A religious denomination is a body of churches and individuals who are bound to each other through common creed and covenant. Denominational belief requirements for membership range from the basic credal frameworks to tightly knit systems of theology with no wiggle room for variance. Some denominations are more movement oriented while others are more static. Some denominations inter-relate while others remain isolated from the church at large. Within denominations there are often smaller divisions like districts, synods, regions, etc. Most major denominations today, unfortunately, have fallen into common human power and control patterns and use politics and the primary means of doing so.
An association is a group of organizations or individuals who have banded together for a specific purpose. They generally have a common goal or philosophy that can be promoted better as a group. There are associations of churches for just about every kind of cause or ministry area. Some examples are the Willow Creek Association, Association of Christian Accountants and the Chrsitian Community Development Association. The members of an association don't generally share the level of theological unity within denominations, however, they do share common values and philosophies regarding a particular issue or area of practice. Associations are generally well developed organizationally as well. The association normally assesses membership dues and also provides resources to its members in return. Associations are only as valuable to the member as the benefits derrived or the accomplishments that are made as a whole.
A network is a loose connection of individuals, organizations and churches that acts mainly as a social connector. Networks generally have a lower requirement of commitment for membership and serve primarily to allow for one on one and small group interaction. Membership of networks is generally at-will and people go in and out of networks as their situation and needs change. While some networks have a creedal requirement for membership, others simply require that basic values be upheld by its members.
Networks and associations are nothing new, both in the secular and religious worlds. Traditionally, networks of like-minded individuals, organizations and ministries serve a purpose for a particular time period. They provide a loose connection to others with the same interests, philosophy, purpose or style. In the church world, congregations and ministries operate within certain frameworks, networks and denominations. Here is the basic breakdown of each type of organization.
What this all means for the church
As traditional institutions lose their power, influence and sense of mission/purpose, churches and ministry leaders are seeking connection and fellowship outside of their institutions. The rise of inter-denominational networks and associations is nothing new, but there is now shift in how people identify and distinguish themselves. The majority of churches still belong to denominations, as this provides a theological framework and ecclesiastical accountability structure that is needed for the individual pastor and church. Churches are less likely, however, to identify themselves publicly with denominations as they were before. Denominational membership acts more as the foundation upon which the individual congregation grows, and less as the distinguishing outward mark of the church. Membership in a network or an association is quickly becoming the more common public statement of solidarity among new churches.
Is this shift just a reactionary trend to the decline of institutions? Will networks and associations someday replace the denomination? Will networks evolve into denominations? These questions are yet to be answered.
I do believe, however, that the church is experiencing a more dynamic reality where churches can multiply more creatively and rapidly. Denominations and districts will either accept this and promote connection to networks and associations, or they will still further attempt to control and restrict their members. I see great potential for a movement within the mix of denominations, associations and networks. If a church planting movement is happen, though, institutions will need to reassess their role and begin to loosen their grip on the methods and practices of their members. If not, they will see themselves become more irrelevant and unneeded in the minds of our new generation of church planters, ministries and congregations.