Denominations – The Good AND the Bad

Denominations – The Good AND the Bad

Ed Stetzer has a great article on denominationalism in the recent Christianity Today. You can read the article by clicking here.  I welcome Ed and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to Orlando, my home town, for the week.  I hope you enjoy it – it's supposed to be a hot one!

Stetzer's main point is that, for all their warts, denominations are a great way for churches to accomplish their mission.  I particularly liked the re-worked Churchill quote, "Denominations are the worst way to cooperate – except for all the others."

Unfortunately, his arguments are not very convincing and he missed some really good reasons to be a part of a denomination (I think he knows it, too, based on his blog post today).

Let me preface this by stating upfront that I don't have an axe to grind with denominations.  In fact, I love the IMB (International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention).  What do I love about it?  I love the fact that in the 1990's, the leadership took an old, missiologically-challenged denominational mission and turned it around in just a few years to focus on the church-planting among the world's least reached.  The changes that they made then is nothing short of astounding.  My hats off to Jerry Rankin – I am sad to see him go.  I also love the fact that every time I have asked for any help from the IMB, they have been there with open hands, offering their assistance.

However, I don't agree with Stetzer's view that denominations are either leading the way in mission, or are a "good way" for churches to do mission.  Many of the examples he cites are one side of a two-sided coin.

He writes, "Missionaries funded by a denomination are able to spend much more time actually being missionaries, while self-supported missionaries from independent churches and loosely connected networks often need to spend copious amounts of time fundraising."  The truth is, the fundraising process for these missionaries is actually part and parcel of the mobilization of the church in the West.  Missionaries who raise their funds are more connected to local congregations than denominationally sponsored missionaries.  Furthermore, the hoops that denominations make their missionaries jump through in order to get to the field often require a much longer timeframe than the 13-15 months an average support-raised missionary takes to raise their funds (I've always found it interesting that it requires no degree to be an SBC pastor, but you can't be an SBC missionary unless you graduate from an SBC approved school).  The pool of resources in a denominational model is limited and the institutional costs of running a denominational mission board are high.  I could go on, but the denominational funding model has both a positive and negative effect on the church's ability to do mission.

Denominational mission boards that pay salaries to their missionaries exercise far more control over those missionaries.  Once again, this is both a good thing and a bad thing. We have learned much in the past fifty years of mission including, "Local decisions are best made by local workers."  The denominational model is often disempowering when those not participating in local ministry make decisions for those who are in the midst of the battle.  The flip side is true as well; support-raised missionaries often have too much autonomy and too little accountability.

The next two points he makes (that people like to collaborate and that denominations have history) are also true of support-raised missionary agencies.

Yes, it's true that today's "big speakers" and theologians come from denominational churches.  If one wants influence in the US church, your best option is to be a mega-church pastor.  Denominations create a platform for these people and, if there isn't one, they create new denominations like the Willow Creek Association or other, similar cooperative efforts.  I am not convinced this is a big plus for the contemporary church in North America.  Celebrity pastors are, in fact, the Achilles heel of Protestant Christianity and should not be considered a great asset.  Do I need to mention Swaggert, Hinn, Bakker, and Haggard?

Stetzer argues that doctrinal safety is greater with denominational affiliation.  I agree completely, but again would argue that one must take the good with the bad.  Denominationalism also carries with it the temptation to force not only doctrinal distinctives on others but also denominational distinctives as well.  These aren't always positive influences.  I have witnessed denominational imperialism both in the US and abroad and it's a kingdom-killer.

In cultures where there were no churches until relatively recently, denominations do play an important role.  When the church is in the minority in a hostile culture a denomination helps churches overcome isolation and gives them a voice.  Denominations also are helpful for big things, like moving tons of aid into Haiti, supporting the work of large institutions, and raising piles of money for special projects.  Had Stetzer made these arguments, I would heartily agree with him.

In the "ekkliosystem" there is room for many ways of doing church and mission.  I am suggesting that we look at both the good and the bad of denominational influence.  Truth be told, organizations like the one I work for, Pioneers, are growing in part because many traditionally denominational churches are now looking past their denominations to other options for ministry.  It's not happening because they are unhappy with their denominational boards.  They are doing so because the support-raised model gives them an opportunity for more direct involvement.

Here is a piece of unsolicited advice for the SBC: create a support-raised arm which allows a far larger, less professional missionary force to grow.  Let it be fully Southern Baptist and let share in the strengths and weaknesses of the support-raised model.  I can assure you that there is already interest among the thousands of Southern Baptist churches that are wanting to send missionaries to the least reached.

Welcome to Orlando, SBC.  I hope you have a fruitful week!

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