Imagine that a member of a 500-member church wants to evangelize the local downtown singles community. He believes he can best do so through a cell church model, meeting in coffee shops and apartments. Absent some really good reason to the contrary, the elders should encourage and support this effort.
But this mission creates something a bit outside our paradigm. Once he gets going, does he have a separate, autonomous congregation? or is this a ministry of the mother church? The answer is that we’ve asked the wrong question. The scriptures say nothing of autonomy. They say quite a lot about mission, love, and the need for leaders to equip others for ministry. In short, the elders and ministers need to pour all the time, prayer, and other resources into the effort they can and waste no time pondering the eccelesiological orthodoxy of it.
There may come a time when the downtown ministry wants to appoint its own elders, or the ministry may always be seen as under the umbrella of the sponsoring church. Which way to go depends on the mission and the considerations we’ve been discussing: unity, love, fellowship, acceptance of diversity, and such. They key is to see the mission as paramount. But the ministry includes unity, and so the ministry should be structured in a way that avoids unnecessary isolation while giving those who are doing the work both the freedom and the support they need to do mission.
There’s nothing wrong with a single church meeting in multiple locations. We have to get over the battles of two centuries ago. These kinds of questions have nothing to do with being a “denomination”–or even the mistakes of the Boston Movement. Rather, to borrow a figure from Alexander Campbell, in fleeing the Babylon of authoritarian denominational structures, we’ve gone past Jerusalem and landed in Rome. Our isolation is in many ways much more wrong than the top-down denominational structures we criticize. The sound middle ground is found in a healthy flexibility built on a genuine love and a focus on mission.
And the flexibility we’re going to need in order to serve the lost in a Post-modern world requires that we accommodate to new structures that will make us a little uncomfortable. Nonetheless, we can’t let our legitimate need for flexibility be an excuse to be unnecessarily divided. We should always be looking for opportunities to be more, not less, united with our sister congregations.