Life in Those Old Bones
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." In fact, two of the three largest churches in America have no denominational ties: Lakewood Church (Houston, Texas) and Willow Creek Community Church (South Barrington, Illinois). A generation or two ago, that would have been shocking. Today it is the assumed norm.
Meanwhile, we see newly planted churches given nondescript names so as to downplay denominational affiliation. Some established churches are "rebranding" without denominational markings. It surprises many to discover that Saddleback Church, pastored by Rick Warren, is part of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and that LifeChurch.tv (Edmond, Oklahoma) is an Evangelical Covenant Church.
A few short decades ago, denominational meetings were the most widely attended places to connect and receive training. Now conferences like Catalyst and Exponential draw more attendees. (I speak to more young Southern Baptists at the Catalyst Conference than at the SBC's annual meeting.) Inevitably I am asked at these conferences, "Why are you still in a denomination?" To some, the idea is as old-fashioned as preaching in a suit.
I have been privileged to speak at dozens of national denominational meetings over the past two years. I constantly hear from leaders that they are struggling with lower denominational loyalty among their churches and a path that is unclear at best.
I work in a denomination—the SBC—that is at times dysfunctional and unwise (like me). I grow weary of denominational foolishness and its drama. The idea of working independently is tempting at times.
Given all that, call me a cautious believer in the idea that we can do more for the kingdom of God by doing it together with people of common conviction—which usually means in a denomination—than by doing it alone.