Amid declining membership and loyalty, do denominations matter?
By: John D. Roth

John D. Roth is professor of history and director of the Mennonite Historical Library.

Watch video of John D. Roth's speech.
I’m aware that the title of my reflections – “Do Denominations Matter?” – is likely to evoke a range of responses. For some, the topic may feel like a waste of time: Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, who cares? What does it matter? You grew up Presbyterian, I’m a Catholic; you worship your way, I worship my way. In the end, we’re all Christians; denominational differences shouldn’t get in the way. Let’s just focus on Jesus and get on with more important things.

Until, one day, you discover that denominations do matter. Perhaps your child or grandchild starts dating someone from a different religious tradition – say, a Christian Scientist who believes that sickness is a problem of the mind rather than the body, or a Seventh Day Adventist who worships on Saturday rather than Sunday or someone with very clear views about home schooling and “male headship” – and suddenly you ask yourself why do they believe these things? How is this going to affect my child? What does this mean for our family gatherings? Suddenly, you realize that denominations do matter.

I happen to be a Mennonite. I teach at a Mennonite college, preach regularly in Mennonite congregations, direct a research center called the Mennonite Historical Library and I publish books and articles on Mennonite history.

Yet at Goshen College we have students from at least 38 different Christian denominations and five other religions. The local Yellow Pages directory lists no less than 69 different denominational options within easy driving distance of the campus. There are 15,000 denominations registered with the IRS, and as many as 34,000 discrete groups of Christians scattered around the world.

Each group claims in some way to be the Body of Christ. All of them look at the emergence of the early church in the book of Acts and say: “Yes, that’s us at our birth; we represent the outcome that Jesus was intending for the church all along.” And we scratch our heads and wonder how can that be right? How can we live together with such a range of convictions about Truth?

What image comes to mind when you think about all those denominations? Are they all just branches off a single tree? Do you envision the various denominations as individual trees making up a single forest or a diverse ecosystem of Christian communities? Or perhaps my denomination is a mighty oak tree surrounded by weeds? These are questions worth thinking about.

In general, one can say that denominations have provided their members with “boundaries” and “bridges” – boundaries, in the sense of cultivating a distinctive group identity, and bridges, in the sense of helping the group organize for outreach and relationships with the broader world.

In the North American context, denominations helped congregations nurture specific forms of worship, beliefs and ethics that distinguished them from other groups. They did this by publishing confessions and catechisms and curriculum; by credentialing pastors and by creating seminaries and denominational schools to promote distinctive beliefs and to guard theological orthodoxy.

Denominations also took on an important organizational or institutional function. They oversaw programs, budgets and fundraising efforts. Denominations promised efficiency: they consolidated local mission initiatives into unified boards and agencies; they created social service and relief programs, and promoted men’s and women’s organizations. Denominations created logos, letterheads, flowcharts and policies; they became record-keepers – tracking membership and tabulating finances. And they preserved their records in archives so that official histories of the denomination could be written.

A third important role that denominations in North America came to play was that of preserving ethnic or cultural identity. As immigrant groups made their way to America, denominations served ethnic subcultures by helping to keep alive traditional practices and folkways – preserving memories of the old country, encouraging young people to intermarry, and giving the group a sense of divine blessing in a new and strange land. Thus, we don’t generally find it odd to use ethnic or cultural adjectives to describe specific denominations – Norwegian Lutherans, Irish Catholics or Swiss Mennonites.

Since the middle of the 20th century, however, a wide range of indicators have suggested that denominational allegiance – especially to U.S. Catholic and mainstream Protestant denominations – is on a steady decline.

The percentage of adults who claim “no religious preference” is rising, jumping from 7 percent in 1991 to 16 percent today, and the percentage of young adults who have “no religious preference” is nearly twice that. So fewer people are ready to identify themselves explicitly as Christians.

In addition, loyalty to particular denominations is eroding. Of the six mainline Protestant denominations – all of which have been losing members for 40 years – worship attendance declined in real numbers by 12 percent between 1994 and 2005. That number is even larger if you consider membership as a percentage of the total population.

At the same time, the average age of members in most denominations is increasing. Among Mennonites, for example, the average age has jumped from 49 to 54 over the past 15 years, while the number of young people under the age of 45 in our congregations declined from 54 percent to 30 percent.

Over the past decade, virtually all denominations have faced significant budget reductions, with declining dollars available for missions, publications, education and administration.

Meanwhile, the tendency to move freely from one denomination to another has become much more common. In 1955, only 1 in 25 people changed denominations in their lifetime. In 1985, the figure was 1 in 3. Today it is closer to 1 in 2. According to a recent survey, one-third of Mennonite Church USA members agree with the statement “Church denominations do not matter.”

