Churches and Denominations; Why Hide?
During the last twenty-five to thirty years I’ve noticed a trend among American churches and I’ve discussed it here before. It is churches hiding their denominational identities and using vague, often one word names that tell nothing about them.
When I was growing up in a city of about 100 thousand people there were numerous churches in the city and only one had a nondescript name: the name of the city followed by “Community Church.” But the sign had below the name a symbol that clearly identified it as a UCC church (United Church of Christ).
Already, in high school, I knew about almost every church in the city. I was fascinated, almost obsessed, with learning about churches and especially denominations. I ended up being asked by a major publisher to write the 14th edition of the Handbook of Denominations because of my knowledge of American denominations.
I have also long had a special interest in “cults and sects and new religions”—in America—going back to high school. The ultimate outcome of that interest and research is my forthcoming book “Unsafe Sects: Understanding Religious Cults” (to be published by Cascade, an imprint of Wipf and Stock sometime this year).
A relatively new movement, really a kind of fad, swept through American church life in the 1970s and 1980s—the “Church Growth Movement”—which led to some churches using secular marketing firms to tell them how to grow. One thing some marketing firms told churches was to drop their denominational identity, pretend to be “nondenominational,” because so many Americans were “turned off” by denominational divisions.
During that movement and fad, I was invited to teach a ten week class on basic Christian doctrine on Wednesday evenings to a group of adults in the church. The church was one of the first mega-churches and was well-known for using marketing techniques to grow. It’s name revealed nothing about its Baptist identity. During the class I mentioned that the church was Baptist and some of the people in the class of about twenty reacted almost with horror. They had been attending the church for over a year and planned to join and were never told the church was Baptist. This was in a locale dominated by Catholics and Lutherans in the Upper Midwest.
During that time and later I traveled a lot to speaking engagements and conferences. While staying in hotels I would examine the “Churches” listing in the Yellow Pages. Over just a few years I discovered that the category “Nondenominational” was growing and that many of the churches listed in it were, I knew, denominationally affiliated.
Recently I moved to a major American metropolitan area (population 3 million) and discovered that most of the churches I see are of the “plan label” type. No hint even on their web sites of any denominational affiliation. I made a “bet” (no money involved) with a friend that if he mentioned a church I could research it on the internet and find out its denominational affiliation. Or at least what Protestant or other tradition it belonged to.
Most recently I finally took it upon myself to discover, if possible, the denominational identity or affiliation, however unofficial, of a large church I drive by almost daily. It worships in a plain brick building that looks like some kind of office building. The name is two words put together as one. Something LIKE “HighPointe Church” (but that’s not it). I decided to test my own theory and skills and closely examined its web site. I found nothing there that indicated any denominational affiliation or even any tradition of Protestant (or other) Christianity it identified with.
However, I kept looking. I found a web site not officially in any way affiliated with the church that mentioned its affiliation with a denomination. So I went to that denomination’s web site and located its “Find a Church” map and enlarged it with two fingers to my city and found the church in question. It does belong to that denomination. And that denomination is…Anabaptist and even Mennonite (without using either of those words in its name). I read the history of the denomination and its Mennonite background and distinctives (pacifism included) and felt enriched in my knowledge and a bit upset that it took so much work (about two hours) to find out the denominational affiliation of the church I drive by almost every day.
Of course I can’t read the church’s leaders’ minds, but my theory is that they don’t want the public to know it is Mennonite. It’s web site presents it as a youth-oriented, generically evangelical (and very hip) church. All the pastors are young men and many of the non-pastoral staff members are young women.
There may be totally independent churches out there, unaffiliated with any denomination, network of churches, specific Protestant (or other) tradition, but when I do my research I almost always find out some specific identity even if only that the pastor(s) graduated from a very particular seminary. When examining a church’s web site I first look for “About” and look for its statement of beliefs and its history. Then I look at “Other Resources” (or something like that) and see if it affiliates, however indirectly, with a college, university, seminary or even mission agency or publisher.
I once knew a student who insisted that the church he attended was totally unaffiliated. I don’t blame him for not knowing. But I examined that church’s web site and found that it is under the “covering” (authority) of an African Anglican bishop. And yet many of its members and regular attenders have no idea what that means and it doesn’t use the Book of Common Prayer or anything else that would point to its Anglican identity.
Is this trend a form of false advertising? Is it ethical for a church to hide its denominational affiliation?
Now I will return to my earlier story of the mega-church where I taught a ten week course on basic Christian doctrine. Some of the attenders of the Wednesday evening classes told me they were very upset because they had come to consider that church their home church but when they applied for membership were told for the first time that they would have to undergo “re-baptism” by immersion to join. Most of them were baptized as infants and did not want to “turn their backs” on their infant baptisms. They felt tricked by the church—into investing themselves heavily in the church, making friends and giving generously without being told it was a Baptist church and they could not join without undergoing believer baptism by immersion.
I made a point of examining the church’s publicly available printed materials (this was before web sites) and could not find any mention of its Baptist identity even though I knew, before agreeing to teach there, that it belonged to a particular Baptist denomination to which I also belonged that required members to be baptized upon confession of faith (normally at or around the age of twelve or older) and by total immersion.
Is this trend, fad, ethical? What do you think?
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