Five Steps to Denominational Renewal

threadMost pastors will acknowledge that the relationship between their congregations and their denominations is tethered by but a thread. One simple explanation for this is that denominations serve but a small percentage of the essential needs of their congregations. For many congregations, denominational services may be limited to insurance plans, pensions, seminaries, and ordinations. Outside of such, congregations have found few denominational resources essential to their lives and ministries. And that’s OK.  From my perspective, I don’t think a denomination need provide much more than those essential services.

But one may ask why the relationship between the two is connected by but a thread and not a rope? I am sure there are many reasons but three have been prominent in my ministry. First, the world-wide-web has provided access for congregations to more than enough resources for ministry. Through this technology, congregational leaders discover curriculum, songs, liturgies, Bible studies and much, much more. Hence, local congregations don’t need a denomination to provide such resources.

Second, the growing diversity of congregational cultures makes it difficult for a denomination to service their congregations with resources for ministry. Fifty years ago this wasn’t the case. Then the ecclesiastical landscape looked much like the McDonalds Corporation. The franchises (congregations) within the corporation (denomination) looked pretty much the same. They shared the same menu of ministries, ministry context, culture, and more. It was easy, then, for corporate headquarters (the denomination) to serve these churches with curriculum, hymn books, liturgies, marketing, theologically trained pastors, church order, and more. More recently, congregations and their ministry contexts within a denomination have increased in diversity. Each congregation exhibits a unique culture in a unique ministry context. Sure there are similarities between the congregations but each church differs in significant ways from others in its denomination. Such diversity makes it difficult for denominations to provide boiler-plate resources.

Third, the mission of most denominations has been related to but is separable from that of their congregations. This denominational mission typically has been something akin to “doing more together.” While there is nothing wrong with “doing more together,” that mission is not necessarily connected to the congregations within a denomination. As a result, denominations must launch marketing plans to convince congregations to join in their mission. Plus, the mission of “doing more together” is not unique to denominations; it is shared by countless para-church organizations. So, by embracing a motto of “doing more together,” denominations place themselves on a competitive playing field with countless organizations who just as effectively, if not more so, help congregations and congregants extend their ministry and mission in their communities and throughout the world, i.e., “do more together.” The end result is that denominations compete for support from the congregations they serve—and they are losing, as evidenced by decreasing financial support for denominations.

One wonders if there is a future for denominations. I hope so. We need them if but to serve as judicatories to protect pastors from churches and churches from pastors, and to oversee the ordination process of candidates for pastoral ministry. But what is the way forward?

Throughout human history, people have adopted one of three approaches to a crossroad or, if you will crisis. These three options may be summarized as reject, repair, or reform. Clearly, as evidenced by the large number of unaffiliated congregations, many congregations have taken the reject option. Time will tell how well this non-denominational or unaffiliated option works.

Most denominations seems to be taking the repair option. They are busy trying to become relevant to their congregations by refurbishing current structures, improving their brand, expanding their menu of services, increasing their social media presence, and promoting a variety of initiatives. Up to this point, there is little evidence that this approach has been effective in strengthening the tie between congregations and denominations. But, again, time will tell.

In this post-modern and post-Christian context which differs so significantly from the context within which denominations apparently flourished, I prefer the reform option. This one questions fundamental assumptions, encourages new ways of thinking, and challenges the status quo. For obvious reasons, congregational leaders (outsiders) may appreciate this approach far more than denominational insiders whose positions may be threatened by such conversations. So, this option is best promoted by outsiders who may be naive to the inner working of denominations but desirous of a vital connection with them.

But what does denominational reform look like?  Here is a proposal from this outsider. (Those familiar with the work of Will Mancini will recognize his “Vision Frame” in the background).

Since identity shapes behavior, the first step towards denominational renewal is for the denomination to embrace and affirm its true identity. This may come as a surprise to some, but a denomination is not a church. It is not the bride of Christ or the temple of the Holy Spirit or the recipient of the special grace promised to the church. It is, rather, an association of congregations. It is a collective of like-minded congregations who voluntarily support a shared mission, set of shared values, and strategic initiatives. Ironically, the theological confessions of most denominations list the marks of the true church or congregation and, by their own definitions these same denominations are not the church. Yet, many identify themselves as such and act accordingly.

