It’s no surprise that today’s world is different than that of yesteryear.
The communications revolution is probably having almost as far-reaching an impact on today’s denominations as the new views on authority and structure in the culture are.
The new wave of communication technology has flattened many of the traditional hierarchies that are found in western society. Knowledge is accessible and is not based upon position. This is one of the greatest challenges for established denominations because they were formed in a world where communication was more rigid and required more sophisticated lines of reporting for collaboration.
Adapting to less local collaboration
There just isn’t the need that there used to be for local teamwork because the internet and cell-phone have allowed partnerships regardless of location.
At one time, it was easier for a variety of pastors to work through a local director of missions, associational representative, or executive presbyter in order to accomplish something together.
Before the communications and transportation revolution, pastors would often be dispersed throughout wide geographic regions, and the only reasonable means of pooling resources was through a common local representative. However, now pastors and churches can collaborate with one another quickly and efficiently, both in person, through phone, or by some form of internet communication.
This has severely impacted denominational loyalty as many young pastors find greater affinity and share more mission interest with those outside of their denomination, particularly if those pastors are from a mainline background.
Part of the breakdown of denominational loyalty is also due to the general breakdown of denominational distinctions. For instance, in past generations, it was rare to for a Baptist to believe that the Holy Spirit was still working miraculously. However, this is no longer the case. This is but one of many examples of the kinds of denominational boundaries that are being crossed in the post- Christendom west.
Also, the rise of the larger church and the ease of communication have made it easier for stronger and more capable churches to service other congregations. It used to be that individual pastors would have difficulty serving in a local and trans-local role. Denominational officials were, therefore, needed to relay information about congregational life and develop programs and materials to aid the congregations within the system.
Larger teaching churches have arisen in the last twenty years, and it has become more feasible for ground-breaking congregations to resource others. These churches often begin to take on the function of a “cathedral” or a “teaching church,” meaning that they have some level of influence in a non-hierarchical fashion over other churches, some of whom they are in direct relationship with, and others of whom they are not.
The denominational structure, as it was formerly conceived, is no longer necessary, except for those churches that have not felt the impact of these transitions themselves.
The Communications Revolution has also impacted the hegemony that many denominations had on the publishing of materials and resources for churches within their religious families. In the mid-twentieth century, almost all churches received their primary educational information from established denominational programs and denominational publishers.
The declining cost of publishing, along with the American entrepreneurial spirit, have created a plethora of faith-oriented publishing houses that now serve churches if not more successfully, at least as regularly as the denominational publishing agencies. This has dissolved the influence that denominations have had on their local churches and has expanded the impact of other streams of Christian faith into historically denominational congregations.
Issues Related to Population Movement
The United States has gone through massive geographic transition in terms of population location and density in the last sixty years. The lack of denominational response to these transitions is one of the significant factors in understanding declining denominations today.
Specifically, denominations were not structured agilely enough to mobilize for church planting during the ongoing suburban expansion of the post-World War II era. This is predominantly because church planting has been seen as a denominational function, and the regional judicatories have been very involved in the process, as opposed to local congregations.
Therefore, church planting has not been the function of any particular church, which has reduced the speed at which church planting can occur, as well as ownership over the mission. Church planting is the primary way of extending the mission, and, when removed from the local congregation, the established congregations attempts at being a missional congregation are often futile.
The insufficient amount of new work in the suburban areas during that time has not provided many of the historic denominations any leverage now that the once strong churches in urban areas and town-centers are experiencing significant decline. Even though the cities are experiencing significant growth because of re-urbanization, the congregations themselves are far removed from the culture of the people surrounding them.
Furthermore, as many of the denominationally affiliated churches shut down or relocate, these historic networks are losing the real estate footholds they once had in these vital urban centers.
Issues Related to Organizational Identity
The current structures of contemporary denominations, the cultural and environmental factors, and the population shifts in the United States have created a difficult situation in most present-day denominations. Most of their churches are not growing, there is a declining degree of denominational loyalty, and the distance between the church and the surrounding culture is growing all the time. Collectively, all this has produced an identity crisis for each of these “families of faith” as they have had to grapple with the changes within their organizational families.
Commentator upon commentator on denominational life has reported that denominations are in a state of identity crisis and that it is this identity crisis that is the most predominant factor in their current state and inability to move into the future.
A denominational identity can be understood as the unique combination of a denomination’s people, polity, structure, practices, theology, and purpose that make it both identifiable and distinct in comparison to other associations. In his summary to the massive Church, Identity, and Change study, David Roozen delineates the specific way in which the identity crisis emerges.
The new church association of the future must learn from the interplay of the shifts in culture and the location of the church as a “denomination.”
They will need to order themselves properly in light of the issues related to authority and structure. They will also need to take into consideration the present shifts in communication and apply these directly to their strategy for future development.
Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase. ￼