By Andrew Hébert
Many younger pastors often feel two interesting and competing impulses.
First, there is a growing sense that denominations aren’t that important. Second, there is a strong desire for relationships with others in ministry and a willingness to participate in affinity-based networks.
Traditional denominational membership and involvement has declined over the past few years, and yet at the same time new networks have emerged and grown quickly.
I think this reveals both young leaders’ eagerness to connect with other pastors and churches and also their desire for those networks to be meaningful and effective. In other words, young leaders are willing to participate in denominations and networks so long as they see the value in them.
As a Southern Baptist, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in our particular network of churches. We are in many ways like a large (sometimes dysfunctional) family. And yet I continue to cooperate denominationally. I see value in partnership with other churches.
Here are five reasons why denominations, conventions, associations, cooperatives, collectives, networks, and other affiliations matter:
1. Theological identity
Denominations are inherently confessional. There is something powerful when a group of churches say together in unity, “This we believe.” It says to those inside and outside the denomination what it is that brings these particular churches together.
My children and I love to eat sugar-filled cereal in the mornings. My wife prefers healthy cereal that tastes like cardboard. I’m thankful for cereal boxes that clearly label what kind of cereal is in the box. Because of the label on the box, I know what product I am getting.
Denominations are a way identifying the beliefs of a certain group of churches — a way of identifying what’s in the box, so to speak. Labels, however much our postmodern culture hates using them when it comes to theological boundaries, are a clear way of being identified as believing X, Y, or Z.
This is helpful for those who are trying to decide which church to join. Theological commitments distinguish groups of churches from one another. Clear confessional statements are also helpful for churches and pastors because they make it easier to identify with other churches and pastors of like faith and practice. They help the church at large avoid divisive disagreements about theology because those who are in the denomination or network already know what each other believes about the fundamentals of the Christian faith and the particulars of denominational identity.
2. Missiological partnership
There’s an African proverb that says, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Put another way: We can do more together than we can apart. This is a basic principle of denominationalism. Denominations afford churches the chance to work together in common endeavors such as theological education, missions, church planting, and disaster relief.
As a Southern Baptist, it is a privilege to partner with over 47,000 other churches across the country. We pool our resources in a giving system known as the Cooperative Program. This allows us to plant new churches around the world, fully fund thousands of North American and international missionaries through our mission entities, and train thousands of future pastors and ministers through our seminaries. The Southern Baptist ecosystem also facilitates cooperative partnerships between churches at a local and a statewide level.
3. Ministerial training
Denominations often create various avenues for ministerial, theological, and practical training, including institutions like colleges, universities and seminaries, as well other pathways. Whether through conferences, coaching, or formal education, pastors and others often find that some of the best theological and ministerial training in the world is available through their denomination.
In the Southern Baptist Convention, training is available through denominational colleges and seminaries, national entities and state conventions. Personally, I benefited from attending a college affiliated with my state convention and then a Southern Baptist seminary.
As important and as helpful as that training was, I have found training provided through my state convention and other national entities to be just as helpful. In fact, I found that training provided through the convention often had a practicality to it that was sometimes lacking in more formal institutional settings.
Conversely, training provided through our formal institutions provided expertise and depth that I greatly appreciated. Taken together, my denomination has been a tremendous source of training both for me as a pastor and for the laypeople in the congregations I have served.
4. Pastoral accountability
Denominations have the ability to provide a broad-based network of support and accountability for churches and pastors. This sometimes takes place through formal means, such as when a denomination disassociates from a church for a theological or functional reason. Sadly, this hasn’t been done frequently enough. However, the framework exists within voluntary networks to be able to enforce membership standards.
More commonly, denominational accountability takes place informally. If a pastor is erring theologically or personally, the pastors around him can admonish, rebuke, challenge, encourage, pray for, and approach him both with a level of concern and agreed-upon intentionality that would not be there without a mutual commitment to be bonded together in a relationship.
5. Ecclesiastical fellowship
Ministry is tough. It is often lonely. Denominations allow pastors and churches to have an avenue of fellowship that often doesn’t exist otherwise. Pastors can draw strength and encouragement from one another. Churches can enjoy the broader unity we share in Christ as we fellowship together. Whether it’s a group of local pastors meeting for lunch every month or larger groups of churches or pastors meeting together for annual gatherings and meetings, God often uses these opportunities for fellowship to renew, refresh, and reinvigorate us.
Together, churches that come together demonstrate to a watching world the power of the Gospel to reconcile and unify people and churches.
Denominations can be a source of frustration at times, but they also can be a tremendous blessing. They allow us to embody the spirit of Eccl. 4:9-12:
“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for the efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up. Also, if two lie down together, they can keep warm; but how can one person alone keep warm? And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”
We are truly better together.