The second step towards denominational renewal is for Christians to embrace the biblical truth that the local church, not the denomination, is the hope of the world. The mission of God has been and is to seek and save the lost through the agency of local congregations, each of which is committed to making disciples. One need but look at the example of the Church of Antioch for confirmation. The local church, not the apostles in Jerusalem, fulfilled the Great Commission by sending Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries. Even in the modern era, the greatest movements in Christianity have been launched and sustained by local congregations and their congregants. In my own community, congregations, with their congregants, have planted new congregations. They have also established a college and a seminary, international mission agencies, Christian day-schools, adoption agencies, and food pantries. They have even commissioned and sent out ambassadors for Christ throughout the world.

Since the local church is the hope of the world, the third step towards denominational renewal is for denominational officials to affirm but one mission or purpose: to support the ministry and mission of local congregations. That’s it, pure and simple. The ministry plan of a denomination is not to do more together; it is solely to support the ministry and mission of its local congregations. Denominational officials may counter by stating that they do support the ministry and mission of their local congregations. But my experience as a pastor in a denominational church, as well as those of many others, say otherwise. In fact, while serving as a pastor, I once conducted a simple sociological experiment. For one year I read and kept all my mail from the denomination and its agencies. I read each piece, then placed it a mail bin. By the end of the year the bin was overflowing! But in that collection I found but one letter from a local denominational official asking how he might help my congregation. Just one. The rest of the mail, including each piece from the denominational office, did nothing more than solicit support for the ministry and agencies of the denomination. Not once did the denominational office reach out and ask, “How can we support the ministry and mission of your congregation?” And on more than one occasion, denominational initiatives actually hindered our ministry on the local level.

If the local church is the hope of the world and the purpose of the denomination is to support the ministry and mission of its congregation, the fourth step is strategic. First, the ministry plan for a denomination must focus on listening to the churches and, in response, developing resources and providing assistance to meet real needs on the local level. Second, in order to listen well, denominational officials must prioritize building personal relationships with congregations – one by one. In so doing, they must resist the temptation to connect with congregations in any other fashion than by campus visits which include participation in corporate worship service and personal conversations with congregational leaders.

In order to complete this initiative, denominational officials will need to recruit and train a specialized group of regional representatives who are gifted with discernment and equipped to build relationships with local congregation in their ministry contexts.  Consequently, denominational officials will feel the need to decentralize and, most-likely, eliminate denominational agencies and offices that may be doing good work but don’t directly serve the ministry and mission of local congregations. While painful, such hard decisions will be necessary to align the work of the denomination with its purpose.

The fifth step towards denominational renewal is even more challenging than the fourth: adopt benchmarks to determine effectiveness, the most obvious of which is annual professions of faith and baptisms within local congregations. That benchmark may seem daunting, but if the ministry and mission of the local church is to make disciples and the mission of the denomination is to support local congregations in that mission, one of the results of a healthy relationship between the denomination and its congregations will be more disciples, as evidenced in an increasing number of professions of faith and baptisms. Such a benchmark will surely encourage denominational officials to work hard at equipping their congregations to go into their communities, baptize believers into their congregations, and teach them the apostolic faith.

Five steps for denominational renewal. Together they call for unprecedented reform of ecclesiastical structures that have been around for decades. But the vision that prompts this call for reform is that of a collective of vibrant and healthy congregations embracing the mission of God to make disciples, supported and assisted by denominational structures which have but one purpose: to help their congregations fulfill that mission.

Will it work?

I write this answer to that question from the perspective of a pastor or lay-leader of an affiliated congregation, that is, a congregation that has membership in a denomination.

I write it from the perspective of an affiliated congregation that longs to embrace the mission of our Triune God to seek the lost and disciple the found, but realizes it needs help to fulfill that purpose.

I write it from the perspective of a local congregation serving in a post-Christian and post-modern context.

I write having noticed that people like me and congregations like mine have chosen one of three types of relationships with their denominations.

One group has chosen to minimize their denominational affiliations. Instead of seeking help for ministry from their denominations, they draw resources for ministry from a variety of non-denominational options, collaborate with a number of networks, and fulfill minimal commitments with their denominations. As a result, the denomination is pretty much a non-factor in the way they do ministry. From a bird’s eye view, this group of congregations and pastor appear to be unaffiliated or non-denominational. In effect, they have rejected their denominations.

