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Why do Christian Denominations Have Such Difficulty Sharing a Common Story?

Denominations were created to celebrate common perspectives and practices of certain groups of churches.  But today, when you look at the stats on denominational growth, the future doesn’t look too promising.  With few or no exceptions, independent churches are leading the growth curve, and many major denominations are struggling just to keep their finger in the dike.

I wonder if part of the challenge is their difficulty telling their story about why they exist at all.  In the business world, the reason McDonald’s is so powerful is they render a common user experience, regardless of the city you’re in. The minute you walk in the door, you recognize the store, the menu, the look and feel of the advertising, and perhaps most of all, the values and mission of the company. That is brand recognition.

But most denominations aren’t the same way. Walk into a Baptist, Methodist, or other church in Atlanta, then visit one in St. Louis, and there is little that makes one feel they are similar at all.  One of the big things denominations should think more about is having a national expression, so that people moving from one part of the country to another experience a common look and feel in the presence, advertising, and the kinds of things common to their churches.

It doesn’t mean you have to over-control your local churches or that they all have to match.  It’s just about sharing a common story.  It’s really about celebrating unity.

Can you imagine the cultural impact if thousands of local denominational churches had a unified voice, and a unified message, so the local paper on Saturday ran a common thematic ad for “Come to the Easter service,” no matter what state you were in? So that people instantly recognized the shared unity?  I think that it would immediately multiply the impact and the recognition of  denominations nationwide.

What do you think?  Do you believe major denominations could get beyond autonomy enough to make a national impact?

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  1. Probably not.  You mention McDonalds, and it is conversely true as well that the reason they can render a common user experience is because they are so powerful.  There is some local autonomy for the stores, but they all have to have pretty much the same menu, buy the same raw products, dress in the same uniforms, and rigorously follow a prescribed manual of procedures.  They are franchisees who agree to a rather lengthy set of terms and conditions in return for the value offered by McDonalds corporate.

    In the churches, most power is at the local level and not with the denomination.  And I think many churches don’t see the value offered by “corporate”, or see the value as pretty limited.  In fact, many see their identification with a denomination as confining and in some cases negative branding. That’s why there are a number of large and growing independent churches who, having a denominational affiliation, don’t publicize it and in fact make it difficult to discover.  The local church sees the value of the connection as minimal in part because the denominational brand may have suffered from leadership who failed to keep the “brand” relevant. 

    Until denominations can re-invent themselves and provide an identity that is more desirable to the local church than autonomy, their drift toward irrelevance will likely continue.

    1. Chris – I tend to agree that “autonomy” is a big part of this.  A local church doesn’t want headquarters looking over their shoulder.  But on the other hand, joining together nationally could make a powerful impact…

      1. That’s where “associations”, such as the Willow Creek Association, could be effective. You get the benefit of banding together with other churches for common goals, but without the loss of autonomy.

        1. Jonathan, I agree that associations like Willow Creek, the Association of Related Churches, and others have a number of positive benefits for local churches.  But I still am doubtful that the members of those associations are interested in a national message.  I think their reasons for joining an association are other.

      2. Phil – How do you sell that idea to the local churches? I don’t think they believe such a national identity would be that helpful to them.  They would have to give up some element of autonomy, branding, messaging, etc.  The McDonalds franchisee understands the value of the brand and the global promotion of that brand.  What is the value of associating with the XYZ denominational brand when, as you mention, many of the fastest growing churches are either not affiliated with a denomination or cloak it if they are?

        As a local church, why would I ignore the message the marketplace seems to be clearly shouting? While joining together COULD have a big impact, being autonomous already IS having a big impact.

  2. The McDonald’s product is food. It is easy to apply consistency here. The church’s product is relationships. How do you bring consistency to that?
    Secondly, a uniform message gets in the way of branding. Each church has it’s own “personality” that definitely sets it apart from other churches, for better or for worse.
    On the other hand, I think the LDS church has been quite successful in presenting a unifying message, but their local congregations are not autonomous and a lot of control is exerted by Salt Lake City.
    We also see success where a multi-site church can have a very consistent look, feel, and message at every campus. But these remote site are not anonmymouse.
    Rather than seeking a common message, maybe the answer lies in seeking a common cause? Churches can band together for periods of time for a common cause. Maybe we can adopt a city, a community, or even a group of people.

    1. The common cause would work for me Jim.  I also think you’re right about the Mormon Church – they get it when it comes to being intentional about sharing their story with a national audience.  As a result, I think they’re really changed perceptions out there about who they are and what they believe.

