Denominations Still Exist But Do They Matter?

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Elton Trueblood first popularized the term “postdenominational” in 1967. In an article appearing in Christianity Today, Trueblood stated, “If we are truly conscious of what time it is, one of the chief facts we must know is that, so far as the Christian religion is concerned, we are in a post-denominational age.” Forty-four years have passed since Trueblood made that statement and we still have our denominations.

The question today is not whether denominations exist. The question is: does anyone care?

I grew up reaping benefits of denominational life without realizing it. For example, my Sunday school literature and offering envelopes were produced by the denomination. The hymnals and pew Bibles were from the denomination. Most of the songs the choir sang were published and provided by the denomination. My pastor was educated by the denominational seminary. My youth pastor was being educated at a denominational Bible college. Most of my family members who went to college attended a liberal arts college supported by the denomination. I attended summer camps built and staffed by the denomination and youth events sponsored by the denomination. I learned about missions from missionaries supported by the denomination. While some of that has changed, much of it has not.

Twenty years ago, the young editor of a state Baptist paper, Al Mohler, Jr., wrote in the Christian Index, “American religion is experiencing a fundamental restructuring which will transform the landscape of the nation’s religious life. Virtually every religious denomination or body is engaged in a process of reorientation, reorganization, or focused on a search for identity.” Some things never change!

In fact, the reorientation of American religious life, and of Southern Baptist life, seems to be accelerating. Beginning with the reorganization of the International Mission Board, the advancement of the Great Commission Resurgence agenda at the national convention, state conventions, and even in many local Baptist associations, as well as a host of retirements marking the generational transition of leadership, and the shrinking financial commitments of local churches to the Cooperative Program, everything about denominational life seems to be influx.

I contend, however, that the greatest change we are experiencing is a lack of understanding of, and interest in, the Kingdom role of the denomination. Some see it as irrelevant. Some church leaders see it as financially competing with their local church agenda. Some simply refuse to exhibit the kind of loyalty required for denominational structures and ministries to thrive. Most remain uninformed regarding the partnership opportunities afforded by the denomination.

Given the reality that denominational structures within the Southern Baptist Convention still exist and are still trying desperately to serve our churches, what does all this mean for the Kentucky Baptist Convention?

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23 Comments

  1. Posted November 29, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    All followers of Christ should cooperate together with each other in Kingdom work. Denominations however, provide a way for churches with like doctrine to share a stronger spirit of coooperation that accommodates sending missionaries, equipping leaders, planting churches and sharing resources.

    • Posted November 29, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Thank you, Eric, for you comment. You summarize the Kingdom role of the denomination very well!

    • Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Eric,

      Your statement is right on. Most of our denominations begin out of doctrinal disagreement, but they are propagated by the benefits of missional cooperation…local churches combining forces to do together what they would be unable to do alone. And while all Christians should work together in the Kingdom to whatever degree their doctrinal similarity allows, it is easier to do work more heavily with those whose perspective of God is similar to ours.

      I think the transition we are seeing in the denominational world (such as the SBC) is a mixture of poor communication, and a decline in organizational loyalty.

      Beginning with the latter, Generations Y and X – and to some degree the Boomers – lack the rigid organizational loyalty that the Builder generation had. Our grandparents would live and die for the organizations and institutions in which they were taught to give credence (church, denomination, civic organizations, the US government). The usefulness and/or health of these institutions was irrelevant…they had always been loyal to them, so they continue to be. In contrast, the current population involves itself in what it perceives to be worthwhile.

      While some of this can be attributed to consumerism, much of it is simply manifestations of social post-modernism. “It doesn’t matter if I was raised in this (insert organization name) or not, I’m not feeding resources into a dying and useless organization.” For this reason, denominations need much more public affairs work today that they did fifty years ago. Those that don’t realize this are dying.

      This lack of public affairs work can be attributed largely to poor communication between denominations and their people. The average SBC church member doesn’t care all that much about the Cooperative Program because (1) he doesn’t know what it is, (2) he doesn’t know where his money is going, and (3) he doesn’t know the actual kingdom work that his money is helping accomplish. Ours is a grassroots, socially networked E- generation. We get our news from Steven Colbert and Facebook. We generally distrust bureaucracy. We want to be benevolent, but we want to have our hands on it. And we are MUCH more positively affected by an encouraging story than by encouraging statistics.

