By George Bullard
Anyone who has followed my lifelong trek through the maze of denominational staff service and consulting and coaching with denominational organizations knows that I believe in denominations. I also believe they have a future that respects their past and present.
The current era which many call post-denominational I describe as a denominational transformation era. Denominations are not going away. They are simply being transformed — or morphed, if you prefer — into a new form.
What is this new form? Before we can go there, we have to talk about things that, emerging out of the morphing phase, are no longer part of denominational organizations. Many denominational organizations embracing these things are already dying. Way too many current denominations are still doing old things, and do not realize they are surrounded by dead bodies. Perhaps they are best known as the walking dead.
Here are two things I see denominations doing that are now dead efforts or diseased practices to the point that euthanasia is called for.
First, from sometime in the 19th century through most of the 20th century many denominations organized around a “gapology” framework. The goal was to do for churches what churches could not do for themselves, or at least what churches felt they could not do for themselves.
It was perceived that churches could not build colleges, seminaries, hospitals, orphanages or community ministry centers; provide credentials for ministers; send and support missionaries throughout the world; publish curriculum and other resources; offer insurance and retirement programs; engage in political and social advocacy; maintain doctrinal integrity; and many other things.
At least, individual churches could not do them as well as a collaboration of churches through a denominational structure. Denominations ultimately developed the mindset that they could do these things best. They were better than congregations, and congregations needed to be loyal to them and support them financially.
In the past several decades it turns out churches can do many of these things as well if not better than denominations. This caused a shrinking of the gap between what denominations can do and what churches can do. It led to churches to wonder why the need existed for denominations if their primary purpose was to fill the gaps.
I heard more than one pastor say, “If I could find an alternative way to do global missions, and have the insurance and retirement program I need, my church would not need our denomination.”
Emerging models of denominationalism do not take a gapology framework approach. They have a unique understanding of their mission as they come alongside various types of congregational expressions.
Second, the big lie denominations sold to churches during the 20th century is that money follows mission — or missions, if you prefer the plural action word. Denominations did not know this was a lie. It took the digital age to realize the lie.
Money does not follow mission. Money follows the information flow. During the gilded age of denominationalism, billions of dollars flowed through denominational channels using the missionary plea that money was needed to fund worldwide missions efforts.
The idea was that the primary ways for the masses of people to discover what was happening in missionary efforts throughout the world were the action reports sent to missionary-sending agencies and then published in newspapers and magazines. They came alive through inspirational missions sermons using this material and through deputation service by missionaries home on furlough.
Certain missionaries and inspirational missions speakers became larger than life and could inspire thousands. A few even had missions offerings named for them. This was not a bad thing. It was a good thing. Many denominations embraced the thought that missions is what unified their movement.
Now that churches can email, text or Skype their favorite missionary or national Christian leader in a country — even in a Christian hostile country — multiple times per day, their money goes the same way. If denominations wanted to control the collection and distribution of resources, they should have never allowed the first volunteer missions group to go to an international destination.
Once they did that the system of funding changed. It was just a matter of time when it would take place and in what forms it would find expression. New emerging models of denominationalism recognize the shifting funding patterns and embrace them.