I write this final installment (here are links to Part 1 and Part 2) 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 the five steps described in “Part 2” of this series. 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 the "Five Steps" outlined in Part 2 of this article and one 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, that is 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.