Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Reversing the decline of denominational importance

Yesterday I addressed two issues that have led to a decline of denominational importance for many churches.  That post was only a summary of an entire chapter I devote to the subject in my book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.  This is not easy material for me to write as I have been a solid supporter of the denomination in which I serve since beginning my ministry in 1981.  Even when I didn't agree with everything the denomination did I continued to support it because I firmly believe that churches can do more together than they can isolated.  This is especially true of the small, bivocational churches.  As a pastor I led our church to increase our giving to our denominational mission program from ten percent to fifteen percent of our offering.  One year that amounted to over $14,000.00, not bad for a church that only averaged around 50 people.  Our church supported a capital funds campaign the denomination had to fund an increased mission presence around the world.  For the past twelve years I have served as a judicatory minister in our denomination helping resource the over 300 churches in our region.  I have continually seen value in working with and within a denomination, but that does not mean I am blind to the reality for many of our churches that their denominational connection is not as important today as it once was.

This relationship break is easily seen in the decrease of funds churches send to their denomination.  As mentioned yesterday, many denominations are cutting staff, merging districts, revising how money is shared between national and regional organizations, reducing the number of missionaries serving in the field, and finding other ways to cut costs.  The break is seen in the decreasing numbers of people who attend associational, judicatory and national meetings of their denomination.  While there are exceptions, many of these meetings have very poor turn-out and and those who do attend are composed primarily of the older members of our churches.   The break is seen in the number of churches who no longer want the denominational name as part of their church name, as more and more churches use literature and resources from groups other than their denominational headquarters, as churches are willing to seek pastoral leadership from outside their denominational family, and as young people preparing for ministry look at non-denominational seminaries for that training.  Max DePree writes that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality, and as painful as this is it is the reality facing most of our denominations.

What has to happen for denominations to once again regain influence with its churches?  First, some denominations must recapture a high view of Scripture.  There is often a mismatch in theological beliefs between denominational leadership and their local churches with the local churches typically being much more conservative than the denominational leadership.  I understand there is a political element to denominational work, but we answer to a higher power than that.  The question must not be what some group within our denomination will think about this decision but what does Scripture say about it.  Because I have the opportunity through my workshops to work with various denominations I have seen how those denominations with a high view of biblical authority are much stronger than those who do not hold such a high view.

The second thing that must happen is that denominations must capture a fresh vision of what God is calling them to be and do in the twenty-first century.  Part of that, I believe, is to realize that the denomination exists to serve the local church, not the other way around.  For some denominational groups that may be a major paradigm shift.  Those of us in denominational work are there to provide the resources our churches need to to fulfill their mission in their communities.

Many denominational bodies are already restructuring their boards to a smaller board, and those that have not will need to.  This not only saves money but also allows for quicker decision making.  Our world is changing too quickly for denominations to take five years to study a topic and make recommendations that will be voted on in two years.  There is a time to study an issue, to pray, but there is also a time when a decision needs to be made.  Denominational leaders need to stop studying an issue until they retire so they don't have to make an unpopular decision.  Smaller boards and quicker decisions will make it much easier for denominations to serve their churches.

Some have already written off denominations as a relic from the past, but I believe they still have an important role to play.  They enable like-minded churches to come together to accomplish much more than they could if they were apart.  But, for them to recapture their role there will have to be changes made.  Some of those changes will be painful, but what change isn't?  Those denominations that can transform themselves will enjoy an effective ministry with their churches, and the Kingdom of God will advance. Those that cannot or will not make the adjustments will find their influence continuing to wane.

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