Who’s Afraid of Denominationalism?

The enduring vitality of divisions in the Church

When a marginally more than middle-aged Christian male — two score down, one and 10 to go — visited a (for him) new church he left feeling much more afflicted and far less comfortable than when he came. It was intense. Mainly the sermon but also the idea that here and finally was a church where he could know God — where he could worship him and be changed into the likeness of Christ. Most others he’d been to had emphasized one over the other.

He arranged to talk with an elder that week. He wanted to learn more.

The elder chose a chain coffee shop. Not a Starbucks, and not an indie with a name like “Mug Shot” and piping Lenny Kravitz at the couches and comfy chairs.

A coffee shop: not just old-school, but one-room-schoolhouse, quintessentially your father’s Oldsmobile American coffee shopcoffee, and they don’t know from macchiato; and “extra whip” comes on the cup of cocoa for your kid, on the way up to Scout camp; or on the slice of pumpkin pie, if you flirt with the grandmother who is your waitress — waitress, not server — and was also Nixon’s when he used to stop in; who calls everyone “hon” because nobody knows your name here, unless it’s “hon,” and when you need a pen she offers the pencil pinning up her bun, which she keeps there, for just that purpose. All the chairs are brown. where the “2X2” — two eggs, two bacon, two sausage, two pancakes — could go for $2.99 because everyone orders

That kind of coffee shop.

One of the last things the elder does is bust out two pages of what the church believes. It’s the statement of faith new members pledge to, in public, during the service, when they join.

“Want you to know what we’re about,” he says.

It’s interesting enough to consider this taking place four days after you’ve met. But these five points are also some heady stuff, topped off by #5, which conflates in two sentences The Church with this church, and shows, if you didn’t get it already, that this church means bidness, and signing on to this is not just a come-as-you-seek gathering, or something emerging or arriving or becoming.

It’s been here already and it’ll be here after. The sun never sets on it.

It doesn’t meet in a house, OK?

Talk about blowback.

This is denominationalism baby, and it is alive … it’s Alive! Like movie sequels and inhumane burgers and the two-party system, we love to talk smack and attack, but we line up and buy every time. Push to shove we can’t wait to get in.

Nowhere is this more evident than Southern California. In the land of surf culture and steam punks, and Jesus Freaks and (letting it all) hang outs; where trends come to be born and the old ways supposedly go to die, Christian denominations are flourishing.

C.S. Lewis called divisions in the Church a “sin and a scandal” and Dallas Willard has warned against mistaking the vessel for the treasure — that is, being more concerned with the “-ist” and “-ian” proper nouns on the signage out front, than the improper but salutary death of the One we’ve come to worship.

Long before the emerging-cy of current efforts to remake church in one way or another, it would have been de rigueur to assert blithely that “seeker-sensitive” and the “non-denominational Bible teaching” church were the standard, and the standard bearers of the late-20th century.

Toss in the house church movement and the undeniable numerical decline of protestant denominations, U.S. versions, and it would seem, denominations’ days are numbered.


Most Christians worldwide identify themselves as members of denominations, and many of those beyond its walls have trouble with terms like “emerging” or “free church” — zoning out of or being turned off by the infighting it produces.

If they’re going to return, they often gravitate to something they recognize — such as denominations from their youth

Denominations also help Christians locate ourselves, and the institutions around us. They’re shorthand, just as we use a single word instead of constantly giving the entire definition of something we mean.

Like written prayers, we know basically what we’re getting, and we don’t have to wonder and worry, as Lewis said about extemporaneous prayers, whether we agree with what’s being said.

In short, the death of the denomination has been greatly exaggerated.

Granted these can all be to the bad, as well as good, or they simply leave important questions unanswered.

Should we identify ourselves as a denomination, for instance? Does shorthand desiccate? Do we care the most, when at church, about agreeing with what’s being said?

What seems undeniable is people pay far more attention to groups of Christian, than the individual, unless the individual is shouting at them during a funeral, carrying signs saying vile things attributed to God.

When the Roman Catholic Church has a scandal, it’s worldwide news for years.

When a local pastor falls it’s hardly a blip — unless he’s big enough to write on.

We care more for the greater effect. Maybe this is as it should be. If any teacher can come under greater condemnation, someone touching thousands or millions may be in more trouble than the one.

Meanwhile churches growing in prominence here are denominationally affiliated, sometimes even — no, really! — in their name.

  • The Redeemer Presbyterian churches, it won’t surprise anyone to learn, are … Presbyterian. They are affiliated with the PCA, and they take the connection seriously. We don’t think of that reading Deep Church.
  • Sandals Church recently bought land and buildings in far Riverside. In the boonies right now, it’s planning for the next decades. But while giving off a Rock Harbor vibe, Sandals links to the SBC and is conservative.  Conservative and trying to relate … from within a denomination.

One semester a student in a critical thinking class I was teaching wrote a paper in favor of denominations. At about that time, earning a grad degree, I took a historical theology class taught by that student’s father. A good portion of the course recounted the development of dozens of denominations — and their not insignificant contributions to the faith delivered once for all.

To take another example, it has occasionally been fashionable for business publications to trumpet the little guy, to say resolutely that small business creates the most jobs in this country, that’s it drives the economy, and so on.

But that might not be true — or it might a lie, a damned lie, and a statistic, as Twain would say — but in any case, as the last several years have shown, the entities that really matter are the ones “too big to fail.”

And speaking of fashion, it does seem like evangelicals are sometimes like the Rosie O’Donnell character in “Sleepless in Seattle” who states with conviction what everyone knows, that unmarried women over 35 are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a made

“That’s not true,” says the Meg Ryan character. “I don’t believe that.”

“But it feels true,” O’Donnell insists.

Likewise, the irrelevance of denominations feels true to us.


Of course it remains true we’re saved by grace through faith, not the fundamentalist Methobapterianism we practice, perhaps more or less inherited from our parents or even passed down through centuries. At the same time we may have overstated the irrelevance of all that, as well.

And for that matter, the various evangelicalisms function as denominations.

Yet differences from one “free church” to the next are often large, with one emphasizing this and another emphasizing that. As a young Christian I went to Calvary Church Santa Ana, and the people I told about it were forever confusing the place with Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa.

Members of each did not consider themselves alike at all.

One last thing to consider: people worshiping in denominations feel as strongly about that practice as a non-denominational, Bible-learning, free church, evangelical does about his — and the former group is probably connected to a deeper well of time, family, ethnicity, etc. in her commitment than he is in his.

They love their ties as much as the Christians who exult in not having any.

Told the Pope objected to him murdering millions, Stalin infamously asked, “And how many divisions has the Pope?”

The answer, of course, is God’s army is legion, and one day the blood of the martyrs will cry out.

But as for divisions, at the moment we have many thousands, chugging along nicely.

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