Denominations appear to have fallen on difficult times. Theological controversies over core Christian beliefs have weakened some denominations. Others have succumbed to classic liberalism. A handful of denominations have reaffirmed their commitment to theological orthodoxy, but even many once-growing conservative denominations have experienced difficult days. All in all, membership in 23 of the 25 largest Christian denominations is declining (the exceptions being the Assemblies of God and the Church of God).
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians decreased from 86 percent in a 1990 study to 76 percent in 2008. Much of the loss does seem located in large mainline denominations. At the same time, the ARIS indicated that nondenominational churches have steadily grown since 2001—and that self-identified evangelicals have increased in number. But it seems that denominations have not shared in the growth.
According to many church leaders, denominations are not fading away—they are actually inhibiting growth. I have heard many pastors denounce denominations as hindering more than helping their churches' mission. Others carp at wasteful spending, bureaucratic ineffectiveness, or structural redundancies; these objections seem to have gained adherents in an economic climate of pinching every penny. Loyalty to a denomination has declined and in some cases disappeared.
Meanwhile, many of the better-known churches in America today have no denominational affiliation. A 2009 study of the 100 largest churches in the United States conducted by LifeWay Research for Outreach magazine discovered that half of the churches call themselves "nondenominational." In fact, two of the three largest churches in America have no denominational ties: Lakewood Church (Houston, Texas) and Willow Creek Community Church (South Barrington, Illinois). A generation or two ago, that would have been shocking. Today it is the assumed norm.
Meanwhile, we see newly planted churches given nondescript names so as to downplay denominational affiliation. Some established churches are "rebranding" without denominational markings. It surprises many to discover that Saddleback Church, pastored by Rick Warren, is part of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and that LifeChurch.tv (Edmond, Oklahoma) is an Evangelical Covenant Church.
A few short decades ago, denominational meetings were the most widely attended places to connect and receive training. Now conferences like Catalyst and Exponential draw more attendees. (I speak to more young Southern Baptists at the Catalyst Conference than at the SBC's annual meeting.) Inevitably I am asked at these conferences, "Why are you still in a denomination?" To some, the idea is as old-fashioned as preaching in a suit.
I have been privileged to speak at dozens of national denominational meetings over the past two years. I constantly hear from leaders that they are struggling with lower denominational loyalty among their churches and a path that is unclear at best.
I work in a denomination—the SBC—that is at times dysfunctional and unwise (like me). I grow weary of denominational foolishness and its drama. The idea of working independently is tempting at times.
Given all that, call me a cautious believer in the idea that we can do more for the kingdom of God by doing it together with people of common conviction—which usually means in a denomination—than by doing it alone.
A Tool of Mission
In my view, denominations are certainly not the answer to the world's ills, nor are they our last and only hope. But a denominational structure can be a valuable tool for the church to use in her mission.
When I hear about a pastor's revolutionary idea to partner a local congregation with congregations overseas to work together in mission, I say, "Great. Be sure to learn from the Wesleyan Church. They have been doing just that, very well, for a long time."
When I hear about a start-up church-planting network, I'm excited—but hope its leaders know what the Presbyterian Church in America's (PCA) Mission to North America is doing well, and will not try to independently discover what others already know. Many ministries that have gained national prominence in church planting, such as Redeemer (New York City) and Perimeter (Atlanta), have been more effective because of their partnership with the PCA.
Denominational ministry is often much quieter than similar efforts from independent start-ups. (No surprise there: Novelty gets attention, and entrepreneurial networks and churches need to make a splash in order to win people to their new effort.) But make no mistake: The vast majority of world missions, church planting, discipleship, and other forms of ministry are done through denominational partnerships.
For example, when you go out into the international mission field, generally you find two types of missionaries: funded and self-supported. The amount of time a missionary spends on the field can often reveal what type he or she is. Missionaries funded by a denomination are able to spend much more time actually being missionaries, while self-supported missionaries from independent churches and loosely connected networks often need to spend copious amounts of time fundraising.
