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Denominations: Life in Those Old Bones

Ed Stetzer has written a good article in Christianity Today on denominations in America and how valuable they are overall. Even though denominations aren’t seen as cutting edge or extraordinarily effective, Ed argues they are still important. Check it out and then let me know in the comments what you think.

Some excerpts:

The Problem

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.

A Tool

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.

A Reason: Organized 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.

A Safeguard

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.

What do you think?


  • David king says:

    Very good find, thanks. I’m going to tuck this one away in my files. I have been asked by several people what the value is in denominations or labels and this article was helpful by Ed.

    I follow him on twitter and had just finished reading his posts from his visit at some Presbyterian conference and the week prior he was at the SBC conference.

  • A denominator of some kind is essential to identification. Even those who call themselves non-denominational have some kind of denominator. They may not be a member of a denomination but they are denominated. Unless that denominator is known or understood, the denominator is of little help in conveying who they are.

    A denomination on the other hand tends to communicate organizational hierarchy. Independent Baptists are non-denominational in that we refuse to join a denomination (convention), but we are willing to be denominated as Baptists because our theology and church polity lines up with our Baptist forefathers.

    As independent Baptists (almost redundant), we have chosen an associational relationship while retaining our autonomy. The independence and togetherness is both our greatest strength and greatest weakness. Local church autonomy is biblical and therefore non-negotiable. But togetherness is hard to quantify in terms of value unless there are some organizational efforts that forward our mission.

    Since the GARBC is historically a separatist movement, that concept is broadly applied and I believe misapplied. At our inception the separation was from an organization that denied the fundamentals of the faith. Those biblical truths must continue to be defended and declared. On the other hand, separating over differing church culture, outreach methods, ministry styles, etc. wrongly applies biblical separation. Compromise is both letting truth slip and defending traditions as if biblically authoritative.

    It is difficult to fellowship with some independent Baptists because they rally around certain issues, and unless you agree, they don’t view you as standing for the faith. That kind of posture is harmful to the cause of Christ. But what about the fundamentalists, Baptists and otherwise, who stand for truth and communicate it in love? Is it possible that we could find something that we could do together? I love the GARBC because in it I find the most commonality. But there are many other brothers and groups that we ought to explore for prayer, fellowship, and even community involvement.

    It greatly bothers me that in the international community we have exported our separation beyond truth versus error. Fundamentalists of different stripes do not think of cooperation even though they serve in a predominantly Roman Catholic, Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist country.

    I highly value our GARBC association and I also commend those who serve as catalysts among loving fundamentalists to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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