Testing the Glue that Binds Churches Together
Are denominations dying? That seems to be the common wisdom. Certainly the mainline denominations are bleeding out; people are leaving those churches en masse. But what about denominations of evangelical churches that are holding fast or growing?
I’m no demographer, so I can’t give you data to test the idea that denominations have seen better days. But this common line does seem to be picking up a genuine trend that deserves attention—namely, that relatively new ways of relating church to church are at least complementing, and sometimes replacing, traditional denominational structures.
What follows is based on anecdotal, entirely unprofessional observation of (American) evangelical churches. But my goal in this article isn’t so much quantitative analysis as qualitative description. I aim to describe and theologically evaluate a handful of “glues” which bind pastors and churches together, and offer pastors a few tools for thinking through who to partner with, and how.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
First, though, we need to ask: what has changed? Why do new ways of relating pastor-to-pastor or church-to-church seem to be cropping up, and even competing with older structures?
There are probably a number of reasons: the theological downgrade of the old denominations, the ever-growing Western skepticism toward all forms of authority, even the shrinking of the globe due to revolutions in communication technology. Just consider this last factor and the rise of the internet. Sure, many of the connections the internet fosters are “weak ties”—like Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Yet communications technology gives those “weak ties” the chance of becoming stronger ties. And it allows us to sustain stronger ties over distances that would’ve been unthinkable a generation ago. With the rise of communication technology, traditional denominational structures aren’t the only show in town—or even the leading one—for connecting pastors and churches.
Further, by democratizing access to information, the internet has also democratized ecclesial identity formation. Previously models of church were inherited, now they’re mixed and matched. Certainly plenty of pastors throughout the ages have read widely. But I’d guess that today more pastors are influenced by figures outside their denomination than was true in former generations. Eighteenth century Baptists may have read Jonathan Edwards, but they couldn’t download his sermons for free. Bottom line: for many pastors and churches, informal ties to leaders and movements are growing stronger, and formal ties to denominations are growing weaker.
AN INDEPENDENT CONVERSATION
In speaking about churches as independent entities that can be “glued” together in a variety of ways, I am, of course, speaking as a congregationalist. That is, I don’t believe that the “church” on earth exists in any formal, institutional manifestation over and above the local church.
Many congregations, though, do belong to such an extra-local structure. Roman Catholicism is one kind, Eastern Orthodoxy another, Episcopalianism another, and Presbyterianism still another. In all these polities, the local church is formally accountable to an outside individual or entity. We call these “connectional” polities to recognize that this authoritative connection is an intrinsic part of what it means, on this understanding, to be the church.
A connectional polity necessarily enforces a certain confession and practice: someone is able to say “this is out of bounds” to a local church. This means that a connectional church’s very identity is wrapped up in its association with the broader communion in a way that isn’t the case for independent churches.
Connectional polities have their own promises and pitfalls, but I won’t address them here. That’s not because I think they’re unbiblical—though I do—but because most 9Marks readers belong to churches that are formally independent. To put it crassly, connectional polities more or less determine your friends—or enemies!—for you. On the other hand, independent churches have to look up and ask, “Who do we want to associate with, and how?” Hence my focus on the latter.
WHY SHOULD CHURCHES COOPERATE? FOR OUTREACH AND INREACH
In order to describe and assess what holds churches together, we should first think a bit about why they seek to hold together. Jonathan Leeman’s piece “A Church and Churches: Integration” offers several exegetical and theological reasons for why churches should band together. Here I want to take a snapshot from another angle—a practical one. For what practical purposes should churches attempt to stick together?
As I see it, there are basically two: to fulfill the great commission, and to both receive and supply what is lacking in the life of a local church. You could call these two goals outreach and, to use some evangelical-ese, inreach.
Outreach: The great commission is bigger than any local church (Matt. 28:18-20). To evangelize all peoples and establish churches across the globe requires that churches cooperate. And the same is true when it comes to evangelizing our local communities.
Inreach: On the other hand, churches should also seek to aid in supplying each other’s needs as they have opportunity (e.g., 2 Cor. 8-9). If you’ve got a counseling situation that’s spiraling out of control, I hope there’s a wise pastor friend across town you can call. If your church is devastated by a natural disaster, I hope other local churches will rally around you.
