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The Denomination Debate





Whether independent or denominational, today's church leaders are learning--sometimes the hard way--that reform doesn't come easy.

Houston Miles had his feet firmly planted in the Assemblies of God (AG). He started his first church in 1949, pastored several congregations in Florida and served terms as youth and Sunday school director for the West Florida District.

Then, in 1971, while pastoring First Assembly of God in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a revival disturbed his Pentecostal sensibilities, and he found himself ministering with (and to) Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. Although Miles' church grew like a weed, he soon attracted the suspicion of fellow AG pastors, who frowned upon his ecumenical tendencies, openness to the charismatic movement and interest in new models of ministry.

“I became a black sheep in the AG,” he recalls. “Because we had such large numbers of people, they thought we were compromising with the world.” Miles found himself avoiding his jealous colleagues, and soon the affiliation with the AG became “on paper only.” Not too long after, he resigned his credentials. In the years since, relationships have been mended, apologies have been exchanged and the denomination has invited Miles to return whenever he wishes. But he has no plans to do so.

After his departure from the AG, Miles founded Evangel Fellowship International (EFI), a network of more than 600 churches in the United States, 672 in Russia and 35 missionaries overseas. EFI's doctrinal statement is essentially Pentecostal, but local assemblies are autonomous, and pastors appoint their own boards and leadership from within the congregation.

Fast forward three decades ...
Another pastor, Ron Johnson, leads Bethel Temple (AG), a megachurch in Hampton, Virginia. He is loyal to the Assemblies of God, but Johnson's style of ministry is decidedly apostolic. He personally leads a network of more than 800 churches, plants an average of two new congregations per year and has pastors nationwide who look to him for oversight-all activities that have historically caused tension in some denominations that require approval to plant churches and credential ministers. Although he says he would jettison his affiliation with the denomination if it ever began to hamper his mission, Johnson has no plans of doing so and has been refreshed by signs of reform within the AG.

Sure, Johnson's independence may seem incompatible with denominational structure, and some of his friends in the apostolic movement may suggest he should have abandoned the “old wineskins” of the AG long ago. But he's not going anywhere. And the denomination is just fine with that.

Johnson admits that his relationship with AG colleagues has been tense at times, but a humble attitude combined with the common goals of church planting and leadership training have served to bring the two parties together when there's been a potential for discord.

“I believe it is my responsibility to do the best I can to work with them,” he explains. “But if we reach a point that we no longer have the grace to walk together and we're going to be at war, it's better for me to graciously-with dignity-step out of the denomination rather than create strife.”

Conventional wisdom suggests that institutional structures grow more rigid with time. But in recent years some of the most innovative pastors in America have decided to stay in their denominations. Ministries Today sat down with a few of these leaders, and others who have left, in an attempt to explore what factors are bringing about denominational transformation-and where reform is still needed.

Visionary Leadership

Few dynamics are changing the face of denominations more dramatically than the prevalence of megachurches. The visionary-and often independent-style of ministry common among megachurch pastors sometimes runs counter to the conformity common in denominations.

“Megachurches are more often than not the product of one highly gifted spiritual leader,” writes megachurch expert Scott Thumma in “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomenon,” an article adapted from his doctoral dissertation on the subject. “The majority of contemporary megachurches were either founded by or achieved mega-status within the tenure of a single senior minister.”

With the growth of the megachurch phenomenon (In 1994, researcher John Vaughan estimated that the number of megachurches increases by 5 percent per year), it is only natural that denominations will feel the pressure from highly successful leaders within their ranks. While some megachurch pastors have left denominations, others have decided to stay and use their influence to effect institutional change.

Ron Carpenter was not even 30 years old, and he was already frustrated with the size of his church. In the seven years since its founding, Redemption World Outreach Center (RWOC) in Greenville, South Carolina, had grown to 400 members. By 1998, it had reached a plateau, but the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) pastor knew God had bigger things in mind.

After a yearlong study of the New Testament church, Carpenter dismantled every committee and stripped every leader's title, rebuilding the structure of the church from the ground up and exchanging the congregation's democratic system of government for “apostolic protocol.” Within six months, the church's attendance had tripled to 1,200 … and it has not stopped since.

Now, with 5,000 members, RWOC is the largest congregation in the denomination, and Carpenter leads some 600 ministers who call him “apostle” and have no formal affiliation with the IPHC.