  3. In the last year since moving to New Hampshire, I have had the painful experience of visiting 17 churches before settling on a home church.

    Phil, what you are suggesting is impossible because while you can make all burgers equal at all McDonalds, you can make all things equal, decorate the place the same, etc.

    But a church’s experience for the end user starts with the person in the pulpit.  And each of these guys have different personalities, core messages, maturity and frankly talent.  Same with the music, I have been in churches the music was so terrible, I walked out.  I have also been in churches that the worship was so amazing I didn’t want it to end.  Churches don’t have equal anointing or talent.

    And finally the people make a difference.  They don’t at McDonald’s.  I don’t expect to have any conversation with anyone I didn’t bring.  But at churches I have attended, some I have walked in, sat down and walked out with anyone speaking to me.  I have been at others where people were so friendly and welcoming, I felt right at home.

    Those three human elements are church.  Don’t think you’ll find any special sauce to make that change.

  4. “What do you think?  Do you believe major denominations could get beyond autonomy enough to make a national impact?”
    I don’t think so, I think the clear trend continues to be in the opposite direction.  The denominational churches that are actually growing tend to be doing their own thing relative to the denominational churches that continue fading away.  then there is the fact that the denominational polities themselves tend, in my experience, have a strong tendency to devolve into little more than political echo chambers for either left or right wing agendas.  in my opinion, the individual congregation is far better suited to confront this corrosive force. 

  5. I don’t think so because most traditional, denominations are too concerned about just that. They want to hold on to the traditions and the denominational distinctives. Granted, there are wonderful stories to hear and lessons to be learned from all of our denominations. However, there is a true crisis in that mainline churches are losing their effectiveness. I’ve been preaching this in my SBC church for more than a year now. Most of our mainline churches are dying slow and painful deaths because we are not keeiping pace with an ever changing world. The Gospel will always have the power to change lives. However, we must get more creative with are packaging and marketing strategies. I know the whole idea of “marketing” draws some criticism in certain circles. Let’s face it, we have some stiff competition. It’s high time we make our voices heard in the marketplace.

  6. We should look into the Scriptures and try to return to what Jesus
    taught about the church and the history of the early church as recorded
    there. In 1 Corinthians 9:17-23, Paul talks about being all things to
    all people, all the while, never forsaking the law of Christ, “that by
    all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel,
    that I may share with them in its blessings.” What does that mean for

    Jim had a very good point. This is an organic thing. There cannot be a cookie-cutter approach.

    We should never name ourselves. As soon as we do that, a division is
    immediately created. Sure it’s a quick way to communicate what you
    believe, but that convenience should not come above our unity. And,
    regarding unity, I think we need more humility. Holding on to a doctrine
    so tightly that it pushes away your brothers and sisters is something
    that should cause mourning within us. There are certain things we all
    must agree on and there must be discipline for those that do not follow
    Christ. There are those that will cause division. There are false
    teachers. There is bad leaven. And, we must protect each other from
    these things so that we can stay spiritually healthy. And, we must
    remember that our true enemies are not worldly, but spiritual.

    We need to acknowledge that God saves in whatever way He pleases. The
    presence of a church-building with programs and structure is never
    necessary. I think we need to focus on what each of us is being called
    to do individually and not focus on the culture’s reaction to our
    disunity. Certainly it is a problem because we have been called to be of
    one mind. But, I feel like our motivating factor to be unified is the
    culture’s response to it and not God’s. We need leadership and
    authority. We need the mature to pour into and correct the immature. We
    are a family, not a corporation. Families are messy and cannot be
    approached purely with logic. We grow, we clash, we forgive, we love
    well. If we aren’t doing that through our individual and corporate
    submission to Christ, we aren’t doing anything.

  7. No 2 McDonalds are alike. There are some I wouldn’t step foot in and some that are sweeter the my own house. I think you can apply that to the church. But despite the huge differences there is alway major thing in common. Jesus. Now the reason for separation is people have decided themselves, “oh that denomination speaks in tongues.” or “that denomination doesn’t clap their hands.” Rather then just excepting they they are bringing people to Christ and that’s what truly matters.

    As for unity, we really need to see more kingdom minded leaders. I think we are, and in the future I hope we see more events that are multi denominational. This subject could be the most powerful thing the church deals with. With all the things in this world pulling people away from Christ the church shouldn’t be one of them.

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