The discussion about the future of denominations continues unabated. A series of videos and articles offered by Leadership Education at Duke Divinity provides some fresh insights for the discussion.
In one video, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, states that the question is “not whether congregations will be linked but how.” He believes that most congregations continue to see the need for connections that reflect that we are each part of the larger body of Christ.
In the same series, author, activist and former pastor Brian McLaren tries to offer some positive comments about denominations, but he observes, “I ended up becoming a church planter of a church that was nondenominational. I would have been happy to join a denomination, if a denomination would have brought me more benefits than it brought me liabilities.” Ouch!
McLaren offers a list of “what denominations do well” that merits consideration. I would like to offer a brief list of some things that denominations have traditionally provided and comment on whether those things are needed today or not.
First, denominations provide order. This can be interpreted in two ways. Order may mean protection from heresy, instability and unqualified clergy. The other side of the coin is that order may mean control – giving up freedom to another group to assure protection. Although some congregations and congregants may desire the stability offered in this arrangement, I would venture that the majority would rather not have to deal with outside intervention. Even with hierarchical denominations, order is breaking down.
Second, denominations provide identity. Being part of a particular denomination helps us to understand the “tribe” to which we belong and what this particular group holds sacred. In reality, the tribes are reassembling in different configurations. Moderate Baptists have more in common with some Methodists and Disciples than they do with the Baptists down the street. Some Episcopalians have more in common with Missouri Synod Lutherans than Lutherans who have different ideas on who can be leaders in the churches.
Third, denominations provide resources. Traditionally, denominations have been very good at this. They have been the purveyors of curriculum, leadership development and ministerial training. Increasingly, however, churches are discovering or producing resources that allow them to fulfill the mission that they have identified for themselves. Most of these resources are not connected to their denomination or any other.
Fourth, denominations provide partners for mission. Even in the age of megachurches, there are some tasks that call for cooperation. Most congregations would rather join with others who share their values to serve in the community, reach unreached people groups and impact the culture. The breakdown of the denominational tribes, however, may mean that these partners come from a different doctrinal or denominational background.
Fifth, denominations provide relationships. As individuals and as congregations, we need friends who will encourage us, help us and hold us accountable. Denominations have provided this in the past. I don’t particularly like meet-and-greet fellowship times, but I can remember going to denominational meetings at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina and being the last person to leave because I was enjoying fellowship with people with whom I had so much in common. Today, I am as likely to find that fellowship at a nondenominational gathering.
Do we need denominations? I will let you answer that question yourself, but I will affirm that we need those functions that denominations have tended to provide for us. We still need each other. Where we find that support may well have changed, however.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.