A Denomination Nation

–Daniel S. Ferguson

I did an online map search when I was sixteen and counted the number of Protestant churches within three miles of my home church in Nashville, Tennessee. The number? Eighty-one.

Eighty-one churches within just a three-mile radius. Doing the math, that added up to three churches per square mile, an almost ludicrous figure given the population of the area where my church was. This wasn’t exactly urban Nashville. This was suburbia.

Three per square mile. I still remember my first immediate question: why so many?

One quick look told me why: they were nearly all of a different denomination of Protestant Christianity. While I thought it was a bit ridiculous for there to be such a buffet of options in so small an area, that at least made some sense.

Then I had a second question: why don’t these churches work together on anything? I was pretty in the know, and so far as I could tell, my church didn’t collaborate with any of them, not even the other Southern Baptist one down the road.

We did, however, greatly benefit when there was a controversy at that church and a lot of their people left. They came to us. We were the same denomination, and we were just up the street. We were the natural choice.

This actually kind of happened a lot. People moved from church to church all the time, for any number of reasons, even across denominations. The inside term for this is “sheep swapping.” A rather pejorative term, but it’s used all the same.

Now, granted, this is Nashville. This is church country. It’s the buckle of the Bible belt, no matter how cool Atlanta thinks it is. Super churchy things like “sheep swapping” are to be expected. But given that it’s church country, it’s also looked to as a representative of the whole American church by those outside the church.

Churches are so often competitive about numbers that outsiders (usually correctly) see us as petty. (Click to Tweet)

After all, why not? That’s the same thing businesses do. Target competes with Walmart, Apple competes with Microsoft, and Southern Baptists compete with United Methodists (often literally; church softball teams are intense like that). And the easiest way to compete is to compare numbers.

If you attend any conference of church leaders, one of the first questions after names and locations is the size of the church, followed by growth rate and baptisms. This is sometimes out of curiosity, but it’s often out of comparison. It’s a check to see how well you’re actually doing compared to everyone else. I’ll stop short of calling it a straight-out competition, but it can certainly feel that way.

Numbers can tell you a lot of good things about what’s happening in your church, and each number tells a story about real people experiencing real life change. (Click to Tweet)

But numbers for comparison’s sake are just small and petulant. From what I can tell, outsiders can feel that on at least a subconscious level. Many get the feeling that the reason they are greeted so well when they first come is because they are adding numbers to the fold, not because they are valued as human beings.

Whether or not that assessment is true or fair is hardly the point. It matters that many people feel when they come to church that they’re a number, instead of a person. (Click to Tweet)

So we’ve got to change that. How? By being family instead of competitors. When churches get together, it often feels more like a high school reunion than a family reunion. We’re not (usually) cousins gathering to share in each other’s lives and rejoice in each other’s successes. We’re standing around distantly competing for who’s had the most successful life thus far.

We’re family. Even if we disagree on any number of issues. Even if each other’s theology makes our blood boil. Even if each other’s practices seem strange to us. Even if we can’t stand their music. Even if they’re doing better than us, and even if they’re one tenth our size.

We’re family, and we’ve got to treat each other like family. Not only for our sake (because heaven’s going to be awkward if we spent all our time on earth competing with each other instead of loving on each other), but for the sake of the world. When they look at us broadly, I don’t want them to see infighting and competition. I want them to see love, grace, and truth.

Big recommendation for pastors: take the bold step of reaching out to local churches that aren’t part of your denomination and see what you can collaborate on (beyond Upward Basketball leagues). I guarantee that your local area needs a ministry that can be served better by two churches collaborating than by two churches working separately. Let the community see you working together to love each other and your cities together. I promise it will do you both some good, and it will change the outsider’s opinion of who you are.

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