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 in June. The slightest crevice in an open-minded society allows a seed to take root and grow. Start a movement to unite all genuine Christians, or establish the one true church by denouncing all other faiths, and the result is the same. You soon find you are the latest denomination.

But more to the theological point, denominations do not simply shrivel and die; the questions the major bodies raise will not go away. Christians who take seriously the Bible’s teaching about the church know that faith is more than a once-and-forever decision. How does a believer worship corporately? What are the gospel sacraments and how should he observe them? How does one obey the mandate to “be holy as the Lord your God is holy”? The denominational question, then, is more than an American enigma: it is a product of Christian convictions.

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A survey of all the smaller denominations is impossible—we cannot weigh the mountains on a scale. We can, however, sample a few small groups, and seek to learn whether the so-called evangelical renaissance in the United States has reached the smaller evangelical denominations.

George Marsden’s recent history, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford, 1981), shows that today’s evangelical movement is much more than fundamentalism with a college degree. It is a product of several earlier traditions, including European pietism, holiness revivalism, and Pentecostalism as well as fundamentalism. Six denominations—all vitally linked to the evangelical witness in North America—illustrate these traditions, and as such are worth special study.

The Baptist General Conference, numbering about 126,000, is deeply rooted in Swedish pietism. The conference’s American beginnings trace to a group of Baptist immigrants near Rock Island, Illinois, in 1852.

The Church of the Nazarene, with 475,000 members in the United States, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, with 174,000, are in part products of the holiness revivals that swept across Europe and North America in the late nineteenth century.

The Assemblies of God, with a membership of 1,065,000, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States. Its roots are in the Pentecostal revival that followed surprising outpourings of the Spirit at Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906.

The Evangelical Free Church (77,000 members), with ties to Scandinavian pietism, and the Conservative Baptist movement (about 225,000 members) are products of fundamentalist forces in the 1940s.

Why Are They Growing?

All these groups show signs of vitality and institutional strength. While statistics from the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches are tricky to handle, the percentages of growth, even if mere approximations, are impressive. Over the past 25 years, while the U.S. population was growing at a 34 percent rate, the Evangelical Free Church grew at 187 percent; the Christian and Missionary Alliance by 183 percent; the Baptist General Conference by 142 percent; the Assemblies of God by 139 percent; and the Church of the Nazarene by 82 percent. Conservative Baptists resist the denominational label and refuse to report membership figures, yet in spite of an ultra-fundamentalist defection of about 120 churches in 1965, their missionary societies and schools have shown healthy growth.

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No single explanation accounts for the advance of all these groups. The church-growth movement, spun out of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission, is probably one stimulus. Several of the denominations—Baptist General Conference, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of the Nazarene—have adopted church-growth principles and designed denominational structures to achieve growth. Some members of the Church of the Nazarene feel they can trace the increase in their denomination’s growth figures to a decision a decade ago to create a department of evangelism at their Kansas City seminary, and to the full cooperation of the denomination’s division of evangelism in implementing church-growth policies.

In the Assemblies of God, church-growth principles probably played a part, with the charismatic movement of the last 20 years a major factor. Many assemblies today can point to former Roman Catholics and “mainline” Protestants who were turned on by a charismatic Bible study or prayer group.

The influence of these denominations extends well beyond the United States. Several have strong Canadian branches, and all are pressing forward in their missionary work. The Assemblies of God claims over 8,800,000 members and adherents overseas. In 1980, the Church of the Nazarene organized as an international church, and counted 661,000 full members worldwide. The Christian and Missionary Alliance is aiming to double its million-member overseas constituency by 1987. And the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society recorded nearly 10,000 baptisms last year alone.

Numbers, of course, are only part of the story. Growth always means change, and as denominations go, these six evangelical bodies are mere teen-agers. With the possible exception of the Baptist General Conference, all are offspring of twentieth-century American Christianity. One could argue that even the Baptist General Conference belongs to this century, since it did not sever all ties with the Northern Baptist Convention (today the American Baptist Churches) until 1956. This youthful character helps explain the institutional awkwardness in these groups.

The influence of these denominations extends well beyond the United States. Several have strong Canadian branches, and all are pressing forward in their missionary work.

