The late great church consultant and national prophet Lyle Schaller saw it coming back in 2003. In his book From Geography to Affinity, he noted that “changes in denominational life in North America have left congregations with two difficult choices. On the one hand, they can choose to act as though their ministries and programs can still best be established by national denominational offices. On the other hand, they can choose to act as though their denominational identity is completely irrelevant to their mission.”
Well, 15 years later, the former choice is pretty rare.
Very few church visitors choose to affiliate with a congregation on the basis of denominational identity. And fewer congregations choose to affiliate with a denomination. For some, this is because interdependence and cooperation between congregations of similar heritage and background is unimportant. The response from denominations is often a doubling down, “try harder” promotional comeback that asserts that there is nothing wrong with current denominational structures, and that congregations need simply to align themselves with their denomination’s directions more thoroughly.
To these bad choices, Schaller forecast an alternative. He was the first observer who saw congregations extending their mission by participating in affinity networks — groups of congregations that share particular goals and visions. Early on, such networks were almost always within, rather than outside of, denominations. Schaller argued that these networks should be cheered, fed, encouraged and resourced on the judicatory level. (The network I serve is, according to Schaller himself, the only example of a denomination robustly choosing to take that advice.) Rather than making state or regional boundaries the organizing principle by which congregations within a denomination align themselves, why not form judicatories around a particular sense of mission, or distinctive theological stands?
Were he alive today, I suspect Schaller would have forecasted the logical extrapolation of the trend “from geography to affinity” — that is, the emerging realignment of denominations around the same magnetic centers of a “particular sense of mission” or “distinctive theological stands.” The Acts 29 network was one of the first of these networks; now they are beginning to proliferate. Translocal, trans-denominational tribes are forming around things like a shared hunger for evangelism (www.freshexpressionus.org) or a different posture toward culture (www.missioalliance.org).
When done from an unhealthy place, these new alliances have the ring of old retailers like Sears or Kmart who can no longer compete in the marketplace of ideas. But when done out of conviction about the needs for the unity of the church in responding to an increasingly indifferent post-Christendom society, they strike me as creative, inventive and hopeful.
Gone are the days when “marrying outside the faith” meant a Baptist wed a Methodist. The days of cross-denominational cooperation are upon us. Let all God’s people say “Amen!”