Tuesday, 17 July 2007

George Verwer: denominations or denominationalism?

I've just been sent the article below, which is written by Operation Mobilisation's George Verwer. I wouldn't have phrased some of what George writes in exactly the same way, but I've reproduced the article in full because the antagonism to para-church organisations, like the one I work for, is something that I've come across a number of times over the past few years. Whilst I agree that the local church has God-given primacy, I also know that para-church organisations do wonderful service for many local churches.

In the ministry of mobilisation we are faced with many obstacles and complexities. One of the toughest is the denominationism which is usually combined with deception and pride.

I am pro denominations (not all of them), but anti-denominationalism. By that I mean the attitude that makes you believe that yours is the only true church group or at least better than all the others. There is a huge lack of reality and humility among such people, especially now with over 27,000 denominations. One group publicly teaches that all others are wrong and the only way is the way they believe and teach. This, of course, becomes cultic and manipulative. There are believers in such groups and we must exercise love and patience because that is all they know.

It is even sadder that many denominations don't believe that God works much outside their group or local church. By the way, some of the stronger church groups don't want to be called a denomination which is part of their judgementalism against other denominations. One group recently produced in their denominational magazine two articles against what they call para-church agencies making all kinds of false statements. This is especially sad as they have some good churches and lots of wonderful Christians. I find these articles (and they are not new) very divisive and hurtful. It is something that I have noticed around the world for the past 50 years.

Without realising they write off as second-class or worse,

1. all mission agencies
2. most Christian radio and TV
3. most Christian camps and youth ministries
4. the Christian Film industry and most internet teaching and evangelism
5. most all Christian literature and Bible Agencies
6. almost all Christian book shops
7. most Christian Conference conventions like Keswick
8. most Christian Relief & Development Agencies
9. all international networks like WEA or
10. all missionary aviation agencies
11. all ship ministry agencies
12. most evangelistic agencies like Billy Graham and Luis
13. Student Movements and Organisations like UCCF, Campus Crusade, the Navigators
14. Christian Arts & Music ministries
15. most Bible colleges or seminaries and other Christian institutions
16. most drug and alcohol rehabilitation agencies
17. many evangelistic efforts like the Alpha course

The list can go on.

It is almost impossible to honestly maintain such a position as it denies so much of what God has done over these 2000 years and what He is doing right now. I know of cases where young people felt the call of God to join a mission event for a summer and were told by their local church leaders that it could not possibly be of God. Can you imagine the confusion and discouragement that comes from such behaviour? As Bible believers we are a minority and on a narrow way. Why do some get joy out of making it more narrow?

The good news is that increasing numbers of churches and whole denominations believe that most, not all, Christian biblical 'so-called' para-church agencies are a vital part of what God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are doing in the world today. There is only one church and all true believers are part of that church.

Walls have come down when those of us in such groups repent of not esteeming more highly local churches and denominations. I did that publicly once in front of 500 mission and denominational leaders from around the world. One of the most crucial things to remember is that many of the mission agencies are responsible for planting thousands of local churches and even whole denominations, like SIM in Nigeria birthing a whole huge dynamic denomination. We could give many other examples.

I have received beautiful letters from people who have apologized for their attitude toward 'para-church' groups and who have changed their viewpoint.

As mobilizers, let's get involved in breaking down the barriers and praying for more workers to be released into the harvest. Let all of us who know Jesus and are heavenbound realise that we need each other.

I submit this hoping that it will increase humility, reality and a great unity of purpose in reaching all peoples with the Gospel.

George Verwer

PS Please feel free to pass this on in any format.

George Verwer
PO Box 17
Bromley, Kent

Email: george@verwer.om.org or georgev@swissmail.org


Matthew McMurray said...

That was an interesting read! I am definitely guilty of denominationalism at times. I am trying hard no to be so denominational but it is hard.

As a staff worker in an 'ecumenical' organization, how do you handle differences (major differences) on things like Holy Communion, atonement or worship style (to name just three)? I am always interested interested in the question of Holy Communion because obviously there will be a desire at times but across the denominations this can cause a lot of tensions etc.

I would be interested to hear your thougts.

peterdray said...

Hi Matthew,

Good to hear from you!

Strictly speaking, UCCF is inter-denominational and not ecumenical. Whereas ecumenical movements generally seek to include all that would describe themselves as Christians, UCCF would seek to unite students from different Christian traditions on the essentials of biblically-based Christian belief.

That is why we have a Doctrinal Basis - which I think you are familiar with. The DB was written by Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones after WW2. It roots from Paul's 'things of first importance' from 1 Corinthians 15. The DB summarises essentials for salvation and lifestyle, and includes a penal and substitionary understanding of the atonement, which we clearly see in Scripture. The DB is essential if a CU is to be what it aims to be - a student-led mission-based organisation reaching unbelievers on campus.

