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September 19, 2013

Building a New Denomination: More than Just Nimble Structure


In light of the multiple thousands of denominations existing over and against Jesus’s prayer that “they may be one,” the creation of yet another denomination must come with strong justifications. While I believe that ECO has such justifications for coming into being, there is one common refrain which seems to me dangerously misleading and ultimately destructive.

This refrain centers on the idea that we want to be lean in our structures and bureaucracy, that we want to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit among our leaders, and that with ECO we will now be free to succeed in ministry because we have thrown off grave clothes that have bound us for so long.

I understand the frustrations with top-down bureaucracies and institutional calcification as impediments to the primary functions of the body of Chris at the local level. I understand the temptation to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., in jettisoning the old structures to join a new streamlined organization: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” The danger, however, is in the assumption that the bureaucracy and centralization of the old system were the principal problem and that the freedom and innovation encouraged in the new system are the solution. Such an assumption betrays our fleshly state of mind. We pin the blame for our lack of vitality and growth on lifeless structures and “stone-age” approaches to ministry, and fool ourselves into believing that if we just adopt new 21st-century strategies and limit denominational intrusion we will build this new denomination successfully.

And perhaps we will. But that is not the same thing as seeing the Kingdom of God expand. Whatever is built in reliance upon our own wisdom and strategies will in the end go the way of the world. The reliance upon our own strength and insights, no matter how entrepreneurial and zealous, can only create temporary ripples on the pond of human history. The best of human efforts, even from redeemed people, is no substitute for the power of the Spirit. When Jesus commanded his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father (Acts 1), I’m guessing one of his purposes was to prevent them from trying to carry out his commission under their own steam.

That’s why I’m so grateful that woven into the vision of ECO is the development of Mission Affinity Groups – leaders from three or four churches who gather together once a year to pray, encourage and recount the works of God in their midst. The first question of self-assessment found in the Narrative of the Health of Mission and Ministry is: “How has the Holy Spirit been evident in your congregation in the past year — through conversions, growth in the fruit of the Spirit, or other transformational experiences that make disciples of Jesus Christ?”

Of course, this demands our ability to discern the difference between the workings of the Spirit and the fruits of our own fleshly striving — not always an easy thing. But the starting place for any Christian movement must be the presence and power of the Holy Spirit – in our own hearts, in our local churches, in our denominations, in our ecumenical associations. To launch into ministry on the assumption that we can work hard enough to succeed (with the obligatory prayer that God will bless our efforts) is to betray a deadly presumption — that we have what it takes (or can manufacture it) to do what only the Spirit can accomplish: the salvation of human beings, transforming fallen sinners into perfect reflections of Christ. When we fall into the trap of believing that our efforts to raise numbers, experiences, budgets, programs, and agencies reflect the work of the Spirit, even though we have taken little or no time to listen to and wait for the Spirit, we are no better off in the “new system” than we were in the old.

May we rely upon the promise of the Father — the Holy Spirit — sent through the death and resurrection of Christ to enliven and empower the people of God for His mission. Anything else is vanity.

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