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Do we need denominations?

Do we need denominations?

by George Clifford

When people search for a church to join, one early stage decision in the process is whether to find a denominational or non-denominational church. Are denominations important? Is it good for a congregation to be part of a denomination?

On the one hand, independent, non-denominational megachurches and their pastors too often feature in media headlines, as reporters and editors almost gloat in uncovering the latest scandal. Even when there is no scandal, the retirement or death of an independent church pastor (regardless of the congregation’s size) will often set that congregation on an irreversible downward glide path toward institutional oblivion.

On the other hand, conventional wisdom has it that denominations in general, and mainline Protestant denominations like The Episcopal Church in particular, are dying anachronisms.

Are denominations important?

Denominations provide vital ministries not readily available to non-denominational congregations. Indeed, some non-denominational megachurches have spawned networks of linked congregations becoming, in essence, a new expression of denominationalism, e.g., both Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard have linked congregations scattered across the U.S.

Among the important ministries that denominations provide, ministries that can make a denominationally affiliated congregation more appealing to many church shoppers than is a non-denominational congregation, are:

Continuity across geography and time of liturgical style, theological tradition, missional emphases, and organizational patterns;

Connectivity to an expression of Christ’s body larger than the local congregation (many denominations are national entities with strong ties to their counterparts in other countries, such as The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion);

Providing specialized and often costly ministries and missions that few if any congregations, including megachurches, can individually resource and fund, e.g., college chaplaincies, new church starts, seminaries, church related institutions (charities, hospitals, colleges, and other schools), etc.

Formation, supervision, and accountability of clergy (scandals, such as covering up child abuse, do occur in denominations but in a healthy denomination the larger body works to prevent problems, deal appropriately with incompetence and misbehavior, and offer healing to those hurt);

Requiring audits, mandating adherence to accepted accounting methods, and use of democratic decision making, thereby substantially reducing the likelihood of financial misuses and abuses, as well as establishing some checks on clergy and laity exercising unhealthy dictatorial powers in the ecclesial community.

In sum, denominations provide vital services, which explains why non-denominational congregations sometimes, even in twenty-first century America, move to create structures that greatly resemble already existing denominations.

Denominations receive a bad press for at least three reasons. First, the important ministries that denominations provide are not news. Denominations have served congregations in those ways for generations. News, for the media, typically connotes new, adverse developments, not reportage about steady, ongoing positive work. However, no press is, in effect, tantamount to bad press, as denominations and congregations become unnoticed, i.e., taken for granted.

Second, denominations are undoubtedly shrinking. The Episcopal Church, for example, has lost approximately one million members in the last fifty years (cf. Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?). The loss of members, and an attendant loss of influence and funding (cf. Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff, is news but not good news, especially when people presume that denominations are in a death spiral.

Third, denominational clergy prefer humility to the limelight, seeking to keep the spotlight on Christ. Their congregations often occupy legacy buildings, frequently in disrepair and no longer occupying a prime location. To survive, the non-denominational congregation, which is usually a new congregation, must grow. Many of these congregations decide that the optimal way to grow consists in finding a dynamic, personable, and attractive pastor to lead a program attuned to today’s culture and housed in an attractive, conveniently located facility. The pastor becomes the congregation’s focal point.

Some Episcopalians and members of other denominations seem uncomfortable with their identity, ministries, and traditions; these people push for change, and more change, but many times fail to communicate, at least to me, what they hope the changes will achieve. Others of us, confident that we have it right, choose to persevere with business as usual, opposing most or all change. Yet others have opted to disengage (and, in many cases, never engaged in the first place) from the denomination, myopically regard their local congregation as their Church, and view both the diocese and national church as unnecessary and expensive encumbrances.

Change is inevitable (cf. Maria Evans’ post Change: Unsafe at any speed). Some change will happen regardless of whether we deem it desirable. In a recent Daily Episcopalian post, I predicted that The Episcopal Church would not issue a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Responses to my prediction varied, but two groups of responses amused me: normative responses (i.e., those proffering a value judgment on the importance of keeping a printed prayer book) and responses that presumed people using electronic media were young. My prediction is descriptive, not normative. Printed books are quickly and irreversibly becoming relics of an earlier era. I personally like books and treasure the Book of Common Prayer. The people I have observed opting to follow the liturgy on a smartphone or tablet are, more often than not, forty or older.

