Denominations as a Starting Place…
Several years ago I was near Quito, Ecuador on a short-term mission trip with a group from The Orchard. We were staying in the dormitories at SEMISUD which is the largest South American Seminary for The Church of God of Cleveland denomination. On the way to my room I met one of the General Secretaries of The United Methodist Church. He was there as part of a World Council of Churches delegation who had come to South America to dialogue with Pentecostal churches about their unwillingness to participate with the WCC. He was amazed to find a United Methodist Congregation doing what they had traveled thousands of miles to discuss. Amazed, he asked me about how we, a United Methodist Church, were able to work out a partnership with the Church of God of Cleveland Seminary. My reply was simply, “because we are both more interested in the kingdom than in the denomination.”
One of the principles of growth that stands out about vibrant congregations is that the denomination is a starting place, but it is not their final destination.
The stated mission of the Mississippi Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church is to equip the church to make disciples for Jesus Christ. That is an outstanding mission, fully on target, one that is true to our call. However, theory and practice can prove to be radically different, even in well-intentioned denominations.
Denominations, if not kept in their proper perspective, can demand so much of the pastor’s time and the church’s attention that they actually prevent us from accomplishing its and our stated mission—to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
The local church must be the primary location of ministry and transformation of the denomination must take place by the overflow of the local church. This is not only the most effective way of transformation; it is also the most congruent with the call of the Gospel. We are called first and foremost to be builders of Christ’s Kingdom, not our denominations.
In John chapter fifteen, verse sixteen, Jesus makes very clear the mission of the disciples. They were to go and bear fruit that would last. No one would argue that Jesus meant that the disciples would add people to the Kingdom (see John 4). Somewhere along the way Jesus disciples began grouping and in grouping became more concerned with adding to their group than in fulfilling Jesus’ mandate.
In any community there is plenty of Kingdom work to be done. Jesus himself recognized that the fields were ripe for harvest, but the laborers were few (John 4:36). Statistically in any community of 50 to 5 million, 50 percent (or more) of the residents do not have a personal relationship with Jesus or a connection to a community of faith. Some would argue that this is simply not so in their community. My response is that they simply do not hang around the right kind of wrong people.
This statistic should inform our work in several ways. First, if 50% of the people in our community do not have a personal relationship with Jesus or a connection to a community of faith I am not in competition with the other churches in town because there are plenty of people to go around. The real competition is every other available use of a person’s time. We are not competing with other churches in our community. We are competing against soccer, t-ball, sitcoms, bunko groups and the like. Any time people choose to be in a growing discipleship process it is a Kingdom win.
Secondly, we need to be supportive of the other churches in our community because we are not trying to make the next generation of Methodists (or Baptists, etc.). We are trying to make the next generation of Christians. This is not an idea that sits well with denominations. But pastors or denominational leaders who lament a family the next church down the road instead of ours have a very narrow view of the Kingdom of Christ. In Tupelo, there are 20,000 unchurched people. If one person joins the local Presbyterian Church, then that only leaves 19,999 to go. That is a Kingdom win.
The reason we so often miss this is that we are focused on who we do have—how many in comparison to the other churches in town or in our denomination. We must stay focused on our target group, the group to whom we were sent—those in our community who are outside the Kingdom.
Third, we need to partner with the other churches in our community because if all the unchurched people in our community decided to show up at our church this Sunday, our church wouldn’t hold them all. The only hope we have of reaching the whole community is if the whole Body of Christ is focused on this task. Competitiveness among churches and between denominations is counterproductive to the Kingdom. It only confirms to those who are outside the Kingdom what they suspected all along—that we are petty.
Finally, we need to help people find a place to belong, even if they belong at another church. This is true because we are in the business of helping people find and enter into a relationship with God. If they can do that better somewhere else, we should encourage them to do so. It should be no big deal if a family or 10 families leave our church. If we are focused on the outsiders there are plenty of people there to replace them.
This is what it means to be the Body of Christ. Just as within any community of faith (church) there are many and diverse gifts, within the church universal there are particular roles that each denomination plays. There are appealing (and not so appealing) aspects to each of these groups. But we need each other if we are ever going to reach our communities. This will become more and more apparent to us when we are honest enough to admit to ourselves that by ourselves we will never reach everyone in our community—as bad as we hate to admit it—not everyone will like us or be attracted to Jesus at our church. But if we remember that our primary task is building the Kingdom then we can work together to do so.