In defense of denominations

October 20th, 2017

How many Christians do you know under age 50, much less age 40, with passionate attachment to a Protestant or evangelical denomination?

Outside of clergy and denominational employees, I know very few. Washington D.C. has over the last decade enjoyed a flourishing season of new church plants collectively including thousands of young people in their 20s and 30s.

Most of these churches are tied to a denomination but they rarely advertise it. Some actively disguise it. The members and worshippers from those churches I meet rarely express great commitment or even interest in the congregation’s denominational affiliation. Sometimes they are unaware of it. For them it is close to inconsequential.

It is commonly reported that denominations are dying in America. Their demise is sometimes equated with Christianity’s decline, which is a mistaken equation. By some measures overall church attendance has remained remarkably constant across 80 years. But where people choose to worship has become increasingly a matter of market choice not strong historic affiliation.

Liberal mainline Protestant denominations have declined for over 50 years. Some conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention are now declining after decades of growth. Other evangelical denominations like the Assemblies of God enjoy continued growth. The Presbyterian Church in America had grown for years, then declined, and now is growing again. Growing evangelical denominations are increasingly diverse racially and ethnically.

But typically these evangelical denominations don’t stress strong denominational identity. Often congregations are almost covert about their affiliation. Evangelical congregations in liberal denominations sometimes also disguise or at least downplay their affiliation. The implied message is that denominations and their traditions are unimportant.

The fastest growing part of American Christianity is nondenominational. But even denominational churches and Christians increasingly think and act nondenominationally. One advantage here is that old rivalries and resentments that once divided denominations have almost disappeared. Increasingly Christians collaborate outside denominations through networks and parachurch groups. These collaborations facilitate greater unity in the Body of Christ.

But what is lost by the erasure of denominations? A great deal. They formed cohesive subset communities within the universal church, each contributing unique insights and spiritual specialties. Each represented a tradition often rooted in centuries of experience. Nondenominationalism real or de facto often lacks the riches offered by these traditions. As one friend who left a nondenominational church for Eastern Orthodoxy once explained, she felt she was always in the church’s anteroom, never given access to the back rooms of theological substance gained through tradition.

Nondenominationalism often contributes towards a consumerist attitude about the church based on individual preferences. It also tends to be congregationalist, with no accountability to wider structures offered by assemblies, synods, prelates or conferences. Sometimes nondenominational congregations are centered around the leadership of the pastor and don’t survive his departure or failings.

God is magnificently using nondenominational churches and churches that function nondenominationally in many powerful ways. Thank him for their effective gospel witness often filling the void left by the failures of denominationalism. God achieves his purposes through various ecclesial instruments.

But the decline of denominationalism should be considered a sad loss for the Kingdom in many ways. Maybe it will resurrect. Or maybe God has completed his purposes with it and is moving forward into new plans. There are doubtless great days ahead.

I plan to enjoy eternity by divine grace marked as a Methodist with others similarly marked by the denominations and traditions through which the gospel reached and shaped them. These distinctions will contribute to the wider mosaic of the Heavenly City and the Restored Creation.

This post was first published at Juicy Ecumenism.

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