Why denominations have a future and how they will change

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Many are proclaiming the decline and death of denominations. David Lose (a Lutheran) gives five reasons why denominations will shortly be history.

In one sense, he’s right. Denominations, as we have come to know them, may well cease to exist. In reality, what’s happening is that denominations are undergoing a change of DNA and returning to the essential mission that gave them life in the first place. 

Groupings of congregations that share a mission and a common theological identity are, however, important to the on-going work of the church in the world. So denominations aren’t going anywhere instead they are becoming leaner and effective at advancing the Gospel.

Denominations will look different in the coming years in at least three ways:

  1. More relationship and less structure. At their best denominations facilitate partnerships through relationships. Relational should be stronger than the structural element, although there will always be a need for structure since the church is both organism and organization.
  2. Greater emphasis on the local. Ministry is highly contextual on so there will be less decision making at the national level in favor of allowing local groups of churches to decide things together.
  3. Greater focus on the essential. By this I mean greater focus on what denominations do well–streamlining their mission. There’s no need for denominations to proliferate printed material for use by churches. There is, however, a need for denominations to provide health insurance and benefits for its ministers.
Here are five reasons that I believe denominations will continue to exist purely and simply because we need them to carry of the mission of God:
  1. The need for oversight. Churches and ministers have to be answerable to something other than themselves.
  2. The need for mediation. There needs to be a mechanism for resolving disputes within congregations.
  3. The need for partnership. We can do more together than separately, especially when it comes to planting new churches.
  4. The need for comradeship. Pastors need colleagues and churches need to be able to band together to advance the mission of God locally.
  5. The need for structural support. It’s not popular to say but there is a critical need for effective structural support for churches and ministers.

Will denominations survive?

Don Quixote de la Vanderbilt

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by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

They’re tilting at windmills again! Thirteen campus ministries are continuing their attempt to get Vanderbilt to reverse its decision to implement an all-comers policy for determining qualification to lead a student organization. As I understand it, the policy prohibits religious groups from using religious criteria to select their leaders. It has effectively revoked university recognition for more than ten student groups.

The saga continued this week with the publication of an Open Letter to the university. Personally, I have never seen the point of Open Letters (but that’s just me). Here it is:

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It is challenging to believe that university will reverse itself based on this letter. Parents, alumni, and donors of the university have expressed concern over the policy–to now avail. The Tennessee legislature passed a bill threatening state funding to the university. They had their bluff called by the university aided by the Governor who (not unreasonably) vetoed the bill.

Do InterVarsity, et al, really believe that they can prevail against an institution with the money, influence, and time that Vanderbilt enjoys (the university has the money and influence to outlast a protest movement)?

I haven’t the faintest idea. However, I do know a couple of things.

  • First, it is never wrong to fight for what is right though it may cost a great deal.
  • Second, truth is stronger that falsehood. Regardless of the outcome truth will, in the end, prevail.
  • Third, the Christian God specializes in using the marginal to overcome the powerful, using folly to outsmart the wise, and using the weak to defat the strong.

I guess that means that, in the end, the Don Quixotes of Vanderbilt have more going for them than one might think.

Five questions about online education

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What is the largest university in the United States? Ohio State or another large public research university? No, the University of Phoenix, a for-profit and largely online institution, is the nation’s largest university with more than 319,000 undergraduate students and more than 60,000 graduate students.

David Brooks writes with cautious optimism about what he describes as a coming “tsunami” in education–the transition of online learning from marginal to mainstream, even among elite universities. Read his essay here.

There are five question that come to mind in thinking about the mainstreaming of online education in the way we form undergraduate and graduate students for their vocations:

-How will online students experience community? One of the benefits of a residential university is a common life with shared experiences rooted in learning. How will this be created (can it?) for online students?

-What will this mean for faculty? Good teachers are more than talking heads. Sure, information transfer can happen virtually, but something is missing in the interpersonal interaction that takes place in real time and unmediated by technology.

What will this mean for the humanities? Online education more closely mirrors the working environment of a business. Intuitively, it seems easier for business and other professional disciplines to be taught this way. It’s a little more difficult for me to envision reading and discussing Hagel that way.

What will this mean for campus ministry? How will the work of making disciples and sharing the Gospel happen in a virtual community? How would it be different? How will it be the same?

What will this mean for local culture in indigenous contexts? If, as Brooks suggests, American universities will be able to exert a considerable influence in teaching students across the globe, we have to pose the question: is this exclusively good? Is there a down side? I don’t know. It seems to me that the internet has a remarkable flattening power that is not innately good (I don’t suppose it’s innately bad either).

