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Networking across time: denominations are not dead

November 27, 2010 2 Comments

by Tom Prachar

In my summer reading I came across an interesting article in the magazine Christianity Today entitled “Life in Those Old Bones.” The author, Ed Stetzer, director of Lifeway Research and author of Transformational Church, argues that denominations are not dead, stating: “We should not mistakenly underestimate how God is using denominations.”

The trend among evangelical churches today is to go nondenominational—individual congregations “go it alone” and do not join with like-confessing congregations in a denomination. Even congregations belonging to a denomination often “rebrand” themselves so no indication of denominational affiliation remains in their name. The thinking seems to be this: Because of the bad press denominations get, people will be reluctant to join congregations advertising themselves as part of such a group.

According to many measurements, most evangelical denominations are seeing declines in attendance, membership, offerings and mission starts. Ask some of your new members (and even some long-time members) to identify their church…they’ll probably get “Lutheran” right, but after that it may be a mystery. Denominational loyalty is fading. People in our church today aren’t sure what a circuit, district or synod is, and many don’t care.

Despite the problems and challenges denominations face, Stetzer argues we should not dismiss denominations, nor should we do away with them altogether: “Denominational structure can be a valuable tool for the church to use in her mission.” Individual congregations might not be able to do mission work in Nicaragua or Thailand, but a group of congregations working together as a denomination can accomplish that mission. “The vast majority of world missions, church planting, discipleship and other forms of ministry are done through denominational partnerships,” Stetzer states.

Denominations can be a great assistance to pastors and congregations.

Denominations such as Lutheran Church–Canada form so that as a synod, we might “walk together” in “the conviction that such an organization will facilitate our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our country and throughout the world” (2008 Synodical Handbook, p. 9). Stetzer comments: “Like-minded people will always find a way to associate with one another.” He sees a denomination’s doctrinal foundation as an advantage: “Evangelical denominations often are stalwarts of orthodoxy, while independent congregations more easily shift in their theology—sometimes very quickly….Orthodoxy is more likely to remain established in denominations with clear faith statements…[like] The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.” Stetzer points out that our confessional statements have more than one purpose: “They have also long been teaching tools for churches, helping in evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth.”

To Stetzer the longevity of denominations is a major asset. They are not here today and gone tomorrow. “The best denominations…are also networked across time—and a group working across time and generations can accomplish more than a group working for one season.”

Denominations can be a great assistance to pastors and congregations. “A denominational church in crisis has a relational network, experience, and a support system on which to draw….Where some expect to see age, decay and obsolescence in denominations, you are more likely to find longevity, maturity and wisdom.”

In our denomination called Lutheran Church–Canada, we have something very precious and helpful assisting us in our work of spreading the Gospel at home and abroad. It’s something to keep in mind as we prepare for our synodical convention in 2011.

Rev. Thomas Prachar is president of Lutheran Church–Canada’s Central District

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  • Kelly said:

    Good article. I was previously a member of a Baptist church that took its affiliation off their church sign and website, believing it to be “bad press,” or thinking that people would misunderstand what they were all about. Now I feel that this tactic is weak and potentially even deceptive. They may have had sincere feelings of evangelical zeal in doing so, but there is also a deep problem of not being able to come to grips with one’s own history, a desire to be liked and respected by the world, and just not being upfront about what you stand for and what you mean to give people. The pastor of my previous church was careful to never stress doctrinal differences between church bodies from the pulpit, but he was certainly upset (to my and my family’s surprise) when I said I was joining the Lutheran church. If I needed any more proof that I needed to be part of a church body who were confident in who they were, had a strong confession of faith, and did not need to try to hide things in order to appeal to “seekers,” that was it. As a young 20-something who was starting a family, I was greatly relieved to become part of a church that had strong foundations and a well-articulated theology that transcended just one individual congregation.

    The word “Christian” was often misunderstood by the people who persecuted the church from the earliest days, but those who suffered did not constantly try to re-brand themselves in order to be liked. On the contrary, Peter tells those suffering to be proud that they bear that name, reviled and misunderstood as it was. Not only denominational affiliations but even the word “Christian” comes under fire in the church today.

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