      If denominational organizations want to continue to stir up interest in the common Christian, they will have to understand these paradigm changes and respond to them. The SBC needs to stop assuming that the promotional material they send to state and local associations are making it to local churches who are in turn communicating it to their congregations. Figure out what is encouraging and motivating for the average SBC member and make sure it gets to his email inbox, Facebook account, and twitter page on a regular basis.

      (Ex. – This article is interesting to me, but I’m a missionary. My father wouldn’t give this the time of day. But write a story about how an Asian child prostitution ring was disintegrated by the introducing Gospel and how his Cooperative Program dollars helped to accomplish that, and you would hook him easily.)

      Also, while I know that they CP system is set up to work in a “local church=>local association=>state convention=>national convention” system…this procedure forces the average Christian to put faith in the fact that his financial giving is going to make it from his local church through the various levels of denominational structure and eventually get to the ministry that he cares about and wants to support. Most Christians simply don’t trust the bureaucracy to get his finances to the ministry he cares about. And forcing this process is a primary reason that we are seeing a rise in churches and Christians doing benevolence ministry outside the Cooperative Program.

      We need to make it available and easy for the average Christian to give directly to SBC ministries…or AT LEAST to give directly to the Cooperative Program rather than going through their local church.

    • Janet Walker
      Posted November 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I like what Eric Allen said about denominations. I too believe it is helpful to be in a group. The Scriptures speak often of gathering together. The feeling of belonging is very important. I also feel we can and should gather with other groups of believers in Christ. How else can we fully carry out the great commission? I wonder if we are not being sidetracked by the discussion. It is not a division but an identification. Janet Walker

  2. Justin W
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Denominations matter. A denomination is a group of churches, which are each groups of Christians, which share common beliefs regarding a variety of doctrinal issues.

    For example, rather than churches fighting about the proper Biblical mode for baptism those of similar belief can come together and work together to build the kingdom. Those who believe in sprinkling can organize and work together to advance the gospel. Those of us who believe in baptism by immersion can come together and work together to build the kingdom. In the end the Christians wind up doing something productive rather than spending their time squabbling. More locally, how many churches are paralyzed by debates over facility decorations or worship music styles?

    Another benefit of denominations is the education provided by them. Southern Baptist churches can hopefully trust their publishing house and educational institutions to teach from a standpoint of similar doctrinal belief. This means the local church can focus on teaching rather than having to censor incoming literature to make sure it does not conflict with their beliefs. We can trust the missionaries we support financially are doing their job on the mission field and teaching the Bible in the way we as a group of churches believe to be correct.

    I’ve talked with folks from non-denominational churches who find fault with what they see as the doctrinal truths forced onto to the local church by the denomination. If you examine most of those churches, someone in that church is making the call on what is doctrinally correct. You better hope that person’s knowledge and intentions are good.

    • Posted November 29, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Good word Justin! I have witnessed and been blessed by the very things you reference. Hopefully comments like yours will raise everyone’s awareness of the roles and value of our denomination.

  3. Willie A Russell Jr
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I am not an educated person, but I beleve that a true God centered Denomaniton that is based on the true writen word, the Bible, will take you to Heaven. The wrong one will send you to Hell. So whatever Denomanition you are in it must be backed up by the Bible.

    • Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Brother Russell, I agree that a faithful, biblical witness of the gospel is the message God uses to save the lost. Conversely, a perverted gospel leaves a person lost in sin. Regarding your comment, “So whatever Denomanition you are in it must be backed up by the Bible,” that’s why I’m a Southern Baptist! Thanks for taking part in the discussion.

