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Changes in denominational life in North America have left congregations with two difficult choices. On one hand, they can choose to act as though their ministries and programs can still best be established by national denominational offices. On the other hand, they can choose to act as though their denominational identity is completely irrelevant to their mission.
Underlying these difficult choices, writes Lyle E. Schaller, is the tremendous flux in the relationship between national denominations and their member congregations over the last forty years. The fact that relatively few visitors choose to affiliate with a congregation on the basis of denominational identity leads some to conclude (incorrectly) that the interdependence and cooperation between congregations of similar heritage and background is unimportant. At the same time, others conclude (also incorrectly) that there is nothing wrong with current denominational structures and that congregations need simply to align themselves with their denomination's directions more thoroughly.
To these bad choices, Schaller proposes an alternative. He observes that many congregations already seek to extend their mission and make their ministries more effective by participating in affinity networks--groups of congregations that share particular goals and visions. Schaller suggests the establishment of such networks within, rather than outside of, denominations. He argues that they should be established on the judicatory level. Rather than making state or regional boundaries the organizing principle by which congregations within a denomination align themselves, why not form judicatories around a particular sense of mission, or distinctive theological stands?
Schaller concludes that allowing and encouraging the formation of such affinity networks will recognize the differences between congregations within a denominations as the strength it truly is, and will, foster a greater unity of purpose between the denomination's churches.
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Lyle E. Schaller was the country's leading interpreter of congregational systems and their vitality. He was the author of dozens of books, including From Geography to Affinity, also published by Abingdon Press. He lived in Naperville, Illinois.
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