination takes on the issues everyone can make whatever decisions they need to make about their continual association with the denomination.  It may be painful for awhile, but in time everyone will be able to move forward.

They need a clear understanding of their role in the 21st century.  Too many denominations seem to believe that the church exists for them.  They don't, and frankly never did.  As denominational leaders our role is to do whatever we can to assist our churches in the fulfillment of their ministries.  It is the church that God called to advance His Kingdom, not denominations.  Our role is merely to assist them.  Denominations exist for their churches, and those that can't understand that will continue to decline, and should.

Finally, they need a clear vision for their ministry.  This is really connected to the first two mentioned.  I suppose every denomination has a vision statement, but that doesn't mean they have a vision for ministry.  Writing words is easy; putting them into practice on a daily basis is much more difficult.  Some denominations have a vision that is primarily maintenance-minded.  Their vision is to preserve their historic policies and polity, to ensure that all things are done decently and in order, and, frankly, to survive.  Such vision lacks the heart of God for what is really important.  Unless denominations recover a vision that honors God and the work of their churches they will become irrelevant to both God and their churches.

Denominations are huge bureaucracies and change will not be easy.  In fact, it will likely come with much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  There will be much pain as denominations transition into new roles and relationships with their churches, but such transformation must happen.  There can be so many benefits coming from the relationships between a denomination and its churches, but many of these benefits are going to be lost if the denominations are unable to make the changes required of them.  I address this in more detail in my latest book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.

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