July 26, 2007
A Former Pastor Goes Church Shopping
And he wrestles with the advantages and disadvantages of mainline and nondenominational churches.
How does a former pastor choose a church? That is the question Andy Rowell and his wife are facing after their relocation to a new community. The process has opened their eyes to the differences and blessings of denominational and nondenominational churches. Although they've still not made a decision, Andy shares his reflections on the process so far.
"Occupational hazard," that is what my wife and I call it. We cannot help but thoroughly analyze churches we visit. My wife and I both have M.Div. degrees and have served as pastors. So when we need to pick a new church, overanalyzing churches is almost inevitable - an occupational hazard.
A month ago we moved to Durham, North Carolina so I could begin the 4-5 year Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) program at Duke Divinity School. We have visited seven churches in the last six weeks here and have not yet made a decision on where we will attend.
Our backgrounds are mostly in churches and institutions that were nondenominational or interdenominational - where denominational affiliation was played down. But around Durham, many of the churches that have been recommended to us are mainline churches. They are led by pastors that are theologically orthodox, yet the style of these mainline churches is different from what we are accustomed to.
In our vigorous Sunday lunch discussions, my wife and I have been impressed by aspects of the mainline churches we have visited. On the other hand, there are things we miss about nondenominational churches.
It seems to me nondenominational folks and mainliners can learn from each other. In that spirit, I offer a few summary points of our Sunday lunch discussions.
The Top Nine Things I Appreciate about Mainline Churches:
1. The leadership of mainline churches does not center so much on one person ? the pastor. When a senior leader leaves, there are mechanisms for finding a new pastor including trained interim pastors.
2. Mainline churches have a greater appreciation for Christian history. The liturgies of the mainline churches reflect the thought and deliberation of several centuries of Christians. Many evangelical worship leaders say whatever springs to mind.
3. The worship services at mainline churches have intellectual substance. The liturgies at mainline churches are usually very rich theologically. Someone has taken the time to craft the words of the liturgy carefully.
4. Mainline churches care for the poor and are more aware regarding social issues. Though evangelical churches are coming around, they have been slower than the mainline regarding racism, care for the poor, empowering women, and care for the environment.
5. Mainline denominations take intellectual excellence seriously. They want their pastors educated and their scholars properly trained. I know an evangelical megachurch (which I like) with 100 staff members and only the senior pastor has a Master of Divinity.
6. The ordination process in mainline denominations usually screens out the mentally ill. The ordination process of the denominations takes a few years, includes a battery of psychological tests, and is done in consultation with lots of people who know you. Many pastors of evangelical churches simply decided to plant a church. Whether they have any education or preparation is irrelevant.
7. Mainline denominations care for their pastors more thoughtfully and equally. Mainline pastors are usually paid fairly and their benefits are good and fair.
8. Mainline denominations honor the arts including classical music. Mainline people seem to be the people supporting museums, visual art, architecture and NPR.
9. Mainline churches have better accountability structures. There are structures for dealing with crises and for preventing crises from happening in the first place.
The Top Seven Things I Appreciate about Nondenominational Churches:
1. Nondenominational evangelical churches structure their worship gatherings so newcomers know what is going on and want to come back. They have an elaborate plan for welcoming people so that even irreligious people will want to come back. This includes signs, greeters and the overall style of the environment.
2. Nondenominational evangelical churches acknowledge that churches are organizations that need competent leadership. They tend to value pastors who organize and inspire the church toward more effective mission.
3. Nondenominational evangelical websites are usually better. Websites should be designed for someone who is totally unfamiliar with the church but might want to go there.
4. The music at nondenominational evangelical churches is more like the music people listen to on the radio. This is a preference thing I know but it just seems to me that churches can be faithful while still evolving to connect with people today.
5. Nondenominational evangelical churches question traditions that no longer connect with most people. When only 1% of the people really want the ministry, it should not get time on the podium and space in the bulletin.
6. Nondenominational evangelical churches are more eager to experiment with new technologies.
7. Nondenominational evangelical churches highly value Scripture. This covers a multitude of other shortcomings.
Andy Rowell has been a pastor and professor of Christian ministry at Taylor University. He is currently in the Doctor of Theology program at Duke Divinity School.