I’m an avid student of denominations and have served as an unpaid consultant to two major handbooks of denominations. I realize we are living in what some call a “post-denominational” era, but in reality denominations are alive and well and proliferating. There are at least 300 distinct denominations in the U.S. with over 5,000 members and I’m sure there are more that haven’t been discovered yet. And new ones keep popping up all the time. Two of the newest are ones I belong to by virtue of my church membership. (Calvary Baptist Church of Waco is dually affiliated.) They are: The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), a moderate Baptist group mainly in the South, and The Baptist General Convention of Texas. That’s right–the BGCT is now a distinct denomination entirely separate from the Southern Baptist Convention. The BGCT consists of mostly moderate Baptist churches that used to be Southern Baptist but now have trouble identifying with that denomination. (I use the word “denomination” as most sociologists of religion use it–for any distinct grouping of churches whether highly organized and hierarchical or not. Baptists traditionally prefer to call their groups “conventions” or “conferences,” but to sociologists they are all denominations.) The BGCT has churches in surrounding states. I wonder if someday it will drop the term “Texas” from its name? Well, not likely soon. Texas pride, you know.
What’s very ironic is that the Southern Baptist Convention counts among its members churches that do not want to be considered SBC such as my own congregation. When you hear that the SBC has “over 16 million members” you should be skeptical. Here’s how that works. The SBC simply counts as members all churches and church members that belong to certain regional associations such as ours–the Waco Regional Baptist Association which has over 150 churches. Many of those churches and certainly many of their members (such as I) do not want to be affiliated with the SBC. And if we sent “messengers” (delegates) to the annual meeting of the SBC they would probably be denied credentials (i.e., they could not vote). Why? Because we ordain women deacons! And my church had a woman pastor for almost 10 years! So, we are counted as Southern Baptist by the SBC even though we could not send delegates to their annual meeting and even though we don’t want to be counted by them. There doesn’t seem to be any way to stop them from considering us “them” even though we aren’t really among “them.”
I consider this a matter of integrity. The SBC and other denominations need to put out realistic statistics and stop counting as member churches those, like mine, that do not consider themselves SBC and whose delegates would not be seated to vote at the annual SBC meeting.
But there’s another matter of integrity I want to raise. These days more and more churches are hiding their denominational affiliations. It’s very common now to see “Calvary Church” or “Church on the Rock” or “Faith Tabernacle” or “Prairie Wind Church,” etc., with no identification of its denominational affiliation. A little digging often reveals there is such a denominational affiliation; the church just doesn’t want to advertise it. Why? Are they ashamed of it? If so, then they should drop their affiliation. I think it borders on false advertising when churches take on generic names and also hide their denominational affiliation so that even their web site doesn’t clearly state what it is.
I often get e-mails from friends and acquaintances asking me to help them identify a particular “community church” (or whatever). I’m pretty good at sniffing out those churches’ denominational connections using their web sites. There’s almost always some hint there. But the average lay person would not find it. It irritates me when such churches have a strong affiliation with a denomination but do not reveal it clearly. I think that’s unethical.
Some years ago I taught a Wednesday evening series at one of the original market-driven churches. If I named it many of you would have heard of it. It’s pastor has written many books on church growth. He and his staff were among the first to hire a marketing firm to help them “grow” their church. Some of the lay people in my class on doctrine complained bitterly that they had chosen the church as their spiritual family before being told it is Baptist. Then, when they asked to join, they were informed they would have to be (using their terms) “re-baptized.” They had no clue the church was Baptist until they inquired about membership. I could only agree with them that they had been mistreated by the church. (Needless to say, I was never invited to speak there again!)
I would call on all churches that have denominational affiliations to be very up front and clear about it. It’s a matter of integrity.