This article is co-written by Christopher Backert and Michael Beck.

In a few years, when we look back on the last three decades, one of the most significant forces shaping church life in North America will be the impact of denominational division. By the end of 2023, almost every historic stream of the Protestant Church in the US will have been divided in some measure since the 1990s. Baptists, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists will all have walked down the road of departures and division. 

My (Chris Backert) doctoral dissertation was on the future of denominations in North America. The division that has troubled these historic families of churches will eventually make its way to some of the more “American-Born” denominational families, even if the impact is more negligible. There are already rumblings of division within the Vineyard and possibly the Evangelical Covenant Church. 

As challenging as walking through these divisions are, they are also an incredible opportunity to “reset” church priorities at the local, regional, national, and possibly even global level. Most notably, they allow us to examine whether or not we are focused enough on the most basic task that Jesus gave us: the Great Commission. In fact, the Great Commission is, in large measure, is why denominational families came together in the first place.

We train, support and connect leaders and organizations living out the Great Commission by forming new faith communities for people the church is not reaching. It is important to recognize the difficulty denominational divisions can have on churches, pioneering leaders, and even the larger community. More importantly, it is helpful to remember that God wants to meet us in our pain and has the power to redeem our divisions.

Division is No Surprise

It’s not surprising that the forces of division are impacting various church families. While it might seem like another example of political divisiveness in the U.S., denominational divisions have their unique causes. Most people forget that the first major denominational division of the modern era was several decades ago among the Southern Baptist Convention, where a group of more conservative leaders wrested control from what was, at the time, a less conservative group of leaders. On a high level, denominational division of the sort we have been experiencing the last few decades results from two primary factors. 

First, most denominational families were birthed among Christendom realities and Christendom forces. These organizations began as an expression of church in a world where congregations were central to society, many people had some knowledge of the Bible, and church participation was seen as advantageous to community life. But denominational groups have to wrestle with the implications of late modernity and post-modernity, often forcing Christians to respond to issues far removed from what brought the denomination into existence. Differing responses have led to divisions within these organizations, disaffiliation, or even the birth of new networks more rooted in today’s culture.

Second, when change occurs, there can be a disconnect between the positions held by a denominational organization and individual believers in a local church. Most Christians who are part of a denominational family receive their Christian identity from their denomination and its beliefs and practices. Local congregations are their relationship and community, but their “way of being Christian” is shaped by their individual denominational context. 

When denominations change (or don’t change) their theological, social, or ecclesial positions, then pastors and even some rank-and-file members, feel displaced within their own spiritual family. Eventually, the reality of giving their limited time, treasure, and talents to something dislocated from their Christian identity becomes too much to bear. Christians with a lifelong allegiance to a denomination or tradition are drawn to the many alternatives that seem more congruent with who they are.

Are We Really Better Together?

Almost every denominational leader or official we have ever met, consulted, or interviewed tends to fight against these seemingly inevitable forces at work, typically under the call that the existing denominational families are “better together.” 

Truthfully, they would be better if they were together. Yet, the lack of togetherness is plain for all to see. Mostly, our experience of what denominational leaders mean is that they are “bigger” together. 

In other words, the assumption is that larger quantities of resources (finance, people, etc.) are quite simply “better.” However, the trends, at least in our current context, demonstrate the opposite. In both the US and UK, it is the smaller, more theologically aligned denominations that have more demonstrable fruit (at least in terms of statistical vitality). Any sports coach would tell you that it would be hard to lead a team where half the people have a different playing style, that does not integrate, with the other half. 

Why not embrace a smaller size and scope?  Certainly this might mean some changes within our denominational families, but those changes could be for the better at this moment.  Instead of dozens of full-time staff, that might be exchanged for part-time pastoral leaders that are also serving a local church.  Or, it may mean sharing your retirement fund management with another denominational family.  Or, it could mean setting aside large launch church planting that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for more lay-led pioneers that are starting fresh expressions of church.  

In our experience this simple change of mindset is not only the first step toward healing from the pain of denominational division, but of redeeming the division itself. Most likely, if you don’t embrace this simple turning from “bigger” identity, you never actually move on to develop a new one – instead, the division stays with you and your living faith experience long beyond the days it occurred. On the other hand, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance in developing a new identity can bring a family of churches a sense of shared mission that truly is “better together.”

Losing Your Spiritual Family

One other fascinating reality in denominational division is the fact that the vast majority of people, no matter what side of the division they are on, feel as if their “spiritual home” has left them. This is perhaps one of the most important recognitions in moving forward from any kind of church split. 

Over the last twenty years we’ve had hundreds of conversations with those who felt ousted or dislocated as the Southern Baptists Convention moved from conservative to more conservative. These range from pastors who jumped ship to the United Church of Christ or the American Baptist Churches USA because they wanted to affirm women as Senior Pastors, church members who voted against their congregations leaving the SBC to help found the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, or the leaders of regional bodies of the SBC that altered their practical ecclesiology to distance, but maintain, somewhat of their connection to the SBC. 

