Why the Decline of Denominations Should Concern Us

Why the Decline of Denominations Should Concern Us

As America continues to experience upheaval and political polarization, many of the societal institutions that once garnered widespread respect have fallen into disrepute. From law enforcement and criminal justice to legislative bodies and local governing boards, most Americans have become deeply disenchanted with not only specific American institutions, but institutional power in general. 

This cynicism toward institutions also extends beyond the formalized organizations that frame American life to the informal institutions of accepted social mores, leading some to question every detail of their inherited system of sexual ethics and others to thoroughly reject any sense of decorum that once buttressed our national conversations. 

Whether fortunately or unfortunately, whatever trends exist in the broader American culture tend to also be present inside the church. And in the case of American protestantism and evangelicalism, many have become disillusioned with the institutions that had previously shaped much of our identity. This includes our legacy publications, our Bible colleges and seminaries, and our denominations. With regard to denominations, many evangelicals have questioned whether they are useful, necessary, or worth contributing to.

The reasons for this cynicism are understandable though multivalent, but what is uncomplicated is that discontent with these institutions is leading to their decline. Most of the major Protestant denominations in America are either stagnant, in decline, or facing deep divisions and even all out splits.

In 2022, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in America, reported historic decreases in membership. Amid battles about the role of women in church leadership and an ongoing reckoning with its sexual abuse crisis, the SBC lost nearly half a million members last year, the worst single year drop in over a century. 

Also in 2022, the United Methodist Church, which is the second largest Protestant denomination in America, splintered into two separate denominations over the issue of LGBTQ+ clergy, leading to the formation of the Global Methodist Church and myriad legal woes regarding the ownership of church properties and other resources. 

Earlier this year, the Anglican Communion, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the world and exerts influence in the United States in the form of the Anglican Church of North America, created its own imbroglio when Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby presided over a ruling that stated that while Anglican clergy still cannot perform same-sex weddings, they can now solemnize and celebrate such unions. 

The move provoked the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches, which claims to represent 75% of Anglicans around the world, to rebel from Welby’s leadership.

All told, as of last year, most Protestant Christians residing in America are now non-denominational. 

Trouble looms not only in denominations proper but also in quasi-denominational organizations, which have represented a new kind of institutional power. This includes a number of church planting networks that have come under fire in recent years for a lack of transparency and toxic leadership styles. 

And then there are the cases of multisite congregations like Hillsong Church, which had been the epicenter of a family of churches around the world, including in a number of large American cities. However, following the scandals surrounding Brian Houston, the church’s now-former global senior pastor, and Carl Lentz, the now-former pastor of Hillsong New York City, the network has crumbled, with nine of its 16 American campuses either shuttering or disaffiliating. 

Notably, in the case of Hillsong and other churches and organizations like it, which are typically structured around a strong brand identity or the personas of their senior leaders, what results usually resembles an empire more than institution. 

Nevertheless, given the scandals and abuses that have too often been present in denominations and other evangelical institutions, simultaneously alongside bureaucracies that stymie those attempting to operate within them, you may be tempted to think that the death of denominations is a good thing. Let them all burn.

But let me point out: the presence of an abusive or neglectful parent does not mean that the idea of parenthood is inherently problematic. Neither is the presence of an incompetent teacher evidence that guided instruction is worthless. 

When we lose institutions, we lose a lot more than their problems. That’s true even for our denominations, many of which are not thriving as they once were. 

Below are at least three things the church loses when we lose the sense that evangelical denominations, and institutions in general, are valuable. 

A Shared Story About Our Traditions

To a certain extent, there is no such thing as just a “plain ole Christian.” We all inherit a particular tradition within the broader universal church, whether that tradition is Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Reformed, Wesleyan, or any number of others. When congregations are a part of a denomination, a shared story about that tradition can be told, retold, and incorporated into their vision.

Too often, unaffiliated churches are unaware of the theological traditions within the broader Christian faith that have shaped their distinct values and beliefs. But these distinctives do not cease to exist for a non-denominational church. In most cases, the church simply adopts unspoken theological assumptions from the inherited tradition of the denomination from which it disaffiliated or in which the founding leadership was raised and trained. 

As the old joke goes, “A non-denominational church is just a Baptist church with a cool website.” 

There’s more truth to that statement than most people realize. However, from one non-denominational church to another, traditions can vary vastly. Without the self-awareness of knowing you come from a particular theological tradition, people who see themselves as “plain ole Christians” may mistake the church down the road, which inherited a different though still orthodox tradition, as wayward or heretical.

For example, if you look down the road to another church and see that they baptize infants, or speak in tongues, or hold to a particular view of God’s sovereignty, you aren’t standing in contrast to them as the one true version of Christianity. You’re just standing in an adjacent theological stream.

None of these issues are unimportant. But understanding that you hold a specific theological vision helps you to appreciate those who hold different visions but are still partners in the gospel. 

When we look at the history of Protestant denominations, it could be argued that each was founded in opposition to another. From the time of the Reformation when Protestants broke away from the 16th century Roman Catholic Church, denominations have often been defined by what they were breaking away from. 

In the case of a denomination like the Southern Baptist Convention, we should be clear-eyed about the fact that they initially broke away from other Baptists who were inclined toward the abolition of chattel slavery. Other denominations likewise have checkered pasts. 

Be that as it may, when denominations are at their best, they are not defined by what they oppose. They are defined by collective unity around a particular theological tradition and way of carrying out the mission of the church. 

Slow Progress That Makes a Greater Generational Impact 

One of the more challenging aspects of denominational life is that when an association grows to a certain size and sprawls a certain measure of diversity, it can be difficult to get everybody moving in the same direction. New initiatives don’t get off the ground as quickly as many people would want. Changes in direction don’t go as far as some would have hoped. 

As has often been said, “The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly.” But as has also often been said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

When a church is an island, it has the power to move quickly and nimbly, making a bigger impact in the short run. But its reach expands only so far. 

A denomination carries with it not only a large coalition of churches with diverse people and leaders, but also the weight of its own history and traditions. Moving in a particular direction is messy and slow. It takes sustained—sometimes frustratingly prolonged—effort. It takes winsome persuasion. It takes vision casting. It takes relationship building. 

Obviously, any denominational structure must respect the power of the local church to do what only local churches can do—to find solutions to the contextual problems they have eyes on, to uniquely address the needs of their communities. But the fact remains that we can collectively get more done when there are more of us on the same team. 

Missional Economies of Scale

At the end of the day, what matters is the mission. And while an individual church can make “boots on the ground” decisions more quickly and freely, when it comes to advancing the mission of the gospel in its community, a church is always well served when it is supported by the institutional power of its denomination. 

Denominations help churches go further faster by providing resources, helping train leaders, and sharing support and wisdom across congregations and communities. For all the problems that denominations have caused, it is undeniable that the combined missional efforts of interconnected congregations quickly becomes a force to be reckoned with. 

Thus, my argument is not necessarily for denominations as they exist in our cultural landscape today, many of which are fraught. Nevertheless, I do think we should be concerned about the void that would be left behind if institutional forces in the American church ceased to exist entirely. 

In an age of deconstruction, many of us are coming awake to the pitfalls and shortcomings of our inherited institutions, including our denominations. But that doesn’t mean that the very idea of such institutions is something we ought to abandon. In fact, many of the flawed and now dilapidated institutions under whose purview I was raised and trained have shaped me in profound and beneficial ways. 

So as we turn away from or tear down structures that are no longer serving their purpose, let us do so with a vision for creating new structures that will not only serve our needs today but will benefit our children and our children’s children.