  4. Bryce Parks
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    “Does anyone care?” That’s a great question to ask. But I think the deeper question that undergirds it is the question, “What does the body of Christ really care about?” I realize there is a plethora of answers to this question. But there seems to be an exodus of younger leaders within the SBC that are disengaged in denominational life, and it seems to be connected to a reality that younger leaders don’t focus on the same things the previous generation did. Assuming the best of church people (i.e. that they are believers who are trying to love God & love others the best they can…a stretch for some, but hopefully the goal of all:), I would say both generations are trying to serve God to their fullest. However, it seems the younger leaders don’t focus on denominational life because it does not strike at their hearts’ passion to serve & love God & others. From my perspective as a pastor, it seems the denominational hierarchy (e.g. associations, state & nat’l conventions, etc.) has a strong focus on the “support us” mentality. From asking churches to give money to support their programs/ministries to serving in their committees & business meetings, the focus of denominations towards the churches seem much more of the “support us” compared to the “we’re here to support you.” Now, I know that anyone in denominational service would say they are there to support the local church, but the younger leaders seem deaf to their rhetoric. And, possibly, it is because the denominations don’t focus on that which churns the hearts of this new generation coming up. They see the top-heavy, somewhat outmoded, bureaucratic structure of denominations and say, “How does being a part of this help bring people I know to Jesus?”

    Please don’t get me wrong. I think the SBC is great for its support of worldwide missions, and for that reason our church contributes to the CP (and other denominational entities as well). It seems to me, though, that churches collaborate better with other churches of the same philosophy of ministry & style rather than it does with those in the denominational association. I am curious to see if associational life will eventually morph into an aligning with ministry philosophy/style rather than doctrinal beliefs. Curious indeed…

    • Posted November 29, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Bryce, you have hit on key issues. Let me also say that I appreciate your gracious evaluation of the motives of each generation.

      I want to interact with two of your statements. First, you state, “…it seems the younger leaders don’t focus on denominational life because it does not strike at their hearts’ passion to serve & love God & others.” Herein lies one of the great challenges for transitioning current denominational structure and philosophy into a structure and philosophy that is deemed relevant for the rising generation. The rising generation is much more “hands on” and “relational” in their approach. While the volunteer missions movement has been embraced by the KBC and SBC, I believe we must work harder to create a vehicle to faciltate what I have observed as a the radical self-abadonment for the sake of getting the gospel to the nations. The need for a mission offering will never go away, nor will the need to facilitate short term mission trips. But an open door to serve the poor in America or plant one’s life as a gospel witness among the lost in a closed country are the kinds of things that must drive our denominational work if we want to engage the rising generation.

      Second, you state, “From my perspective as a pastor, it seems the denominational hierarchy (e.g. associations, state & nat’l conventions, etc.) has a strong focus on the ‘support us’ mentality….compared to the ‘we’re here to support you.’” That perception will cripple the denominational mission effort. It must be addressed. Not only must those who represent the denomination state that “we’re here to support you,” we must live it. The tension between raising support for denominational mission work (through the IMB, NAMB, and state and associational missionaries) and being there to encourage, equip, and exhort the pastors and churches who provide that support will never go away. Rather than hoping no one notices it, we must acknowledge it and seek to maintain a healthy balance and dialogue. Important for this dialogue are denominational representatives being responsive to comments and criticisms rather than being defensive and being careful stewards of the funds invested by the churches.

      While only God knows the future, I am optimistic that God will still use the partnership efforts of our churches that exist at the local, state, and national levels if we are faithful to Him and to one another.

  5. Ken Roberts
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Non-denominationlism and Interdenominationlism both have somewhat of a denominational structure.
    Some are formal and some are informal. There is leadership and in some degree there is a doctrinal stance.
    There is someone in the driver seat. What happens when there is division on cooperative ministries and missions. The missionary and his family , the kingdom and the cooperative mission works suffer. My prayer is that the churches of the KBC will continue to support the Cooperative program and that IMB and NAMB and KBC will focus on reaching the the lost.

  6. Kenny Stone
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    All the benefits of denominational life are beautifully & accurately portrayed in this article. The cooperation of like-minded groups is able to do great things. The problems come when the groups are NOT like-minded. How well I remember the pre-Thanksgiving ecumenical service where the Pastor of a non-SBC church brought the message from Matthew 25, saying that “we’re all a little sheep & a little goat, so God will have to knock us all down in the dirt, pick us all up, dust us off, & carry us all into heaven”. That kind of doctrinal error is deadly! I was not raised in the SBC, but in the Pentecostal church, & a deeper desire to know God’s Word led me to become a Southern Baptist. I praise the God of heaven for our denomination, both for Biblical doctrine & cooperative effect!

