What role do denominations play in the work of the local church and the broader mission of God?
By Ed Stetzer
One of the great, untapped resources in nearly every denomination is younger leaders and pastors. They are part of every denominational family, yet sometimes that inclusion is tenuous. Denominations are often seen a bureaucratic, inefficient, and unengaged. Yet, those same pastors are often seeing God do great things through church plants, revitalizations, and faithful ministry in various other places.
They aren’t simply doing what everyone has been doing and following some denominational pathway for success. They are blazing new trails and heading in new directions.
That makes for tension in denominations.
How Denominations Fit
One of the struggles of younger leaders in denominational life is determining the place of the denomination in the life of their church and the mission. As they embrace what’s next while retaining faithfulness to biblical foundations in the denomination, they often see the denomination emphasizing the old ways, the ways “we’ve always done it.”
These young leaders are rightly concerned. So am I.
A right orientation to the denomination is key. I’m a believer in denominations as long as denominations are the tool and not the goal. Some in the past and present make the denomination the goal, which drives concern and confuses the mission.
The truth is that if denominations didn’t exist we’d have to invent them (or some alternative to them) to accomplish what God told us to do. We can’t do the Great Commission alone.
I believe denominations (and other such partnerships) are that important. We just can’t do what is necessary otherwise.
I’m a believer in denominations as long as denominations are the tool and not the goal.
I once saw a church that had a sign as big as the building that said “World Outreach Center.” Unfortunately, I don’t think they are going to succeed at that mission on their own.
We need one another.
Denominations Can Help the Mission
Denominations are not the only path to partnership, nor is being in a denomination required of faithful Christians.
Denominations are not necessary, but they are helpful. When I go around the world, I find denominational missionaries in the places where independent missionaries sometimes can’t go.
I cannot build a case, and neither can you, that Scripture commands or prescribes denominations. But cooperation, unified mission, common goals are there. That’s why denominations are a helpful tool.
How Do Networks Fit?
At this point, the question at inevitably comes up: What about networks? I’m a believer in networks. I’ve helped start networks. I want to see many more church planting networks started.
But denominations often do the heavy lifting. Networks are wisely looking for partnerships with denominations so that together they can accomplish more.
The question then arises, “Is our denomination being a good steward as a tool for the mission?” As someone who works with many denominations, I often hear this question often.
Think of a yo-yo. The outward force, the extension, is what we are aiming for. The extension represents the mission.
But in denominations, there’s typically a point where the effort goes into maintaining the string instead of supporting the extension. Are we being good stewards, or have supporting elements of the denomination become the focus?
I think the answer for my denomination and most every denomination is no, we are not being good stewards. We aren’t being poor stewards, but we can be better stewards.
If denominations didn’t exist we’d have to invent them to accomplish what God told us to do.
Inherent in denominational systems is waste—that’s inherent in EVERY large system. So questioning efficiency is good and helpful, but it isn’t an issue of sin or bad stewardship, necessarily.
We need better stewardship so that we focus less on the string, the systems, and the process rather than the mission.
Questioning “the string” makes those who focus on it apprehensive.
Every denomination with which I work seems to think three things.
First, they’re in crisis. I haven’t been to a denomination yet that doesn’t think it’s in crisis, though it’s usually not as bad as they think. Still, they need change.
Second, every denomination thinks that they’re losing all their young leaders. They see their meetings and who is involved, and they median age is getting older every year.
Third, almost all denominations are asking questions about their stewardship of their resources.
My advice to denominational leaders and lovers: Don’t panic. Don’t read into the motives of those willing to look at denominational systems to determine if they are still relevant and helpful. We share this Great Commission, and we need the voice of those who have been around a while and those who are seeing with fresh eyes.
My advice to young leaders and pastors: Don’t walk away. Please, do talk about the string. Question it carefully and lovingly. But don’t despise the string.
Don’t read into the motives of those who have over-focused on the string. They have seen many wonderful things done by and for the Lord, and they don’t deserve demonization.
Wouldn’t you, if you lose focus on something important (and you will, more than once), want someone to speak to you critically but carefully and respectfully to encourage real change? Love God and serve His mission by working for unity as you work for denominational reformation.
At the end of the day, we’re going to partner together with like-minded Christians because Jesus gave the Great Commission to your church, and He gave you something you can’t do without partnership.
Historically, partnerships through denominations have lasted the longest and produced the most fruit. Let’s work together to better our denominations and to continue to see great fruit provided by our gracious God.
Ed Stetzer is the Executive Director of LifeWay Research Division.
Originally posted at christianitytoday.com/edstetzer.