Monday, July 25, 2011


I've been on a bit of a tirade lately on this blog. Tirades are fun, but it's easy to miss the point in the middle of it. I think it's important to point out that I'm not against denominations. I'm not against bishops or hierarchies or traditions or pipe organs or nondenominational churches or any of that. I simply don't care about these things, with one significant exception.

I believe with all my heart that all existence, including and especially human existence, starts and ends -- flows from and flows to -- Jesus Christ and the kingdom he came to proclaim. He is the source of all things, and in him all things hold together. Like the T-shirt says, Jesus is life. The rest is just details.

So the only reason -- the only reason -- I care about any of these things is if they impact people's ability to connect to Jesus and his kingdom. So if denominations and hierarchies are a vehicle that authentically connects people to Jesus, I'm all over that. In their origins, each denomination grew and blossomed and bore fruit because it served this goal. If denominations and hierarchies and all the rest become an obstacle that prevents people from connecting with Jesus and his kingdom in an authentic, life-giving way, get a bulldozer and move them out of the way, or just abandon them and leave them to themselves and follow Jesus where he is going.

My experience over the last couple decades is that mainline denominations, by and large, are failing to connect people to Jesus effectively. The fruit that denominations have borne in the last couple decades, for the most part, is slavery to traditions and hierarchies more than leading people to follow Jesus. (I recognize that this is a blanket statement and that there are significant, wonderful exceptions to it. Here and there in the sea of mainline churches are Jesus-focused leaders and congregations who do an amazing job of making disciples and building the kingdom of God. This is beautiful. But it is also the exception.)

I ponder frequently the number of mostly small congregations across America who identify themselves by their denominational affiliation. Sadly, the smaller congregations are more vulnerable to this mindset because they have believed the lie that they are weak on their own, that they need to be affiliated with a larger group to do any significant mission, that their size leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of dangers and that a denominational affiliation somehow helps them stay safe and / or effective.

It does not occur to them to identify themselves as a church that belongs to Jesus. Somewhere deep in their understanding they know that Jesus is at the core of things, but they don't think much about that. They think about being Lutheran or Presbyterian or Methodist or Episcopalian or whatever. The week-to-week identity they live in has to do with their denomination more than with the kingdom of God.

This is tragic and unbiblical and it is not what Christianity is supposed to be. The more these congregations, and the individual believers within them, identify themselves with their denominational affiliation, the more vulnerable they are to weakness, unfruitfulness, and death. The more they, and the individual believers within them, are authentically connected to Jesus and spend themselves to build his kingdom, the more God's Spirit will infuse them with strength and the more good fruit they will bear.

When I was seventeen years old I heard a challenge straight from the Spirit of God (through the mouth of a speaker at my college) that called me to "live for Jesus Christ and his kingdom." That challenge, that call, is not only for individuals but it is for congregations as well.

So for Central, my own congregation in Elk River, Minnesota, here's where I come to ground. We recently (winter of 2009-10) went through a grueling process of disaffiliating ourselves from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). We then joined Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). If we now approach our affiliation with LCMC as a denominational identity that defines us, and if we focus on what it means to be LCMC, we are in significant danger. If, on the other hand, being in relationship with other congregations that have a similar heritage and are passionate about Jesus and dedicated to pursuing his kingdom and helping other people become his disciples -- if this is helpful to us (which I believe it is) then our LCMC affiliation can reinforce and strengthen what the Spirit of God is doing at Central to help us as a congregation to know Jesus and to live in authentic relationship with him.

Why worry about denominations? Simply because our existence starts and ends with Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Whatever pulls us closer to him is to be valued; whatever prevents us from knowing him and living in his kingdom is to be rejected.

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