An increasingly popular topic in many evangelical circles today is the relevance and/or importance of denominations. Not surprisingly this conversation occurs primarily, but certainly not exclusively, among pastors and congregations not affiliated with any denominational and who, by definition, have already concluded that denominations are either irrelevant and/or unimportant.
This issue came up in the conversations at The Elephant Room this week. Not surprisingly the panel made up of pastors not affiliated with any denomination (no, “Baptist” isn’t a denomination), was convinced that denominations are losing their relevance. Although, ironically, by their own admission most of these guys also participate in “cooperative networks,” which are almost like denominations, except that they allow the local pastor to hold on to his
I’ve seen the numbers too and, generally speaking, traditional denominations are losing members. Despite what you may think, however, I believe that this makes them more relevant, not less.
Why? Because it seems to me, and many others, that the mass migration we are witnessing is fueled in large part, not by a burning passion for an “authentic faith”, but by consumerism. I’m not saying there aren’t people leaving denominational churches with legitimate scars. Nor am I saying that “relevance” isn’t important.
However, if there is one thing the church does not need more of it’s fracturing. The reality is that even within traditional denominations, there is great diversity, including many churches who are making intentional efforts to be “relevant” to the 21st century. Surely we can find ways to further that diversity by staying faithful to the commitments we have made, rather than bolting for the cool, new church down the street, further dividing an already fractured church.
With that in mind, I would like to try to make the case that denominations are not only still relevant, they are also tremendously important.
We need less splintering, not more.
I don’t know of anyone who would argue that the church needs less division. However, our actions speak louder than our words. I could be wrong, but there seem to be more Christian denominations today than at any point in history. We began with 1 church and now there are over 38,000 different denominations.
Diversity is a great thing. Splintering is not.
It was Paul who said we are one body, but many parts. The hand cannot say “I don’t need” you, for it will die by itself. Yet, this seems to be exactly what we’re doing today.
So what gives?
I don’t think we have to look much further than McDonald’s and Wendy’s for the answer. We live in a consumeristic society. We love our menus. We want to pick and choose whatever we want, reject what we don’t want, and not be held accountable for either decision. If we don’t like what we see at McDonald’s, then we’ll just go across the street to Wendy’s. They still have basically what we’re looking for, but we like their Frosty better than McDonald’s shakes. And of course, if we get tired of burgers and fries, then we can just head down the street to Taco Bell and pick up a “taco”.
We do the same thing with church. We are consumeristic congregations. If we don’t like the preacher, the style of music, or the color of the carpet, then we feel free to leave at our whim. Certainly, we all have the right to choose our particular faith tradition. But once we have committed to that tradition or a particular church and we leave because we get upset about something or because the church down the street is suddenly more exciting, then I think we need to ask ourselves some tough questions.
What does it say about us and what we are actually “seeking” that we shop around for the “right” church that makes us comfortable?
Likewise, what does it do to the body of Christ when our commitment to her is based primarily on our personal happiness?
Simply put, the church doesn’t need more splintering. The church needs men and women brave enough to stay in the churches or traditions where they are, enrich those churches or traditions, and become agents of change within those places when necessary.
By what authority?
As freedom loving Americans we may not want to hear this, but authority in the church is important. That’s not the bias suggestion of a minister, it’s the model Jesus himself established in the Gospels. Jesus lays his hands on his disciples and literally breathes authority into them to establish his church and make disciples. Years later, when a formal church and hierarchy is established it’s not the “invention of man”, it’s the invention of Jesus.
This isn’t an argument for us to all return to Rome. (sorry Catholic friends) I’m simply making the point that if you’re going to go out and establish a new church, particularly an autonomous one, then you need to pause and ask “Who gave me the authority to do so?”
Before you say God told you to do it, I have to ask how you know it was God and not just your own frustrations or dreams. The New Testament gives us a way to discern this. Paul tells us to “test the spirits”. He’s not telling us to simply pray and then go with what our gut or heart tells us. Both Paul and Peter tested what they thought they were called to do by appearing before the Council of Jerusalem. In other words, they brought it to the church. The formal church, not an abstract, spritiual collection of Christian friends. If the church would affirm it, then it was from God. If they didn’t, then it wasn’t.
This is the pattern the church as largely followed ever since then. Certainly there are moments of irreconcilable difference in the church, i.e. the filioque controversy and the Protestant Reformation. However, there is a tremendous difference between disagreeing over fundamental tenets of the faith and breaking away from the established church because you want to be “more relevant”.
Likewise, denominational authority is tremendously important because it gives both the local pastor and the laity someone to appeal to beyond the local church. In the case of autonomous churches, there is no one to appeal to beyond the pastor or church board. If your problem is with the pastor and/or church board, then how can it ever be resolved in a fair manner? What is to stop the pastor or board from simply ignoring you or worse, turning you into a “wolf among the sheep”?