    • Posted November 29, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Kenny, I, too, am grateful for the SBC and the impact it has had on my life and the impact it continues to have for Christ the world-over.

  7. Steve May
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Bro. Chitwood –
    Your closing remarks leave me a bit puzzled. You aptly remark that presently there is disinterest or confusion about “the Kingdom role” of the issue of denominationalism. In that same paragraph you jump to a prevailing issue of loyalty to a particular denomination and conclude your remarks with an issue of loss of partnership opportunities.

    I prefer to address the overarching theme of your article – Is there a majority interest in denominationalism? The (brief) answer to this broad-sweeping question is complex but can perhaps be addressed in the following manner:

    To the traditionalist minded – most assuredly, denomination matters. Even those traditionalists outside “the church” have opinions about the various denominational platforms. However, it would be the opinion of this author, the scope of awareness of denominational distinctives for the un-churched, de-churched, and churched are narrowing as time progresses due to the desire of church leadership to minimize the traditional conflicts that have arisen from denominational distinctives.

    To the post-modern/post-Christina era, un-churched and non-churched have some opinions about the denominations (as stated above), but these opinions have less to do today than they did (arbitrarily) 15 years ago about church-denomination selection. The post-modern/post-Christian simply wants a variety of answers they can pick-and-choose from to solve life’s problems, which include, as death approaches, answers to issues that have to deal with “the after -life” and eternality and they will append their (need-driven) loyalty to whatever denomination that they believe meets that need.

    To the average “pew sitter” on Sunday morning: remembering they are a product of their age-related culture and subject to the bias of media, denominationalism is a “peg” on which to hang their proverbial hat. While they might cling to the Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church, etc., most have only vague notions of the particular doctrinal basis or statements of faith that are woven into the fabric of the banner flown over the church-house door.

    Does denominationalism matter today? I would argue, that to even many ministers of the Gospel, it matters less, and will continue to fade into the shadows as time progresses. Whether this is a Kingdom concern one needs to inquire of the Master of the Kingdom, but it appears to this author that the church needs to be about the Kingdom business of saving souls more than anything else, faithfully cling to the distinctives of that faith, and live in peace with those who otherwise devote themselves to the work of the Kingdom.

    • Posted November 29, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Brother Steve, I hope my comments weren’t too confusing.The paragraph to which you refer read, “I contend, however, that the greatest change we are experiencing is a lack of understanding of, and interest in, the Kingdom role of the denomination. Some see it as irrelevant. Some church leaders see it as financially competing with their local church agenda. Some simply refuse to exhibit the kind of loyalty required for denominational structures and ministries to thrive. Most remain uninformed regarding the partnership opportunities afforded by the denomination.” That paragraph is my feeble attempt to list a broad spectrum of challenges for denominations.

      As for your closing remarks, “…the church needs to be about the Kingdom business of saving souls more than anything else, faithfully cling to the distinctives of that faith, and live in peace with those who otherwise devote themselves to the work of the Kingdom,” I couldn’t agree more. I see denominational mission partnerships as one of the vehicles of church evangelism that God has used and blessed.

    • Steve May
      Posted December 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      Dr. Chitwood – Thanks for the reply. Amen to denominnational cooperative missions … However, we must be careful not to missionize for the sake of denomination but rather the Kingdom. When I’ve been in Haiti – my goal is not to make Americanized Baptist Hatian Christians but rather to teach Scripture in such a way that God would cause a culture of men and women grow that demonstrate Christian teaching and ethics within the Haitian culture. … Blessings for the day …

      • Posted December 2, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

        “…we must be careful not to missionize for the sake of denomination but rather the Kingdom.” Couldn’t agree more. With that said, the denomination that is the SBC has proven to be a formidable force in mission as the largest international missionary sending agency in the history of Christendom. When one also considers the Kingdom advance facilitated by NAMB and the missionaries and partnerships supported by state conventions and local associations, the denomination has/can play a significant role in fulfilling the Great Commission.

