The Changing Face of Denominationalism

Do all of our distinctions still matter?

In 1955, when Will Herberg wrote his classic volume Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An essay in American religious sociology, only one in 25 churchgoing Americans tended to change denominations over a lifetime. In 1985, one in three did so. In this current decade, that number has risen to more than one in two, or about 60 percent.1

In recent years, though, we have seen more than this decline in denominational loyalty. We have also seen an increase in the number of people whose Christian identity is shaped more by involvement with a network, special purpose group or parachurch group than by a particular denomination. Let’s take a look at these changes with an eye on the question, “Do denominations still matter?”

Denominations are shifting; geography still plays a role.

Certainly, some generalizations about geographical presence and denominational influence still hold: Roman Catholics continue to have great sway in New England, Lutherans are most prevalent in the upper Midwest, Baptists are a majority in the South, and Dutch Reformed are liberally sprinkled across the heartland.

Sociologists at Boston University have also tracked denominational trends, highlighting the differences on the East and West coasts when contrasted with areas in the middle of this country. About 30 percent of the people on the two coasts respond positively to the importance of denominational identity compared with about 70 percent in the Midwest and the Deep South.2

Such comparisons are equally exaggerated between rural and urban areas: Eighty-four percent of people who live in rural areas believe that denominational identity is important, compared to less than half that percentage in suburban and urban areas.3 While the majority of American churches are still found in those rural areas, most people now live elsewhere.4 In addition, more than 50 percent of American churchgoers attend a megachurch, the majority of which are located in suburban areas and are not tied to a denominational label.5

All of these facts point to the decline in the importance of denominations in this century.

Denominations guide and inform us.

Over the past 50 years, many mainline denominations have sadly lost their way in terms of historically orthodox theological and ethical commitments. Some of these have become disconnected from their heritage, and even more so from Scripture and the great Christian tradition. Some today are not only post-denominational but also on their way toward becoming post-Christian, as their conversations focus on issues of inclusiveness and universalism, sexuality, and inter-religious spirituality. Postmodern influences, shifts both in population and in perceptions regarding denominations, plus the decline of mainline denominations—all have combined to bring about changes that frankly are hard to calculate.

So what does this say about the future of denominationalism? I want to say that while denominationalism is in measurable decline, denominations still matter—if they remain connected to Scripture and to the orthodox tradition, to a historic Christianity that stands or falls on first-order issues. We need places of belonging shaped by our common beliefs and practices.

Denominational structures help guide, inform, connect and cohere those essential matters. The Christian faith needs both “structure and Spirit,” to borrow words from historian Jaroslav Pelikan, in order to carry forward the Christian message. If we focus too much on structure, we wind up with unwanted bureaucracy. Alternately, should we focus too much on the Spirit, we unwittingly move toward an amorphous form of Christianity.

Let us pray for balance even as we hold out hope for the future of healthy denominations to serve the cause of Christ and cooperatively advance the good news of the gospel. So there must remain some place, some future, for denominationalism or for structures, even as we recognize the importance of variety in an expanding pluralistic context.

Denominations provide both anchors and bridges.

Denominations and movements can and should maintain their distinctives, all while stressing a commitment to gospel commonalities first. After all, our struggles in the second decade of the 21st century are not against fellow Christ followers, but rather against the demonic, against secularism and against unbelief.

We need conviction and boundaries (what my colleague Kevin Vanhoozer calls “anchored sets”) as well as a spirit of cooperation to build bridges. Denominational heritages and distinctives do matter, but more importantly, what is needed today is a fresh kind of transgenerational and transcontinental approach to the Christian faith.

Perhaps more important for the 21st century than the denominational future will be the importance of networks. Networks now seem to be replacing denominations for many people, at least for the short term, and may be the most significant change in the religious landscape in this century. Denominations that remain “convictionally” connected to Scripture, the gospel and their tradition—all while exploring ways to partner with affinity groups and networks—will be able to move out of their insularity and better understand the changing world around us.

Similarly, we need a new spirit of mutual respect and humility to serve together with those with whom we might have differences of conviction on secondary matters—all in order to extend the work of the gospel and the kingdom of God on this earth. Such partnerships will pull us out of our insularity and encourage us to shared efforts in social action, cultural engagement and other matters relating to the public square.

Conviction and cooperation, boundaries and bridges, structure and the work of the Holy Spirit will all be necessary to move forward and do more together than we can do alone. With that recognition, I believe that there remains a hopeful future for faithful denominations.

Let us trust God to bring a fresh wind of His Spirit to our theological convictions, to our work of evangelism and missions, to our education and service. May the result be that we can relate to one another in love and humility, resulting in true community as well as new life in our gospel-believing and gospel-proclaiming denominations.

We pray not only for a new commitment to confessional, convictional and courageous orthodoxy but also for a genuine orthopraxy that can be seen before a watching world—for the extension of God’s kingdom and for the eternal glory of our great God.

1Everyday Religion: Observing modern religious lives, edited by Nancy T. Ammerman.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
Portions of this article first appeared in: “Denominationalism: Historical developments, contemporary challenges, and global opportunities,” by David S. Dockery, in Why We Belong: Evangelical unity and denominational diversity, edited by Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson; and in “So Many Denominations: The rise, decline, and future of denominationalism,” in Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism, edited by David S. Dockery, Jerry Tidwell and Ray Van Neste.

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