Recently I was reading through Alister E. McGrath’s “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea.” McGrath is a historian, and in this work he traces the impact and implications of the protestant revolution on Christianity. I would highly recommend this book because we can always learn from history, history echoes.

I found one paragraph really interesting. McGrath is examining denominational structures;

“One pattern that emerges from the development of Protestantism is what seems to be an endless cycle of birth, maturing, aging, and death, leading to renewal and reformulation. The relentless energy and creativity of one generation gives rise to a new movement; a later generation, anxious because the original dynamism and energy of the movement appears to be dissipating, tries to preserve it by petrification- that is, by freezing the original vision in the hope that it’s energy will thus be preserved. Yet all too often, petrification leads to the conservation of only a structure, not the life giving vision itself. However perfectly preserved in the entomologist’s specimen room, the butterfly is still dead.”

Think about it…

Most historians would agree that review and renewal are integral aspects of a true Protestant identity. In fact Protestantism was birthed out of religious self-examination in light of the Bible, and should be willing to correct itself when found untrue to theology proper or culturally irrelevant.

To use a distinction made by McGrath, we should look at our Protestantism “as a method”, and not “as any one specific historical outcome of the application of that method.” In other words, we should seek to apply our Biblical mandate to our new situation, and while learning from our past application of that mandate, we should not feel obliged to repeat it.

Denominations are good things for obvious reasons, but many in my generation no longer regard denominational affiliation as something that makes significant statements about their historical origins and social identity. In fact, it seems that most Christians prefer to affiliate themselves with solid theological schools and the most efficient missional movements. In fact, I would go as far to say that many in my generation do not seek their Christian identity badge through denominational affiliation. This is why many have redirected their ministry involvement outside, rather than within, the traditional denominational structures.

It seems that the younger generations are finding a strong sense of belonging and commitment to their local congregations, a loyalty which is rarely extended to the denomination as a whole. In fact, denominational structures are often looked upon as “inefficient and redundant bureaucracies that make serious financial demands of local congregations while giving little in return.” Mcgrath continues, “many denominations are facing up to the fact that centralized downsizing and rationalization may be the only way ahead.” As church leaders we need to consider these trends as we look toward the future.

If I were to take an ignorant stab at assessing my generation of church leaders I would say;

  • We will primarily be branded by dynamic movements rather than denominational involvement.
  • We will primarily champion the centrality of the local church rather than a centralized denominational structure.
  • We will primarily measure success by theological integration rather than pragmatic implementation.
  • We will primarily be identified with the centrality of the gospel and not captivity to cultural traditions.

Any thoughts? Anything to add? What can we do?

One thought on “Examining Denominational Structures

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you Matt, and I think McGrath is a wise man for us to listen to who does not come from our generation or tradition.

    Our challenge is helping many who have tied their culture (which values and places priority on denomination) to the gospel so tightly that they are unwilling to adjust to the new cultural situation because they see that as abandoning the gospel and holy living.

    Another challenge is overcoming the perception many in the older generation have that the younger generation is naive or simply ignorant of the ways things really work. On the whole, us younger guys should listen to the older generation. But, what is often overlooked is that we younger guys are listening to the older generation (to people like McGrath!), but many of the older men we are listening to do not come from our Southern Baptist tradition (e.g., Carson, Keller, Piper, Goldsworthy, Wells).

    So, we also have to ask ourselves what we are to do when people are unwilling to re-evaluate their understanding of Scripture, even when people in their own generation have done so. Do we pour our energy into the petrified denomination that refuses to listen to many in their generation and to the younger Christians who hope to some day be trusted to join in leadership? Or, do we abandon ship, watching the rock sink in the water, and begin using our energy and passion in ways more appropriate for our time?

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