What is emerging is less a culture of “disbelief ” than the rise of what can be called “generic Christianity” – Christianity floating free from a particular denominational tradition.

Increasingly, young adults are inclined to say something like “I’m spiritual, but not religious” or “I believe in God, but not the church” or “I can worship in nature just as authentically – maybe even more so – than if I were in the pew on Sunday morning.” Young people talk a great deal about spiritual life. Yet allegiance to traditional denominations is almost not on the radar.

A second and fast-growing form of “generic Christianity” has been the rise of so-called “mega churches,” almost all of which are either explicitly “nondenominational” or take pains to downplay their denominational affiliations.

Still others have been frustrated with traditional denominations because they have not taken a clear enough stance on “hot button” social or political issues like abortion or homosexuality or opposition to the war.

In short, for the average Christian today denominational distinctions seem to be increasingly irrelevant. We are less inclined to assume that religious authority should be entrusted to experts in some distant seminary or church headquarters. In an age of mass media, global connectivity and aggressive marketing, we have come to discover that there are lots of denominational options out there, many of which are presenting their programs with more sophistication and appeal than our own.

And finally, even though recent immigrants and the elderly may still count on the church to preserve ethnic identity, younger people are far less inclined to appreciate the social or cultural role that churches once played. Few people look to their denominations as the carrier of a distinctive culture, the primary source of marriage partners or the hub of ethnic activities.

Many people regard the declining role of denominations as a positive development – “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” After all, one might argue, isn’t a divided church a scandal for the Christian witness to the world? Didn’t Jesus pray that the church would be One, just as his Father in Heaven was one?

Yet the brokenness of Christ’s body is indeed a matter of serious concern. And precisely because the body of Christ is always incarnated in specific times, cultures and places, I would like to suggest that denominations do matter and that the trend toward “generic Christianity” should be resisted.

Congregations that have no denominational connections often place themselves under the authority of charismatic, individual leaders who are accountable to no one. These groups may flourish for a time, but they quickly fade when the leader passes from the scene or they go down in a fiery crash when the leader begins to use the church as a means to personal wealth or power.

Denominations provide a necessary ballast, stability and accountability to individual congregations. They help like-minded congregations organize for missions and relief work; they represent your congregation to the broader Christian church.

Even more important is the fact that denominations – of one sort or another – are impossible to avoid, because there is no such thing as a “nondenominational” church. There is no such thing as “generic Christianity.” The idea that we will be united if we “just” believe the Bible or “just” love Jesus is an illusion.

Pastors of nondenominational churches interpret the Bible according to some theological tradition. Their Sunday schools use curriculum that comes from somewhere. Their worship practices inevitably borrow from some particular stream in larger Christian tradition. In point of fact, those who claim to be “nondenominational” are almost always willfully blind to the historical traditions and biblical interpretations that are actively shaping their understanding of faithful belief and practice.

This is true because our beliefs are never “free floating” or “universal.” Our understandings of faith will always be expressed in the particularity of language and culture and form. If anyone tells you that they are part of a nondenominational church, that they have no human-made doctrine, that they just preach the Bible and are simply “Christian,” don’t believe them; it’s simply not true!

Incidentally, it is precisely those churches with the sharpest clarity about their beliefs and expectations – Mormons and Pentecostals, for example – that are growing the fastest. And the independent churches that are attracting members around sharply focused issues are, in the end, not “nondenominational.” They are simply creating new denominational identities of their own.

If denominations in some form or another are unavoidable and if we believe that our faith points us in some important way to Truth, then how are we to live together on a campus that has 38 different claims on that Truth? Or in a community with 69? Or in a country with 15,000?

In the Revelation of St. John, we read that at the end of time a great multitude of people – believers from every nation, tribe, people, language (and, I would add, denominations) – will gather together to sing their praises before the Throne of God. About six years ago, a Lutheran friend called my attention to this eschatological vision of all the various peoples of the earth gathering to sing praises to God and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since.

I’m a Mennonite for reasons that matter to me. But in the course of my conversations with Christians from other traditions, it has become more and more clear to me that all of history is ultimately moving to a time when all of God’s people from every corner of the earth – all 38 denominations represented here at Goshen College, all 69 groups in our community, all of the world’s 34,000 sub-groups of Christians, indeed, all of humanity itself – is going to gather together in praise to God.

That’s where history is moving. And I want to be on the side of history, finding myself on a path that is joining up with all sorts of other people who are also moving in that direction with the intention of praising the One who is seated on the Throne of God. If you are on that journey of bringing your praises to God, then hold your head high and sing out with gusto. If others are singing, then try to harmonize as best you can.