Do Denominations Matter? (2 of 6)

What denominations provide

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.