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Denominations are out. Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Wesleyan, or Christian Reformed – all are going out of style. In 2023, nearly all denominations are in decline, with only a couple of exceptions. Fast-rising are independent nondenominational churches. When the U.S. Religion Census results were released last November, the “nons” had skyrocketed in the last decade, nearly doubling from 12,241,329 in 2010 to 21,095,641 in 2020. If nondenominational churches were a single denomination, they would be the largest Protestant group in the United States.
Religious demographers are declaring that the future of American Christianity is nondenominational. Meanwhile, “Christian Reformed” and “Wesleyan” continue to drop from the names of local churches. New technologies have developed new ways of life that create new levels of independence. As Ryan Burge put it, “We used to be a nation of institutions. The government, unions, and religious denominations were held in high regard by the average American. Now, American society is largely bottom up. It’s not institutions that run the show, it’s individuals. Society has demolished the gatekeepers. Social media allows anyone with an internet connection to build a following in the tens of thousands in mere days.”
It’s not difficult to understand the reasons. Who wants to be tied down by a large conglomeration of churches with a straitjacket of traditions and rules when you can have an independent church with nothing to tie it down? Nondenominational churches are newer, looking to the future more than the past. They are flexible and adaptable to reach their communities. They are typically more diverse politically and racially. Would it be better to toss denominations into the ash heap of history?
I don’t think so. Here are a number of reasons to keep denominations:
Everyone has DNA they inherited from birth parents. Everyone has a spiritual DNA from those who discipled them. Someone taught us to read the Bible, to pray, to love our neighbors, and to resist sin. Someone taught us to notice covenants or dispensations in the arc of Scripture. Someone taught us that our clothing or entertainment choices need to be somehow distinct as Christians.
These parents, pastors, teachers and neighbors have a way of understanding Scripture in its entirety and following what is said there. Some stress the Sermon on the Mount and refuse to use violence for any reason. Others stress Romans and how salvation is by grace. Some stress the book of Acts and will speak in tongues. Others stress the Ten Commandments and observe Saturday as the Sabbath. Everyone comes from somewhere.
Denominations have a heritage rooted in the historical church. Anglicans have the Book of Common Prayer. Lutherans have the Book of Concord. The Reformed tradition has the Three Forms of Unity and Westminster Standards. Each of these foundational documents grounds an understanding of Scripture in a legacy shaped by believers from many times and places. It holds back opportunistic uses of Scripture that might otherwise be persuasive.
We need the historic, worldwide church to interpret the Bible. Without recognizing the entire body of Christ, we might lose connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow (Colossians 2:19). The Bible speaks of a single body of all believers, not many bodies of Christ loosely connected to one another. “There is one body and one Spirit,” according to Ephesians 4:4.
Many today treat different Christian traditions as a buffet, taking some of each and becoming a hybrid. This follows the individualism of our current time. The unfortunate result of buffet-style spirituality is being theological orphans, an entity unto ourselves. Each theological heritage that has stood the test of time has developed a cohesively consistent understanding of Scripture that is not a lopsided mess of convenient but conflicting propositions.
Denominations ground us in a theological heritage. We certainly can learn from other Christian traditions and appreciate where they might excel, but the sets of beliefs and practices handed down over the ages have refined their conflicting loose ends and have survived for a reason. This disconnect from the broader body of Christ is probably why nondenominational pastors were most likely to report fear about the future of Christianity in the United States and around the world.
All of us are prone to slide into sin. We might inch our way into adultery or flirt with hating our opponents. We all need someone in Christ to kindly call us back to our spiritual senses. Congregations also need this accountability. Denominations provide accountability for congregations to mutually hold one another to account.
A church in my area that left the Reformed Church in America is now teaching a theological belief called dispensationalism, which says that Israel and the church are separate peoples of God with different plans for each. The church still lists the Three Forms of Unity on their website, except that the dispensationalism they teach is incompatible with those faith statements. Aside from mere friendly suggestions, no means exists to hold them to the faith statements they claim to believe. If they have indeed discovered that the Three Forms of Unity are unbiblical, there is also no means for them to challenge others to become more biblical.
Of all the biblical virtues, independence is not one of them. On the contrary, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ is biblical (Ephesians 5:21).
Since all of us are prone to sin, all of us need accountability, especially pastors. If my preaching goes off the rails or my actions become officially unchristian, my church council has authority to hold me accountable. But what if I’m such a nice guy or great preacher that my council doesn’t have the heart to hold me to biblical standards? In that case, my entire classis would step in to remove me from ministry if I refuse to humble myself. Denominations have built-in authority structures to remove pastors who abuse their role.
In the days when well-liked pastors receive standing ovations even after confessing to abuse, we need layers of accountability and the authority to back it up. Moreover, people have a way of taking the Bible and making it say whatever they want. Gnostics, Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses emerged in a particular time and place with a definitive understanding of Scripture that is completely at odds with the worldwide church going back to the time of the apostles. It’s no accident that one of the marks of false teachers is that they despise authority (2 Peter 2:10; Jude 8). While independent churches answer to no one else, denominations bring authority that we all need.
Submitting to authority teaches humility. Doing macro-level ministry with Christians of different languages and cultures teaches humility. Having a theological heritage teaches humility. Answering to no one, micro-level ministry among monolithic locals and constructing your own heritage feeds pride.
Pride is a universal sin found among all people, but the nondenominational incubator fosters a unique sort of pride. Consider the following quote from a nondenominational pastor: "Most of the people that are in certain denominations...they are really not serving God. They're serving the denomination. I'm seeking the truth and I am serving God, not a denomination or tradition."
It's not an exaggeration to say that the most condescending Christians I have ever encountered come from nondenominational churches. The Church Order of the CRC, according to one nondenominational pastor, is a set of “man-made rules” while his church is building “the kingdom of God.”
One nondenominational pastor told me his church didn’t join a denomination because, “We know what’s best for us” and “we don’t need anyone else telling us what to do.” Another nondenominational pastor was developing a poor reputation in the community and dismissed the requirement that an elder must have a good reputation among outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7).
Being part of something bigger than yourself teaches humility. If the “something bigger” to which we belong is only a couple hundred or a couple thousand people from the same city, the capacity to learn humility is lacking. The CRC currently has congregations all over North America speaking many languages in a variety of worship styles. This is humbling.
It must be said that Christ and salvation are rightly preached at many nondenominational churches. People are discipled in the Christian faith and actively showing the love of Christ at many nondenominational churches. Many of the CRC diaspora are now at nondenominational churches, growing in faith and love of the Lord. Many persecuted Christians are joyful simply to meet with fellow brothers and sisters in house churches around the world.
It must also be said that denominations have their hazards and problems, to which the CRC is no stranger. Nevertheless, the denominational model is worth maintaining, even while it appears the nondenominational movement is here to stay. The benefits of denominations greatly outweigh their failings.