Much has been written on this subject in the last ten years likely due to the fact that this question is being asked more and more by the “don’t label me” Millennial generation and post-modern thought. As a life-long Southern Baptist, I have enjoyed the benefits my denomination offers such as educational opportunities, resources and networking with other like-minded believers. I recognize that I write with a bias as a former state convention pastor’s conference president, trustee and employee of a Baptist entity. The religious landscape of America is changing dramatically and rapidly. Not only are we moving into a post-denominational mindset, but I would argue a post-Christian mindset with the consistent rise of “nones” (22%) in relation to religious affiliation. The latest Pew Research reveals interesting statistics in relation to denominationalism in America. Of the 70% of Americans who identify as Christians, a little over 6% belong to a non-denominational church. While that number doesn’t blow you over it does represent a growing trend and, I believe, it will continue to gain momentum. In 1955 only one in 25 churchgoing Americans tended to change denominations over a lifetime. In 1985, one in three did so. In this current decade, that number has risen to more than one in two, or about 60%. (Dr. David Dockery, The Changing Face of Denominationalism) I have noticed (at least in my state) an increase in non-denominational involvement. One such non-denominational church is Church of the Highlands here in Alabama. The church is growing and expanding all over our state and, best I can tell, doing good things. Recently a friend emailed me asking for help in finding another place of service due to the fact that a non-denominational church placed a campus near his ministry and he had lost so many members that his position was no longer financially sustainable. While Non-denominational churches still represent a small percentage of the Christian faith, there is little doubt of the growth of this movement and its future impact of traditional denominations.
Even among Baptist circles there are a few churches who have dropped the “Baptist” from their church signs. They may still identify as Baptists and give to Baptist causes but they have chosen to not highlight their Baptist identity. When you ask the church leaders why that decision was made you find it to be a part of a strategy to broaden their reach to younger people who don’t visit churches based on denominational affiliation. (I may write another article about that strategy at some point soon.)
There are more than 12 million people who belong to non-denominational churches in America with over 35,000 congregations in existence. Last year Thom Rainer released his findings on why people are leaving denominations to join non affiliated churches. The results can be found here. One of the reasons people listed for leaving their denomination was simply, “They could see no perceived benefit for belonging to a denomination.” Looking over Dr. Rainer’s list of responses from a Twitter poll, I see superficial and misinformed responses on denominational life. It is true that most traditional denominational bodies are on the decline and have been for over a decade now. However, (some may call it Utopian thinking) I have a strong belief that denominationalism in America is not dead. Some traditional groups have ventured off into liberalism where the message has been so watered down that it is hardly recognizable. This is why many denominations have declined, but the ones who remain true to the Gospel, strong in their convictions and intentional in their mission will make a come back.
Contrary to the responses from Rainer’s poll, I see several “perceived benefits from denominational life. Here are a few:
- Denominations keep us anchored in doctrinal statements and Christian orthodoxy. In short, denominational statements of belief places fences around doctrine and keep believers focused on a coherent system of beliefs. Denominations are formed with clear doctrinal guidelines. The Baptist Faith and Message is the doctrinal (not creedal) beliefs on my denomination. Created in 1925 it was based on previous “Baptist statements” of doctrinal orthodoxy and has seen minor adjustments since its creation. While there is some doctrinal disagreement in the SBC pertaining to certain statements in this document, the BF&M gives SBC members guidelines on our generally accepted beliefs. This helps to safeguard our churches from falling victim to outlandish heresies and practices. Some non-denominational churches are vague on their doctrinal stances regarding historical Christian doctrines and the membership they attract becomes a mix of eclectic beliefs with little uniformity of doctrine. There doctrinal beliefs (if stated) usually reflect the orthodoxy of the founding pastor. However, when there is a change in leadership those foundational doctrines are subject to change based on the preferences of the next leader. Even if the church has adopted certain core beliefs, they are likely much more fluid during leadership changes in comparison to denominational churches who are generally anchored in doctrine.
- Many denominations have a cooperative streamlined approach for missional support. If doctrine is the anchor that holds our feet to the ground, then our missional togetherness becomes the bridge that allows us to take our deeply held convictions to a lost world. I believe the Cooperative Program of the SBC is the best example of this. It is a system of focused missional giving and sending. One church can’t reach a nation, but one church partnering with many others can accomplish wide-spread gospel globalization much more effectively than a non-denominational church. Any system that brings together like-minded missions giving and support has the potential of changing the world for Christ. Denominations have a long history of effective cooperation in this regard.
- Denominations encourage interaction and intentional networking between churches. If we don’t have some type of intentional glue that holds churches together then all churches would work independently and historically that has not been the best system for Kingdom work. Denominations provide a dedicated platform for cooperation and collaboration between congregations. Christians have always been more effective when they work together. In 2 Corinthians 8 Paul describes how the churches of Macedonia had joined together to provide for other churches in their time of need. Paul could not have traveled as he did without the support of many collaborative churches working together to assist him financially.
- Denominations encourage fellowship among like-minded people. Generally people are naturally geared toward certain affinity groups. If I were to put 500 random people in a large room for a certain length of time you would eventually see groups begin to form. Conversations would flow naturally as people mingle to find others with similar tastes, likes and ideology. If you don’t believe me stop by your local high school lunchroom. If we were to do away with every denomination, eventually they would organically re-organize based on doctrinal, ecclesiastical and polity affinity. There are countless historical examples of the truth of this statement. The East-West split of early Catholicism, the protestant reformation and the Great Awakenings of the 1700’s-1800’s in America all reveal sociological shifting of certain affinities into groups or denominations. This is more than just history, this represents basic human action.
Yes, contrary to some people’s thought I am crazy enough to believe in the future of denominations and especially my own. Denominations must continue to be culturally relevant, consistently resourceful, but most of all intentionally missional with the good news of Jesus Christ.