Denominations: Alive and Well





It's time we stopped believing the exaggerated predictions of the death of denominations.

What's a nice boy like you doing in a place like this?" You recognize it: words that play off the old saw screenwriters put on the lips of the guy leaning on a bar, leering at the woman serving drinks and then inquiring, "What's a nice girl like you ... "

But, I'm not a pretty waitress, we weren't in a bar, and the man who spoke these words wasn't leering. He was, however, expressing a clear-cut judgment though.

It was a friend who was dubious about anything "church"­so much of which he automatically would label "traditional." Now, he had heard I had been elected president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

"Tell me, Jack," he ventured. "How do you ... well ... do you feel comfortable ... I mean, about accepting this role?" His actual words didn't really make his point; it was his tone (not dubious, but bewildered), his eyes (not unkindly challenging, but suggesting mild cynicism) and it was also his manner.

It was clear that he didn't doubt me or my worth, but was was doubtful that whatever investment anybody might make could possibly be enough to recover the value of so archaic an ecclesiastical artifact as "a denomination."

Like the "what's a nice girl" cliché, there is another today, quoted with surprising ease and frequency, presuming its repetition verifies its accuracy. It is phrased different ways, but essentially announces the foregone conclusion that we have come to "the end of denominational Christianity" (or at least the end of any possible vitality in any of them).

That presumption reminds me of Mark Twain's remark. When, after falling ill overseas, he read reports in some American newspapers announcing, "Mark Twain Dies in England."

Twain immediately sent a telegram to his publisher with the now famous line, "Please advise the press that announcements concerning my death are greatly exaggerated."

Without seeming to defend the office I believe I have been given by God and which has been confirmed by man, please accept my invitation to think with me concerning this topic.

First, let me assert that, to my view, the oft-indulged presumption that denominations are dead, dying or passé is essentially the product of incorrect "denominating." The word itself essentially means (a) "to give a name to, or designate," and is also used (b) "to express monetary terms"--dollars, lira, yen, marks, rubles, and so on.

Virtually every church denomination was born and named as the result of something you and I would call a prophetic word from the Lord. For instance, Presbyterians sought local and area church leadership by elders (presbuteros [Greek]) rather than a distant pope or cardinal. Methodists focused the disciplining methods of full-hearted, committed disciples rather than the sloth of nominal Christianity.

Even where the names of individuals were involved (e.g., Lutherans, Campbellites), the primary value at stake wasn't the leader's name, but the message he characterized--always one of revival, or fresh mission in the life of the Spirit.

The denominated value wasn't in a tradition but in passion. The purpose wasn't to establish an institution but to experience a fresh incarnation of Jesus' ministry among and through His people. Wherever the passion continues, the denominated group can't be dead.

Of course, at the same time, there are instances in which values and passion have become forgotten and died as one generation has followed another. And when that happens, denominations do die, even though they still seem to exist, lending credence to the old saw that generalizes about all denominations.

But the facts are, that not only are there many very vital denominations today, but also the dead in any group (denominational or otherwise) are more likely to be only among portions of that tradition than descriptive of the entire group. In fact, I don't believe I've ever known of any denomination that didn't have a residue of health among a remnant--a fact that argues against the judgmental, small-souled attitude that jibes any and all denominations.

My own commitment to the Foursquare Church has never obstructed my freedom to either (a) relate to and interrelate with any part of the whole body of Christ, or (b) pursue my sense of prophetic mission and vision in answering Christ's call on my life. One reason, doubtless, is that those are both primary values written into the core of my particular denomination.

However, quite beside my experience, I have friends in Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Reformed, Baptist, Congregational and other denominations who are as vitally alive in, committed to and functional in Spirit-filled life, ministry and revival blessing as anyone--yet who still observe their traditions (infusing them with the revival power in which their respective tradition was born)!

