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.