The small town in which I grew up had a small population of Christians. A majority of the residents were unchurched, and the majority of those who were in church on any given Sunday morning went to one of the four Mormon wards scattered throughout the rural area surrounding the town. In an area with a population of 10,000 people, you might be able to find 600 or 700 people in the 17 or 18 Christian congregations in the area. During most of my childhood, there were something like 17 churches of various denominations in the community. The largest of these was the Catholic church, which probably accounted for about half of that 700. Among the Protestants, the Presbyterian church and the First Baptist Church, an ABC-USA affiliated group, were the largest of the rest. The others, including a Southern Baptist church, a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, a United Methodist church, an Assembly of God, an Episcopal church, a Church of Christ, a non-denominational Charismatic church, a Nazarene church, a Full Gospel church that was a split from the A of G, a Cleveland, Tennessee affiliated Church of God, and a couple of other non-denominational groups, were all churches of anywhere from 15 to 50 people. Most of them had bi-vocational pastors, some of them commuting from out of town.
When I was in high school, our small SBC church joined in with several other churches in town to help sponsor and conduct a community wide evangelistic crusade. My Dad was a deacon, and served on the organizing committee, and they met in our house on at least two occasions. That was when I first realized what denominational differences could do to Christians trying to work together, even in an evangelistic effort. The concerns that had to be worked out before they could even begin to make plans seemed endless. There were concerns about the level of “Pentecostal” activity that would occur, how much “pressure” would be put on “altar calls” or “invitations” and who would do the receiving and counseling, as well as what they would say and to which churches those who responded would be referred. Concerns over doctrine, over baptisms, over the denominational and theological background of the selected evangelist, and over things such as whether the Lord’s Supper would be served at each gathering, caused half of the churches to drop out. The two Baptist churches were left with the Assembly of God, Church of God and the Charismatic non-denominational church to conduct the crusade. Ultimately, each church was made responsible for securing an evangelist and a singer for one of the five nights of the crusade, and I don’t remember that there were ever more than 100 people in attendance at any given service. I also don’t remember that there were all that many decisions made.
While that may be an anectodal example of how the differences between various kinds of Christian churches can affect the way we interact, I believe it is an accurate one. And while there have been a lot of changes in the last thirty years in particular, I believe the distinctives that exist, particularly over doctrine, will insure that denominations continue to exist for some time to come.
There is a movement toward a non-denominational expression of the Christian faith that is growing and becoming stronger with each succeeding year. Younger people are much less inclined to see denominational distinctives as barriers to cooperation in ministry, or even in gathering together in worship, and are much less likely to insist on their inclusion or practice in a particular body. Most denominationally affiliated congregations these days are made up largely of older members, and the median age is high. But walk into a non-denominational congregation and you will see many younger people and younger families. And one of the observations that can be made in the SBC, where almost half of our Sunday School enrollment is past 60, is that the 20% or so of our churches that can still be classified as “growing,” are churches that have more or less emphasized the essential basics of Christian teaching, and have dropped an emphasis on denominational “distinctives” that are secondary or tertiary in nature. Saddleback Valley Community Church, pastored by Rick Warren, is a good example. It’s the largest church affiliated with the SBC, but I would bet that you couldn’t find one in a hundred of its members that would identify themselves as “Southern Baptists,” or are even more than just remotely aware that their church is affiliated with the SBC.
Many of these churches don’t necessarily see themselves as “affiliated” with a denomination, but rather simply “in cooperation” with one. That’s really much more suited to the way the SBC is organized, anyway. I’ve discovered that doctrine varies pretty widely on secondary and tertiary interpretations of scripture among Southern Baptists, and while we do have a lot in common, we probably have more diversity in that regard than most other denominations do. The SBC isn’t a top-down denomination, the churches are independent and autonomous, and efforts to bring a narrower doctrinal perspective to the convention’s institutions and agencies haven’t really had that much of an effect on the whole denomination. Our churches are independent and autonomous, about 80% of them haven’t sent a messenger to the convention in decades, more than half of them are pastored and led by individuals who went to seminaries and Bible colleges not connected to the denomination, and few of them determine their doctrinal position based on what the convention decides. Ultimately, that may make Southern Baptists fairly well equipped to deal with the paradigm shift related to denominational affiliation and connection with which others are having difficulties.
Denominations will continue to exist, but the lines will blur, the distinctives will fade, and they will have to change and adapt in order to survive and continue to be effective in a post-denominational era.