Update and Reflections about Editing the Handbook of Denominations…

Update and Reflections about Editing the Handbook of Denominations… October 13, 2016

Update and Reflections about Editing the Handbook of Denominations

Some time ago I took on the task of editing, including revising and updating, the reference volume Handbook of Denominations in the United States 14th edition. This reference book used to be called “Mead’s Handbook of Denominations” and its first editor’s name always appears on the cover and title page even though he has been dead a long time.

As I explained here earlier, I have always had as strong interest in American Christian denominations–including ones some people would consider “cults.” If a group of churches (denomination) makes a credible claim to be Christian in terms of its heritage it might be included (size matters). The editors of this handbook have never used a test of doctrinal orthodoxy when deciding whether to include a denomination.

I am well into my research and writing. It’s fascinating work. For whatever reason I am especially interested in groups that have never been included in the Handbook that I think should be included. I have received much help from people who read this blog or hear about it from those who do.

Next week the university where I teach will host the annual meeting of a group of religion scholars who search for statistic about American religious groups. They do not limit their research to Christian groups as I do, but many of them have spent many years discovering ways to “count” churches and adherents of religious groups in the United States especially. One of the matters I assume they will be discussing is the demise of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches which used to be published annually. That was a rich resource for those of us interested in “tracking” denominations.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

One of the biggest surprises for me in this whole research project has been the adamant rejection of the word “denomination” by many leaders and members of denominations. For the handbook’s purposes, a “denomination” is any collective, network, of congregations (whatever they may call themselves) that has some identity. A denomination does not even have to have a headquarters, let alone a hierarchical structure, to be a denomination. For example, the Churches of Christ (non-instrumental) has always been included in the Handbook even though it has no headquarters or over-arching official, hierarchical structure of authority. Every Church of Christ is entirely autonomous, independent. But they know who they are-with some problems about boundaries. It is what I call a “centered set” rather than a “bounded set.” But even a centered set can be a denomination.

I have been taken a bit aback by the vehemence with which many leaders, pastors and members of denominations claim “We are not a ‘denomination’.” That is usually followed by something like “We are a fellowship” or “We are a movement.” There is in the U.S. today a strong aversion to the word “denomination.”

Recently I heard a denominational leader describe hers as a “denominetwork.” That’s was a new word for me and I wish I had coined it! I would love to take credit for it. But even a “denominetwork” of churches is, for our purposes, a denomination.

I grew up in a small Pentecostal (we preferred “Full Gospel”) denomination that also claimed not to be a denomination. Our leaders and pastors said we were a “movement.” Even as far back as the 1950s I can remember at annual conventions hearing that said. And yet, we had a headquarters, a president, a national board, etc. And each congregation was in some way accountable to the denomination’s leaders. Pastors, for example, were required to tithe to the headquarters!

So, with that background, and now being Baptist (!), I understand why some groups want to qualify the word “denomination” insofar as it means to them and to others a hierarchical, rigid, static structure. But it has never meant that.

So I have asked myself, as a researcher, where this aversion to the word “denomination” comes from. My working hypothesis is it began with the publication of theologian and sociologist of religion H. Richard Niebuhr’s widely read diatribe against the so-called “mainline denominations” entitled The Social Sources of Denominationalism in 1929. It takes a long time for some ideas to “sink in.” Niebuhr bemoaned American “denominationalism” and tended to use that word for the “mainline” denominations and use the word “sect” for all others. We no longer use the word “sect” which is really tied (sociologically) to Ernst Troeltsch’s sociology of religion which was tied to the European state church model. A “sect,” for Troeltsch, was a religious group that lived outside of the officially recognized state denomination (which he called “church”). So the “church versus sect” model has been dropped for a long time now–as American sociologists of religion recognize our separation of church and state.

Why did Niebuhr use it? Well, for him, depending on Troeltsch (I think), a “church” or “denomination” was a Protestant group of churches that was privileged by culture and had cultural influence–on politics, for example. And he was thinking primarily of the North of the United States. There, in New England (he taught at Yale), for example, the “denominations” were those groups closest to Troeltsch’s “churches”–denominations with influence over culture and politics (e.g., the Episcopal Church).

Niebuhr was quite critical of what he called the “denominations” and praised the “sects” for being more counter-cultural and offering services to the poor and disadvantaged whereas his “denominations” (in 1929) tended (he thought) to exist primarily for the rich and powerful.

I suspect this is a major contributing factor to the unreasonable aversion to the word “denomination” today; I suspect that was launched by Niebuhr, picked up by his students who became teachers of sociology of religion, and eventually “trickled down” to nearly everyone.

So when does a word become useless? That’s a difficult question. Now, in 2016, I suspect the majority of people in the U.S. look at a book title like Handbook of Denominations  and think to themselves “Oh, that must be about those few ‘old school’ hierarchical church groups that we don’t want to be like.” Or something like that. Or, if they see their denomination in such a book, they probably think “We shouldn’t be there! We’re not a ‘denomination’.” What to do? It wouldn’t be easy to change the name of a reference book that has been published every few years for many years. Many libraries, for example, have it on automatic order such that when it is published it goes automatically to them. A name change would be a real problem for sales!

Many of you–my readers–suggested names of “new” church groups, denominations, networks, whatever, for consideration for inclusion in the edition I am working on. I have made attempts to contact all of them without much success. The majority of denominations do not respond to letters, e-mails or even phone calls asking about their membership–something we really need for the Handbook. Most have web sites from which I can get some information, but rarely do the web sites say anything about number of affiliated congregations or members (or adherents). If they say anything about that it’s something like “We now have over a thousand congregations in the world.” That’s too vague. When I inquire directly about their numbers in the U.S. and explain my reasons for wanting to know, more often than not my inquiry goes unanswered. In some cases I get a return e-mail or phone call saying “We’ll get that information and get back to you.” Rarely do they “get back” to me. What? The leaders don’t have an idea how many churches and adherents their own denomination (or whatever they call it) has? That’s hard to believe.

Here’s an example: Acts 29 network. Okay, so they don’t consider themselves a “denomination,” but by our criteria it is one. And it should be in the book. But all my attempts to get statistics have failed. Most of my e-mails have gone unanswered. Promises to have someone call me back with the needed information have not been kept. I don’t know the reasons for this seemingly active disinterest in giving out the needed information. Acts 29 is not alone; most of the newer groups so many of you helpfully mentioned have not responded to my inquiries.

On the upside, however, I  have been helped by many people who have such statistics–even if only estimations. I appreciate their help.

The project continues. I am learning much. I marvel at the vitality of American Christian life. Much of it is happening in groups such as Acts 29 which are almost unknown to the media who talk endlessly about the “decline” of church membership in the U.S.


*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment solely to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

"My impression is that they are fewer and farther between than ever and hard to ..."

Should Christian Worship Happen with a ..."
"I have read the article but not all the comments, so if someone has already ..."

Is Paradox Something Good in Christian ..."
"I know this is not a discussion board so I think we just need to ..."

What If Universalism Were True? A ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment