Archive for May, 2014

Our Changing Denominational Landscape

May 21, 2014

Four years ago, Gil Rendle wrote a book entitled Journey in the Wilderness. In this book, he describes some of the changing landscape of the church in North America today. At the end of the book, he discusses a few issues about denominations, which are interesting for us to consider as we approach our General Assembly meeting next month.

Rendle makes the comment that the relationship between pastors and their denomination, and the relationship between churches and their denomination has changed and will continue to change. About 40 years ago, denominational systems shifted to a regulatory model. In the regulatory model, there was an expectation that all pastors and all congregations would behave according to polity and established practices. Those pastors and churches who obeyed and fulfilled these expectations were identified as “good pastors” and “good churches”, while those who veered from the regulations were “bad pastors” and “bad congregations.”

Rendle observes that it is no longer a badge of honor to be a “good” denominational church or a good “denominational” pastor. Here in our presbytery, we have made a conscious decision to move away from the regulatory model. We have said we used to be a governing body, now we are a relational community, and we hope to become a mission agency. We have said this because rules and regulations cannot provide the connectionalism we need. Connectionalism can really only come from shared theology, shared mission, and shared relationships – being spiritual, missional, and relational together.

In his book, Gil Rendle says that our regulatory mindset produced a system of conformity that has become increasingly difficult to sustain. He says that we are now in a position where denominations routinely want more of a connection with congregations and clergy than congregations and clergy want with their denomination. Then he states 3 issues that are important if we want to have a viable and meaningful future:
• a reframed purpose and identity of our denominations,
• the need to make space for, encourage, and support entrepreneurial leadership, and
• an ability to live with discomfort in our relationships.

1. In order to have a faithful and fruitful future, we will need to reframe the purpose and identity of our denomination. We are in a post-establishment era for mainline denominations. We used to be emotionally held together by the strong bonds of history, theology, race or ethnicity, and geographic location. These bonds have more recently been replaced by much more institutional and therefore much less powerful connections, such as pensions, property, and polity. Hammering out a new identity in a diverse environment is hard work because we no longer value conformity, even though many in the denomination still try to enforce it.

Rendle says that if uniformity cannot be the goal, and
if conformity cannot be the expectation,
then leaders will have to negotiate their differences. Living in this wilderness is messy and it is about to become even messier.

2. In order to have a faithful and fruitful future, we will need to make space for, encourage, and support new entrepreneurial leaders. Where entrepreneurialism once spoke more of the independent maverick leader who risked going his or her own way for selfish gain, the new entrepreneurialism has a different and more mature character. These leaders actively look for opportunities that go beyond the standard practice of their organization. They are willing to take risks, but they need presbyteries that will give them space and support and a willingness to think and act outside the box. We need to create space for New Worshiping Communities to grow, and for existing churches to engage in missional experiments in their communities, without trying to control, prevent, or inhibit their creativity in unhealthy ways.

New leaders accept having to live in the tension between purposeful risk and respect for the history and the heritage of the denomination. They get that. But, rather than find their own path as rugged individualists, these new leaders actually want to be a part of some larger body, and they are looking to join with others who want to discover new paths in the wilderness. These are rule breakers and practice benders. Can we be OK with that? These are people who still want to be faithful and still want to live within their institutions. If our denominational systems are going to be able to thrive in the wilderness of the future, we will have to provide space, encouragement, and support for new, younger leaders.

3. If we are going to have a faithful and fruitful future, we are going to have to learn to live with discomfort in our denominations. The wilderness is messy. Our comfort level within our denomination is not going to increase, it is going to decrease. On one hand, we have younger, more entrepreneurial leaders, pushing out and doing ministry in very different ways than what we are used to, which are different from our traditions, and they are making us uncomfortable. On the other hand, we are wrestling with moral lifestyles related to sexuality, race, economic class, and various justice issues, that are making us uncomfortable in other ways. Can we live with that discomfort? Can we still be in relationship with people we don’t like, with people that we think are wrong, and with people that we disagree with? The answers to these questions are not easy, nor are they obvious. Because contexts, communities, ministries, and morality are becoming more and more diverse, churches will confuse and offend one another with their practices. These have the potential to create deep dissonance and discomfort.

Gil Rendle says in his book that our mainline denominations have started down a path where conformity among leaders and congregations is being replaced by shared purpose and identity. Further movement down this path will be rocky since a connection through purpose and identity does not require conformity. Some want to resolve their discomfort among congregations and leaders with censure of, or schism from, those who are too different from themselves. As churches leave, many people react the only way they know how – which is by returning to their default positions of regulation, control, and conformity. Will next month’s General Assembly be reactive and approve more regulations and decrees from on high that we all have to conform to, or else? On one hand, that would not be surprising. On the other hand, that would also not be smart. That would not be helpful. That is not the future for how we need to function going forward.

What would really be helpful is if the General Assembly would provide us with gracious, practical, and helpful ways for us to live together in our discomfort. That’s a tall order. That would be an adaptive change. The new way of being together that we are trying to live into must grow from the bottom up before it can flow back from the top down.

One of the things the Bible teaches us about living in the wilderness is that the wilderness is the place where God changes us. The community of God’s people is changed in the wilderness. In the wilderness, people discover that old ways don’t always work anymore and old rules don’t always help. People have to find new ways to form community and to be faithful. The wilderness experience usually begins with discouragement but ends with hope, as people discover new ways to survive and thrive in a new context.

Like the Exodus story, our denomination is on a journey through the wilderness. It is messy and it is about to get messier. As General Assembly meets next month, I will be looking for the three things that could provide us with hope for a faithful and fruitful future together:
• Will they help us reframe the purpose and the identity of our denomination?
• Will they provide space, encouragement, and support for entrepreneurial leaders?
• Will they provide us with a greater ability to live with the discomfort in our relationships?
• OR will they revert back to the past and default to more regulations, trying to force pastors and congregations into conformity?
God is at work in our world in some amazing ways. Jesus Christ is changing lives. The Holy Spirit is on the move in the world around us. I want our presbytery to be a part of that. I want our denomination to be a part of that. If we can do that, our future can be faithful, fruitful, and significant. And that is something I want to be a part of.