What do you think about the future of education? Are you hopeful?

Recovering Biblical hospitality

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Brad Brisco over at The Missional Church blog offers some reflections on Biblical hospitality.

To be honest, hospitality is not something that comes naturally to me. I find it stressful to host people in my home–that stress often precludes real hospitality from taking place.

I’d like to get better at offering my home and my life as a place of welcome not least because Scripture places a high value on table fellowship and this may be one of the place where today’s church can offer a true alternative to the prevalent culture.

What about you? Are you gifted in hospitality? Who modeled it for you?

[Repost] Why Work?

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I am on vacation this week so I’m offering some previous posts from the blog that remain timely. I’ll be back online on Monday.


In her essay entitled, “Why Work?” Dorothy L. Sayers writes a scathing critique of the West (specifically, England). Her words were written during the Second World War when all of England was experiencing what might be called drastic shortages of certain food stuffs. Sayers points out that all industrial capitalist economies are based on consumption. That is to say, there is no market for goods and services except that there are parties who wish to consume (i.e., use) these goods or services. I might attempt to go into business as a physic advertizing that I can achieve wonderful results for sufferers of the gout by treating it with leaches and blood-letting. Not have consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I am fairly willing to say that there is not a strong market for this sort of thing. There are no consumers.

The central point of her critique is that consumer capitalism erodes the Christian doctrine of vocation. Why? Sayers claims that the advent of modern capitalism has produced jobs rather than vocations (“callings”). The industrial revolution provided massive increases in the efficiency of labor. By dividing labor tasks (i.e., conveyor-belt) the production of goods could be radically increased. The problem? Increased efficiency in production is negligible apart from a similar increase in demand for said goods. If there is no corresponding increase in demands then the price of the goods falls.

The result of these advances was the removal of the worker from the creation of an item/product. In other words where once the same wheelwright was responsible for the creation of a wheel from start to finish, now one person treats the wood, another steams and shapes it, another makes the spokes, another forges the iron band, another markets and another delivers it. The division of labor here can drastically increase the number of wheel produced, but at what cost to the worker?

Sayers critique is based upon a couple of presuppositions. The first is that each individual is called to a vocation and that this vocation must be morally good, creative, constructive, and provide fulfilment to that person. [By this logic, no one is called to the vocation of tele-marketer.] Second, this vocation is one of the chiefest purposes of this person’s life and therefore, in Sayers’ mind, “we live to work rather than work to live.” She has no time for, indeed she claims it is sub-Christian, to work simply for the purpose of getting a pay check.

At the time of writing this essay, massive amounts of money were being spent on the war in Europe. Sayers poses the question, will the material sacrifices made during the war endure when the war ends? If anything, the war proved that “man does not live by bread alone.” Even with very little affluence, comfort, or luxury, the British people managed to live good lives. Of course, the war itself was serving as the chief consumer at the time, and the majority of businesses (public and private) were directed at providing products useable in that market.

Of course, we know now that the Post-War Western hemisphere has plunged headlong into the type of consumption that Sayers decried in Pre-War Europe. Does capitalism then actually improve lives? Does technology actually make humanity more contented? This is, of course, difficult to gauge. However, I will concede the point to Sayers that the world would be a better place if there were more artists–those who work because they must, not simply to get paid. Of course, given that I am writing this in a coffee shop on a notebook computer with a wireless card shows that I enjoy consuming plenty of goods and services!

There are many people who work simply to get a pay check. Perhaps they need not do this. Perhaps they grow accustomed to the comfort of a certain (or at least relatively certain) amount of money coming into their checking account each month. They could do otherwise, but over time they give up on their dreams. It is, perhaps, here that Entrepreneurs can teach us (and Sayers) something. At the start, the only reason to start a company is because you believe in it (unless you are a fraud). When you’re working 60 hours-a-week for next to nothing, you are building the character and discipline that will regulate you when the profits begin. Entrepreneurs are artists. We can quibble about whether the services they provide are truly necessary/good/worthwhile (or whatever justification you might require for the consumption of a good or service), but most entrepreneurs believe in what they’re doing. And they are the financial bedrock of their communities.

It’s encouraging to know that from a Christian perspective, entrepreneur can be a virtuous vocation. Once upon a time I would have agreed with all that Sayers’ wrote. Now I see the wisdom and limitations of her words. It is, after all, the same moral compass that creates wealth both by fueling wealth-creating businesses and precluding mindless consumption of unnecessary or overly-wasteful goods and services.