If you read any kind of modern church planting or church growth book, you will tend to come across many people who speak up the virtues of independent churches and who have little time for denominations. As we are told, denominations might have had some value in past times, but now we need the flexibility and creativity that comes with independent churches.
And we are also seeing more independent churches planted in Perth and beyond. Yes, perhaps they have some kind of formal link with some wider body, but most of these works are completely run independently of one another. There are some good reasons for this of course. Perhaps the denomination the church planter is from no longer holds to Biblical truth and will not plant churches or do evangelism; perhaps they will actively oppose works who focus on these things. I have been part of an independent church plant that had good reasons for being set up that way, so I have some sympathy for this.
Why can denominations be unhelpful? Let’s make a brief list:
- They can be controlled by those who do not believe the Bible or the historical gospel of Jesus, thus making works which hold to these things impossible;
- They can be theologically sound but in practice restrict ministry. Perhaps they have too much administrative burden on their pastors and churches, or too high a financial burden, or simply make things like church planting too difficult;
- They can signal to the world that the church is divided if they are used essentially to say ‘we are better than the rest’ and denominational boundaries mean you cannot work with others outside them.
Does this seem like an imposing list? It is. I know of denominations in Perth that have each of these issues, and any denomination struggles with one or more from time to time. But despite this, I am a strong believer that denominations can be a really helpful thing for ministry even in the 21st century. Let me give a few examples why:
- Good denominations give church members some assurance that the different churches in their association teach the same things. Whichever church in the denomination you go to, although they will be different in many ways, they things they teach and stand for will be the same.
- Good denominations are flexible enough to encourage a range of different ministries, not just historic traditional ones. There will always be a need for traditional churches. But realistically in Perth not everyone will be reached with churches. We need university workers, prison workers, Aboriginal missionaries and many more for the sake of the gospel. Rules need to be flexible enough to allow some creativity.
- Good denominations are confessional, being very up-front with what they believe and which strand of historic Christian belief they stand in. When I see a local church that is independent with a general name like ‘Grace Church’ or ‘Christian Church’ I don’t know what they stand for – they could be very traditional or Pentecostal or a cult!
- Good denominations benefit from an economy of scale, working together in a way that enables them to do things they could not do alone. 10 churches planting a new church can supply money and people more easily than just planting with one church, for example.
- Good denominations have real brotherly and sisterly connections between churches and leaders. Ministry is hard work, and it is a wonderful encouragement to have brothers and sisters who stand for the same things and care for one another.
In the name of full disclosure, for those of you who do not know, I am a member of the Westminster Presbyterian Church. We are Presbyterian by conviction and hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith as our confessional statement. Each individual church controls its own ministries and real estate, yet we are jointly responsible for training vocational ministers and planting churches among other things. Are we perfect? By no means! We have at times been too administrative, too loose with accountability, too trusting, and too slow to act. But do these failings mean it is all bad? By no means.
Being united in a denomination, to me, makes a lot of sense and is a great encouragement. May God bless all those who work hard in His kingdom, both independently and in denominations, to His glory.