We need accountability
This goes right along with the issue of authority. With few exceptions denominationally unaffliated churches live and die with their founding pastor. It was the pastor that founded the church and his or her charismatic personality that draws people in. This certainly happens in denonimational churches, but it is the exception rather than the norm.
When this is the case, their power often goes unquestioned. There may be rules or structrures in place to govern the church, but ulimately everyone knows who is “really” in charge. When this happens, as it so often does, the pastor becomes accountable to no one but himself. This is obviously an incredibly dangerous and toxic situation. You don’t have to look further than the constant stories of financial corruption, illicit affiars, and spiritual abuse to see what happens when a pastor is accountable to no one.
However, having denomination leadership in place, rather than the pastor’s friends, aka the church board, goes a long way in holding the pastor accountable for his or her actions. Though it’s not a perfect system, most denominational pastors are keenly aware of the limits of their “power” and act accordingly. This makes for a much healthier church, than a cult of personality.
Denominations have vast resources from which to draw from, and I’m not just talking about financial resources.
Listening to converstions between “innovative” pastors and “their ideas” for their churches, I never cease to be amazed. They often talk about the programs, strategies, and models they have created as if they are their own, original creation. They may add some 21st century flair, but their’s almost never anything “new” or “innovative” going on. It’s just a repackaging of something the church has already been doing for hundreds of years.
And that’s just the thing. There’s no need to “reinvent the wheel”. The wheel has been invented, tested, and tweaked for 2 millenia. To assert that the church needs “innovative” pastors to come in and teach her how to function is either naive or arrogant. Certainly, the church is always in need of tweeking. But when we are members of a denomination, rather than breaking off on our own, we have access to vast resources for “how” to do church. They may need tweaking in light of new technology, but they don’t need inventing.
Additionally, when we attach ourselves to a church that is not denominationally affiliated, we do so in large part because of the style of worship, the personality of the pastor, and/or the teachings of the church. If we move away, there is no guarantee that we will be able to find a church that is even remotely similar to what we fell in love with. This isn’t usually the case, however, with a denomination. Certainly no 2 United Methodist churches are exactly the same, but if you move from Orlando to Portland you can still be relatively sure that you’ll be able to continue to worship in the tradition that has shaped your faith.
Likewise, this inter-connectedness creates a wide and wonderful family that simply can’t be found in autonomous churches. Personally speaking, this is one of the things that appeals to me the most about being part of a denomination. I’ve been a member of the Church of the Nazarene my entire life. It’s not a perfect denomination, but one thing I cherish about my tradition is its connectedness and sense of family. It doesn’t matter where I go, I seem find a Nazarene connection. When this happens it’s like meeting a lost friend and when I visit another Nazarene church it kind of feels like coming home. Obviously you can find friends and a sense of home in any church, but denominations have this already built in and I think that’s a wonderful thing. In fact, I think that’s what the church is really all about.
Clearly, I’m not a big fan of the surge in autonomous churches. However, I firmly believe that those who attend these churches are every bit as Christian as the rest of us. Likewise, I don’t think that leaving your church for another is by any means an unforgivable sin. Sometimes we should leave, particularly when spirituality abuse is occurring.
My issue is with the unnecessary splintering of an already fractured church as well as the unaccountable authority that is recklessly wielded by autonomous pastors.
Because of this I think denominations are relevant and important now more than ever. In a world of consumeristic “have it your way Christianity” when we all, pastor or lay, want to be accountable to no one, when need to be reminded that autonomy and consumerism are antithetical to Christianity. It was Jesus who said “not my will, but Yours”. If we are going to claim to be Christ-like then we have to learn that we are not the center of the universe. If there was anything Jesus taught us, it was that should always be the needs of others first.
Likewise, Paul, the man who constantly butted heads with the leadership of the early church, was also quick and emphatic in reminding us that we are one Body and we cannot say to each other “I don’t need you.” We may claim that this is not what we’re saying when we break away to form autonomous churches, but that is the very action Paul is warning us against.
I’m afraid that we’ve opened a Pandora’s box that may never close before Jesus returns. That being said, there is always hope. If we truly love the church we must learn to passionately pursue unity.
Conformity does not equate to unity and I don’t think that is what we are called to be as the Body of Christ. Diversity is beautiful and tremendously important. However, we must also strive to remain faithful to the committments we make to the church and avoid fleeing for greener pastures if it can at all be helped.
God has invited us all to be a part of his Body. That body was broken once for all on the cross. Let us not needlessly break it apart anymore.
Grace and peace,