WWROD: What the heck is a ‘denomination’ anyway?

As I mentioned the other day, one of the best religion-beat professionals ever — that would be Richard Ostling of Time and the Associated Press — has opened up a weblog here in the Patheos online universe.

The name of the blog is “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” and the goal is, quite simply, for Ostling to field questions from readers and then to try to answer them in a simple, journalism-driven fashion.

After years of trying to get Ostling to consider writing for GetReligion from time to time, I was overjoyed to hear him commit throwing his hat into the cyber-ring. I also promised him that your GetReligionistas would point our readers toward at least one of his posts a week that we think would be especially interesting to journalists interested in religion and to readers who are interested in the kinds of issues that make the religion-news beat so fascinating and, at times, prickly.

With Ostling handling this, I would imagine that there are weeks we might pass along more than one.

Anyway, one of the scribe’s readers just asked this question about life in what many call post-denominational America:

What do you think is the future of denominations? Do you see any trends in history that may be indicators? And what do you think is the purpose (if any) of denominational affiliation?

And “The Guy” begins his response this way:

The oddities surrounding religious denominations bring to mind that incomparably sinister American clergyman Jim Jones, who in 1978 lured 909 Peoples Temple followers at his Guyana compound into an orgy of murder and suicide, a third of whom were children. More on him below.

The United States invented the “free exercise of religion” and has never had a dominant or “established” church like those in Europe. Even the big Catholic Church is merely one “denomination” among many. The term applies essentially to hundreds of Christian bodies in the freewheeling U.S. religious market, though American Jews also speak of their several denominations or branches.

The American tendency toward individualism and localism produces increasing numbers of “non-denominational” congregations. When 1960s disruptions fostered general suspicion toward authority, tradition, and institutions, the chief religious victims turned out to be the older and relatively liberal “Mainline” Protestant denominations. Meanwhile, notable expansion continues among unaffiliated congregations of Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Charismatic persuasion.

Since World War Two especially, much dynamism in Protestant outreach has come from Evangelical entrepreneurs and their “parachurch” organizations instead of denominational agencies. This is sometimes a mixed blessing.

There’s more, of course. So click right here and get over there and finish the article.

Feel free to leave journalistic comments here. However, I would assume that Ostling would like to hear from our readers on his own site. And leave him a few journalistic questions that bug you. I can’t think of anyone I would prefer to take them on in a constructive manner.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FW Ken

    As much as I enjoyed the blog, and this entry in particular, it left me wondering if journalism actually can get religion. Mr. Ostling goes at it with the proper tools of journalism – historical and social context, comparison of various elements, and just plain description. But the question about denominationalism is ultimately theological, specifically, ecclesiological.

    Simply stating that the various religious groups look like denominations touches only external perceptions. Catholics, Orthodox, Mormons, and a variety of other groups regard themselves as “the Church of Jesus Christ”. Heck, the Baptist pastors of my youth regarded our congregations not in terms of denomination, but as “New Testament Churches”. I don’t want a journalist to take a side in that kind of discussion, but there is ecclesiology to consider and I’m not sure Mr. Parking caught that dimension of the issue.

    • Darren Blair

      Don’t forget that a lot of denominations have had schisms over the years, with each individual schism making that claim, too.


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