Russell D. Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes in the Wall Street Journal about nondenominationalism:
Are we witnessing the death of America’s Christian denominations? Studies conducted by secular and Christian organizations indicate that we are. Fewer and fewer American Christians, especially Protestants, strongly identify with a particular religious communion—Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. According to the Baylor Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches now represent the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and they are also the fastest growing.
More and more Christians choose a church not on the basis of its denomination, but on the basis of more practical matters. Is the nursery easy to find? Do I like the music? Are there support groups for those grappling with addiction?
This trend is a natural extension of the American evangelical experiment. After all, evangelicalism is about the fundamental message of Christianity—the evangel, the gospel, literally the “good news” of God’s kingdom arriving in Jesus Christ—not about denomination building.
The post-World War II generation of evangelicals was responding to congregations filled with what they considered spiritual deadness. People belonged to a church, but they seemed to have no emotional experience of Christianity inside the building. Revivalists watched as denominational bureaucracies grew larger, and churches shifted from sending missionaries to preach around the world to producing white papers on issues like energy policy.
The revivalists wanted to get back to basics, to recover the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus. “Being a member of a church doesn’t make you a Christian,” the ubiquitous evangelical pulpit cliché went, “any more than living in a garage makes you a car.” Thus these evangelical ministries tended not to talk about those issues that might divide their congregants. They avoided questions like: Who should be baptized and when? What does the Lord’s Supper mean? Should women be ordained? And so on.
The movement exploded. Before 1955, there were virtually no megachurches (defined as 2,000 people per worship service) in the country. Now there are between 850 and 1,200 such churches and many are nondenominational, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Evangelicalism wanted to open its doors to all believers and it often lacked roots in the traditions of particular congregations. So many evangelical churches have a generic identity. This has changed the feel of local church life.
Where hymnody once came from the spontaneity of slave spirituals or camp meetings, worship songs are increasingly now focus-grouped by executives in Nashville. The evangelical “Veggie Tales” cartoons—animated Bible stories featuring talking cucumbers and tomatoes—probably shape more children in their view of scripture than any denominational catechism does these days. A church that requires immersion baptism before taking communion, as most Baptist traditions do, will likely get indignant complaints from evangelical visitors who feel like they’ve been denied service at a restaurant.
But there are some signs of a growing church-focused evangelicalism. Many young evangelicals may be poised to reconsider denominational doctrine, if for no other reason than they are showing signs of fatigue with typical evangelical consumerism.
I would add to these statistics the churches that actually do belong to a denomination but act as if they didn’t.
Is it not true that a good number of these nondenominational congregations do have an implicit theology and follow an implicit–usually Baptist–tradition? For example, do they baptize infants or not? Does anyone know of a nondenominational church that does? Or will if a parent requests it?
What I’m asking–because I don’t know, so please enlighten me somebody–is if a non-denominational congregation still has a distinct theology or are all theologies or most theologies acceptable? Are there non-denominational Calvinist churches, non-denominational Pentecostal churches, etc.? Or do non-denominational churches allow members to hold to any of these theologies? Or is there a distinct set of “non-denominational” teachings that everyone adheres to?
Protestantism tends to sort itself out either by doctrines or, perhaps more so, by polity. Is today’s nondenominationalism also a matter of a seminary or Bible School graduate just going out and starting his own church? Unfettered by denominational approval, processes, and supervision? Is that it?
Some of us are more interested in actual, worked-out, rich, theology. Also meaningful, non-generic worship. I guess that sends people to denominations. For me, when I found Lutheranism, I did not just just find a “denomination,” I found the Church. Not that Lutherans are the only one true church, but I found a sense of Church as existing through time and eternity that does includes non-Lutheran Christians but this universal but non-generic Church is manifested in our local congregation.
“Denomination” just means, literally, “name.” Of course churches within a particular tradition need to have more in common than a name. Unless it is the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Is nondenominationalism the new ecumenism, so that in generic Christianity we are seeing the fulfilment of the dream of Christian unity? Or not?