A second group has sought help from their denominations but discovered that, in their denomination’s efforts to “do more together,” the life and ministry of their local congregations has not always been a priority. Or they have discovered that their denominations serve their congregations the same way they did fifty years ago–when the ministry landscape was both modern and Christian. Still, this group believes in their denominations and their vision of “doing more together.” So they invest time and energy into repairing and maintaining denominational structures so that more resources are channeled to the local church. They also dutifully resource their ministries with tools provided by denominational offices. They pay their fair share of membership or franchise fees to the national and regional denominational offices. They add the name of the denomination to their church signs and web sites. They even seek a threefold conversion in the hearts and minds of their congregants: to Christ, the local church, and to the denomination.

A third group has chosen to affiliate with one of a growing number of new denominations or associations whose stated purpose is but to serve their local congregations; these new groups embody my “Five Steps.” They believe that their primary and exclusive role is to help their congregations be more effective in life and ministry. The decision by this third group of congregations to affiliate with new denominations appears to have been prompted by the conviction that they (local congregations) are missionaries and mission outposts seeking to advance the kingdom of God in their neighborhoods and communities – and by the conviction that they need the kind of help that comes from congregational collaboration and accountability.

In summary, congregations and pastors have chosen one of three types of relationships with their denominations. One group, which has risen to prominence during the past fifty years, has pretty much rejected denominationalism. Another group, which has been with us for well-over a century, embraces traditional denominationalism. The third group, the newest kid on the block, is developing a via media between the other options, one that models my “Five Steps” and that affirms the importance of denominations while calling their denominations to prioritize the local church.

One may find countless examples of congregations and pastors who have decided to function much like non-denominational churches, and an equal number of congregations and pastors who have decided to invest in their traditional denominations. But a new movement may not be readily apparent to most: the growing number of new denominations (or forms of congregational association and accountability) whose primary mission is to serve their local congregations.

One of them is the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO), a fellowship of about 300 Presbyterian congregations and 500 Presbyterian pastors. The stated mission of ECO is “to build flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.” The staff includes about a dozen individuals. The membership fee for congregations is 1% of a congregation’s annual budgeted operating expenses.

Another example is the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), which is an “association of congregations and individuals who are free in Christ, accountable to one another, rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, and working together to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations.” The LCMC builds its services on the foundation that “the local congregation is where the church becomes a concrete reality for God’s people.”

Another example is the Fellowship of Christian Assemblies, “a family of ministers and ministries connecting to advance God’s Kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit through the local church.” This group includes a couple hundred congregations in the US and Canada. Still another example is the Association of Related Congregations (ARC) whose mission is to launch, connect and equip local congregations; this fellowship, however, does not include the traditional denominational processes for the ordination of pastors.

In summary, we may look over the ecclesiastical landscape and observe that congregations and pastors have chosen one of three types of relationships with their denominations.  One group has pretty much rejected denominationalism. Another group embraces traditional denominationalism but would like to see its ministry to local congregations improved. The third group, a kind of neo-denominationalism, is developing a via media between the other options, one that affirms the importance of denominations while calling their denominations to prioritize the local church.

Interestingly, it is the third group of churches that has prompted denominational renewal. In other words, denominational renewal is currently taking place and being led, not by denominations, but by local congregations; they have taken the initiative to form and join new types of denominations, those whose sole purpose is to serve the local church. (We may even conclude that the growing number of new denominations or associations may be one of the more significant ecclesiastical movements in this century.)

But a most difficult question remains: What if a congregation is in one group but desires the type of service provided by another? What if, for example, a congregation is in Group 2 but wants the service provided by Group 3? Can those in Group 2, for example, hope that their denominations will embrace the radical change necessary to affirm a new mission: the support the ministry and mission of its congregations? Or is that asking and expecting too much? And if it is asking too much, will denominational renewal mean the emergence of even more new forms of congregational collaboration and association? More specifically, will we witness more parallel denominations (whose sole purpose is to serve the local church) to each of the mainline traditional denominations (whose stated purpose is to do more together)?

Time will tell.

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