This twentieth-century phenomenon continues to attract new disciples amid ambivalence about institutional structure and denominational identity.

While the word interdenominational spreads sunshine over conversation, denominational leaves a depressing chill in the air. It is an embarrassment, as welcome as a thunderstorm at a well-planned picnic.

Attend a National Association of Evangelicals convention or an Inter-Varsity Urbana missionary conference and listen to the corridor conversations. What concerns these “churchmen” and Christian students? Is it the true form of baptism, God’s standards for the pastoral office, the relation of free will and sovereign grace, or any other traditional denominational conviction? No, these are followers of Francis Schaeffer, Andrae Crouch, Pat Boone, and Jerry Falwell, and such matters are not their concerns.

People seldom associate a Christian celebrity with his or her denomination. Who knows Robert Schuller’s church body, or Charles Swindoll’s? Today’s do-it-yourself, consumer-oriented personal faith does not spread through institutions, but through personalities. Denominational leaders are rarely considered spiritual guides—even in their own church bodies.

Yet this modern form of the church—the denomination—refuses to die. Twenty-five years ago seminary students learned from Frank Mead’s Handbook of Denominations that there were 260 or so denominations in the United States. In 1978, when J. Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (McGrath) appeared, we discovered that the figure is now nearer 1,200!

The reason the denominational jungle thickens even as it spreads is no great mystery. In the free atmosphere of American life, windswept seeds of doctrine drift about like maple wings ...

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