imagesOver the past couple of months I have spent several days with denominational leaders from various tribes. Each of the groups have been discussing the “whys” and the “hows” of bringing about change in their existing systems. Some leaders come to the conversation through the realization that what has “worked” in the past is no longer effective (what I call a “crisis of influence”), while others enter the discussion because they have a strong sense that something isn’t quite right about how they think and operate as a mission organization (what I call a “crisis of mission”).  

There are two thoughts that I often share with churches that I think are just as applicable for denominational organizations. First, (as Alan Hirsch is well known for saying to the existing church), “we are perfectly designed to achieve what we are currently achieving.” We need to ask, are we really satisfied with what we are currently achieving? If not, then we need to ask a follow-up question; what is the “design” issue that needs to be addressed? 

The second idea is to realize that our missiology should determine our ecclesiology; or in the case of denominations, mission should determine polity, or function — not the other way around.

Here is one author sharing his perspective on the relationship between mission and denominational life, and how it must change. These are pretty strong words, but I think it is hard to argue otherwise:

The problem with denominations is that they want to shape the mission around their polity, rather than shape the polity around the mission. The latter view is the spirit of all the founding fathers and mothers of every denomination, while the former is the sorry state of every denomination today. The lack of mission urgency in North America means that denominational leaders think they still have time to develop modest, incremental strategic plans to tinker with polity, and time afterwards to then go about mission. The truth is just the opposite.


Our current polity systems usually enfranchise those people who are the least able to lead while tying the hands of the most creative and able leaders. This statement assumes that the most able leaders are still around after any brief exposure to how religious bodies function. Our polities allow the managers, administrators, and politicians who understand complex bureaucratic systems to become the leaders in congregational, judicatory, and denominational life. In the meantime these systems weed out those with entrepreneurial and leadership skills. These people for the most part leave and create their own ministries or shadow organizations that go around the bureaucracies created by our polities. ~ Paul Borden

In most cases, it is hard to argue that there is far more time and effort spent on keeping the institution going than on focusing resources on the local congregation as the major unit of mission. Deep, paradigmatic change is needed if there is to be hope, and such change must be systemic not incremental.