Carpenter rejects the notion that God is through using denominations. He encourages other visionary pastors to humble themselves and dialogue with denominational leaders-but ultimately listen to the voice of God. While it's not without its tension, this pattern appears to be slowly bringing reform to some denominational structures.

“I have gone all over the IPHC speaking on this topic and have been met with far more passion to change than with resistance,” he says. “Denominations have tremendous resources, so I struggle with some peoples' suggestion that none of it is beneficial. If there's a possibility of change, why go back and recreate all these resources when they could be channeled?”

Ron Johnson agrees, noting that many pastors who feel they've outgrown their denomination tend to foster an internal prejudice toward institutional structures and assume that denominational leaders do not share their drive for evangelism and church planting.

“Many times denominational leaders are perceived as wanting to build the denomination as opposed to advancing the cause of Christ,” Johnson explains. “But from what I've experienced, the passion of our general superintendent is to embrace the work of the Spirit. He will do anything in his power to see men hear God and obey Him.”

Johnson recognizes that some visionary leaders may never fit into a denomination-and that this may be God's will. But overall, he urges those contemplating leaving their denominations to exercise caution.

“Move slowly. Stay as long as you can, but no longer than you have the grace to do so,” he says. “When you leave, don't trash your denomination; bless them.”

Localized Authority

Most denominations are led by people who were elected to their positions by their constituency. Critics argue that a democratic style of government reflects Western political styles, but has little to do with the way authority and responsibility are apportioned in the kingdom of God. As a result, emerging leaders are pushing denominations toward allowing more local autonomy and allowing visionary pastors to lead their congregations based on the direction they feel God has given them for their churches.

“The democratic system has bred distrust of people,” Ron Carpenter explains. “Democracy has worked for America with some measure of success, but the church was never meant to be a people-controlled movement.”

Instead, Carpenter advocates church leadership based on the authority of apostles and prophets who receive mandates directly from the Spirit. This view runs counter to many denominational structures, in which the pastor functions as an employee of the local church-subject to the whims of the elder board and the congregation.

New apostolic styles of church government reverse the model held by many denominations: Power within the church is taken from congregations and placed in the hands of pastors. Additionally, regional church authority is taken out of the hands of centralized denominations and placed in the hands of apostles who oversee networks of pastors.

This flexibility and autonomy is what led Joseph Thompson to avoid denominational affiliation in the first place. After serving as teaching pastor under Ted Haggard at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Thompson is planting a new congregation (Church at the Well) in the Orlando, Florida, area.

Before he made plans to relocate to Florida, Thompson was invited to pastor a denominational church but grew concerned by what he saw as the restrictive leadership structure in the local congregation.

“The bylaws said that the pastor is an employee of the board,” Thompson recalls. “That's strange to me. That means if two-thirds of them suddenly decide they don't like the way the pastor has preached for the last two Sundays, they can kick him out. I don't think that's healthy. I don't think it gives the pastor liberty to hear the voice of God and be honest.”

While this dynamic may be common in denominations operating with a congregational form of church government, for those with episcopal bylaws, this is less of a challenge. For instance, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (ICFG) fills vacant pulpits, and pastors are allowed to appoint their own elders.

Twenty-one years ago, Daniel Brown planted The Coastlands, a Foursquare church in Aptos, California. Since then, he has pioneered 34 daughter churches and supplied five pulpits with ministers raised up in the church. Brown goes so far as to call the Foursquare a “pastors denomination,” stressing the liberty and autonomy that the fellowship offers its pastors.

Some denominations are making adjustments to ensure that this is the exception, not the rule. ICFG president Jack Hayford points out that three years ago, the denomination revised its structure, placing more authority in the hands of leading pastors rather than denominationally structured regional offices. Leadership was distributed among 75 supervisors, whereas before the shift there had only been 9. Although he refers to the new structure as “apostolic,” Hayford is careful in describing the motivation that initiated it.

“This was not done as an attempt to answer the criticisms of some who seem impassioned with identifying and investing apostles and prophets as a crusade of sorts,” he explains. “Rather, it was simply done in response to the Holy Spirit's work in fashioning a movement to serve its expanding future.”

But for some, changes such as these are too little, too late. Some say the problems with denominations are irreparable; they are deeply embedded in the DNA of institutionalized religion in America.

