With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation coming up, it seems appropriate to look at how churches work without an organizing structure.

At the beginning of church history, churches were small and geographically separated. Churches could often be identified by their city or by the home where people met. These churches worked as a network to aid their Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem during a time of need. So while they were physically isolated, the followers of “the way” were unified around Christ and the movement he started.

As church history evolves, christian leaders faced serious theological division. To fight these threats leaders came together and created unified creeds of doctrine. As the church became more accepted in society, it grew into a powerful institution with a hierarchy coordinating the ministry of the church.

The reformation movement brought about a return to biblical truths, but it also divided the church. The Catholic church was repeatedly challenged to reform, but as the leadership in Rome fought back christian communities broke off. At first this splintering yielded only a few groups who had their own geographical region. But at our point in history individual church congregations are often highly independently and exist within a short radius of several others.

Questioning where we are today

In the long history following the Reformation, what has happened to our understanding of church unity? How did we get to a point where churches are so geographically close but so socially isolated? Have churches become siloed, operating independent of the larger christian community?

Do I think of local ministry in terms of my church or the whole Church?

Back in high school my family switched churches. But our new church did not have a thriving youth group like our old church so I kept going to my old youth group. This met a need for spiritual development in my life but it also opened my eyes to a weakness in how I looked at the Church. The Holy Spirit is working in other christians through other churches right in my backyard.

While this concept is nothing special, it illuminates a misperception I had unconsciously adopted. I only thought of God as working in my church and the handful of missionary churches our church supported. It wasn’t that I didn’t logically believe that God was working outside my church. But when I thought about God working in other people I didn’t imagine the people in my town who went to a different church.

Why do churches act so independently?

As I’ve moved about the country and seen several approaches to christian ministry, I’ve struggled to broaden my perspective beyond the work of my own congregation. In many ways I feel like my thinking is a result of a lack of exposure to the work of other churches. But I also think that our churches are built around the expectation that you are limited to the ministries that your church offers.

What types of ministries would work well for cross-church partnerships?

While keeping christian ministry in-house makes control and communication easier, I also think it can often be ineffective. At a small church, it is difficult to find the manpower or attendees to support niche ministries. I think about how hard it was to organize a group for young adults when there were only 6 of us in the church. Should we have looked for another church to connect with? What about ministries focused on adoption or foster care? Even in churches that are large enough to support a ministry I think there are benefits to reaching out and partnering with others.

What theological differences are important?

Wading into a new christian community is uncomfortable because we may encounter beliefs and cultures that differ than our own. Scary as that may be, I think it is beneficial for the spiritual health of a believer to be forced to examine their faith. The whole reason for the reformation was to examine the beliefs of the church and better align them with scripture.

So when we step outside our churches into another community, what level of theological difference is appropriate? Honestly, I don’t know. But I think it is important to recognize that not all situations are the same. Clearly ministries of biblical teaching will impact theology more than a youth sports ministry. Ultimately every person will have to examine for themselves what they are comfortable with.

What do you think?

My church experience has been mainly limited to small/non-denominational churches. I want to hear other perspectives across the diverse community that is the Church. Do larger denominations or multisite churches promote a better recognition of God working regionally. Do churches of color do a better job of organizing to reach the community? Do other generations see the causes for how we got where we are today?

I hope that you would consider sharing your perspective. I’ve only begun to unpack how the Church approaches ministry. There is much more discussion to be had to continue the semper reformada– continual reforming.