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5 Ways Forward for Franchised Churches in Our ‘Go Local’ World

There it was again; this time on the bumper of the car parked next to mine: “Go Local.”

These stickers seem to be everywhere. We are encouraged to shop at locally owned businesses, dine in locally owned restaurants and bank with locally owned community banks.

Supporting the farmers in our geographical areas, the craftspersons, the small businesses, all of these are strongly recommended by the “Go Local” movement.

Though many factors contribute to this movement, the simmering anger and frustration with large-scale corporations and institutions is a strong influence. Distrust for large, franchised organizations is on the rise here in this 21st century.

We, in the church world, are contextually located in communities as well.

This summer, I enjoyed reading “Divergent Church” by Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris out of the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis.

They undertook an extensive study of 15 new divergent churches, who are extremely integrated with their local contexts.

In fact, here’s what they learned from these new vibrant churches: “Religion cannot be franchised. When you go to Starbucks – and there are about 13,000 such coffee shops in the United States – you experience the essential elements as the same regardless of your location.”

“How you order, the design of the cups, the taste of the mocha, the aroma of coffee, the lighting, the music playing, the placement of the tip jar and so forth. You expect the experience to be the same,” Shapiro and Faris observe. “As you consider what divergent actions to take with your faith community, please do not try to replicate the specific activities of the congregations in this book or view them as replicable ‘best practices.’”

This is all well and good, yet, so many of us are part of franchised churches; denominationally based and connected churches. We are local franchises of larger organizations.

Certainly, there is variety among these churches, yet most are clearly identified as the local branch of their tribe, including the franchise name in their local name.

Christian denominations overall have more in common with Starbucks’ way of being a coffee shop than we do with locally owned and designed coffee shops.

As we look back, we can easily see how this way of being church worked very well during the Modern Era (up until around 2000). Our churches experienced many benefits from our franchised arrangement, like:

  • Immediate recognition and connection due to our denominational identity.
  • A steady stream of newcomers, who are drawn to our church because of our denominational connection (“brand loyalty”).
  • Standardized forms of worship, polity and governance, which could be learned in seminaries and transferred from one church to another.
  • Support from the home office when crises occur, plus quality training in best practices.
  • Large-scale Christian formation and fellowship gatherings at conventions, assemblies, retreat centers and camps.
  • Insurance and retirement services as well as support for missionaries and seminaries.

Now, we are clearly living in different times. Many denominationally connected churches recognize:

  • Declining denominational loyalty.
  • Different criteria for joining or partnering with a church, with denominational identity sliding down the priority list.
  • Suspicion of the denominational headquarters driven by many of the same “Go Local” motivations.
  • Distrust for franchises and “establishment religion.”

While we recognize these trends, many of us are concerned about them as well. We value our denominational identity and heritage.

Yet, we don’t want to practice denial, pretending culture will shift back to a high degree of appreciation for our denominational connection.

So where to from here? Fortunately, God always prepares a way forward for God’s church.

  1. Foremost, claim and live your Christian identity.

When I was a child, our denomination was in its heyday, subtly communicating it was the answer to nearly all of society’s problems. I internalized this belief, with Christian identity trailing my denominational identity.

Fortunately, I’ve lived long enough to reverse the order. It’s about Jesus Christ, first and foremost, not our particular nuanced expression of the Way of Jesus.

When churches claim their Christian identity, they are far more likely to live into their callings to be their expression of church in their communities.

  1. Join God’s efforts to tilt your community toward the kingdom.

Living your faith and partnering with God’s movement brings life, joy and vigor to a church.

There’s no replacing the missional impulse with any other substitute, thinking it’s about denominational identity.

Your church will find its soul as it partners with God toward making a difference in your community.

  1. Don’t count on your denominational identity to feed you new members.

Previously, we could sit back and wait for them to come to us because of the franchise arrangement.

I remember hearing a pastor describe why their church is not numerically growing “because the new people moving into their community don’t come from their denomination.”

Is this what it’s about, collecting up the people from our tribe? No, we are called to go into all the world, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with those who have no clue about denominations.

  1. Don’t blame your troubles on your denomination.

Through Pinnacle Leadership Associates, I am privileged to work with churches from many different denominations.

They are all experiencing the same challenges, regardless of identity. The challenges arising for churches are so much larger than denominational issues.

Frankly, it’s not the denomination’s role to solve our problems at the local level. They can support and resource, but “working out our salvation” as a church is ours to do.

Don’t exaggerate the role of your denomination by blaming them for your local troubles.

  1. Maximize the gifts inherent in your denominational identity, heritage and connection.

Denominations can do helpful activities, which outfits like ours cannot. Denominations help your local church look beyond itself to the larger work of God and connect you to other local franchise branches for cross-pollination and resourcing.

Make the most of the “personality” of your family on this Christian family tree.

So, this world continues to evolve and unfold. “Go Local” is a strong trend now, but who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Let’s show up, pay attention, adjust as needed and pursue the beautiful way of Jesus as God’s church.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle Leadership Associates’ blog. It is used with permission.

Mark Tidsworth

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.