Church-growth expert C. Peter Wagner was optimistic as he observed the charismatic renewal of the '60s and '70s. The wind of the Holy Spirit began to blow through the dusty halls of mainline denominations that were already experiencing symptoms of irrelevance and decay.

But by 2000, as Wagner writes in his 2004 book Changing Church, “not one of the U.S. denominations had experienced the spiritual reformation that leaders had been praying for. … Yes, many individuals and some congregations had been spiritually transformed, but the structures at best had remained the same, and in some cases they had deteriorated even more.”

Wagner blames this phenomenon not on people, but on structures-structures that worked 300 years ago when denominations became independent of state control but that have become almost as rigid as the institutions they replaced.

For him, the solution is no longer renewal, but reformation. As early as his 2000 book, The New Apostolic Churches, Wagner noted that the most thriving churches worldwide are not denominational in structure-even if they are affiliated with one. They are apostolic, structured around the Spirit-led leadership of one man or woman. As a result, Wagner argues that those truly wanting to participate in the next move of God will need to leave their denominations.

“The old wineskins were once bright shining new wineskins,” Wagner explained in a recent interview with Ministries Today. “But they have come under a spell or domination of the spirit of religion-a spell that causes them to think that maintaining the status quo is the will of God. Those who stay in denominations will not receive new wine.”

Relational Accountability

Many, like Houston Miles, suggest that accountability has become obsolete within denominations, that they have grown beyond their capacity to relationally connect leaders with grass-roots ministers.

“In the AG, the superintendent was more of an administrator than a pastor,” he notes. “The only time you'd hear from him is if you got behind on your tithe.” As this yawning relational gap is becoming more pronounced, alternative organizations are arising to provide networking and resources for leaders inside and outside denominations.

Joseph Thompson affiliates with several networks-Association of Life-Giving Churches, founded by Ted Haggard, and Association of Related Churches, an organization of pastors committed to church planting. Like many of their nondenominational counterparts, both are organized around a function (healthy congregational ministry and church planting) rather than a doctrinal statement or a structure of leadership and control.

As a result, neither organization exerts any control over its members in regard to accountability. Instead, they assume a certain level of pre-existent accountability of their members-many of whom are already affiliated with denominations and apostolic networks-Thompson says.

“They recognize the need to have people over you,” he explains. “But that's not what they exist for. They provide a context for horizontal accountability-an opportunity to voluntarily submit yourself to accountability with your peers.”

Some of these networks are even being launched by denominational pastors who wish to combine the resources offered by their denominations with the flexibility and specialization offered by a smaller organization.

Scott Hagan resigned in May as pastor of First Assembly of God in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Known for his passion for racial reconciliation, Hagan recently launched the Blended Church Network, an organization dedicated to training and connecting leaders to plant multiethnic churches.

Although Hagan's new network carries the enthusiastic blessing of AG officials, it is intended to be a cross-denominational effort that will train leaders of any stripe. The 42-year-old pastor believes that efforts such as his reflect a growing openness in his denomination toward entrepreneurial churchplanting, apostolic leadership and the cultivation of relationships outside denominational boundaries.

“Any time we begin acquiring land, building buildings, creating salaries and careers, there will come a time for reinvention,” Hagan explains. “I believe that this is a journey back to the simplicity of our purpose.”

For many, peer-level networks such as Hagan's hold an advantage to denominations. They are not centered on a doctrinal distinctive, nor do they have top-heavy infrastructures that demand financial support. They are primarily relational in nature-and led by people who have ministries of their own.

Although he is encouraged by the various networks-apostolic and otherwise-that are sprouting for the purpose of church planting, evangelism, and so on, C. Peter Wagner is concerned that people leaving denominations will find camaraderie but ultimately avoid authentic accountability to a spiritual father or mother.

“There are still too many people out there doing their own thing,” he says. “Everyone needs apostolic oversight. But accountability is voluntary, and you can avoid it whether you're in a denomination or an apostolic network.”

He also contends that even the most flexible and forward-thinking apostolic network of today can become a denomination tomorrow, if policies are not put in place to prevent institutionalism.

“What we want to avoid is apostles who are 'pre-denominational,'” he explains. “Sociologists of religion tell us that this is not only possible, it is inevitable. But I want to be a history changer. History does not have to repeat itself.”

