There’s been a lot of talk about how denominations are no longer viable; they no longer serve a purpose; they no longer have any influence.  I understand the critique, but I don’t buy the conclusion completely.  

To the extent that denominations are trying to keep the same profile and role they had in the 1960’s – yes, I would concur they are irrelevant.  But what I see more frequently is the active passion of denominations trying to reinvent themselves in a largely post-Christian environment.  The result is a shift from institution building to Kingdom empowering.  The characteristics of this shift manifest themselves in a number of ways. Here are three:

  1. Partnerships – It used to be that if a denomination could not control the entirety of a project, it was not anything they would support.  There is a rise in willingness among denominational executives to partner with other groups to accomplish mutually beneficial goals centered on the Kingdom.  Consider as an example the very formation of the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium.  Or, for that matter the Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals.  No matter what the theological framework, the partnerships seem to revolve around common heritage, values, and mission.
  2. Relationships – The “Good Ol’ Boy” networks may be dead, but certainly not the relational principles they seemed to be built on. In a highly relational environment where trust and connections have never been more important, relationships have become the currency of missional expansion.  Relationships are rising in importance even within denominational structures.  Having a well developed network of relationships both within the denomination and beyond it rivals loyalty and tenure as the basis for selecting new leaders.  People know that a lot more can be accomplished by means of good relationships across a vast panorama than simply trying to apply the authority of a position.
  3. Because – I suppose you could really say this is a cause.  But practically, the more able a denomination is to give the compelling “because” to any question or challenge the more it will thrive and be able to reinvent itself.  In its ability to say, “Because…” in answer to the why question denominations and their leaders are forced to stay relevant and connected to the pragmatic people who are always trying to find the most effective way to work.  There was a time when denominations didn’t feel they needed to give their people the “because.”  They assumed loyalty and support.  Now, it’s the basis for survival and necessary to thrive as a reinvented network of people working together.

Denominations are not going away any time soon.  They may look different – more flexible, nimble, relational, missional, pragmatic, lean, and responsive – but they’ll be around a while.  And as gate keepers to thousands of pastors and other leaders, they still command an important place in the landscape of the work of God in the world. Certainly they still possess huge amounts of residual baggage from highly institutional days.  But incrementally they seem to be getting the point – the Church is not an organization but an organism.