Outside of the DB, there are other important doctrinal issues, but these are not considered to be 'of primary importance'. These include baptism, women's ministry, the role of spiritual gifts, the nature of communion, the nature of creation etc. Within CUs (and across UCCF staff, where there'd be different views on these things) we agree to disagree on these issues in order to keep a focused and outward-looking gospel unity on campus. The way in which different CUs work through some of these secondary issues is different. Of the CUs I work with, some would have women speakers, for instance, and others wouldn't. I hope both would be working towards gospel unity. Worship obviously is mainly a stylistic thing and so different CUs work out how they do that in different ways. We encourage all CU leaders to think about how they can be generous and accomodating in such stylistic things.

I guess I should also add that CUs don't tend to administer communion, as this is something which seems to be tied to local church ministry in Scripture. Sacraments such as communion and baptism wouldn't really help a CU to reach its aim of being a mission team on campus - it's far better to encourage students to receive these things within their local church.

Hope that's helpful :)

Matthew McMurray said...

That was a very nice explanation of the difference between ecumenical and inter-denominational!

UCCF is obviously an evangelical organization although there are some aspects that will be acceptable even to liberals or Catholics. I guess for my own spirituality (as more of a Catholic (Anglo-Catholic) than an evangelical), the Eucharist is one of the very central things for me so it would seem strange to be part of a group that couldn't share Holy Communion together.

I understand of course that the significance and importance of it is different to some branches of evangelicalism, and the focus is less on being a eucharistic community and more on being a 'missionary' community.

I suppose that I, like some CUs, would do well to remember that difference between local churches and CUs and the interrelationship.

Dave K said...

Hmmm... don't buy the argument that CU isn't a church. I can't think of a single reason why it's not. Sacraments may be tied to "local church ministry" in the bible but what is not local, and ministering, about CUs? Especially when you consider the complexity of our social networks in the 21C and what is the essential meaning of 'local'. Of course churches administer the sacraments, and that is often raised as proof that CUs are not churches, but they don't administer sacraments because they choose not to - not because they can't.

I tend to think that the only reasons CUs emphasise that they are not 'church' is for political reasons. CUs (rightly) worry about the anti-parachurch sentiments of many 'local churches', and are concerned that students must not neglect fellowship with older, wiser Christians who are most accessible through the 'local churches'.

Sorry for the abundance of scare quotes there, and for your comment on my blog. Still trying to find more time to write more.

I'm enjoying your blog a great deal though. Like the new colour scheme too.

Dave K said...

I meant to say THANKS for your comment on my blog.

Never mind

peterdray said...

Hey folks,

I think I'd argue quite strongly that a CU isn't a local church. Whilst it displays some characteristics of church (as a group of believers fellowshipping together), I think a CU is more analagous to a short-term mission team, like a summer camp, or a work-place prayer group. Again, whilst those would both display elements of church characteristic, I don't think anyone would label them 'local church'. I think CUs are different to 'church done badly' - and that's one reason why within UCCF we're so keen to get students plugged into local churches. Ideally CUs merely exist to do what local churches can't really do (i.e. outreach on campus).

Dave have you read Mike Reeves' paper on this?

Thanks for the comments anyway! Good to have you back and writing on yours!

Dave K said...

Hi Peter

Mike Reeves’ paper was interesting, and certainly the strongest argument I've yet heard for CUs not being churches.

However, I'm not quite convinced.

Mike Reeve's accepts that the typical Protestant definition of a church is: ‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.’ All three of these elements apply to CUs except sacraments which could do if CU weren't worried about the politics.

Mike Reeves seems to latch onto the element about the preached word and also draws on biblical passages to argue that not only must the word be preached but also the leaders be of a certain sort.

He says:
i) CU leaders are not appointed for their abilities to teach;

That's true, but increasingly the leadership of most local churches are not solely chosen on their ability to teach either - much as this may be the biblical way. PCCs, churchwardens, deacons, the whole membership, all have a say that wasn’t prescribed by the NT. CU leaders do teach anyway, if not usually in the traditional sermon way.

Another difference he notes of CU leaders to church leaders is that…

ii) they may well be, and often are, recent converts; and so they cannot be appointed to biblical eldership.

This is true, but it is not really an essential mark of a church but an ideal. There were plenty of NT churches that found themselves with elders who were Christians of only a few months because of necessity. In a similar way CUs do the best they can with the resources they have.

