Part XXIII: Do Denominations have a future?

A number of writers (Mannoia, Murray, Stetzer, Roxburgh, van Gelder) have recognized that denominations have a role to play in church renewal and planting, but that the challenges faced are different and often more complex than those faced in independent planting movements. Yet Stuart Murray reminds his readers: “Most denominations started as church-planting movements, even if some forgot this heritage and allowed church planting to become exceptional rather than normal after a couple of generations.”

Gibbs and Coffey see the main issue as one of identity, arguing:  “If denominational structures are in place primarily as instruments of control, then the identity problem is probably insurmountable. But if these vertical structures can be dismantled to provide financial and personnel resources by which local churches can be effectively serviced, their diversity celebrated and a variety of models assessed, then structures can play an important role.”

Van Gelder’s compendium The Missional Church and Denominations is a collection of essays from a variety of theorists and theologians across the denominational spectrum. It is useful in that it takes seriously the contextual realities of working with larger organizations – realities that are often simplistically ignored in much of the church planting literature. In one of the essays, entitled “Reframing Denominations from a Missional Perspective,” Alan Roxburgh suggests that many denominations are going through what he calls “a crisis of legitimacy” due to “discontinuous change” in the culture that “is not matched by corresponding responses within the organization. The identity of the organization is then called into question by both its constituency and the wider culture.” He goes on to write:  “Denominations no longer have legitimacy for most people because denominations have based their legitimacy on forms of social and organizational life that have become increasingly obsolete.” But, in an attempt to recover legitimacy, pre-packaged solutions cannot simply be imported from elsewhere without any feeling for context or the history or traditions of the denomination in question. Van Gelder writes that: “One cannot bring a missional imagination to denominations in general and then hope to be able to help congregations develop a missional identity. We must take the particulars of each denomination’s history and traditions seriously.”

This key issue of identity and self-understanding is taken up by Roxburgh: “There are multiple indicators of the loss of coherence in denominations today… The question of identity is at the center of this malaise, and it will not be addressed merely with more tactics, money, or visionary programs.” Drawing on the work of Heifetz and Linsky, he writes: “The challenge for the reframing of denominational systems is…complex; it requires more than a technical change. It requires an adaptive change.”

Roxburgh uses one of the largest Presbyterian denominations in the world – the PCUSA – as an example of the ineffectiveness of non-adaptive change in a denomination. He regards the PCUSA as a test case of the “corporate denomination” characterized by centralized planning, with managers and executives producing and distributing resources and programs, assured that brand loyalty would guarantee success. He elaborates, “This corporate denomination was a highly successful organizational culture for much of the twentieth century, and it enjoyed a high social legitimacy among its members. But now this very form of denomination has become a barrier to innovating missional life.” He notes that while organizational change has characterized the denomination over the twentieth century, these have not been revolutionary but rather “variations on the basic paradigm of the centralized corporate organization and in fact never questioned the assumptions of the paradigm.” Dmin student Guillermo Mackenzie wishes to open a conversation between planters and denominational leaders and assessors. He believes that “many denominations are well intentioned in trying to enhance the church-planting programs but fail to listen to the church-planters’ opinions.”  Like van Gelder et al, he has observed that, because of rapidly shifting paradigms, denominations are having to review their church planting strategies.

Russell Crabtree has written a helpful book aimed primarily at national and regional leaders, highlighting how transitioning from regular local pastorates into these administrative positions requires not just a shift in leadership values, but a significant shift in skills and time allocation. He perceives part of the problem behind the common disconnection between denominations and personnel on the ground (a common complaint particularly among planters) is because those operating at a denominational level “do not understand organizational level dynamics and are functioning with values, skills and time management that are inappropriate to the regional level.”

Another important volume of essays on this subject is the one edited by David Roozen and James Nieman, experts in organizational change. Church, Identity and Change: theology and denominational structures in unsettled times examines how organizational identity has developed and survived through a changing culture in denominations as diverse as the Episcopalians and the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. At the end of the book, they seek, with the help of some organizational theorists, to integrate the various findings and assess how denominations have coped with postmodernity in their respective contexts. Roozen makes this point regarding the effect of cultural change on identity: “The most significant long-term effect of postmodernity on religious institutions is the emerging and evolving de-traditionalization and pluralization within the broader society that seeps down into denominational systems. Once inside, it challenges the cohesion and strength of denominational identities, of authority and power in national denominational structures, and of the loyalty and commitment of constituent congregations and members.”

Later he draws this conclusion – of relevance to those working within the reformed milieu: “Liturgical and Pentecostal traditions appear to be more adaptive than more Calvinist or cognitive traditions, at least at the scale of national structures, to the conditions of the emerging postmodern period.” It is worth examining whether or not this is a fair synopsis.

It is noticeable that in all the British church planting literature, Presbyterianism is conspicuous by its absence. This is not only due to the fact that there is no significant Presbyterian presence in England, but also because in Scotland and Ireland, where Presbyterianism is strong, church planting appears to belong to previous centuries, with little or no evidence of it happening in the last hundred years other than through the porting of existing congregations (usually) from the inner cities. Certainly nothing akin to a church planting movement can be said to exist. In America, while the statistics may be different, Presbyterians have never been to the forefront of either the planting movement or the bivocational resurgence.

In terms of bivocational planting, although Australian David Jones does include Presbyterians in his survey of denominations that have used bivocationals in church planting, he acknowledges that independents and Baptists, by their ecclesiology, have an easier route: “Baptist ecclesiology means we face less difficulties than other denominations in the use of bivocational ministry. Those denominations with a sacramental view of the ministry are compelled to restrict ministry function to those trained, ordained and authorized by their respective synods and councils. Baptists face no such restrictions and are free to develop a range of ministry models, including the use of bivocational pastors.

Of course, Presbyterians’ sacramental theology should not be as restrictive in this regard as, say, Episcopalians, but one must consider whether there are still perhaps structural or theological barriers which prevent Presbyterians from enthusiastically pursuing the avenue of bivocational ministry and planting.

Van Gelder believes that the inability of denominations to adapt may be due to unconscious theological presuppositions. He queries whether a Christological rather than Trinitarian emphasis, for example, may lead to an underplaying of the vital relational dimension essential to healthy community life, particularly in large denominations. He alleges that this theological imbalance: “…also overplays authority and hierarchy in developing organization and structures in the church…(too often) denominations and congregations have drawn on secular organizational and leadership models without thinking them through from biblical and theological perspectives…a missional identity can redemptively reframe (a denomination’s) polity.”

If denominations can have the imagination, courage, and resources to adapt, these writers maintain that there could yet be what Dwight Zscheile refers to as “a valid, though reconfigured, role for the denomination.” David Forney believes it is vital that we don’t abandon denominations, but rather address the challenges facing them: “Not because denominations need saving, but because they provide us with opportunities to participate in and anticipate God’s mission. Sadly, though, we proceed as if there are really only two polity options to consider – entrenchment or evacuation.”

Roozen similarly believes that the appropriate language to use of the larger denominations is not the vocabulary of death but rather words that explain “how they are trying to faithfully and effectively carry their particular legacies into a changing future.” If this is the case, then there will be specific and unique challenges ahead for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland as they seek to learn from their history and apply their theology to the rapidly changing culture of post-modern Ireland.


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