TESTING A FEW TYPES OF GLUE
These two goals of outreach and inreach form the backdrop against which I’ll asses a few types of “glue” that hold churches together. While each of these types of glue can be considered on its own, many connections between churches, especially denominational ones, will combine several of them. Think of a denomination as Super Glue, with some of these individual glues as the ingredients.
The first kind of glue to consider is “ethnic” identity—note the scare quotes. I don’t mean ethnicity per se, though ethnicity is a very powerful glue. Instead, I am using the term metaphorically to refer to churches that share a tradition so culturally thick that it functions like an ethnic identity.
This is many people’s experience of church life in the Southern Baptist Convention. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, the Southern Baptist Convention became a centralized provider of an all-encompassing church culture: church holidays, Sunday School lessons, midweek programs, music, and more. SBC churches became like McDonalds: you could pop into any one of them, any week of the year, and know exactly what was on the menu.
This kind of “ethnic” identity fosters an intense brand loyalty. On the one hand, that loyalty extends naturally to the thousands of other churches which share the same programmatic profile. Hence many Southern Baptists’ fierce devotion to the denomination’s central mechanism, the Cooperative Program.
On the other hand, this brand loyalty is a double-edged sword. For one, the identity itself is only as biblical as the content of all the programs. Further, the very emphasis on universal, standardized programs can foster a consumer mindset rather than responsible, relational ministry. Finally, this kind of identity can foster a hermetically sealed subculture that finds it difficult to adapt to new people, new places, and new times.
A second kind of glue to assess is personality—usually the personality of a key pastor who is either a formal or informal denominational head. Sometimes attachment to a personality can lead one into a new denomination. More commonly, this personality glue shows up in megachurches that either birth or effectively become their own denominations. An example of the former would be the Willow Creek Association. For the latter, think of any multi-site church that has “campuses” not just across its city, but across the country and beyond.
Again, in these kinds of relationships there’s more to the story than personality. There’s always some shared doctrine and practice, on which more below. But often, if you take away the big personality the center won’t hold, which means personality is an active ingredient in the glue.
On the one hand, I don’t want to deny that God can use singular personalities to achieve big things—John Wesley’s name heads that list. But on the other hand, attaching yourself and your church to a personality puts you in danger of multiplying not just another man’s fruitfulness, but also his errors. When a group of churches’ identity derives more from a single man than from a more objective tradition—say, a time-tested confession of faith—those churches may be building on pretty thin ice.
If your church is attached to a big personality, how many church members were initially drawn, at least in part, because of your connection to the big man? What happens if he falls into sin or serious error? Who or what holds him accountable? What happens if the big personality’s interests conflict with the local church’s? Who should members side with?
A third kind of glue is what I’ll call theological vision. As I said above, in this internet age pastors and churches often find they have more in common with churches of other denominations that share their overall theological vision than with churches in their denomination that don’t.
Conferences like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition both build on, and in different ways seek to foster, this kind of interdenominational unity. Once every two years, T4G casts a thick theological vision for ministry and encourages pastors to build friendships across secondary divides. This is evidenced in its affirmations and denials. TGC presents a slightly broader spectrum, creating more of a “village green” feel on its website and at its conference—though this village green is fenced in by robust doctrinal and practical commitments. Further, while T4G is merely a three-day event every two years, TGC has begun to foster cooperative structures with a life of their own, such as their regional chapters.
Because of the shared theological vision which they embody, these two conferences have become shorthand for a pretty long list of doctrinal and practical commitments. If someone identifies with either of these events, you can take a lot of common ground for granted—common ground in which real partnerships can quickly sprout.
How well can these conferences foster cooperative outreach and inreach between churches? Probably the best thing they do is encourage pastors, and help pastors get to know each other. You might not have known there was a likeminded pastor fifteen minutes up the road until you met him in Louisville or Orlando. But if a conference helps you make that connection, over time your relationship can organically grow into a fuller partnership between your churches.
