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.