Saturday, June 19, 2010

Beyond Denominations?

Over the past twenty years, a remarkable shift has taken place in American religion. While most of the large Christian denominations in the US went into decline, "nondenominational" Christianity - typified by megachurches like Lakewood, Saddleback, and Willow Creek - experienced an explosion of growth. Nondenominational churches grew from less than 200,000 adherents in 1990 to over 8,000,000 today. When grouped together with those who identify only as "Christian" or as "Evangelical", this group comprises 11.8% of the US population.

Part of the success of nondenominational churches has been their ability to harness the shifting winds toward postmodernism in American society. In a culture that chafes at authority, tradition, and establishment, any sign of "your grandmother's church" has to go. In the place of stained glass, hymns, pews, and robes, nondenominational congregations have embraced nondescript buildings, rock music, theater seating, and jeans in an effort to attract religious "seekers". Instead of conforming to the catechisms and creeds of a single dominant tradition like "Calvinism" or "Lutheranism" - nondenominational churches provide individuals who are frustrated with denominational divisions with the freedom to draw from a variety of Christian beliefs and practices.

In spite of their disillusionment with Christian denominationalism, these independent congregations see no reason to insist on visible unity. A national or worldwide structure over all the churches conflicts with a postmodern vision of the Church as a decentralized network of Spirit-led and Bible-listening believers.

So, then, is the nondenominational movement the answer to the scandal of denominations? Are we moving into a new age of post-denominational unity? While the culture may be moving toward a “post-denominational” future, I believe that denominations continue to have an important role to play in the quest for Christian unity.

First off, they confront the reality that the Christian Church is sadly but visibly divided. I am glad that so many Christians are eager to move past our denominational divisions – but if all local congregations drop their denominational labels and become “Grace Church” or “Bible Church,” this division does not go away – in fact, it is amplified (from 10 denominations to 1000 congregations)! Without a common history and tradition, people tend to create their own personal version of Christianity (or their pastor's version) – and any overarching unity that exists seems to resemble the surrounding culture more than Christianity.

Denominations provide a history, a language, a tradition in which to live out the Christian faith. Each denomination brings its own gifts to the larger body of Christ. In order for the Church to truly move toward a visible undivided (nondenominational) church, we must first listen to “the grace given to you in Christ” in our brothers and sisters who are committed to different traditions from our own. Then, we can struggle together to find creative ways of building common ground while remaining faithful to our own own tradition. This is difficult ecumenical work, but I believe it is the best way to take each of our denominations beautiful and unique voices and blend them into a unified, harmonious chorus.

Lastly, while postmodernism includes many positive developments - including the humility that is essential for Christian unity - more and more people are feeling adrift, isolated, and disconnected. It’s hard to devote your life to something when all truth is relative, when everything is ultimately meaningless. This is why I know many friends my age who are finding peace and rest in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which claim historical apostolic authority. In my own experience, I feel deeply committed to my own Methodist tradition – and yet still realize that my denomination is only one small part of the Christian Church and that we are called to “be one".

The way to work toward healing the divisions of the Reformation (and beyond) is by understanding and appreciating the differences of the denominational traditions – not pretending they do not exist.


  1. A lot of these non-denominational churches have no account of what it means to have "visible unity". In a sense, they have no theology of how to be public, or what public is. Despite some good things about these churches, they struggle with the public and private faith binary and how it relates to their organization.

    For me a great place to start of a theology of being public (I admit that's an akward way of saying it) is the "Missional Connectedness" chapter of Guder's "Missional Church" (which can be found on Google Books). It changed the way I think of ecumenical relations, for example.

  2. I think you make some good points here, Paul. The best way forward usually does end up being the hard way. If we would put in the work to learn from each other (denominations), we'd all be the richer. Not sure if we'd be totally unified...but we would certainly be richer.

  3. Isaiah - thanks for the reading suggestion. In what ways do you see non-denominational churches falling short of a "public" theology?

    Julie - I love your use of the word "richer" - it certainly corresponds with the metaphor of each tradition having "gifts" to bring to the others. The question is, are we willing to receive them?

  4. Perhaps the use of the word 'non-denominational' was wrong, what I meant was non-denominational churches tend to minister to those who share a strong rejection of institutional forms. What I meant was working within this culture any thought of visible unity would be directly associated with institutions and bureaucracy, and thus be rejected.

    Unity is more of personal, private thing between concrete individuals and the idea of expressing unity publically would be foreign.

    I speak not from a scholarly perspective but from the experience of being in this culture.

  5. Thanks for that clarification, Isaiah. I completely agree with you that nondenominational Christians tend to reject all institutional forms. This is also shared, I think, in emergent church circles.

  6. It seems to me that "rejection of institutions," is just a sexy way to say "rebellious" and "self-centered." Every time people gather together in an organized fashion we have an institution. The alternative to institutions is not spiritual unity but chaos, isolation, and, ironically, the same self-righteousness we were trying to escape in our flight from institutions. Instead of "the X church is the true church" we now get "the true church is a house-church." As I see it, the root of this post-denominationalism is not a noble quest for truth, but merely a christianizing of the culture of individualism that is running rampant in the West.