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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." ...

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June 2010

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