In short, we live in a constancy that is, for us, not a bondage to history, but is a commitment to an expectancy--a living hope! That hope that God honors hungry hearts with His fullness and worshiping congregations with the revelation of Himself.

For these, the denominated name isn't a restriction, but it points to a quest for God that brings release and invokes the working of God's Spirit in power. For example, Foursquare reflects a four-fold message of Jesus Christ: Savior, Healer, Baptizer and Coming King--squarely based on God's Word. I've had no problem keeping passionate about that--that is, about Jesus!

In noting as much, let me warn any who might need the caution: Don't be duped by the idea that because something is denominational it will automatically be spiritually vacuous. Not only is that dishonest, it also tilts toward the side of the critic's inevitable slide to pride that will surely become deceiving at best and destructive at worst.

I recall knowing a leader who left the denomination of his youth, but within a few years had framed a fellowship of churches under his own leadership. To this day he would deny that he has formed a denomination, and he would shudder if you called it an apostolic network.

However, as time has passed, the structures he criticized have been substituted for by strictures within his own group--lines of control that are every bit as limiting as those things he supposed he had transcended when leaving a denomination.

The point: Better simply to announce what God has called you to be, and not to denounce what you aren't or what you may think is less valid than you see your group being. You may become a mirror of what you criticize. There is nothing unworthy about the independent or autonomous church. But an independent spirit will inevitably manifest, and multiply rebellion and separatism.

We need to foster the value of one another in the church, wherever we come from or whatever we're named. In my weeklong sessions at the School of Pastoral Nurture (www.jackhayford .com), I seek to mentor pastors toward a spiritually-passionate, compellingly gracious and biblical hunger for Holy Spirit power that urges: Bloom where you're planted, and keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

I have been encouraged to watch the framing of new fellowships of churches--indeed, new denominations--within the few years of my own leadership: Calvary Chapel, The Vineyard, the Family of Faith and Praise Chapel, to name only a few. And each has a vibrancy and passion unique to its founder or founders.

Furthermore, I honor those networks framed around true, biblically characterized apostles--men who serve with an authority born of humility, not contrived by power-brokering. I distinguish these from any network, however framed or named, that serves more to elevate the leader than serve those he leads, or escalates control rather than generating release.

My point though is to note that these, too, are all denominations. Their newness in being formed, and irrespective of the structures by which they are framed, neither can nor do alter the fact: They have a name and a value--they are denominational, like it or not.

Where am I going with all this? I'm simply going where I've been for the last 48 years: I'm moving forward, committed to Christ and His church--the whole Bride, notwithstanding her warts­any of her yet-unremoved spots or wrinkles yet to be ironed out (see Eph. 5:27).

And within my denomination, in my role as president, I've simply received a call to serve as one assigned by the hand of Jesus and confirmed by the hands of a multitude of brethren. Frankly, of great excitement to me is the fact that a significant re-structuring of the Foursquare Church took place just prior to my placement in office--one that releases the dynamism of a more apostolic order of release and growth.

Further, I've always liked the fact that Jesus placed me in a fellowship that has always honored the whole family of God--Christ's church and always lived in the value emblazoned in the cornerstone of our founding church--Angelus Temple: "Dedicated to Interdenominational and Worldwide Evangelism."

So, my friend, who seemed to suspect that I had been sucked by ecclesiastical politics into the vacuum of some inert structure devoid of spiritual promise or hope is bound to be disappointed.

Not only that I'm still going to be alive, joyous and vital in Jesus, but so also will be a long list of friends who know who they are, and where (denominationally) they've been called to be. The list includes names from Robert Schuller to Bill Hybels, from Paul Walker to Tommy Barnett, from John Maxwell to Rick Warren--and the list goes on.

As you know, not one of them are trapped by sectarianism, but neither are their kind threatened by or assailants of denominations--or of those who aren't in one.

May their "denomination"­that is, those values­always increase!


Jack W. Hayford, Litt.D., is the founding pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California, chancellor of The King's College and Seminary and president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

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