Those of us who worked in denominational roles in past years often referred to ourselves as “denominational serpents” rather than denominational servants, questioning the motivations of the bureaucracies that employed us. Being part of a denominational organization and seeing its inner workings, we often came away disillusioned and with great reservations about the future of denominational judicatories.
Is there a place for denominational structures in the 21st century? There may well be if these organizations move beyond a survival mentality and develop a clear understand of their purpose and their relationship to the local congregation.
Coming from a Free Church tradition, I admit that I have a strong bias for local church autonomy. Even in connectional and hierarchical denominations, however, the local congregation—the local expression of the Body of Christ—is where ministry ultimately takes place. Therefore, I suggest that the purpose of a denominational entity must be understood in its relationship to the local church.
One approach is for the denominational judicatory to see its purpose as assuring “quality” in the local congregation. This is the way of control. In this model, the judicatory makes sure that the congregation has clergy leadership with a specific type of preparation, teaches and preaches in line with a particular orthodoxy, and supports only those collaborative efforts that are approved by the judicatory. Such leadership may be perceived not only as stifling creativity but actually assuring it!
Another approach is for the judicatory to understand that its purpose is to empower the local congregation to pursue the mission Dei—the mission of God—based on its understanding of this giftedness and its context. In this model, the denomination’s role is to provide resources, connections, and methodology to equip clergy and lay members for mission.
Of course, a third model would be for the judicatory to completely ignore what is happening on the grass roots level, but such an approach only leads to isolation and death, so it is hardly a viable option.
An effective 21st century denominational judicatory that adopts the second option must realize several things.
First, one size does not fit all. Each congregation’s situation is unique and so is its response in ministry.
Second, flexibility is not only necessary, it is mandatory. Denominational leaders must adopt a listening mode and be ready to meet the congregation where it is.
Third, the local congregation is “where the action is.” The denomination will only succeed if the local churches do what God has called them to do.
This paradigm shift will not be an easy one, but I am not ready to completely discard denominational structures just yet. Their future depends on their willingness to refocus and adapt.