The largest denominational mission force in the history of Protestant Christianity is fielded by the SBC's International Mission Board. Its missionaries are by no means well paid, but they are found in places too numerous to name. In those places, they are able to stay, minister, and focus on mission—and not fundraise.
Creatures of Cooperation
Another reason that denominations are not likely to fade anytime soon: Like-minded people will always find a way to associate with one another.
That impulse can sometimes lead to a tribal, insular identity, as happened with the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church in the 1800s. Parts of what began as a renewal movement that was determined to bring about ecumenical consensus and unity—essentially an anti-denominational movement—eventually became a narrowly focused denomination that, in some cases, denied the possibility of salvation for those not in its rigorously defined theological camp.
That being said, mission-focused churches are inevitably drawn to organized cooperation. Gripped by the desire to make Christ known to the nations, a church usually realizes it is unable to accomplish this task alone. Current skepticism about denominations, along with the American entrepreneurial spirit and a bias toward novelty, has led many ministers to form new partnership networks.
Newer efforts to cooperate across congregations can best be understood as proto-denominations.
The 17-year-old Willow Creek Association claims over 11,000 member churches in 35 countries from 90 denominations. The Association of Related Churches, led by Billy Hornsby and represented by well-known churches such as Seacoast Church (Charleston), Church of the Highlands (Birmingham), and Healing Place Church (Baton Rouge), provides sermon outlines and mission and social-action activities, and even has a denomination-like annual meeting. The Acts 29 Network, co-founded by Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, has claimed almost 300 affiliates in its 10-year existence. Acts 29 focuses on a more specific mission of planting churches, but includes strong doctrinal parameters and a full explanation of why it exists.
The denomination-like networks will, I believe, become more like denominations than networks in the years to come, just like the networks of the past (e.g., the Methodists) are denominations today.
I like proto-denominations and missional networks. I even belong to a few. But as prominent as these networks may be, local churches still tend to use denominations to accomplish most of the work of global missions. It's not flashy, and the Web pages are not as nice, but as noted above, we should not mistakenly underestimate how God is using denominations.
Networked Across Time
The best denominations may be understood simply as networked cooperative relationships for mission. But they are not just networked across geography and methodology. They are also networked across time—and a group working across time and generations can accomplish more than a group working for one season.
A variety of recent movements among emerging generations demonstrate the need and desire for rootedness and history. The church growth movement in the 1970s and '80s (itself a kind of proto-denomination) perpetuated the mistaken idea that only new and novel methods were effective in reaching the next generation. In exchanging older traditions for newer methodologies, it unintentionally cut itself off from a rich legacy of faith.
A generation later, emerging leaders are yearning for a sense of rootedness. In an age of fragmented social identities, connecting with the past has become synonymous with finding purpose and meaning. We are seeing this passion in a number of current movements: the "young, restless, and Reformed," the emerging church, and the late Robert Webber's ancient-future movement.
Note how important this all is to California pastor Jim Belcher's "deep church" efforts. He writes, "The vast majority of people are confused by the debate [between the leaders of traditional evangelicalism and emergent leaders]. After all, don't they want the same thing—a deeper, more robust evangelical church that profoundly affects people and the world?" Belcher's book expands on the idea of a "third way," one rooted in history and contextualized in ministry.
These are sometimes overlapping, sometimes distinct, and sometimes competing movements. But each has been informed and fueled by a resurgent yearning for historical lineage and religious heritage. Many leaders of the baby boomer generation untied their churches from tradition and charted their own courses; many of the boomers' children have spent the last decades looking wistfully to the shore. Denominations have not done a good job of making the case, but they can provide history and legacy to a generation longing for stability.
The need to connect with our spiritual lineage and Christian heritage drives us to shine a light on how we have arrived where we are. Historian and futurist Leonard Sweet offers the metaphor of a swing. A swing's physics depends on interdependent motions of leaning back and pressing forward.
