By Thomas Lambrecht –
Denominations are not in vogue right now in American culture. For the past 20 years, the non-denominational church movement has grown across the country until its congregations make up a significant portion of the Body of Christ in the U.S. and in Africa, as well. This reflects the tendency toward “do-it-yourself” (DIY) religion. Rather than submit to a prescribed set of beliefs, many pick and choose from various religious traditions to fashion their own personal religion. This smorgasbord approach to religion is highly individualized and made possible by the acceptance of the idea that there is no such thing as Truth, only an individual’s personal truths. It is amazing to hear some of the bizarre, unorthodox beliefs espoused by some who claim a Christian identity, even though (and perhaps because) they rarely or never attend a Christian church.
The individualization of religious belief is reflected in the non-denominational church movement, as well. Each church creates its own doctrinal statement and members join if they are in agreement (or at least can live with the statement). Church structure varies widely from one church to another, but most congregations have some kind of church board that may be either elected or appointed. Pastors are called or hired by the congregation, and each congregation is pretty much an island unto itself.
Some United Methodist congregations are dipping their toes in the water of non-denominationalism through the disaffiliation process enacted by the 2019 General Conference. The 100 or so churches in the U.S. that have separated under this provision have often become independent congregations, rather than affiliating with another denomination. Many of those churches may hope to align with the proposed new Global Methodist Church when it is formed. Others may find non-denominationalism attractive.
Becoming independent can be exhilarating. No one telling you what to do. No one demanding that you pay for this or that. No one telling you whom you must have as a pastor. You are free to structure your church as you like. You can decide as a congregation whether or not to support particular missions. It’s the same feeling one gets the first time one leaves home to live on one’s own.
Pretty soon, however, reality sets in. The responsibility of making all the decisions for a congregation without any guidance or support can become overwhelming. This is particularly true for smaller and mid-sized congregations.
That is why it is good to remember the reasons for being part of a larger denominational group.
Security in Doctrine
We are not saved from our sins and transformed into the image of Jesus by the correctness of our beliefs. But what we believe certainly influences our ability to be saved and informs the kind of life we live as a Christian. This is true at both the individual and the congregational level.
If we believe that everyone is going to heaven, then it is not important for us to share the good news of Jesus Christ or for individuals to surrender their lives to the lordship of Christ. If we believe the Bible is fallible, then it is all right for us to compromise the teachings of Scripture in order to be more culturally acceptable. If we believe the Bible and the Church historically are wrong about certain activities being contrary to God’s will for us, then we will be comfortable ignoring those biblical standards in the way we live our lives.
That is why it is so important for us to get our doctrinal beliefs right. Incorrect beliefs can lead us away from God and cause us to live lives that are not in keeping with God’s desire for us.
The Christian faith is not up for negotiation, either by individual persons or by individual congregations. The virtue of a denomination is that it has a set of beliefs that are consistent with historic Christian doctrine and vetted by a larger body of people. This helps keep individual Christians and individual congregations from going off the rails in their beliefs and “shipwrecking their faith.” Doctrinal accountability is essential for the Christian life.
That accountability is especially true when our theological perspective is a minority view within the overall Body of Christ in the U.S. Among evangelical circles, the predominant theology is Calvinist, whereas Methodists take a Wesleyan/Arminian perspective on theology. A colleague who is a professor at Asbury Seminary has often remarked that Wesleyan/Methodist churches that go independent tend to become Calvinist in theology within a generation of their departure from a Wesleyan denomination. Doctrinal accountability can keep our churches faithful to a doctrinal perspective that is valuable and needed in the Body of Christ today.
In Africa, many freelance independent, non-denominational churches preach a prosperity Gospel. For churches there, being part of an established Wesleyan denomination can help guard against the adoption of heretical doctrines that are harmful to their members in the end.
That leads us to the next value of denominations: a system of accountability for both doctrine and behavior. In order to be effective, accountability has to be broader than what an individual congregation or its leaders can provide. Yes, it should not have to be this way, but in our fallen, sinful condition, we have human blind spots and mixed motivations that prevent us from seeing problems or from acting on the problems we do see, especially when we are close to the situation.
Throughout my ministry, I have witnessed repeatedly a congregation victimized by pastoral leadership that transgresses the boundaries of Christian behavior. Christianity Today just produced a podcast series that chronicles the rise and fall of Mars Hill Church, a megachurch based in Seattle, Washington. The congregation grew from a small Bible study to a multi-site congregation with 15 locations in four states. Weekend attendance was over 12,000. Then the pastor, Mark Driscoll, and other leaders were accused of “bullying” and “patterns of persistent sinful behavior.” Within 18 months, that giant church ceased to exist. Ironically, Driscoll became pastor of another church and continues some of the same dysfunctional patterns.
One can reel off the names of other high-profile pastors and ministry leaders who for years perpetuated a pattern of life and ministry that was deceitful and destructive. Those with oversight responsibility were too close to the situation or the person to see the problems.
