Most 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 parachurch 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? In part 2, this outsider will propose five steps for denominational reform or renewal.