"Denominations are movements of the Holy Spirit, frozen in time." - Pastor Steve Metro
There is a ton of truth in this statement by my close friend and pastor Steve. Yet, it seems like we can't help ourselves from attempting to solidify these movements of the spirit into an universally-applied model of institution. Even now, with the influx of non-denominational churches, is that instead of a denomination being solidified its the franchising and branding of the a church that becomes a sort of model for application everywhere.
First, it was church planting movements that had a specific structure. Then came multi-site churches utilizing the same name but having different pastors and staff. Next were the mergers between churches to grow and adapt the platform for speakers. Now, we even see satellite, multi-site, churches springing up between cities such as Saddleback, Mars Hill, and others which normally pipe a video feed of a central speaker to locations around the nation (or world!).
It seems like these non-denominational churches felt the movement to leave behind restrictions of certain denominations, and then continue to have to grow to the point of becoming their own denomination, or franchise, in order to face the challenges and issues they face. Some, like Mars Hill, don't even really try to deny that is what they are doing, nor are their intentions particularly wrong. Institutions are not particularly bad in and of themselves.
Yet the pattern of new movements growing and becoming entrenched into an institution is a fact seen throughout history. Some can stand the test of time, others dwindle into oblivion, change transforms and rejuvenates others, while new and fresh experiences sprout up. My question is this:
Why do we feel like each new and fresh experience, occurring quite contextually and subjectively, must be solidified or universalized for application in all circumstances and situations?
Why is it that we tend to make this experience normative, and thus speak against the other movements, leading us to split after split after heresy accusation after forming of lengthier, weightier statements of faith?
A couple of years ago I worked for the Luis Palau Association as they came to Phoenix to mobilize churches in a Season of Service and put on a festival - Arizona CityFest. During this time, We were to attempt to connect with every single church in Maricopa County, which numbered just over 2,000. This was a fluid number, with new plants happening nearly weekly, and a similar number of churches failing and ceasing to be. These churches ranged from house churches of roughly 4-10 members to large mega-churches of over 17,000 regular attendees. What was interesting was that within each of them you found many people dedicated to faithfully serving Christ and attempting to be oriented on the positive, unifying, and loving aspects of the church. Such an attitude exists. In other words, God is there, active and working.
But within many churches, however, there was also a skepticism or negativity which pervaded their personalities as individuals as well as communities. I had churches refuse to participate because we did not limit our event to only a particular type of "bible-believing" church which really meant they felt that only one understanding of theology, theirs, were going to be saved. Some were convicted enough to flat out say it. Other churches had the desire to participate, but only on their terms which usually meant passing out tracts or a form of evangelism during service projects which placed an agenda on loving your neighbor, something we were not willing to let happen (particularly in bringing together multiple churches and denominations, it would flat-out be rude or insulting to the others). Other churches simply rejected the idea of "mass-evangelism" or "social justice" and would not join with others. And yes, some churches had legitimate concerns and were unable to participate on valid reasons. Yet, for many, it was very discouraging to see the Gospel of grace, peace, salvation - the Gospel of Jesus Christ - get lost for the sake of a frozen, true and only church, mentality.
I may not agree (OK- I don't agree) theologically with strongly five-point Calvinistic churches. My faith and journey with God has lead me to a place much more in line with certain Wesleyan (and even Lutheran in certain ways) concepts of theology, even though I'm fairly strongly non-denominational (with an emerging church tinge). That doesn't mean I don't love, respect, and work together with those who are more Reformed. Quite the contrary! There is a lot that can be learned from them, in their fresh and continually adapting experiences with God. Ditto for those from more liturgical, mainline denominations. I know it is possible because I experienced it first-hand at Fuller Seminary, with leaders in training discussing, growing, learning, and loving each other and God more in the midst of being challenged by other strains of the faith.
I'm convinced that God is bigger than having to attempt to correctly identify and join the one particular strand of over 41,000 registered denominations worldwide. (Here are just some of them courtesy of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)
Why do we believe, like the picture above, that somehow we've gotten things so correct that we become the only expression that matters? Can we collaborate across these lines? Can we worship or serve together?
Can we respect and love other communities, in their infinitely unique expressions of their faith?
Yes, we can.
We already do!
It is already happening. During the Arizona CityFest and Season of Service over 560 churches came together in hundreds of events and impacted thousands of lives. I know of many stories exemplifying just this sort of faithful service of a God not constrained by our boxes, found throughout history in pursuing all humanity and expressing himself in ways unique, applicable, and consistent with his will and purposes for the world.
Let's stop trying to universalize an institutional model of the church which takes time, energy, and focus away from the transforming work of a loving God, and instead simply focus on faithfully serving in that mission.
Let's recognize that Christianity, and God, has always allowed for a variety of emphases, but only one Lord. Like Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3, we need to remove jealousy and strife from our midst and quite thinking in such frozen terms like "of Paul," "of Apollos," "of Luther," "of Calvin," "of Billy Graham," or "of Rob Bell" and just get back to being "of Christ." All others are mere men.
We are mere men and women, with tendencies often too connected to the world's ways in which we attempt to compete in power struggles, culture wars, and self-justifications. Such rationalizations lead to fighting to preserve a man-made institution rather than embracing the ways God has worked within those churches while simultaneously working in new and fresh ways.
After all, our call is to love God and love our neighbor. This leads us to die to self and live for Christ, or to allow our will to be transformed and guided by the will of God. The Holy Spirit is at work. It is happening, and history demonstrates this tapestry of redemption. The questions now become:
Am I living faithfully before my God in the context in which I live?
Am I bearing witness to Christ and making disciples by providing space to encounter the living God?
Am I loving others and encountering them in our context in a journey of faithfulness and obedience to God, and encouraging and bearing with them rather than judging or condemning them?
I believe that we should embrace the contextual, ever-present, historical, and fresh work of the Spirit in all its forms. In doing this, the church becomes a unifying and edifying force, not a schismatic one.
Freeing. Not freezing. That is what is needed.
Freeing. Not freezing. That is what is needed.
Where else in this world are you going to see the movement towards peace in the midst of conflict and differing opinion?