So here is the proposal from an outsider alluded to in Five Steps for Denominational Renewal - Part 1. (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? In Part 3, I will highlight a couple examples. Until then, let's talk about it.