Ecclesiastical Networkionalism

If you think about Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as the church equivalent of PanAm Airlines and Sears & Robuck, you may have a point. Denominations have been in decline numerically for some time just like the blue chip businesses of the 1950s. Some of that is a function of the mainline’s problem with message — are they a church, an NGO, or a wing of the Democratic Party? Some of it is a function of conservatives perhaps being too zealous about what makes their denomination distinct — the OPC is the denomination Jesus founded!! But much of it comes from not understanding the point of being connected to other congregations and using those ties to organize larger ministry endeavors (e.g., evangelism, missions, education, ecumenism). A pastor in a small town may find that the congregation in which he ministers is sufficient to carry out its work, and that denominational expectations and funding is a restriction.

At the same time, the work of independent congregations has to be difficult. Where do you find trained pastors if yours retires? What about pension funds for pastors? What about supporting foreign missionaries? If someone proposes a joint-worship service among local churches, how does an independent church decide whether to participate? Denominational committees help with a lot of the activity that goes beyond a congregation. In other words, a local congregation has trouble functioning as its own denomination. This is especially true when it comes to planting churches. From where do you acquire the funds to support a like-minded ministry until it is self-sustaining?

Networks appear to be the current remedy. These are the new sources of venture capital (apparently) for church start ups. It seems to be a case of financing the church the way entrepreneurs find patrons for businesses in Silicon Valley.

Apostles Church (three separate congregations) in New York City seems to be an example of the new world of ecclesiastical entrepreneurship. One of its pastors, John Starke, used to write for The Gospel Coalition, and since these churches are in New York City, Ground Zero of urban ministry for urban ministries, you might think Apostles might be a partner with both the Gospel Coalition and Redeemer City-to-City. As it turns out two of the three Apostles’ congregations do show up as partners. But not with Apostles Downtown. That raises a question of how much the three Apostles congregations are in full partnership with each other. But since they are urban and in NYC, it seems odd that Redeemer is not a partner.

Instead, the churches have ties to these networks:

Send North America: Our strategy is simple and straightforward. We believe that the Church is God’s plan—you are God’s plan—to reach North America and the nations with the hope of the gospel.

As a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board is here to help local churches send the hope of the gospel across North America in two primary ways: compassion ministry and church planting.

Hope For New York: Our vision is a New York City in which all people experience spiritual, social, and economic flourishing through the demonstration of Christ’s love.

Our mission is to mobilize volunteer and financial resources to support non-profit organizations serving the poor and marginalized in New York City.

Sojourn Network: …by offering the pastors in our network a strong vision of planting, growing, and multiplying healthy churches and by providing them with thorough leadership assessment, funding for new churches and staff, coaching, training, renewal, and resources, we can best steward their gifts for the benefit and renewal of their local congregations.

Since 2011, our aim at Sojourn Network has been to provide the care and support necessary for our pastors to lead their churches with strength and joy – and to finish ministry well.

Of course, other networks have been around for a while. Willow Creek is now long in the tooth and struggles, I imagine, after revelations about its founder, Bill Hybels and guru, Gilbert Bilzikian. Acts 29 is also about as old as Redeemer NYC and its founder, Mark Driscoll, has had Trumpian moments.

But if someone wanted to plant a church, the prospects never appear to have been better. Lots of energy, money, and people are starting churches and finding funding outside the denominations, whether small or large. But what gives these networks an identity? Can you substitute Sojourn for Methodist, Acts 29 for Episcopalian, Redeemer City-to-City for Presbyterian? As tired or as broad as the older denominational names have become, they have direct reference to a specific historical moment and a distinct set of ideas and practices. What is a network other than a mechanism for funding churches and consoling psychologically damaged church planters?

Tim Keller once said of churches that:

promote cooperation between individuals and the kind of associational life that is necessary for human happiness and social success. Without informal shared trust, things are more litigious and combative. Life is much better when neighbors pull for each other, help each other, collaborate together. But this kind of “social capital” is very difficult to generate through public policy. Governments cannot duplicate the effect of religion as a source of shared values.

Well, don’t denominations create associations where networks create websites and podcasts? So why start a network when you are in a denomination? And why start a church planting network when you are in a denomination that has an agency devoted to church planting — called, Home Missions?

Yuval Levin recently wrote about the decline in institutional life in the United States. Some of this owes to businesses or political parties or churches where executives or officers abuse power and betray trust. But Levin adds a wrinkle. It is those people who use institutions to advance their para-institutional endeavors:

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.

The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.

Or consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both. Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.

Artists and athletes often behave this way too, using reputations earned within institutional frameworks as platforms for building a profile outside them. When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg implored fellow players to remember “that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.” When vital institutions across American life fail to produce people who remember that, they become much harder to trust.

I cannot prove it but I have a pretty good sense that this is what is happening with networks in relation to denominations. We see pastors and denominational leaders working outside denominational structures in networks. They use their denominational standing to generate interest in an activity and alliance outside the denomination. This is not simply a function of the parachurch sort of replicating what the church does in forms of preaching- and teaching-like activities. This is supplying funding for congregational startups that could very well be part of a denomination’s church-planting effort.

Denominations are by no means above criticism. But how do you start a network even while you belong to a denomination? If the federal government had any regulatory power over religion, this would be high on the list of investigations.

17 thoughts on “Ecclesiastical Networkionalism

  1. From where do you acquire the funds to support a like-minded ministry until it is self-sustaining?

    Do what Paul did – get a job. Write the sermons on nights and weekends. Have a “lean” church organization where elders and deacons handle much of the day-to-day operation. Bootstrap. The laity are tapped-out for funds in many cases due to skyrocketing health insurance costs and the need to pay for Christian school. The BLS wage data for the bottom 3/5ths of wage earners – compared to rising housing and health care costs – is grim.

