One of biggest challenges that seminarians face is finding a church to serve once they have graduated. Even when you have a denomination home the process of finding an open position that fits you is tough. However there are many students who are not only looking to secure a call, but are also trying to determine where they belong theologically. Trust me, this is no small task!
It is extremely difficult to determine the number of denominations in the United States. A good guess is at least 200, and you can add to that a plethora of independent or nondenominational churches. A 2010 study showed that by grouping nondenominational churches as one, they would be the second largest Protestant group in the country with over 35,000 independent or nondenominational churches representing more than 12,200,000 adherents. These nondenominational churches are present in every state and in 2,663 out of the total of 3,033 counties in the country, or 88% of the total.[i]As the nondenominational movement grows, we continue to see significant decreases in membership and attendance in mainline denominations such as the United Methodist church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ and even the Southern Baptism Convention.
When you mix a distrust of denominations, the growth and freedom of nondenominationalism, and the difficulty of finding a theological fit, it is easy to see why joining the nondenominational movement is so popular. Interestingly, even though nondenominational churches continue to thrive, within the church planting community there is keen awareness for the need to affiliate with other like minded churches and church plants. This partly because Ed Stetzer reports that, “Every group surveyed indicated that having well-designed support systems for the planter have improved their survivability. Some groups report that their survival rate has doubled since implementing important systems such as assessment, training, and coaching.” The study also found that the “Odds of survivability increase by 135% when the church planter meets with a group of church planting peers.[ii]”I have been a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination for over two decades. It is not a perfect match, and trust me we have our issues! As I write this, we are debating the legitimacy of intinction (the practice of dipping the bread into the wine when celebrating the Lord’s Supper). And for a guy who loves diversity and has committed himslef to raising up minority leaders, we still have those in our midst who embrace the confederacy and justify slavery. And there is more!
So why am I a member of the PCA? Beyond the fact that I am convinced that Presbyterian form of church government is Biblical, the short answer is because we need each other.
1. Community – Most of my best friends are other pastors who serve in the PCA. These are the guys who pray for me and with whom I seek advice. They are guys who are really there for me and would be by my side if I needed them. In turn, they call me when they have a ministry, Biblical or Theological question, and ask me to pray for them when they are facing a challenge. We don’t see everything eye-to-eye, but they are my brothers!
2. Accountability – My ordination is held at the presbytery level. That is to say, I am answerable to my brothers in the Central Florida Presbytery. These guys hold me accountable to be a faithful minister of the Gospel. That means if I start teaching heresy, or get in moral trouble, they are the ones to whom I will answer. Of course as an employee of Reformed Theological Seminary I would be fired first. Nevertheless, when I served as a pastor, my congregation had the security of knowing they could go to presbytery if my message and my life did not glorify God.
As you try to determine your denominational or affiliational home, here are some things to remember.
1. Cover it in Prayer – I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to cover this in prayer asking for God’s leading and for wisdom.
2. Know Thyself – Because each denomination or affiliation has different styles of governance, be sure to consider how you fit in that context. For some, too much theological latitude will not work for you. Others, my find some denominations too restrictive.
3. Know Thy Theological Paradigms – You can eliminate many groups by simply comparing them to your basic theological convictions. I am confessional and adhere to the Westminster Standards and therefore they serve as my paradigm.
4. Be Aware of the “in” factor - Be very careful that you don’t simply chase after the latest trend. Just because a group is new and popular doesn’t mean it is where God wants you.
5. Realize there is no perfect fit – Just like there is no perfect spouse, or perfect church, there is no perfect denomination or affiliation. That means you will not find a group that lines up perfectly with your convictions and values.
6. Determine what is non-negotiable – This is a matter of conscience. If they hold to a Biblical or Theological view that is wrong to you, those are your non-negotiables.
7. How can you serve that group – Remember being part of a denomination or affiliation is not all about you! An important thing to consider is how you can serve that group.
[i] The Hartford Institute for Religion Research (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#denom)