        My advocacy for the role of the denomination is not for the sake of the denomination but for the sake of the Kingdom. If God chooses to demolish the denomination by noon today then so be it. Christ’s bride is the ultimate avenue for Kingdom work. As long as the denomination can help encourage and equip her, however, I will invest. When that ceases to happen, the denomination has no relevancy for me.

        BTW, blessings on you for your mission work in Haiti! Keep pushing back the darkness!

  8. Bryce Parks
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with that.

  9. Mitchell Schumacher
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Chitwood, Great article, and what an appropriate question! This is a multi-faceted question and there is no simple answer to this. We are seeing obvious signs that individuals really do not care about denomination as much as whether there is sincere love in the body, and that Christlikeness is demonstrated. In short I see a trend toward those in transition seeking out a Christ filled body over strict denominationalism. In Utopia that would be a trait of every local church but realistically….. The importance of a denomination has become greater however in the role of support of new churches, pastors and leaders, as well as communities. Like minded churches need an infrastructure to communicate, share and experience growth together. I believe that our “denominations” have a great and sobering opportunity to model unity and cooperation between denoms in a Biblical fashion by letting differences go (not heresy)and embracing what we have in common thus fulfilling 1Cor1, John 17, et al. So as political double speak-ish as this may sound. Denominations very much do matter and then again, not so much.

    • Posted November 29, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Mitchell! I appreciate your response and think that your statement, “The importance of a denomination has become greater however in the role of support of new churches, pastors and leaders, as well as communities. Like minded churches need an infrastructure to communicate, share and experience growth together,” is a great argument for the Kingdom role of the denomination.

  10. Don Miller
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Without a denominational name of your church, how do you know what you believe in? I’ve given to the Cooperative Program for years but there are times now I wonder if my money(God’s) is actually going to support missionaries or the stay-at-home staff with big salaries. I believe our real problem is teaching on Sunday services instead of Preaching the word is the beginning of our problems. More lost people attend Sunday am services than pm and Wednesday services. Preach Salvation on am and feed the flock with bible truths in the pm and Wednesday, sing songs about life as a sinner that changed when Christ came into their life. Praise songs are beautiful, but thats what and all we’ll be singing in Heaven. We need to quit teaching and singing to “The Choir”, but to the lost.

    • Ed Hall
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      >>Without a denominational name of your church, how do you know what you believe in?

      There was no Southern Baptist Convention when the New Hampshire Confession of Faith was written. Seems to me that there weren’t many denominations when the Apostle’s Creed was written, either.

      That’s why you come up with a mission statement and a statement of beliefs and drill those home to every member constantly. Why have a bunch of goals that no one can remember?

      >>I believe our real problem is teaching on Sunday services instead of Preaching the word is the beginning of our problems.

      No amount of preaching whatsoever does any good unless the proclaimer teaches and actually explains what’s being taught. How did Philip get across to the Ethiopian? He didn’t scream at him for 45 minutes for no real reason, which is what passes for preaching in my area–he explained what the gentleman was reading.

      >>Praise songs are beautiful, but thats what and all we’ll be singing in Heaven.

      I don’t much care for praise music either. I believe it’s female-centered and totally negates the needs of men. However, I don’t get singing “Lord Sabaoth of Hosts” or “I must needs go to Jerusalem”, which is what we have as most of our hymns. It’s not in common English.

      >>feed the flock with bible truths in the pm

      Why do you have a Sunday evening preaching service? Out of habit. How do you feed the flock when 1) your preacher is tired and 2) your congregation is tired? You have an 8-10 hour gap between the beginning of most Sunday morning services to the end of most Sunday evening service. How do you feel after 10 hours? I believe most churches would be better off dispensing with Sunday evening services.

      >>We need to quit teaching and singing to “The Choir”, but to the lost.

      Do we need to quit preaching to the choir? Absolutely. How? Quit structuring our churches like they were in the 1950’s or earlier. When people see the relevance of Christianity and not see a bunch of committees that never should have been formed in the first place, they’ll be happy to attend our “Sunday meetings” and do service for our God.