In all these cases, whether they experienced this in relation to the national bodies’ move to being more conservative, or to their local churches decision to leave because they were not in step with the national body, they felt like they lost their spiritual home. For most of those leaders and churches, even years later, they have never been able to fully shake the grounding of their spiritual story somehow in the split. Our experience in talking to leaders in the more current denominational splits of the last decade or so is largely the same – people left, right, and center, no matter if they stay or have left – all feel the loss of their once cherished spiritual family and identity.

What to Do When You’ve Lost Your Home

The Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians that we can bear fruit out of pain. He tells us that when someone else is hurting, our role is to take the comfort we were provided in our pain, and turn and take our experience of loss and recovery and help someone else. So, what might we do in losing our spiritual home, whether it’s our local congregation, or denominational family?  

The most typical response if you have left your church or your church has left you, is to simply create a new church that looks relatively like the church you have known. 

However, instead of thinking about just creating a new spiritual home for ourselves, why not also go and create a new spiritual home for others?

One reason we have always advocated for both traditional church planting and the starting of new Christian communities is the simple fact that almost every church that was ever meaningful or redemptive for any person, was at one time, a new church start. In our time of loss, we can move from something negative and redirect our energy to something positive.

These new endeavors do more than redirect our emotions in a positive direction.  Starting new Christian communities in the wake of loss, reorients our focus back to what should be at the core of our Christian identity, beyond our identification with an organization or tradition, to our initial motivation, the Great Commission. Indeed, one of the reasons that most denominational families end up at a place of division is because years earlier they lost a practical focus on the clear instructions that Jesus gave, after the Father raised his body from the dead, and before his Ascension. 

The late Dallas Willard, longtime professor of Philosophy at University of Southern California, would regularly point to the existence of a department of discipleship in either a denominational office or local church staff as an indication of how we have lost our way. Can you imagine Jesus saying to the disciples in his final earthly instructions, “there are many important things to do in church life, create some disciples alongside the other important things.” 

One of the best ways to make new disciples and mature existing disciples is to start a new Christian community that has the goal of reaching people with the gospel that have not been reached by the church before. The process entails helping someone learn to listen to Holy Spirit’s calling, to love and serve a specific group of people, live in community with them and learn how to disciple others within this new community. While the purpose may be to disciple new people, it will undoubtedly draw this apostolic leader into a deeper discipleship themselves. We refer to these new communities as “fresh expressions of church.”

Compassion as a Way Forward

For over a decade of providing training and inspiration, as part of the Fresh Expressions movement, we have started hundreds of Vision Days across the US and Canada with a communal reflection on Matthew 9:36:

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Our motivation to start new churches and fresh expressions, after an appropriate time of healing from loss in the wake of division, should come from compassion. Our compassion includes those from whom we have departed, but more so for those outside the church that we now have an opportunity to reconsider how we engage. The Greek word for compassion, splanchnizomai: means to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence, to be moved with compassion. The bowels were thought to be the seat of love and mercy. Jesus has a gut-wrenching love that inspires him to act. Again and again throughout the New Testament, Jesus is moved with compassion, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, touch the untouchable, and welcome excluded outcasts into the social system.

The compassion of Jesus finds ultimate expression in his suffering and death on the cross. Jesus is the embodiment of the compassion of God. Meaning, the clearest expression of the quality of God’s being is expressed through immersion in human vulnerability, suffering, and even death.

God’s nature is “kenotic,” the self-emptying, other-oriented, and sacrificial love fully displayed in the crucifixion. Pathos denotes suffering, but includes thinking, feeling, behavior, and grounds it in compassionate being with.

In other words, if Missio Dei (the missionary nature of God and therefore the church) describes what God does, the Passio Dei (the passion of God) describes how God goes about it. We get to participate in the mission of God, but we must do so in the way of Jesus.

Mission has at times become disconnected from the compassion of Christ. In the turmoil of schism, how do we sustain a heart of compassion?

Compassion-centered Expressions

The Latin root for the word compassion is pati, which means to suffer, and the prefix com– means with. Compassion, originating from compati, literally means “to suffer with.” Compassion researchers today emphasize that compassion has distinct dimensions: attending to another’s suffering, sensemaking in relation to the suffering, feeling empathic concern, and actions aimed at easing the suffering.

Fresh Expressions are a compassionate way of being church. Because they begin with a posture of compassion, going to people, learning and addressing their needs, and forming Christian communities that are native to their world. This missional posture is driven by and modeled after Jesus’ passion.

In my (Michael) doctoral research, I examined contextual intelligence, which involves both diagnosis “reading the signs” and implementation “knowing what to do” (1 Chr 12:32). I suggested that the “mind of Christ” (Philippians 2) provides a framework for this kind of incarnational mission. Contextual Intelligence is a journey that starts with self-emptying, being vulnerable, and immersing ourselves fully in a context, where we can “mind the gaps’ of the fragmentation in our communities. There the compassion of Christ can be embodied through us in new and creative ways. It’s a posture of vulnerability and withness that flows from the loving heart of God. Its origin is the compassion of God.

