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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Denomination news

Lately I've been reading way too much news about church denominations. In some cases I'm reading about denominations that are dying, decaying, going broke, downsizing, drifting. In other cases I'm reading about church denominations that are growing, vibrant, multiplying, exciting.

Both kinds of news leave me cold. Certainly it's more fun to be part of a group that is growing, no question. But reading these news releases (which is sort of an occupational hazard for me as a pastor) reminds me of a toothpaste commercial from twenty years ago when I used to watch TV. The announcer comes on and talks about his particular brand of toothpaste, and the housewife on screen interrupts and says, "Toothpaste doesn't excite me." The announcer then gets to where the rubber hits the road and says how users of his particular brand of toothpaste have fewer cavities and better dental health than non-users. The housewife says, "Great checkups? That excites me!"

Denominations -- growing or dying -- don't excite me. What does excite me is the place where the rubber meets the road, the place where Jesus connects with the lives of people and their lives are transformed in a relationship with him. Local churches excite me because that's where Jesus seems to do his best work, where people who have come to know him live in community, where people get their hands dirty serving the world in Jesus' name, where communities of people gather together in his name. The only way denominations trip my trigger is when they are effective in supporting local churches in this work.

As a rule of thumb, the bigger the denomination's bureaucracy, the less effective it is in supporting local congregations. Fill a denomination's hierarchy with mid-level bureaucrats (yes, these exist in the church) and soon they will see their existence, their status, their compensation as the biggest priority of their denomination. Of course they don't say this out loud, but they spend their workdays building and maintaining programs that justify their positions.

Individual churches are prone to this sort of disease as well. In large congregations, it looks like people who build programs and then maintain those same programs because this is the way we've always done things. In small churches it looks like a pastor or a small staff that populates the church with people who are personally loyal to them. Both options (large and small) miss the point of the church, which is loyalty to Jesus Christ. Our programs and our personalities are too often idols for our churches.

Churches that are focused on Jesus, following Jesus, will not be concerned about personal loyalty or about job security. They're too busy 1) discerning where Jesus is going at any given moment, 2) scrambling to stay close to him as leaders, and 3) helping their people catch a vision to follow him. Jesus-following churches are always a little messy, so our desire for stability and control is our own worst enemy, because so often we want to back off, regroup, and get our feet under ourselves. It's really just a desire for control in sheep's clothing.

Jesus moves. It's what he does. He gets out into the world, into the mess. He's constantly coming alongside the broken, getting close to the untouchables, raising the dead, and offending the self-consumed. Reread the gospels -- imagine how rarely Peter, James, and John felt like they had their feet under them. It was a constant struggle just to keep up.

That's why denominations -- or congregations focused on stability -- don't work. The church didn't build much of a hierarchy until it got domesticated after Constantine. Prior to that point it was a Jesus-following mess, and it took the Roman empire by storm, like bedbugs are currently taking New York -- from the underside, from the crevices and the cracks.

How's that for a vision of the church?

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