I wonder sometimes in our denominational struggles if we are trying to treat a bad case of the measles with bandages. The red whelps all over the face, back and arms are not the primary problem but rather a symptom of a deeper inner condition. Bandages and lotions will never cure the measles, nor will superficial spiritual solutions the fundamental challenges the churches and denominations face today.
Loren Mead, like a minor prophet of old, described our condition today in 1991 as he observed the slow decline and decay of the once vibrant mainline denominations of America. In his book The Once and Future Church, he noted that:
“Three things are happening around us simultaneously: First, our present confusion about mission hides the fact that we are facing a fundamental change in how we understand the mission of the church. Beneath the confusion we are being stretched between a great vision of the past and a new vision that is not yet fully formed.
Second, local congregations are now being challenged to move from a passive, responding role in support of mission to a front-line, active role. The familiar roles of laity, clergy, executive, bishop, church council, and denominational bureaucrat are in profound transition all around us.
Third, institutional structures and forms developed to support one vision of our mission are rapidly collapsing. I argue that we are being called to invent or reinvent structures and forms that will serve the new mission as well as the old structures served the old vision.”
His observations and statements make me wonder if our lack of unity and vision may have as much to do with these fundamental changes in the world and context around us as our theological and philosophical differences. As the world has become increasingly “flatter” and the average believer and local church has more and more access to the world both local and global the pull of the great Cooperative Program has weakened. I remember when a mission trip meant loading onto vans and heading to Juarez for a week on the border, or a choir trip to New England, but now local churches are planting churches in places like Vietnam, Belize, East Asia, France, Niger, and Brazil. For many these hands on trips have more “bang” for the buck for the membership. Now whether these efforts are more effective than career missionaries is debatable, but there is no question the rules are changing.
In addition to the global opportunities, the harsh reality is that we are losing America slowly and surely right before our eyes. The “real mission” field is no across the street, in the cookie cutter suburbs of our major metropolitan areas, and on the mean streets of our inner cities. If we are serious about reaching the world with the gospel we need to create strategies to reach East Dallas, downtown Houston, crowded inner city neighborhoods of San Antonio, and the exploding population centers of the Valley. As local churches answer the call to reach their neighborhoods instead of sending money to denominational headquarters to reach the world, they are looking for help from the denominational leaders to reach their cities and undergird their ministries. However, since more churches are keeping more and more money for mission at home there is less and less to be sent to the front lines from headquarters.
Mead argues “we are being called to invent or reinvent structures and forms that will serve the new mission as well as the old structures served the old vision”. I believe he is right, but the white elephant in the living room is HOW! I don’t suppose to have the answers to all these issues but I am committed to pouring new wine in new wineskins. We have spilled too much on the floor already, and too many of our finest young leaders have written us off as being irrelevant. It is time to dream new dreams and cast new visions.
In closing, I don’t know if denominations are going to die. I suspect they will if they do not change, but I am convinced that the basic values of denominations must live on in the new reality. Values like cooperation, networking, trust, and working together. These values are not old fashioned relics of the past. These values are fundamental principles of our King and His Kingdom. How we cooperate, network, trust, and work together may change in form and function, but I pray they will continue to the linchpins of our future.