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.

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

6 responses

  1. Ken Coffee says:

    This post is on target. Members of my own family fail to see the relevance of remaining loyal to one denomination, although all are members of Baptist churches. My own kids love being Baptist, but they have not limited themselves to that as they move from place to place.

  2. Todd Pylant says:

    So let me ask a genuine question…

    Why is this conversation not taking place on a serious level among the leadership of the SBC? My question is not meant to cast stones at anyone, but to really ask “why?”

    When any system (family, church, business, etc.) refuses to address the elephant in the living room, there is usually a reason. Either the pain of facing the problem is too great or we are more committed to a way of life that is causing the problem than we are to solving the problem or that we don’t really care. Or, could the answer be more prophetic? Are we seeing a famine for the Word of the Lord? Is Ezekiel’s vision of the Spirit leaving the Temple becoming a reality in North America? Think about all we have to do to “grow a church.” Our preschool areas have to clean and updated, the parking must be ample and within eye sight of the front door, the music must be of high quality, and the messages must be inspirational. In short, humans have become the focus of the church. If that is the case, then no wonder the church is dying. Even the pagans can tell there is no life in a human centered church.

    I really wonder when a leader in the SBC will call us to face the question, and not just in a single sermon at the pastor’s conference.

    Todd Pylant

  3. Lee says:

    Todd, your questions are right on target.

    At least part of the answer is in your statement, “Think about all “we ” have to do to grow a church.” It is all human effort, and all done to meet human standards. What about being filled with the Holy Spirit, being led and being dependent on Him? Most of our churches that draw crowds do so because they have resources to offer them what they want “to get out of” their experience and most of those people don’t ever give anything back.

    Somehow, though, over the years, we have picked up the idea that the central apparatus of our denomination is where the problems are solved and from where revival will come. But the fact is that we are a denomination of independent, autonomous churches, and there isn’t one in a hundred of those church members who could tell you who the president of the SBC is at any given time, or who cares. And there is nothing those denominational leaders can do in the way of programs, initiatives, emphases or otherwise that will make any difference in terms of arresting the decline. They are, apparently, content with leaving things the way they are because the “total membership” figure slowly increasing (by less than 1% per year) is some kind of anesthetic against the pain of the actual attendance figures and baptism numbers being in as steep a decline as the United Methodists. They’ve even figured out that if they doctor those figures a bit by continuing to count churches that no longer send reports by including the last report they sent in the totals. So I don’t think they are really interested in an honest, straightforward report.

  4. Ted says:

    Lee,

    I think the answer is “No, but the day of denominational loyalty likely is.”

  5. Bryan Riley says:

    I pray that the answer will be yes – and soon. Thy Kingdom come!!!

    Good post.

  6. David Rogers says:

    Lee,

    Congratulations on a very perceptive post, which I think is, by and large, on target.

    I believe that underlying all the talk on denominational loyalty and post-denominationalism are economic issues. Some people are more discriminating than others when it comes to deciding how they are going to invest their ministry money. As Baptists, for example, we may wish God’s blessing on the Presbyterians down the road, but giving our money so they can keep sprinkling babies seems incongruent, and not a good investment, for many. Add in to this the consumeristic value of winning and maintaining “product loyalty” — the greater the “customer buy-in,” the greater the expected economic growth of the organization.

    However, I think that it is positive whenever we come to see that the values of the kingdom of God are broader than our own organizational growth. Denominations can be a good thing, if they help to channel resources, and promote responsible stewardship towards the advance of the kingdom of God. But they can be counter-productive if they become overly consumed with maintaining their “share of the pie,” and end up with their “raison d’etre” being promoting and defending their “niche” in the “market.”