Posted by: Brad Stanford | December 29, 2009

Panic Or Participate?

I just read some stats on a particular U.S. denomination that I was raised in. They’re very much in decline, and with good reason. Those within the denomination are, for the most part, discussing that there was an overall long-term “growth” rate, ignoring the actual data points that reveal a recent decline. Worse yet, even those who wish to change the denomination for good reasons are using the same persuasion techniques that brought decline in the first place: Fear. If we don’t create a return on investment, the Investor will be angry! Fear the result of letting this denomination die!

We might as well throw our kids in the fire to make sure we have a good harvest. It’s the same type of religion.

For years I was told that “fixing” and organization or system required patience from the inside of the organization or system. I whole-heartedly reject this version of reality, and replace it with truth: change always comes from the outside.

Immediately, someone yells, “But Christ IN you is the hope of glory!” To which I reply, “Christ came into me from outside of me.” Existing systems get changed because of people who were born and raised outside the system.

Apple Computer was not a business unit born out of IBM. IBM had no mechanism to see or create the current computing revolution. Two hippie-esque dudes worked on a machine in a garage. That’s who changed the world. IBM had to play catch-up, adjusting to external forces, even though they once, too, changed the world.

Then Apple nearly died because it became internally detached from the original vision. Steve Jobs had to return from outside of Apple to resurrect it. His life after starting the company helped him think differently upon his return. And now we have iMac, iPhone, iPod, and many other world-changing technologies, all seeming to start with “i”. There’s a sermon in there somewhere. There are all sorts of stories like this, where existing systems react to outside stimulus. And yet, these systems rarely create changes that others have to adapt to.

Denominations are the same way. The decline is a sign that the current system has played its part in history, and is ready to die, so that something more useful might take its place. But, for some reason, people are attached to their denominations as if God created them on the eighth day. A believer is my brother, yes. But everyone has a distraction that can draw their attention from the mission at hand. The enemy simply tries to get us to engage that distraction. Denominations work well to feed the basic human need for earning one’s goodness, maintaining the counterfeit attitude of “in order to”, rather than the godly attitude of “because of”. In other words, religious people take and hold; believers give and pay it forward.

All that is required to make Jesus’ followers ineffective is getting them off mission. In fact, some are so off, they would read that and say, “What mission?” Going into all the world and immersing people in water, Spirit, and community is all that we are charged to do. And yet, many want to argue over abortion, or state-licensed marriage, or even “just wars”. If you find a believer who is a one issue voter, you’ve found an off-mission believer. If you meet a believer who is all wrapped up in a current president’s performance, you’ve found a off-mission believer. A believer who is characterized more by their sports teams than their habit of giving is off mission.

King David’s greatest sin happened when he was off mission. being the war king, he should have been with his troops at war, but instead he decided to stay lazily behind, and check out the local womenfolk, namely one Bathsheba. Off mission!

Samson gets off mission trying to impress a girl, too, and has both his strength and eyeballs taken from him. Off mission! (He does get his groove back at the end, and I do mean “The End”.)

Paul in his zealousness for his religion, is completely blind to what God is actually doing on the earth through Jesus. To drive the point home, God blinds him for a few days. Welcome to being off mission.

The very nature of a denomination is off mission. It’s true that lines will naturally be drawn in the body of Christ, just like you know where your finger begins and where it ends. It is clear that there are multiple parts of your one body. But if they ever start arguing, you’ll end up in the hospital. When cancer decides that it is the only type of body part that is “right”, it kills the whole body, including itself. A denomination that thinks it completely understands the height, width, and depth of God is both delusional and cancerous.

Yes, there are churches with denominational names who are non-denominational. I happen to attend one right now, and have attended others in the past. It’s becoming easier to find churches like this as God awakens His bride to get her ready for The Day. So don’t go judging a book by its cover. What I mean is, when people notice their denomination dying, and they start to use fearful words to rally the troops to bring the numbers back up, they are entirely off mission.

The Kingdom is not about fear of the fate of a denomination, but the hopeful expectation of what God is doing, and following Him in that work, however and wherever He is doing it.

The denominations that are in decline are simply part of a natural cycle. Seeds must fall to the ground and die to yield a harvest. But instead of joining God in finishing one project and moving into the next, many are trying to continue working on a project that is now finished. Their foundation is on the project, and not on God.

We have a word for a substance on the inside of the cup that refuse to let go in the first wash cycle: residue. And its destiny is to be ruthlessly scrubbed away. It is happening. It will happen. And a believer who clings to anything but Jesus is like the leftovers of a beverage: once pleasing to the cup holder, but now in the way of the next thing that the cup holder is trying to do.

God is cleaning the inside, so that the outside, too, might be truly set apart. I expect there to be more of this panicky denominational chatter over the next five years. It is of no import. God is in the middle of something spectacular, and the framework with which he built it is not the focal point. Jesus is. Let us decide to die in advance, so that we can be poured out, rather than left behind as residue. There should be no fear for those who have served their purpose, or for those just finding it. In fact, you are free to change from one to the other.

Regardless, if you are in His presence, you will find that it is enough. It is there that questions get answered, fears get dismissed, and life is given. If you or your church want to be remembered for something, let it be for being always in the presence of God, free to be used by Him, whatever that might look like on any given day.

Perhaps that’s the only resolution a believer needs.


  1. Amen.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts! This is certainly important.

  3. The carnal man in me says: “What are you talking about? What’s a denomination?”

    The religious man in me says: “How dare you so easily dismiss my sacred traditions?”

    The spirit man in me says: “Way to focus on Jesus and the mission of taking Him to the world!”

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