The network is the result of several forces, and is manifested in several ways.
Theologically, congregations are interconnected because it is the same Spirit of Christ which gives life to each and every one of us. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.(Ephesians 4:4-5 Christ even prayed for our unity in John 17. Even without formal structures, there is a divine, mysterious connection between a church in Peoria, Illinois and one in Rostov, Russia. The networking of individual congregations is simply an extension of the common life—the koinonia—we experience on a local level.
Historically, congregations have been interconnected from the very beginning. The Jerusalem church felt some connection (even an obligation!) with the Antioch church.(Acts 11:22-24). Paul gave an accounting of his missionary work to the churches in Antioch and Jerusalem.(Acts 14:26-27; 15:4) Further, offerings were sent to other congregations.(2 Cor 16:16-21) Baptists express this historic interconnection in the “associational principle.”
Psychologically, humans experience a drive to connect with others. We are social beings by divine creation. It is no surprise that our longing for connectedness extends into our most significant institutions. We find strength, accountability, encouragement, hope, correction, assurance, and safety through our connections with other human beings. Paul speaks of “mutual encouragement” (sunparaklathenai) in his letter to the Romans.(Romans 1:11-12) Congregations experience all these same things through their connections with others.
Pragmatically, congregations have found networking necessary because some mission and ministry work is bigger than any one of us can achieve on our own. Besides, congregations need to be part of something bigger as a constant reminder that the Kingdom of God surpasses any single congregation. American Baptists trace their roots to the modern missionary movement, which discovered the genius of cooperative missions.
These four forces—theology, history, humanity, and pragmatism—are key forces behind congregational networking. But there is no single way that congregational networking is expressed.
The local “ministerium,” or ecumenical association, may be the most readily recognized by the person in the pew. Most communities have some sort of identifiable fellowship among churches. This may be no more than an occasional pastor’s breakfast, but might include a community food pantry, significant common worship services, pulpit exchanges, etc.
Joining together for shared ministry and mission projects is a time-honored practice. Thus, representatives from many Great Rivers Region churches have joined together, and gone to Costa Rica for special mission work for many years now. Likewise, the youth of Area I are joining in a mission trip to Oklahoma. You can see the same thing in Habitat projects, community vacation Bible schools, etc.
There is a range of networks, from those that are so subtle that they could justifiably be called “virtual” networks, to rigid, controlling denominations. Actually, the healthy congregation is linked to multiple levels at the same time.
By this time, some of you are protesting: “But denominations are dead!”
I know that is common wisdom. But I am also convinced it is wrong. Not only do the four forces behind networking remain alive and well, we have seen new denominations emerge that no one imagined 25 years ago.
However, I agree completely that American denominationalism is changing. Let me suggest at least three ways.
First, even the historic denominations are transforming into new creatures. The simple evidence of this is the radical restructuring that many denominations have undergone in the last 10 years. Less evident may be the reasons behind those organizational changes.
Second, I mentioned the emergence of new denominations, but I would extend that even further to include the emergence of networks with denominational trappings.
By “denominational trappings” I mean a network of publishing and resourcing, training conferences and schools (maybe even college and seminary), and possibly some kind of ministerial validation. There are church networks today that function like classical denominations, even if they refuse to wear the title.
Third, single-focus ministry/mission networks have become a force to be recognized. For example, Habitat for Humanity, Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade, etc., etc.
What is growing rapidly is the practice of multiple affiliations among churches. This is an unexpected “success” of the ecumenical movement. A single congregation may maintain an historic denominational affiliation (or two!), use literature from another source with its own creedal requirements, partner with a single-focus ministry, and send its own missionaries through a growing number of “independent” agencies. Denominations as the “company store,” providing all the services and resources of a church, are dead.
Those who think with the old denominational mindset may find this disturbing—even threatening. I believe it has the potential to energize churches.
Historic denominations will still have an essential function: they will help maintain the historic doctrinal traditions and roots of congregations. A healthy congregation knows who it is, where it came from, and what it is about. Habitat for Humanity will never serve that function.
The multiplication of pseudo-denominations and single-focus networks expands the possibility for ministry and mission far beyond the ability of any single denomination. ABC/USA and the Great Rivers Region cannot deliver all the opportunities and resources that a healthy congregation can find through multiple affiliations.
But…there is a danger. Just a few years ago, total giving to para-church organizations exceeded total giving to churches in America. Churches need to practice good stewardship in their networking. I suggest some key questions:
1. Will participation in this other network compromise or reduce your historic family relationship? Will it provide opportunities your “family” does not duplicate?
2. Is this other network consistent with your own theology and mission? Are you sure? Are they asking you to say and do things your home denomination would never do?
3. Is this other network accountable? Do they release full reports? Have they “signed-on” with some accountability group (like NAE)? If not, why not?
© American Baptist Churches
of the Great Rivers Region
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