Several of my fellow bloggers have alluded to the role of the local church / local ministries in defining evangelicals, which got me to thinking about an experience that I had a few years ago.
I heard a leader from a Mainline U.S. denomination speaking his thoughts on the denominational hierarchy. Someone asked how they were responding to the cuts in local giving to the national structures and he said that they had reduced their spending and shifted efforts to building an endowment. He said something like, “Even if every single local congregation closed down, at least I know that the denominational structure can survive. The likelihood is that we will be around far longer than any of our churches.”
In all honesty, he was speaking of the missions and benevolence roles for the denomination, not the hierarchy itself. He meant that the denomination could continue doing these ministries even if the local churches withdrew support, but the thought was still disturbing to me on its face because of my high view of the role of the local church in the application of our ministry imperatives.
In light of our considerations about what makes evangelicals distinctive, perhaps this is yet another insight. To most evangelicals, the local church is the locus of ministry (and, indeed, the sacraments); the national hierarchies (if they exist at all) are there to support the work of the churches. To non-evangelicals (and this includes many of the Mainliners), the local churches are there to support the work of the denominational hierarchies in effecting sacramental ministries. The difference is pretty substantial. To be honest, I have a feeling that ecclesiology is one of the weakest areas of our theology all the way around and that this weakness is maiming everyone from the Mainliners to the non-denominational folks.