Few would doubt that denominations are in trouble today in the United States. Even traditionally strong denominations such as the Southern Baptists are seeing a decrease in mission dollars coming from their churches resulting in lay-offs at state convention levels and a move towards a different split of mission dollars resulting in the denomination receiving a larger share than they used to receive. American Baptist missionaries now have to raise their own support as the funds coming into the denomination is not enough to keep their missionaries on the field. That denomination, of which I am a member, is also seeing people reductions at both the national and regional level. Some denominations are merging judicatories in an effort to cut expenses. No doubt there are a number of reasons for this decline in denominational support; we will just address two in this post.
Many churches have shifted how they think about ministry. In the past churches sent money to their denominations to provide support for their missionaries; today many churches see their primary mission field as their own communities. The result is that fewer dollars go to the denomination. Churches used to feel obligated to help fund their denominational colleges and seminaries as that is where their pastors were normally trained; now many churches do not limit their search for a pastor to those educated in their colleges and seminaries. Back when I began my pastoral ministry many churches used the educational literature and programs developed by their denominations and help fund that development through their mission dollars. Today, churches are apt to use materials and programs obtained through various para-church groups. More and more churches no longer feel the need to have a denomination tell them how they should serve their communities. Churches are taking the lead in their own ministry efforts, and if they need assistance they may ask their denomination for resources, and if those are not available they will seek those resources elsewhere. Denominations unable to adjust to this new paradigm will grow increasingly irrelevant to their churches until they are ignored completely by the churches.
A second issue that has led to the decline of denominational importance is the divisive issues that have plagued denominations now for the past couple of decades. Issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and now gun-control laws have divided many denominations. Numerous churches have withdrawn from their denomination as a result of this issues while other churches funnel their giving to specific ministries within the denomination to show their dissatisfaction with the direction of their denominational leadership. Of course, these issues not only affect the churches but also the general public as these battles are fought over the public airwaves.
Part of what makes this latter issue so divisive is that some denominations won't take a stand one way or the other. They prefer having study groups analyze these issues ad nauseum while those on both sides of the issue grow increasingly frustrated with the lack of decision. Some are so intent on being politically correct and inclusive they are incapable of making a decision knowing that any decision they make will upset people.
I have a suggestion for denominational leaders: grow a backbone and make a decision or admit that you have forfeited your right to lead and step aside. As much as people may not want to admit it, these divisive issues are not to be decided by what is popular or politically correct. The only ultimate guide to the decisions you have to make should be the Scriptures. The decisions denominations will make about these decisive issues are really a decision about biblical authority. How do you interpret what the Scriptures teach about such issues? Once a denomination has decided where it will stand on these issues then the local churches can decide what they need to do, but this indecision is doing nothing but hurting the ministry of the local church and the Kingdom of God.
I personally believe there is still an important role for denominations to play in the religious life of the United States, but we need denominations to fulfil their roles with excellence. We need men and women in denominational leadership who are committed to the authority of Scripture, who have a fresh vision from God where He wants to lead their denomination, and the courage to lead. When denominational leadership has these three things their churches will gladly follow their leadership and support their denomination. This will be one more factor that will help our churches become healthier and more effective in their ministries.
In The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision
I devote an entire chapter to the importance of denominational excellence that includes more suggestions than could be covered in this post.