Mainline church denominations are shrinking away. Understanding why is important. But the bigger issue is what to do about turning around that trend.
Part of the solution is to recognize how and why church networks are replacing church denominations. Networks are loose affiliations of churches with shared interests and common church cultures. Denominations are churches that share basic beliefs and values.
Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Reformed and Methodist denominations used to each have its own church culture with a lot of overlap among these church bodies. Culture is the beliefs, values and behaviors that get passed on to the next generation. The shared church culture of these denominations is now being passed on to fewer and fewer young adults.
The common beliefs in mainline denominations are stated in documents unique to each church body’s history. For Lutherans that is the Confessions in the Book of Concord, to which I acknowledged my commitment at my ordination. Presbyterians and Reformed have the Westminster Confession; Episcopalians the 37 Articles of Religion in their book of Common Prayer. The Methodist confessions keep getting updated and don’t serve so well as an anchor.
When participating churches and pastors no longer share the common culture, the denomination gets dysfunctional. In my church body, many congregations have a mission-oriented culture that is forward-looking, and they are willing to change some practices to keep up with the changes in the larger culture. The others have a guardian-oriented culture that keeps looking backward and are unwilling to change traditions.
Mission-oriented pastors no longer expect to get much help from my denomination, which has been controlled by Guardians for the last twelve years. There was a time when I was heavily involved in our denomination’s politics. But our mission-oriented party lost by half a percentage getting our endorsed nominees elected ten years ago. I don’t see much hope for the future because the Guardians need a synod to achieve their goal of uniformity of practices. Mission-oriented churches aim for unity in the substance of doctrine but diversity of changeable practices in order to be more effective in their mission.
In comparison to denominations, networks are much more flexible. To start with, they don’t have elections. They follow whoever is getting good results and can explain why. They exchange mostly program ideas and book sources they find helpful.
One example of the good that can emerge is available in the annual Best Practices for Ministry Conferences hosted and paid for by one congregation in Phoenix. The pastor of that congregation makes all the program decisions himself. There are no committees from which he needs approval. This congregation generates the income to pay for the conference from a summer camp program they offer. Summers in Phoenix can get very, very hot, so that parents are motivated to pay to send their children to activities in air-conditioned buildings. Also, nobody gets paid for anything, including the featured plenary speakers.
Every year attendance at this BPM conference increased until three years ago when they maxed out what their facilities can handle. Now they warn potential participants to register early or they may not be able to attend. A major feature is one-hour sectionals with participants who want to share their ideas. The church facilities can handle 200 sectionals over three days. The number of proposals now exceed 200, so that not every proposed sectional can get scheduled.
As good as networks can be, they cannot handle two basic functions of denominations. One is to certify who and how someone is eligible for ordination. The other is perhaps more important. A denomination can remove from office a pastor who has had a serious personal failure.
Note that every one of the mainline congregations listed above has had a split in recent decades. Churches that can no longer support the beliefs and values of the dominant group have withdrawn and formed their own new denomination.
Mark Etter says
I think that you have made some great points. I do think that church networks replace denominations for pastors more than for individual churches. The mission minded pastor seeks information and support from the network. Churches still need the denomination when they need a pastor to fill the pulpit, stewardship help, and groups like LWML or LLL. Most of the time that I have gone to a conference, the lay people are unable to go with me. Keep up the good articles. This one really hit home for me.
Ed Thomas says
As I see it, effective churches can pay homage to the past but not be anchored to it. When we anchor ourselves we become ineffective at carrying out the mission. Our traditions become our idols and that is a slippery slope. Christ disrupted the world to save it. We must do the same.
Thomas Sharpe says
It is hard to believe that the LCMS could turn around by who it elects to national or district levels. I would think it’s best chance is individual congregations with passion for the mission.
Jerry Tangren says
I wonder how much hope there is for the LCMS when there is a lack of reconciliation all the way from the top down into the congregations. You talk about one side versus the other. What happened to the spirit of reconciliation to which we are all called?
Lee R Larsen says
Churches are the central hub from which the body of Christ functions and grows stronger. It must be rooted strongly in God’s word. This is where it takes a check and balance system in place to assure that the message and goals always remain in line with the teachings of Jesus. While we can and must update our delivery methods our message must never change. There are too many churches that are not deeply rooted in this way and find themselves changing the word of the Lord to fit the current worldly viewpoints. As a result God’s word in many cases has lost its ability to transform lives. Man has diluted it down to the point where we can all be comfortable to remain just as we are. There is no need to change because He loves us just the way we are. This was the result of trying to keep people coming to church even though they continue to experience pain & suffering in their daily lives as a direct result of not trying (with prayer & the Holy Spirit) to actually address their sinful ways. We will fail from time to time but the mission of His church is to be that place where the truth is always taught and help can be found to find and stay the path that God desires for us.
Bill Rose says
Actually we are seeing a rise in local churches and networks ordaining pastors and using online platforms like churchstaffing.com or training up leaders from within for staff roles.
Frankly our denomination (Wesleyan) is the last place we look for help.
Martin Howes says
I think it is only right for the people to make the decisions through the Elders and pastors of a certain body. Now for let’s say in each city with churches you could have certain Elders who could be selected to help churches see what is best. Also when something happens Thease Elders could help by leading the pastors and board members of each church to see the importance of each step. It shouldn’t be up to a council of people who are not related or connected to a local congregation.
David Luecke says
Great ideal. Whether this will happen is questionable. Most church leaders have little interest beyond their congregation.
jeanne menich says
Networking has its place in helping each other to cope with being a pastor and for basic knowledge. however, it should not take place in the church. My biggest problem with networking is the political aspect of politicization that tends to get thrown. I feel it can lead to a primrose path that is not beneficial to the church as a whole. There is a reason why churches should not talk about politics. You are seeing a complete breakdown of church-taught morals. When you see pastors supporting BLM without knowing the whole history of this communist-led group and listening to pastors that are not in your denomination has the possibility of watering down your own church doctrine and tenets. The reason the church is failing is because it is trying to please everybody and I feel networking contributes to that to some degree. The networks all have their own belief. I feel that the one reply that mentions their denomination is the last place they look for help says it all. It is your denomination that should be setting the goals, not people who are networking or doing things online. If you want your denomination to do its job, it needs to be listened to as long as what you are hearing is truth. Networking and online does not speak truth. It gives a very false premise that you are doing things correctly.. networking can be helpful, but it needs to be done carefully.
David Luecke says
The best is to stay in a denomination (like the LCMS) for disciplinary purposes and then to seek out networks of those with similar purposes. I think that is happening.