Decentralization And The Future Of Denominations

The history of twentieth-century Protestantism confirms that the movement is in the middle of a clear and irreversible process of congre-gationalization, in which central authority is ebbing away from denominational bureaucracies and becoming concentrated in individual congregations. Since the 1980s, the growth of market-shaped or market-driven congregations in American Protestantism has forced denominational leaderships to determine whether they will be regulatory or consultative in nature. While this development can be seen as a pragmatic response by successful congregations to increasingly unwieldy central structures, it can equally well be seen as the late flowering of one of the most fundamental themes of early seventeenth-century American Protestant theology—"the principle that a corporate body is created by the consent of constituent members," in the words of the historian Perry Miller.7

In noting the fundamental themes of Protestant models of the church, we have emphasized the absence of any necessary institutional component. Institutions might be useful; they are not, however, essential to the identity of a Protestant congregation. Many Protestant writers draw a pointed distinction between what is necessary for the esse, and what is appropriate for the bene esse, of a church.8 No specific institutional structure is required if a group is to be recognized as a church; certain structures might, however, be helpful in enabling congregations in their mission and ministry.

This theory of the church enables radical entrepreneurial activity. In the seventeenth century, it found expression in the idea of the local congregation as a covenanted community. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the model of the voluntary society gained wide acceptance and was found in various forms in the emergence of British Methodism and the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States. More recently, two other models have begun to emerge, both of which have their origins in the business world: the church as franchise and the church as a small business. Both models give considerable scope to entrepreneurial activity, personal initiative, and creativity on the part of leaders and allow them to circumvent the often cumbersome procedures and high overheads of traditional denominations.

The best-known example of the franchise model is Calvary Chapel, begun by Chuck Smith in the 1960s and now boasting five hundred affiliated congregations throughout the United States, especially in California. Congregations that wish to be known as "Calvary Chapel" may apply for a local franchise, which is granted subject to certain conditions, of which the most important is conformity to the distinctive ethos of the parent body. A slightly different model was developed by Willow Creek Community Church, which founded the Willow Creek Association in 1992. Once more, congregations opt in to what is essentially a franchising operation.

Yet the model that has proved most successful in driving Protestant expansion in recent years is based on the analogy of starting your own business—the dream of many would-be entrepreneurs who find themselves frustrated by the unimaginative and unresponsive attitudes of their companies. On this model, individuals set up their own churches and rely on growth in reputation and congregational numbers to secure their future. Though laden with risk, the model offers pastors with a strong sense of vision the opportunity to develop a ministry that meets a specific need they believe is not being adequately met elsewhere. Calvary Chapel, Willow Creek Community Church, and Saddleback Church are all examples of successful churches built on the visions of their founders. The same phenomenon can be seen in large Pentecostal churches in Asia and the more recent African Initiated Churches, which often trace their origins and driving visions to a founding pastor.

This phenomenon is set to increase, partly owing to the inexorable dispersion of power from the center to the periphery of traditional denominations, but more significantly on account of the responsiveness of such decentralized models to their environments. With no centralized Protestant validating agency equivalent to the Vatican, there is no enforceable means by which this phenomenon of innovation can be controlled. The downside is obvious: being accountable to no external authority, the pastor is often responsible only to congregation members for the theological direction of the church. Yet the upside can hardly be ignored, especially when the approach meets a real need on the part of enthusiastic pastors and receptive congregations.

The impact of this accelerating trend is perhaps most obvious in the case of Anglicanism, which has in the past defied the decentralizing trend seen within other Protestant denominations. A number of factors have accounted for this surprising cohesion within Anglicanism—the British colonial legacy, maintained more recently through the British Commonwealth of Nations; the British crown as a symbol of unity; the English language as the Anglican Communion's lingua franca; the King James Bible of 1611 and the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 as unifying texts. Yet all of these have been subject to historical erosion; the growing cultural, linguistic, and political diversity within Anglicanism has gradually eaten away at any sense of a shared identity. Although recent debates over homosexuality have exacerbated this process, they have not been its cause.

It is to be expected that Anglicanism will go the way of other Protestant groups and transmute into a denominational family characterized by a federalist structure and perhaps presided over by a symbolic figure of unity, almost certain to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. The cultural differences between North American liberalism and West African traditionalism may well catalyze this process of fissure, and the absence of strong leadership makes the situation worse than it need be. Yet these tensions have simply highlighted the theological fissures and fatigues that have been part of Anglicanism from its origins.

Weaknesses and vulnerabilities in a tradition or institution often lie unnoticed until new stresses and pressures place them under such strain that they finally rupture. From the 1990s, Anglicanism has been confronted with the contradictions inherent in its own heritage, long shielded from view by a benign and static cultural environment. Happily, this confrontation does not mean the end of Anglicanism, nor even the beginning of a decline. It need do no more than usher in a period of alternative models of the church, each faithful to the Protestant tradition and adapted to its own specific environment. Paradoxically, the future of Anglicanism is thus likely to be characterized by overall growth rather than contraction.

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