Likewise, denominations can tell inspiring stories of pioneering (leaning back) and progress (pressing forward). They can offer a rich sense of theological and ecclesiological legacy that an independent church simply cannot.
A Theological Turnabout
Nondenominational churches do a better job than denominational ones in responding to the brave, sometimes confused new world of American spirituality. They are flexible enough to identify trends and adapt.
But changes in the American spiritual landscape bring with them the promise of internal conflict and external pressure, which can inflict irreparable damage on a nondenominational church. For example, with the ever-morphing attitudes toward marriage and gender roles, a church disconnected from a denomination lacks access to leaders who have dealt with previous cultural shifts of equally seismic proportions.
A denominational church in crisis has a relational network, experience, and a support system on which to draw. For example, if a dispute arises in a Presbyterian congregation between the pastor and the session (the governing board), it has an entire denominational structure filled with leaders to help guide a redemptive process. Not so with an independent congregation.
Denominations and their leaders have weathered many storms. That's not to say their member churches always survive, but it's more likely that they will. For our youth-obsessed evangelicalism, this is a hard truth. But where some expect to see age, decay, and obsolescence in denominations, you are more likely to find longevity, maturity, and wisdom.
Evangelical denominations often are stalwarts of orthodoxy, while independent congregations more easily shift in their theology—sometimes very quickly. Carlton Pearson's Higher Dimensions Church, a former charismatic megachurch in Tulsa, had few resources to stop its sudden theological shift and eventual merger with All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.
Also, denominational colleges and institutions have often been better at holding the line of orthodoxy than many large nondenominational institutions such as the YMCA. Lacking a larger body to push against a leftward shift, some churches, agencies, and groups move precariously toward heterodoxy.
That may be a surprising argument to nondenominational churches. After all, the headlines are full of denominational leaders and bodies moving leftward in their theology. But the reality is that these do not represent the majority of denominational congregations or the majority of American churchgoers.
Orthodoxy is more likely to remain established in denominations with clear faith statements. Confessional anchors have prevented drift in such denominations as the Assemblies of God, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Evangelical Free Church. (The recent debate over changing the Evangelical Free Church's statement of faith was a helpful exercise in confessional conversation.)
It is worth noting that almost every one of today's most articulate evangelical theologians is denominationally affiliated. To name a few: John Piper is a member of the Baptist General Conference; his theological rival on some points, N. T. Wright, is a bishop in the Church of England. Tim Keller is a member of the PCA, and Ben Witherington is a United Methodist. And on it goes.
Fifty years ago, Carl Henry and Billy Graham rightly worried that denominational leaders were leading people astray. Today, by contrast, evangelical denominations appear to be the collective standard-bearers of orthodoxy.
When denominations stray, the fault usually lies not with diversity, as some have argued. In fact, the larger the denomination, the more likely it will be diverse in many ways. A denomination should indeed focus on becoming more ethnically diverse, partnering with all kinds of biblically faithful contemporary, traditional, and emerging churches, and working through questions about its future. But it must also maintain a strong confessional consensus in order to accomplish its God-given mission. Such confessions must be more than a list of beliefs that are given lip service, but instead ones that are both adopted and valued.
We've seen more and more loosened ties to confessions of faith in the Episcopal Church, which has led other bodies in the Anglican Communion to distance themselves from it and reconsider how the Communion's national provinces relate to each other. As a result, the Communion is moving toward a higher level of global confessional consensus, and the American church will probably be left out.
Such confessional statements help to clarify a movement's understanding of its mission, and, more importantly, the God who has called it to that mission. We may not exhaustively know what every person in a network believes, but we can explain what the denomination stands for. Likewise, confessional statements build trust for denominational agencies; without them, there is inevitably justifiable concern about whether the agency shares the denomination's standards. But doctrinal statements are not mere safeguards. They have also long been teaching tools for churches, helping in evangelism, discipleship, and spiritual growth.
