Are denominations dead? According to Ed Stetzer in a special article for the June issue of Christianity Today, the answer, for now, remains "not yet." Mr. Stetzer offers an honest and seemingly balanced appraisal of the current health and future viability of denominations. He notes the tensions with the megachurches which see denominational affiliation as a detriment to their growth (as they shed the denominational identity from their signs along the way) and the usual frustration with the bureaucratic wastefulness and arrogant leadership and the perpetual infighting. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the better-known churches in America today, according to Stetzer, possess no denominational affiliation. A 2009 study of the 100 largest congregations in the US conducted by LifeWay Research for Outreach magazine discovered that half of these parishes refer to themselves as "non-denominational." He goes on to note that two of the three largest churches in America remain unconnected to any denomination: Lakewood Church in Houston and Willow Creek Community Church.
Yet despite all this, Stetzer continues to defend the future usefulness of denominational affiliation. One chief strength concerns missions, but from my vantage point within the LCMS, I was particularly interested in his last point: theological stability. Stetzer writes:
A denominational church in crisis has a relational network, experience, and a support system on which to draw. For example, if a dispute arises in a Presbyterian congregation between the pastor and the session (the governing board), it has an entire denominational structure filled with leaders to help guild a redemptive process. Not so with an independent congregation.
Denominations and their leaders have weathered many storms. That's not to say their member churches always survive, but it's more likely that they will. For our youth-obsessed evangelicalism, this is a hard truth. But where some expect to see age, decay, and obsolescence in denominations, you are more likely to find longevity, maturity, and wisdom.
He goes on to observe that "Evangelical denominations often are stalwarts of orthodoxy, while independent congregations more easily shift in their theology...." Now one could certainly argue this point given the drift of such mainline groups as the ELCA and the Episcopalians. However, Stetzer would also remind us that "the reality is that these do not represent the majority of denominational congregations or the majority of American churchgoers."
Coming closer to my Lutheran home base, Stetzer then writes: "Orthodoxy is more likely to remain established in denominations with clear faith statements. Confessional anchors have prevented drift in such denominations as the Assemblies of God, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, and the Evangelical Free Church." From an historical point of view, his observation holds especially true when looking back to the turbulent 70's during the infamous "walk out" at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. At that time we were clearly an exception to the rule of seminaries drifting headlong into the abyss of liberal European theology.
Nevertheless, many within the LCMS will debate the point of whether this denomination has experienced any real "drift" in the years since. Personally, I think a case could be made for legitimate concern. On the one hand we remain relatively solid on paper (with some exceptions, of course). Our basic confessional documents continue to hold as moorings, as also our documented position on certain other areas such as close communion (which has been a great help to me.) It is in the area of practice were we are weakening. Discipline will always be a tricky area for any denomination as it is for a congregation. We can speak convincingly on something only to turn a blind eye when it is openly violated. After a while one wonders whether what remains on paper holds any validity if we refuse to honor it in practice.
That said, the viability of denominational structure still remains of value from where I stand. As a circuit counselor, charged with working with congregations through the call process and in times of crisis, the structure can be a tremendous comfort and blessing. Sometimes churches need a structure outside of themselves to accomplish things they are unable to do so within their own limited resources.
Perhaps Stetzer's last sentence is a good place to end here as well: "A healthy denomination ultimately gives us strength. It's home, not a prison. It allows us to share specific theological convictions, practice expressions of ministry relevant to our communities, and serve a common mission in the one thing that brings true unity: the gospel."