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
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.