The Foursquare Church is a good example. It has a doctrinal confession highlighting components it deems critical for orthodox belief and practice. It enables its churches to understand theological boundaries for fellowship in the denomination. When I led its national cabinet through a "missional audit" early this year, the leaders in the room were able to appeal to an authority (Scripture) and a framework that confesses that authority (statement of faith) as they considered what they must do together in the future.
Confessional statements also shield against excessive distinction. Any group that wants to define itself will be tempted to draw boundaries ever tighter. Some will start sniffing around, making sure everyone is using the exact same language and the exact same approach, and that no one has wrestled with new ideas. Others worry when not everyone supports a certain denominational program or emphasis. Still others complain about methods that others are using. Confessional statements make it simple: If it's not a distinctive of the confession, it is not part of the denomination's belief system, and churches and individuals can have diverse beliefs and expressions in that area.
There are times when theological differences pose the greatest threat to church cooperation. But in my view, the greatest hindrance in many evangelical denominations today is the inability of insular churches to serve with those who differ on methodology.
Should we discuss the theological implications of methods? Absolutely. But we must guard against letting tertiary issues control the conversation. Nor should we preach against matters that are best left to the discernment of individual churches. Instead, we should use persuasion, like members of Christ's family, rather than policy, like executives in a corporation. If everything is an essential, churches will never cooperate in mission. If nothing is an essential, there is no reason to cooperate anyway.
The Best Worst Way
To paraphrase Churchill's comments about democracy: Denominations are the worst way to cooperate—except for all the others. They are riddled with weak, ineffective, and arrogant leadership, prone to navel-gazing, and often move more slowly than they should. But these aspects are products of human fallibility and sin. Every time churches work together, ego, failure, and inefficiency will arise. And when they don't work together, ego, failure, and inefficiency will arise. People, not denominations, are the source.
Denominations at their best are not places to get something but places to give and to serve. Our gifts, passions, and experience have greater influence through a worldwide denominational network. Through a denomination, we can provide resources to people we will never meet, reach places we will never go, and preach the gospel to lost souls who are beyond our personal reach. We can find what we need and give as much as we want—because the key to cooperation is to both give and receive.
A healthy denomination ultimately gives us strength. It's a home, not a prison. It allows us to share specific theological convictions, practice expressions of ministry relevant to our communities, and serve a common mission in the one thing that brings true unity: the gospel.
Ed Stetzer is the director of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's missiologist in residence. He is co-author most recently of Transformational Church (B&H Books).
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Ed Stetzer previously wrote about Curing Christians' Stats Abuse for Christianity Today.
Previous Christianity Today articles on denominationalism and church tradition include:
Land and Building Wars | A handful of parishes win the right to keep their property, but legal experts don't know if their cases are setting a precedent. (January 12, 2010)
Intelligent Church Redesign | It's a sad but necessary reality that some denominational splits are justified. (June 8, 2010)
Denominational Diagnostics | What Philip Yancey looks for to find a healthy church. (November 19, 2008)
Church Divorce Done Right | Denominational splits just aren't what they used to be. (March 7, 2007)
The Problem with Mere Christianity | We jettison "nonessential" theology at our own peril. (February 6, 2007)
Willow Creek's Place in History | It turns out that the church that made seeker-sensitive a part of our vocabulary is not as revolutionary as its critics have said. (November 13, 2000)
Previous CT cover stories include:
A Candle in the Darkness | The president of Compassion International tells his story of childhood abuse and deliverance in a West Africa boarding school. (May 7, 2010)
The Jesus We'll Never Know | Why scholarly attempts to discover the 'real' Jesus have failed. And why that's a good thing. (April 9, 2010)
The Mind Under Grace | Why a heady dose of doctrine is crucial to spiritual formation. (March 12, 2010)
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