Do we need denominations in the 21st Century?

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.

Ircel Harrison

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Ircel Harrison is Coaching Coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is Associate Professor of Ministry Praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He blogs at His Twitter feed is @ircel.

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  • bdlaacmm

    No, we don’t need them any more – we never did need them. It’s long past time for all Christians to return to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Then Christ’s prayer to the Father will be truly realized, “That they may all be one”.

  • Albert8184

    Right! And plus, when you discourage local denominations and encourage creating a big monolithic “thing”, like the federal education system has become, it makes it easier to once again override the Constitution and create a state approved religion.

    Classic Fabian Socialist approach. Gull the masses into conforming to a model created and approved by “Us who know better” by using various appeals to emotion and invented “crises” and then…. put it under consolidated national control that gradually gets taken over by bureaucrats serving the government.

    And undoubtedly, it will be a “High Church Progressive” sort of thing that eschews all that “reactionary” stuff like creationism and dispensationalism and private property and traditional marriage and the idea that God is above the government.

    I can almost smell the gunpowder.

  • sewcool1

    I agree that their usefulness is very limited. It is another layer of the church to support & often denominational loyalities get in the way of the mission of individual Christians.

  • Ginklestinker

    I am of the opinion that Christians should hold only loosely to any local church or denominational association. Christ is the head of His church, and we receive our marching orders and inspiration as we follow Him. He must always be the centre of our identity and purpose. Of course, it is a joy and strength to meet with like-minded believers , and to share in their gifts and experience as we walk he pilgrim way. But why should we narrowly restrict ourselves to one church or one denomination of the Lord’s people ? Join several , and you’ll be blessed and be a blessing to many more. Get ready for the joyous unity of Heaven. Do you always eat at the same restaurant ? Well, why then this hesitation to spread your wings ?