    Networks appear to be the current remedy. These are the new sources of venture capital (apparently) for church start ups. It seems to be a case of financing the church the way entrepreneurs find patrons for businesses in Silicon Valley.

    All of these things are a money furnace. Have you noticed how few startups ever become profitable (self-sustaining) these days? Tesla isn’t. Uber is wildly unprofitable. Netflix doesn’t turn a real profit when you factor in how much they borrow. Amazon finally became profitable after 20 years of putting all the mom-and-pop stores out-of-business and creating a logistic monopoly (progress?) The point is, the start-up model throws a lot of good money after bad. I wonder if this would apply to church startups.

    Anyways, great article Darryl. The green eye shade and a sharpened #2 pencil is a good look for you.

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  2. I increasingly believe that the crisis of our institutions is tied to the fact that the leaders of these institutions care more about the opinion of fellow elites than the needs of the people they are called to serve. CEOs care more about what other business leaders think than what their customers want. Clergy care more about other religious intellectuals than their congregants. Journalists care more about what public intellectuals and other journalists think than their readers. Academics care more about the opinion of their colleagues than their students. And so forth… Thus the institutions become a means to an end and predictably crumble. I wonder how much of this is driven by the elites representing such a narrow slice of our nation.

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  3. “…CEOs care more about what other business leaders think than what their customers want…”
    Based on my pied, dappled, and checkered career in corporate America of over 35 years plus what I’ve read about those CEO’s who have “fallen from favor” over the years, I’d say it’s more like “…CEO’s care more about meeting the terms of their contract than anything else, regardless of public opinion, what customers really want, or the legality of what it takes to fulfill the requirements…”

    Unfortunate as this might be, I wonder how similar some of those other categories are – academics more concerned about achieving tenure than the value of what they teach, journalists caring more about the ratings of their columns, programs, etc. than they do public opinion, and….clergy caring more about what are perceived as relevant social issues (in the eyes of the particular demographic to which they “think” they are speaking) than they do about preaching true law and gospel.

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  4. David Nicholas, (PCA) helped start the Acts 29 network with Mark Driscoll because the Presbyterian system was too cumbersome to plant churches at a more effective rate. Yes, there are legitimate criticisms of these networks, but just like the neo-evangelism in the 1940’s they are a result of Presbyterians gazing at their own navel.

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  5. So Presbyterian can make broad criticisms, but they are immune to receiving them? The point is that there are Presbyterian connections to the neo-evangelical movement as well as the present church planting movements. Conservative Presbyterians are keen to criticize evangelicals, but they not recognize their own part in bringing about the movements they criticize.

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  6. Sure we recognize the suckage — going back at least as far as Finney, erstwhile presbyterian. The complicity with evangelicalism came most from the mainline — remember, the PCUS was mainline. You won’t find the rest of the bodies that eventually populated NAPARC having much traffic with Wheaton, et al.

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  7. yes, and we know the OPC in Wheaton has had its own unique history. Or are you not aware of your own history? How do you guys act as if you are immune from problems that other churches have faced?

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  8. I am not a member of Bethel, but I am aware of its history, schisms, etc. I can’t speak for how the members of that congregation feel about themselves and others.

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  9. Where is it unlawful to start a network? One problem with denominations is they do often become an idol. Of course Networks can do this too.

    Groups, individuals or even organizations claiming to be a church who primarily uplift institutional identity and institutional fidelity as a chief value for all its members, instead of primarily uplifting Christ, are engaged in Defacto Churchianity more than they are Christianity. I’d like to see the scripture which justifies this institutional fidelity as a chief value? In that setting all manner of abuse and good old boy power trips will exist. People are sick of being told to just obey authority when the authorities are themselves off the reservation. The ethos of “its all about the church” smacks so much of Sacerdotalism to individual Protestants who know their Bible enough to realize…..wait a minute, this is supposed to be all about Christ.

    Like it or not (clearly NAPARC Institutionalist folks don’t) this is in large part why so many are and will continue to leave.

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  10. Better, get what Christ got done at the cross right and for whom. In other words, you got to define the all about Christ a lot more clearly to get to the really good news.

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  11. That is, good news to the elect whom God reveals a knowledge and understanding of the Gospel too. However, not so good news to the non-elect who never come to a knowledge and understanding of the Gospel. So, what is the Gospel is what the church should be focused on.

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  12. I agree with getting the gospel right, wouldn’t that be nice. Would it be that in NAPARC the 5 solas were actually a bigger deal. (It is interesting what is not included in the five solas, let alone what the scriptures actually DO NOT say regarding the Church which many a reformed confession implies they do via proof text references)

    For the most part this is not the case that the 5 solas are the bigger deal in NAPARC. Rather it is their precious doctrine of the institutional church, it’s offices and its community tribe which is in fact high and lifted up. Sadly the reality within NAPARC is that there exists an over realized ecclesiology (to high a view of the institutional church and its office holders) which causes a de facto sacerdotalism. Despite all of NAPARC leaders railing that the biggest problem in the world & church today is to low a view of the church, the reality is you can fall off of both sides of that horse. And they do fall off the other side with a de facto protestant sacerdotalism, with an over realized ecclesiology.

    I guess one does what one can, with what one has. Just saying it would be nice if NAPARC leaders (priestcraft) admitted this bias of where their bread is buttered and what they do in fact like over emphasize.

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