Denominations? Unpacking an odd 12-letter word

Craig in Colorado asks:

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?

The Guy responds:

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. Harold Camping of Family Radio quit his Christian Reformed denomination and eventually spured all conventinal church groups as his broadcast network promoted a series of failed predictions for the dates Jesus Christ should have returned to establish his kingdom.

Denominations should be especially useful for upholding and certifying doctrinal sanity and moral probity. Though Jim Jones acted as a law unto himself, he was a minister in good standing with a perfectly respectable “Mainline” denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which in turn holds membership in the perfectly respectable National Council of Churches. By contrast, two celebrated media entrepreneurs caught in scandal, the Revs. Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, held clergy credentials in the Assemblies of God denomination, which defrocked both.

Two celebrated congregations in southern California look like typical independent megachurches but are actually part of denominations: Robert Schuller’s now-bankrupt Crystal Cathedral (Reformed Church in America) and Rick Warren’s thriving Saddleback Church (Southern Baptist Convention). Even fervently independent congregations that resist national or global denominational ties somehow can’t do without equivalents. Such flocks are often unified with others through specific identities, beliefs, and practices, and benefit from joint action similar to that provided by denominations. Examples:

1) The 13,000 Churches of Christ are set apart by a unique ban on musical instruments and cooperate in many ventures. 2) The 1,100 Plymouth Brethren assemblies, which lack ordained clergy, sometimes prefer the “Christian Brethren” designation to avoid denominational taint, yet sponsor effective publishing and mission agencies. 3) The Willow Creek Association unites 7,000 U.S. congregations through fellowship and the ministry design of an Illinois megachurch, though many simultaneously belong to denominations. 4) The Calvary Chapel Association has cloned 1,500 congregations worldwide, in this case without such dual affiliations. 5) The 1,200 U.S. congregations in the very distinctive Salvation Army administer neither baptism nor the Lord’s supper. This unusual trait may have originated back when the Army defined itself as a parachurch movement supplementing conventional churches rather than being a separate denomination itself.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    I often hear the proliferation of denominations cited as evidence of the disintegration of the church. I know you’re not a theologian, but I wonder if you have any comments on the evolving justifications Protestants offer for the developments of hundreds and even thousands (from what I hear) of Protestant denominations around the world?

    • Richard Ostling

      “Thousands” is accurate, not only worldwide but even within the USA, as shown in J. Gordon Melton’s “Encyclopedia of American Religions” (Gale, 8th edition, 2009). The good side of Protestant proliferation is there’s a choice out there for anyone and everyone. The bad side is that many splits have causes other than high theological or moral principle, and the endless divisions appear to violate Jesus’ own prayer asking for the unity of his flock.

    • Steve Lovison

      According to Oxford University there are well over 44,000 autonomous denominations out there. documents a few hundred of them.

      • Larry

        According to the IBMR, Jan 2012 report, there was expected to be 43,000 christian denominations by mid 2012, projected to 55,000 by 2025. One reason I hate to see all these denominations is that they wind up ‘teaching’ their flock that there is something ‘wrong’ with the way all the others are doing it. This ‘wrongness’ leads to feelings of disdain, then dislike, then hatred and persecution. Who knew there were this many ways to interpret christianity.

  • Will

    My own feeling is that the denominational system has outlived its usefulness. How many self-styled-mainline Protestants can explain the difference between their church and the guys down the street “in terms which would hold water for five minutes”?

  • Jerry

    I think the opinion piece, The decline of evangelical America by John Dickerson, helps illuminate this question. The decline of traditional denominations and now the decline of evangelical Christianity invite people to relook at what it means to be a Christian.

  • Bob Wheeler

    If being a “Baptist” can mean anything from being to pro-gay to being KJV only, does the word have any real meaning anymore? The liberal churches have traditional worship and many of the conservative churches specialize in “contemporary” worship. At this point the denominational names have little correspondence with what a given congregation actually believes or practices.
    I also think that if you look at the demographics of most churches, the “traditional” late Victorian church is passing from the scene. In 20 years most of them won’t be around anymore. (They’re mostly filled with senior citizens). And if we enter a period of persecution I think a new, underground church will emerge — one that will look more like the committed believers’ church of the first century.