Revolution And Institution

A generation ago H. Richard Niebuhr noted in Kingdom of God in America that institutionalization seems to have an ambiguous character. On one hand, revolutionary (or renewal) movements are compelled to conserve their spiritual gains for their children and their children’s children. Without this conservation, great revivals would pass “like storms at sea, leaving behind them nothing but the wreckage of the earlier establishments they had destroyed.” On the other hand, institutions can never conserve without betraying the revival that brought them into being. The renewal movement, by its very nature, is dynamic; it liberates people from the bondage of institutions by looking to the future. By contrast, the institution is static: it confines people within its limits by pointing to the past.

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One could argue that all six of these evangelical denominations are children of revivalism and that they retain their family likeness. Evangelical Free churches require only personal faith in Jesus Christ for membership in their congregations. The Assemblies of God radio program (an institution in its own right) is called “Revival Time.” Conservative Baptists speak of their “movement” rather than their “denomination,” and refuse to bring their association of churches and mission societies into any type of unified structure. Twenty years ago the Christian and Missionary Alliance reflected the same abhorrence of “denominationalism” and today has a troubled conscience about supporting liberal arts colleges and theological seminaries.

In spite of their roots, however, in holiness, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist revivalism, these groups have formal institutions in order to maintain their spiritual momentum, yet they have not created schools and other structures with any enthusiasm. While recognizing that spiritual victories can only be conserved by institutions, like teen-agers everywhere they value freedom.

Thus far, denominational structures in these groups give little evidence of destroying what Niebuhr called “inner vitality.” On the contrary, some of the institutions have successfully advanced the witness of the denominations.

Social Awareness

One could hardly say that these six smaller denominations contributed to a revival of Christianity within the secular world. They did help to reverse the social pessimism of segments of fundamentalism, and engaged in serious attempts to present the gospel to a rapidly changing America. President Nathan Bailey of the Christian and Missionary Alliance put it best in a sermon at that denomination’s 1969 annual meeting. “We evangelicals have tried to bury our heads in the sands of unconcern,” he said. “There have been social injustices that we have tolerated.”

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Perhaps the most publicized shift in American social awareness during the sixties dealt with racial attitudes. These were the years of Martin Luther King, Jr., Earl Warren, Stokely Carmichael, and Hubert Humphrey. They were also years of Tom Skinner, John Perkins, and Bill Pannell, black men who dared to trouble the white evangelical conscience.

In 1968, when Conservative Baptists marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of their association, they listened to a challenge from evangelist Tom Skinner and resolved “to seek to eliminate sinful prejudices and racial exclusiveness” and “to encourage our churches to include in their memberships believers from every racial, cultural, and economic group.”

In a similar vein, the Church of the Nazarene voted to support equal rights to secure an education, to vote, to be employed, and to enter all publicly supported facilities without discrimination because of race. The Evangelical Free Church and the Assemblies of God said, “Amen!”

No one would argue that practice at the local level came close to these professions at national assemblies. Ministries to racial and ethnic communities often fell to home missionary societies. But the message from the denominational leaders was clear: “We are not religious reactionaries.”

During the seventies, a second social crisis, the decline of the traditional American family, was also clearly reflected in these denominations. Most of them were untroubled by gay rights or women’s liberation, but all struggled with the place of divorced people in church membership and leadership.

In 1972, the Church of the Nazarene voted to admit “repentant” divorced persons into church membership, thus bringing the church manual into line with widespread practice in the church.

The following year, the Assemblies of God took a similar action, permitting divorced and remarried persons to join the churches. The previous prohibition on licensing or ordaining previously divorced-and-remarried persons still stands. Caution is still urged in this regard in selecting lay leaders at the local church level. Assemblies ministers were allowed to join divorced persons in marriage.

In 1976, the Christian and Missionary Alliance refused to allow any divorced-and-remarried person the right to hold national office, but shifted to the local churches the question of divorced-and-remarried elders or deacons, and to the local pastor the question of marriages for divorced persons. A year later the Baptist General Conference defeated a proposed amendment to its bylaws that would have barred employment of divorced persons in denominational leadership. At the same time, it upheld the “scriptural ideal” that marriage is “to be broken only by death.” Clearly these smaller denominations were struggling to adapt to the breathtaking changes in American mores involving marriage and divorce.