In Africa and other parts of the world, the pastor is sometimes given unbridled power in the congregation. Some bishops take advantage of their position for personal gain. The church becomes an environment where the leaders say what is right, rather than looking to Scripture and denominational policies and procedures. In such an atmosphere, pastors and church members alike can be harmed by arbitrary and dictatorial leadership. Denominational accountability is the only thing that can protect pastors and church members from harm.
Denominational accountability systems do not always work the way they are intended (as our own United Methodist Church’s failures in this regard testify). But at least there is a system of greater accountability that can be reformed and made more effective. I believe the system envisioned for the proposed Global Methodist Church enhances accountability and fairness in a way that addresses some of the shortfalls in our UM accountability system. Certainly, there is a much greater possibility of holding leaders and congregations accountable when that accountability comes from outside the situation. We are often much more able to see and respond to the sins and shortcomings of others than we are in ourselves or our own families.
The Power of Collective Action
The United Methodist Church is a small church denomination. Over 75 percent of the more than 30,000 congregations in the U.S. average fewer than 100 in worship attendance. Individually, small churches have limited resources to accomplish large projects. Collectively, however, churches working and contributing together can do great things for God. That is one area where The United Methodist Church has leveraged our connectional system to make a real-world difference in the lives of people all over the globe. When it comes to hunger relief, poverty alleviation, education, ministerial training, and health care to name just a few areas, the UM Church has been able to pool the resources of many small churches to achieve significant results.
It is possible for independent churches to join associations of churches or otherwise link to support missions and ministries they agree with. The value of doing so as a denomination is to have the confidence that the missions and ministries supported by the denomination are consistent with the denomination’s doctrinal and moral standards. A denomination can make a long-term commitment to a geographic area or a certain large project that can be sustained, despite the fact that individual congregations might have to drop their support for a time, as other congregations come on to make up the shortfall. There is a greater chance of consistency and effectiveness with denominational programs that have built-in oversight and accountability from outside (as mentioned earlier).
Providing Pastoral Leadership
One of the most important tasks of a denomination is to provide pastoral leadership to its congregations. The denomination vets and approves candidates for a pastoral position in terms of doctrine, skills, and personal lives. This is work that an independent congregation would have to do for itself, often without the expertise in personnel work and theology to make informed judgments. In the case of independent congregations, finding a pastor takes a number of months and often a year or more, during which time the congregation is without a pastor. Smaller congregations will attract fewer and less qualified applicants, whereas, in a denominational system clergy express their willingness to serve where needed.
Again, the United Methodist system of clergy placement is not perfect. Many appointments are good matches between congregation and pastor. Other times, the match is not good. Part of the reason for this mismatch is the guaranteed appointment, meaning all United Methodist clergy must be assigned a place to serve. The proposed Global Methodist Church will not have a guaranteed appointment, whereby clergy who are theologically incompatible or deficient in skills still receive an appointment to a church regardless. The GMC is also committed to more extensive consultation with both potential clergy and congregations to ensure the best possible match and to enable longer-term pastorates.
The important point is that, when done well, the denominational process can supply churches with quality, committed pastoral leaders who will help the congregation realize its potential. It can help guard against clergy who are doctrinally or personally unqualified to serve in leadership. The process can do most of the heavy lifting that would otherwise fall to inexperienced volunteers in the local congregation.
What is a good curriculum for your church’s Sunday school? What would be a good Bible study on stewardship? How can we get our youth more involved in the life of the congregation? What outreach strategies might be effective in our community? What type of pension, health insurance, and property insurance should our church provide? How much should we pay our pastor?
The list of questions and decisions that a local church needs to deal with is endless. A denomination can give a local church the resources to address these questions. In some cases (like the pension and insurance question), the denomination can provide a program the local church can plug into that it could not duplicate on its own.
I am excited that the proposed GMC is already working through various task forces to identify and flesh out resources and ministry models that can help guide local churches into more effective ministry in many different areas. A denomination can provide those resources and guidance for local churches in a way that the local church can trust. Those resources will be theologically consistent with the denomination’s doctrine and philosophy of ministry. Those resources will be tried and proven as workable and practical. Each congregation will not have to reinvent the wheel, but can draw upon the pooled wisdom and resources that many churches being part of one denomination can provide. Having one place to turn for ideas and guidance will save time and energy at the local level that can be effectively directed into actual ministry.
Much more could be said about the benefits of being part of an effective denomination. Part of a brief childhood poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow speaks to our situation:
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
United Methodists have experienced some of the horrid aspects of being in a denomination that is dysfunctional and ineffective in some key ways. The temptation is to jettison the idea of a denomination entirely, believing that we can certainly do better on our own. That is a false temptation.
We are certainly better and more effective as churches and as individuals when we work together with like-minded believers. A denomination gives us the structure and the possibility of doing just that. Together, we can make our new denomination good and experience that it can be “very good indeed!”