Mike Reeves other main point is about community. In making this point he seems to idealise the local church, belittle CUs, and be out of touch with modern life. Local churches are not all closely-knit families, and in my experience church members keep each other at a much greater distance that CU members did in Bristol. There may be more turnover of students in a CU but they tend to spend more time with each other while part of it. And in cities increasingly few stay in one church for longer than a few years, thanks to church-shopping, globalization, the flexible/unstable job market, and pursuit of careers.

But at the root of all this is a burning question: what does 'local' mean in today's Britain? In the past community has been largely based on geography but now we are all part of several different communities or localities. We no longer know the name of our neighbour, and if we took the time they’d move to Spain before you knew it. My localities are plural and include my workplace, my extended family, my friends from university, as well as my city. We could well have churches in each with a mission to each - you could even call them parishes! Within that framework you would encourage students to be members of multiple churches corresponding to the different communities they are part of – university, university city, home town etc.

Those are my thoughts anyway. Sorry for the long comment. I more open to be corrected than I was though after reading Mike Reeves’ paper.

Matthew McMurray said...

Those were interesting points there but I am not completely sure about them.

It all comes down to the definition of Church and what that is for you. If the Church is any place where Christians gather for worship and teaching then CU is Church.

I think you underestimate (and perhaps society at large as well) the importance of local community. The problem I have with this thinking, which you often hear talked about in Alt. Worship circles, is that it seems that the Church is giving up on sustaining that local community model.

Surely the Church (and I include CUs for the purpose of this point) has a duty to prophetically demonstrate community as a real model of living. Wouldn't it be wonderful if people looked at the local Church communities and remarked, "See how they love each other"? [Who was it who said that?]

The big problem that we have of course is that sometimes the Church communities are so divided (between denominations etc.) that this isn't always easy, but let us work on our own communities and then work it out more widely.

I think that it is important to be part of a community to which you can become accountable; this should be a community that remains more constant than a CU community where people are there for (at the most) 3 or 4 years.

Are you of the opinion that it would be acceptable for a student only to attend CU?

Dave K said...

I think the local church is 'the Church is any place where Christians gather for worship and teaching' and live in community.

You are right to pick up that a somewhat similar set of ideas can be found in alt worship books like Pete Ward's 'Liquid church' but I am suggesting something quite different. Pete Ward at least embraces the idea of effectively consuming church, and thinks consumption in and of itself is not a bad thing. I'm not suggesting that, just that we are parts of several different communities and our churches should recognise this.

I think community is very, very important - just that we shouldn't overestimate it's strength in real local churches in contrast with CUs. Accountability is perfectly possible in CUs just as it is in local churches. But I students should still be members of other churches for the reasons mentioned in my first comment.

Still, I have been thinking that I should be more optimistic about local churches, and questioning about the modern pressures that make our social networks like they are. I read this little post just after my last comment.

peterdray said...

Interesting stuff, both.

I think I'd still want to argue quite strongly that CUs and local churches are different. I'd also want to argue that, for a Christian student, local church membership is non-negotiable and CU membership (not as a substitute) is preferable.

Dave your argument seems to be a mixture of theology and pragmatism. I think I'd want to argue on theological grounds that I don't think that CU is the right place for administration of communion (actually, I'm less sure on baptism - although I'd never dream to baptise any CU member myself!). Equally on theological grounds I'd argue that pastoral care, accountability and, particularly, discipline fall to the remit of the local church.

I think there's a difference between doing what any Christian ought to do for another, and what church leaders are charged with as their responsibility. So, for instance, if a CU student has a pastoral problem, I may well seek to help them (as any other Christian should) - however, the responsibility for this to happen falls with the church leader. Part of my role as Staff Worker is to refer pastoral problems to church leaders. Similarly, application of Bible teaching (say, for instance on marriage) can be modelled in deeper way between believers in a church than it can in a fairly homogeneous group like a CU.

And I think I'd still want to argue that, whilst ideally CUs are wonderfully welcoming groups of people, community with the unity and diversity envisaged in the NT is the responsibility of the local church. I agree that in practice this doesn't always happen, but that is the NT ideal. And, again, part of my job is to encourage students not to use CU to react to 'bad church', but to do what CUs do well. In my experience, CUs backfire either if they over-step their mandate (and play church) or under-step their mandate (and don't bother reaching out with the gospel to campus).

On 'local', I agree, the mobility of the 20th and 21st Century calls for change (possibly with evangelism as well as church membership). However, I'm convinced that as Christians, we are called to identify ourselves with one local congregation. I think that this is where, for instance, Mark Dever's stuff on church membership is helpful. We had a team day led by John Chapman recently, and he said that - even though he has a global evangelistic ministry - he plans his diary to ensure that he's at his church for at least half of the Sundays of the year. I think that this is helpful.

Richard Cunningham, our director, has some helpful words on this I think in the interview here.

Be interested to hear your thoughts anyway! :)