Generational Transition

Denominations tend to be led by those who have proven themselves in ministry. While this lends stability and credibility, it creates an environment for generational tension between emerging and established leaders.

As Ron Johnson notes, it's increasingly problematic when a younger generation comes on the scene with new ideas-and a completely different view of institutional loyalty. Postmodern leaders sometimes have little tolerance for what they perceive as the faceless reality of 20th-century denominations.

“We're dealing in the AG with leaders that are 60-plus years of age at the top level of leadership,” Johnson explains. “When these older leaders and their postmodern counterparts talk about 'relationship,' they're not talking about the same thing.”

Johnson points out that-ironically-a younger generation craves fatherly mentoring. Isolation and independence are not in their vocabulary, but they question whether denominational structures can provide the relational guidance that they desire. Unlike their forbears, they have nothing against leaving a denomination to find it. Ron Carpenter agrees.

“My daddy's generation would be loyal to the church if God died,” he says jokingly. “In contrast, my generation will not be faithful to a denomination … but they will die for a man.”

Stenneth Powell, pastor of Abundant Life Christian Center Church of God in Christ (COGIC), in Raleigh, North Carolina, has raised up 49 ministers-many of whom hold credentials with COGIC, but look to him for spiritual oversight. Powell notes that younger pastors are not only looking for leadership, they also want resources-church-growth advice, leadership mentoring and church-management skills. The growth of large churches has provided opportunities for young leaders to connect with successful models-outside the confines of denominational institutions.

“This frustration with denominations is cyclical. Pastors get successful-too big for their own denominations-so they start their own organization. Essentially that too becomes a denomination,” he explains. “If a big church can offer a young guy who's just starting out the same resources as a denomination, he'll join that organization.”

Many, like Scott Hagan, believe that these generational shifts may ultimately seal denominations' survival-if leaders take the opportunity to harness enthusiasm and listen to the concerns of their younger colleagues.

“Our AG colleges are packed with students-black, white, brown, male female-whom the denomination has to keep if we have any hope,” he explains. “We can't draw in these kids and slam them with old-school thinking. The spirit that these young people have must start permeating the entire movement.”

This challenge is not exclusive to denominations.

Senior pastor of Covenant Centre International in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Norman Benz left the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) in 1991. He explains that he heard God say, “What I want to do with you I can't do with you in this denomination.”

Since then he joined International Coalition of Apostles (ICA), founded by C. Peter Wagner. But he points out that the apostolic movement is in danger of being largely a “baby boomer” movement and stresses the importance of incorporating younger leaders. One of the priorities of his own organization, Covenant Apostolic Network, is to intentionally release the next generation.

“When we look at scripture, apostles and elders were not necessarily chosen because of their age, but because of the favor of the Spirit on them,” he explains. “We have to be careful that we don't become stalemated and segmented into becoming a certain kind of a movement because of the age of our leaders.”

A Return to Pentecost

Although these tensions would appear to chip away at denominational foundations, many argue that such shifts actually indicate a return to the values that launched the Pentecostal and charismatic movements nearly a century ago. Ron Carpenter points out that Pentecostals and charismatics should-by nature-be more ready for denominational reform, noting that he has encountered extensive openness among leaders and laity in his own denomination.

“We tend to be spontaneous and flexible,” he explains. “Also, most Pentecostals are biblically rooted enough that if you open the Word and explain these new ideas, they will accept them.”

Ron Johnson argues that many denominations were specifically formed for the purpose of church planting, world missions and raising up new leaders, but that a desire to preserve institutional identity and enforce conformity has sometimes trumped these concerns.

“Denominations serve a purpose in building the kingdom,” he says. “But if they lose the dynamic life of their inception, they automatically default to some other reason for existence-usually self-preservation.”

While denominational leaders have often recognized this problem, Johnson notes that they have not always been quick to offer a solution. But as he looks at the landscape of the church, two factors bring him hope: a rebirth in a commitment to missions and church planting and the rise of a generation that values relationships over structure.

“Contrary to the perception that all they want to do is build their denomination, most leaders want to build the kingdom,” he explains. “As long as denominations will effectively communicate that they are releasing and empowering people to do this as well, they will grow.”


Matthew Green is the managing editor of Ministries Today and an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God.

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