However, we can influence some change. Denominations provide valuable, essential ministries; otherwise, non-denominational congregations would not develop their own analogue to denominational structures.

Identifying and focusing on the core competencies and contributions of denominations could beneficially guide decisions about reimagining, restructuring, and mission funding. Conversely, denominations should scrap images, structures, and programs that do not directly support core competencies and contributions. Important questions, some raised by people who have commented on previous Daily Episcopalian posts, include:

Which dioceses are redundant or unaffordable?

For what denominational ministries and missions should volunteers rather than paid staffs take responsibility (applies to both dioceses and the national Church)?

How can we best create a flat, nimble, responsive structure focused on ministry and mission rather than institutional maintenance (for some ideas, cf. my previous Daily Episcopalian posts on reimagining the Church, parts 1 and 2)?

Finally, how can we capitalize on our denomination’s strengths to market The Episcopal Church and its congregation to people who are church shopping?

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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Chris H.

To be fair, I think it depends on the church whether the pros of a denomination really make it better than a non-denominational church. Many non-denom. churches follow good accounting practices, support the food banks, have soup kitchens, etc. Only the Catholics here have local charities that aren’t supported by many churches in different denominations.

Several of your advantages for denominations don’t seem to apply anymore, depending on the diocese perhaps. There are no more religious hospitals, orphanages, even religious orders in the state. TEC hasn’t got college chaplains in this diocese either, while non-denom. often work with Campus Crusade or Intervarsity, etc. Neither do some denominations send missionaries from the national church, relying instead on local “sister churches” which non-denoms do as well. Many pastors have attended recognized seminaries, sometimes even the same seminaries TEC uses. And as for tradition, liturgy, etc. how many priests actually follow it that closely? How many alternatives are there in TEC?

As for the “cult of personality”, I think it depends on the church, but here the pastors of the largest non-denominational churches have been pastoring the same church for at least 20 years. The pastor now was the guy who planted the church in the first place. He has a much harder time moving around, making it more important he make his church a success, rather than moving on to a better parish or to get the pointy hat. Also, personality does matter in denominations. The Lutherans are the largest here and I know lots of Lutherans who drive to a different church because they like it better. (TEC is mostly one priest over two or more parishes here, so you can’t drive to a different priest.)

I’d say a well-run denomination is probably better, but in a struggling church the differences depend entirely on the local situation. TEC national doesn’t seem to be helping struggling local parishes, just demanding the assessment.

Chris Harwood

Elizabeth Magill

Our new church had much debate over whether to be affiliated with a denomination (or in our case with several denominations).

Using the arguments in this blog, and others, I am strongly in favor of denominational identity.

Some other reasons: (Perhaps in reverse order of importance?)

1) In the United States “non-denominational” has come to mean something theological. It is hard to say exactly what, but it doesn’t accurately describe who we are.

2) We believe in the connection of individuals to each other and congregations to each other. That is part of Theology: that the Body of Christ requires many different types of people. More different types than our individual congregation can hold. So our striving to be the body of CHrist requires our connection to each other, even those we don’t know.

3) Covenant. We believe that God has a covenant with “us”. Us certainly doesn’t mean just me, but in my mind it also doesn’t mean just one group of people. Or even that group and this group individually. Individual congregations are connected by more than our humanness–we are in covenant with each other as a part of our covenant with God.

Gregory Orloff

Yes, denominations are important, despite all the bad press and doomsday forecasts they receive (and yet go on living in spite of). They give me some clue as to the local congregation’s theological, liturgical and spiritual identity and focus. They provide a sense of historic roots that is transgenerational. They provide a sense of continuity and accountability in things such as clergy qualifications or outside review if something goes awry.

One of the reasons I mistrust independent “non-denominational” megachurches is that they all too often seem focused on a cult of personality and charisma of a specific individual who isn’t Christ Jesus. They come across as “the latest thing” with little if any reference to two millennia of Christianity before they arrived on the scene. With no higher authority or larger network to answer to, clergy qualifications and conflict/problem resolution seems tenuous at best. There’s no quality control.

That’s why I, not born into an Episcopalian family, attend an Episcopalian church instead of a “non-denominational” megachurch. I even hold a hard copy of the Book of Common Prayer in my hands and gladly turn the pages with my fingers on Sunday. How beautiful! What a pleasure to be there!

Before touting the vitality of independent “non-denominational” megachurches, let’s see where they are once they get as old as some of the Christian denominations — provided these “new kids on the block” last that long.

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