On the other hand, cooperation based on a shared theological vision has its limits. The cooperation T4G and TGC can foster necessarily excludes ecclesiological distinctives like the sacraments and polity—the very things which make a local church what it is. And since the goal of the great commission is planting and nurturing churches, this means that a “theological vision” by itself isn’t enough to foster long-term cooperation for great commission goals.
NEEDED: AN ECCLESIAL VISION
To foster long-term cooperation toward great commission goals, what you need is not merely a theological vision but an ecclesial vision. In order to work with another church to plant churches, you need to agree about what it is you’re trying to plant. You need to agree on the answer to questions like:
- What is baptism and who are its proper subjects?
- What are the qualifications for church membership? Is (believer’s) baptism on the list?
- How should a church be structured? Who has final authority in matters of membership and discipline?
- How do we decide what to do, and how to do it, in corporate worship?
- What is a pastor’s fundamental job description?
Of course, you can agree about such matters but disagree about essential areas of theology, and then you’re back to square one. That’s why an ecclesial vision requires theological agreement too—more precisely, enough shared theology to constitute a church together.
MULTIPLE LAYERS OF PARTNERSHIPS
The problem is, when many pastors stroll through the denominational grocery aisles, they don’t see any visions on offer they particularly resonate with, whether theological or ecclesial. Or perhaps their preferred vision is just one among many that are tolerated, and by no means the majority view.
If there’s a traditional denomination or network of churches which perfectly matches your theological and ecclesial commitments, the decision to link arms is a no-brainer. But what do you do if there’s no perfect match on offer?
I’d encourage you to think in terms of multiple layers of partnerships. Instead of seeking one all-encompassing identity to wrap your church in, think about multiple overlapping networks.
To begin: What other churches in your area do you have a strong relationship with? Or even just a friendship with their pastor? What formal or informal ways can you partner with them? If they disagree about ecclesial distinctives, you can still meet for fellowship, supply some of each other’s needs, and to some degree cooperate in local outreach.
If other local churches share your ecclesial vision, how can you build your friendships into a more durable partnership? Can you organize pulpit supply to fill a need and train young preachers? Or form a regular pastors’ fraternal where you get into the nitty gritty of shepherding issues? Or even fund a church plant together?
Those are two overlapping local layers. In addition to these local layers, what about a larger scale denomination? Local and larger partnerships can complement each other rather than competing with each other. You may not love everything you see in a big-tent denomination. But if there’s enough basic theological and ecclesial agreement, that big-tent denomination may be able to multiply your church’s efforts for the great commission in a way that outpaces a merely informal relationship.
Further, some larger networks or denominations serve complementary goals. For example, plenty of churches are dually aligned with Acts29 and the SBC. Many brothers I know partner with Acts29 for the coaching and encouragement, and with the SBC in order to support global missions and pastor training.
My point is simply that relationships between churches are not an all-or-nothing affair. They can be more or less formal. They can be local or global. They can focus on planting and building churches, or more broadly on promoting gospel work throughout your city. And you can invest differently in these partnerships depending on your church’s resources, other options for cooperating with likeminded churches, and the needs of your community.
I want to conclude with three brief encouragements for pastors. First, if you’re feeling lonely and isolated, look first to your fellow elders. Do you have fellow elders in the first place? If not, let your loneliness in ministry spur you to patiently lead your flock toward adopting the biblical model of multiple shepherds. And if you do have multiple elders but still feel isolated, consider how you might spread around the shepherding load.
Second, if you can only pick one place to invest, build around a shared ecclesial vision. If there’s only one other pastor in your town who agrees with your theology and ecclesiology, build into each other and your churches. Work together to raise up other likeminded churches, and to put good resources in other pastors’ hands.
Certainly meeting with brothers who have shared theology can be an encouragement and lead to practical partnerships. But for those partnerships to serve great commission ends over time, they have to build on shared ecclesial DNA. So multiply your networking efforts by focusing on partnerships which could, by God’s grace, result in new and renewed churches.
Finally, be willing to give more than you receive. Don’t judge a denomination or network only by what it can give you and your church. Instead, be willing to invest for the sake of others. The payoff may happen in your city or across the world, next year or in the next generation.