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The past 25 years have also made obvious one of the fundamental values of these six denominations: higher education. Churches have tended to view education in three basic ways: (1) as a tool of evangelism and Christianization; (2) as a means of producing a future generation of lay church leaders; and (3) as a way of training for Christian ministry.

Like most missionary societies, these six denominations have used schools for evangelism overseas. At home in the United States they tend to see education as a means of guaranteeing a future generation of educated church members or, more narrowly, as a way of preparing ministerial candidates.

The Church of the Nazarene, which stresses Wesleyan holiness, operates eight liberal arts colleges in the United States. Such a heavy investment in college education is aimed at perpetuating the holiness tradition. “We want our young people to go to a Nazarene college,” said one educator, “so they can have our teaching.” This zeal for the future led the Church of the Nazarene to start two new liberal arts colleges in the sixties, along with a three-year Bible school for those too old to go the full educational route to ministry.

The alternative to this approach appears in the Assemblies of God, which views education primarily in terms of preparing for Christian ministry. The vast majority of Assemblies pastors are products of Bible schools. The general attitude was reflected by one seminarian who told me, “I was warned that I might receive a cold shoulder from uneducated ministers in the district if I attended seminary.” Not surprising, then, the denomination has been reluctant to invest in either liberal arts colleges or theological seminaries. It maintains 10 schools across the country, but only Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri, and Southern California College near San Diego are liberal arts colleges. Only persistent fears of losing ministerial candidates to other denominational seminaries finally brought the Assemblies of God Graduate School into being in 1973.

The Christian and Missionary Affiance revealed a similar reluctance to move away from the Bible school tradition by founding a denominational seminary. For a while, the CMA approved the graduate program at Wheaton College in Illinois. Then it attempted to work out a cooperative arrangement with the Evangelical Free Church’s Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, but failed. Finally, in 1979, it decided to graft a seminary program onto its college at Nyack, New York.

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While the Bible school tradition is still strong in the other three denominations—the Baptist General Conference, the Evangelical Free Church, and the Conservative Baptists—all of these have seen their seminaries grow significantly in the last 25 years. All three are intimately linked with the National Association of Evangelicals and have a similar evangelical view of the Christian life and ministry. The growth of their respective seminaries, therefore—Bethel, Trinity, Denver and Western—probably reflects the widespread renewal of evangelicalism rather than any deep denominational loyalty among the students.

Finally, the last 25 years carried these smaller denominations into the congenial climate of ecumenicity. The mood was manifested, however, in several ways. Merger was one. The Christian and Missionary Alliance marched right up to the altar with the much smaller Missionary Church Association. The CMA approved the wedding, but the MCA fell 42 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to bring the two families together.

At the same time, the Church of the Nazarene, whose early history was marked by a number of mergers, shunned union but voted to join the National Holiness Association. It has remained aloof, however, from the NAE as well as the National Council of Churches. If pressed for reasons, most leaders in the Church of the Nazarene would probably respond like the one who told me, “Joining NAE is just not profitable to us. We have a special mission to spread doctrinal holiness, to get people into the experience of entire sanctification.”

The Assemblies of God, who also have a mission to spread an experience with the Holy Spirit, have shown no such reluctance about evangelical cooperation. The denomination has been active in NAE for years.

Conservative Baptists, the Evangelical Free Church, and the Baptist General Conference, also deeply involved in NAE, have taken no serious steps toward merger, but the members in these three denominations, as well as a number of their ministers, move rather freely from one denomination to another when convenience or shifts in American society seem to dictate.

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In fact, denominational loyalty in the old-fashioned sense scarcely exists in any of these conservative evangelical groups. They share the American distaste for denominations. They, too, have been to rained-out picnics. They prefer to think their institutional unity is based on an experience with the Spirit of God or on the preaching of the gospel of personal salvation.

Let us hope they are right, for a crisis of faith exists in our time. People are hungry for experiences and authority, and the churches satisfying that craving will not be troubled by labels on the package.

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