Ed Stetzer, an astute observer of American Christianity, has a piece in CT about denominations. Many denominational leaders today are worried about clear trends; I’m asked about the issue often and I do see denominational loyalty on the decline… but I’m a pragmatist about this: we are natural organizers; organized groups tend to get more accomplished; etc.. I wouldn’t claim they are perfect and I would argue they are far from perfect, but that is because we are imperfect. Willow Creek, though not in a denomination, has in effect formed a network that is not that far from what denominations do… with all due respect to denominations and with clear differences between denoms and places like Willow Creek. Still…
Denominations appear to have fallen on difficult times. Theological controversies over core Christian beliefs have weakened some denominations. Others have succumbed to classic liberalism. A handful of denominations have reaffirmed their commitment to theological orthodoxy, but even many once-growing conservative denominations have experienced difficult days. All in all, membership in 23 of the 25 largest Christian denominations is declining (the exceptions being the Assemblies of God and the Church of God).
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians decreased from 86 percent in a 1990 study to 76 percent in 2008. Much of the loss does seem located in large mainline denominations. At the same time, the ARIS indicated that nondenominational churches have steadily grown since 2001–and that self-identified evangelicals have increased in number. But it seems that denominations have not shared in the growth.
According to many church leaders, denominations are not fading away–they are actually inhibiting growth. I have heard many pastors denounce denominations as hindering more than helping their churches’ mission. Others carp at wasteful spending, bureaucratic ineffectiveness, or structural redundancies; these objections seem to have gained adherents in an economic climate of pinching every penny. Loyalty to a denomination has declined and in some cases disappeared.
Meanwhile, many of the better-known churches in America today have no denominational affiliation.
Given all that, call me a cautious believer in the idea that we can do more for the kingdom of God by doing it together with people of common conviction–which usually means in a denomination–than by doing it alone.
They are, he says, tools for mission; we are creatures made to cooperate and organize; they draw us into communion with those who have gone before us; strong theologians are connected to denominations.