The church as the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27) in the world is an ongoing expression of Christ’s own compassion. An active, practical, healing compassion should emanate endlessly from the church.

For Christians, compassion is not mere emotionality, but rather a new mode of being, empowered by the Spirit. Its embodiment requires a new and different understanding of what it means to be the Church  that counteracts the dominant social stratification. Compassion-centered expressions of church will be welcoming of others,  regardless of their age, status, race, or gender.

Healing Denominational Division

So then, how might we apply this to all of those being left “spiritually homeless,” by the continued splintering of denominations?

More than above all else, on any side of a schism, it should lead us to a recognition that both sides (or however many sides there are) of the division are suffering. The appropriate response for either group to either group is compassion. 

We need to have compassion for one another, remembering that their experience is my experience, their pain is my pain, and often it is for the exact same reasons, though our destination may be different. Stemming from that recognition, we can begin to extend our compassion beyond our spiritual loss and reorient it outward to others who also have no spiritual home and in this fresh expressions of church can be a healing solution.

Consider a group of United Methodists whose congregation held a vote and decided to disaffiliate and become a part of the new Global Methodist denomination. They wanted their congregation to remain UMC, and now feel like they have lost their church. Yet, they were continuing to meet in one of the members’ homes, using an online expression, Living Room Church, as a resource to continue to gather and worship.

Consider a group of Global Methodists whose congregation did not have the majority vote to depart from the denomination. There is no GMC congregation in the area, so they decide to gather together and meet as a new expression of this emerging denomination. Over time, as they grow, perhaps they will buy property and build a facility. Perhaps they will remain a nimble house church, connected to the GMC network. 

In either case, there will be a strong impulse to recreate the forms of church they are accustomed to, oriented around the needs and patterns of existing Christians. Yet, there is an opportunity in this very moment, to take the loss of our spiritual homes and create a new spiritual home for people that are lacking it. Instead of pouring our energy into only recreating a version of church that we know, we could also endeavor to pour our energy into creating a new kind of church for those unlikely to ever attend.

An Adaptive Church

Hans Küng, in his book Christianity: Essence, History and Future argues convincingly that throughout various epochs of history, the structure of the church has mirrored the culture. Christianity is always shaped by its interaction with emerging concrete contextual factors from each period of history. Every age has its own version of the faith, and that version is shaped by the context that cradles its life. At work are particular political, social, and economic forces from without, and particular influential figures and theologies from within.

Perhaps the error of “bigger together” masquerading as “better together,” fails to take into account the shifting societal structures of the 21st century? Technology enabled human beings to simultaneously both universalize and particularize social, political, and economic systems. Decades earlier, pioneering sociologists referred to the emerging social structure as the Network Society—a global societal construct enabled by microelectronics-based information and communications technologies. A society that resembled in form and function the network connecting computers and digital devices across flows of multimodal communication in physical and digital localities called nodes.

Denominations in North America are structured primarily after the twentieth-century corporation. A hierarchical structure becoming largely irrelevant amid the emergent realities of a network society. Smaller, more theologically aligned denominations, might be more effective amid these shifts.

The conditions that caused the Christendom, largely attractional, corporate iteration of the church to thrive in North America have changed. This is not a technical problem with a technical solution; this is an adaptive challenge. The social ecosystem itself has changed.

We believe the  future of the church is multi-expression, multi-place, multi-cultural, multi-modal, and with multi-vocational-ministers. Networks are effective in a network society, because they are based in the realities of how humans think and organize. Furthermore, a network church is more reflective of the early church.

We now have an opportunity to pivot into a contextual and distributed mode. In this emerging reality, “church” is not a building, but a network of smaller mostly lay-led communities, spread out in first, second, third, and digital places across regions.

Local churches are now becoming the seminary, tasked with educating and equipping a force of bi and co-vocational lay ministers. This moves us beyond a “priesthood” into an “apostlehood of all believers,” equipping every believer to be sent in mission.

Scripture gives us universal principles that will be relevant in every time: a church centered and distributed, crossing boundaries, contextually intelligent theology, missionally oriented structures, a reclaiming of the fivefold ministry of Jesus (Ephesians 4:11) and the priesthood of all believers.

These compassion-centered expressions of church are a way of “giving birth to raise the dead.” Embracing the gift of desperation, helps us reconceive church planting and even what it means for the church to be revitalized.

Redeeming denominational division may never come through significantly divided parties coming to an agreement. However, it might come through a willingness to go into the ground and die, so that a new kingdom harvest might arise (Jn 12:24). When we feel as if we’ve lost our spiritual home, the most compassionate possibility might be to start a new one for the sake of others.

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