As Aldersgate prepares to welcome Tony Jones to discuss some of the issues facing the United Methodist Church, I have been thinking more and more about denominations and how we have turned from our primary mission to one of self-preservation. Are denominations still relevant in modern-day Christianity or have they run their course? If they have run their course, will independent churches fill the void?
Personally, I do not think that denominations have run their course. These organized groups of Christians still have the ability to spread the message of Jesus Christ and make new disciples. However, changes need to be made to the overall focus of mainline denominations. A shift from inward concern to an outward reaching focus is critical if denominations want to survive. Our pastor discussed this a few weeks ago as Aldersgate is beginning to shift it’s focus outward. If this was to happen, the decline that mainline denominations are experiencing might be avoided and the growth, which was experienced until the late 80s, could begin to occur again.
In order for these churches to experience growth and ensure institutional survival, churches must begin to become younger. I do not mean new buildings with contemporary architecture. I am referring to the welcoming of younger members and providing a ministry to them and ministry opportunities for them to participate in. I have experienced a church who did not see the value of young adult members (unless they had small children) and a church who welcomes younger members. It was the later which allowed me to begin the development of my faith and realize my calling to ministry. Younger members do want a community to be a part of, regardless of what congregations preconceived notions are. Not only does welcoming younger members allow for a more diverse congregation but it also has the potential to attract younger clergy to the denomination.
Denominations are not all bad, and even have strengths that independent churches could apply to ensure their own growth and success in ministry.
We have all seen the news stories featuring a pastor preaching outlandish messages from the pulpit. For the most part these pastors work in independent churches where there is little accountability for the clergy. Denominations, like the United Methodist Church, have institutional rules in place to ensure that clergy are preaching doctrine which is accepted by the denomination and also provide for judicial action to be taken for clergy who step beyond the line of what is appropriate from the pulpit. The accountability that organized denominations provide is another asset which will help mainline denominations survive the modern-day decline of their congregations.
Finally, denominations also provide for financial accountability. Meeting minutes are tracked, budgets are established, and rules are in place to ensure that proper accounting practices are being followed. Most people like to know where their money is going, and if they know it is being used properly they might be willing to support the organization even more. Congregations need to keep their books open to ensure not only that money is being used responsibly (no one wants to find out that the church is funding a private jet or luxury car for their pastor), but that those who want to give know that their gift will be used responsibly even before they make the gift.
I know that if denominations like the United Methodist Church begin to reach outward to people not previously reached by the church, welcome younger membership warmly, and strengthen their existing practices of accountability they will thrive and move beyond the current downward trend most mainline denominations are currently facing.