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Denominations: A Dying Breed

Over the last few years, I’ve quietly predicted to myself that traditional denominations are on their way out.  Not hoping, just predicting.  Recently, a couple of statistics were produced as evidence of this.  As of today, 6 to 12 million Americans attend house churches.  As a house church pastor, I find that really interesting and pretty cool.  On the other hand, just 1 percent of Americans today call themselves Presbyterians, which by my estimation puts their numbers around 3 1/2 million.  There seems to be a very real shift in the spiritual lives of Americans and the sorts of churches they attend.

With few exceptions, it seems like the long standing denominations continue to be on the outs, while new forms of church are in, and it got me thinking about a few things.

This Isn’t a Defeat or a Victory.

While the news interests me, and I’m happy that people are trying out house churches, it doesn’t make me pump my fist or shoot a gun in the air in victory because the Presbyterians are dying off.  I’m not in competition with them.  Sadly, a bunch of house churches make their outreach all about how traditional church bites, therefore you should try a church that bites on a much smaller scale.  That’s the wrong angle, and it reduces them to being one trick ponies.  What it tells me, and should tell you is that there are so many possible churches to choose from, be they house churches or something else, for people who don’t think they fit in at church.  That is great news.

What Christians need to realize is that a closed down church building is not the worst thing in the world.  Every good thing ends sometime.  A closed church doesn’t mean defeat or failure.  It just means that a good thing inevitably came to the end of its life cycle.  Eventually, all of our sweet, amazing mega churches with their giant screens will be full of old blue hairs.  The pastors will all have extremely white false teeth.  And the teenagers will cringe whenever Steve Fee’s dusty old worship music is played way too loud, so we can hear it after we all go deaf from Steve Fee’s music being played way too loud.

Can Denominations Get a Makeover?

Every so often, one of the traditional old denominations will make an attempt at a public relations facelift.  They may come up with new logos or ad campaigns, and attempt to adapt to what they perceive people want to see in a church.  Obviously, these attempts have mixed results, given the strong indication that their numbers are still shrinking.

These days, many denominational churches don’t seem to have a whole lot of faces left to lift or things that can be made over.  Interestingly, some denominations seem intent on “reform” by tackling very controversial issues, such as electing gay clergy and leaders.  That could be called an ironic move, given that many of the average members of those churches don’t support that move.  In a time when they can least afford it, the denominations are making controversial political statements, and their people are leaving because of that.  I suppose it depends on how you see the issues if you believe that this is a hill to die on, or another nail in the coffin.

Remember, There’s Nothing New Under the Sun.

I think it’s great and inspiring that the church continues to be reinvented.  The only thing that has been constant in the church’s history is its need to constantly adapt and reform. 

However, as we face a brave new world of creativity and change, a word of caution.  Before we go thinking that we have it all together, remember that people aren’t all that creative.  We don’t come up with new ideas all that often.  Something will replace denominations.  Non-denominational churches eventually turn into denominations.  The fresh ministries, multi-site churches, house churches, and every other ministry being conceived today to lead the church into the next decades will eventually need to changed, adapted, or discarded.

Leaders have a choice.  They can discard everything in church history and forge their own way, leaving behind the good with the mistakes of previous church generations.  Or they can learn from and adapt the sustainable parts of the church’s past while learning from history’s mistakes.  As the phenomenon of multi-site ministry continues to grow, and more people find themselves worshipping in a satellite campus, far away from their church’s central leadership, it would seem wise for leaders to be serious in their attempts to not let their ministries repeat the disadvantages of denominations. 

Leaders can also choose to believe that just because they are the ones leading, that the strategy will work, into perpetuity.  People do tend to hope that their work will be lasting.  But nothing is permanent, except for the souls our churches touch.  Leaders need to be humble enough to know that just because they are the ones leading, it doesn’t mean an old idea will work better, nor will their ideas of today be viable forever.

As one generation closes and another opens in church history, leaders would do well to humbly embrace the good elements of the past, while making honest efforts to not simply repeat history, but to embrace the positive pieces of the past while steering clear of the mistakes.

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mattappling@churchleaders.com'
Matt Appling is a teacher, pastor and author of TheChurchOfNoPeople.com and the book "Life After Art: What You Forgot About Life and Faith Since You Left the Art Room," released by Moody Publishers. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.