Virtual Voices

When conservative denominations decline

Religion

If your denomination is 25-years-old or older, it is has likely peaked and plateaued in terms of numbers and influence---unless you are from a Pentecostal or Charismatic tradition. The pace of social change is faster in our era than ever before and denominations cannot keep up. As denominations grow they become slow, more bureaucratic, less creative, and less innovative. Denominations increasingly become centered on preserving their institutions while ignoring needed reforms to address social change. As such, the generation that initially grew the denomination becomes the primary target audience. As that population ages and become culturally leveraged, so follows the denomination they helped to grow.

Recent movements built on baby-boomers are plateauing and will experience future decline. Younger leaders with creative and innovative ideas in these denominations tend to be viewed as threats against the forms and methods of the past. This desire to conserve past forms and methods is often confused as orthodoxy. Are denominations, then, partly responsible for the decline in confessional Christianity in America?

Dr. John Frame, the J.D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary, writes about the trouble with denominationalism is his book Evangelical Reunion. Frame argues that the three major forms of church government---congregational, episcopal, presbyterian---"require for their best implementation the organizational unity of the church and the elimination of denominations." This does not mean that non-denominational churches are preferred but that denominations don't have biblical support and tend to impair the ability of the church to affect society over time, Frame argues.

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There is increasing concern about the shorter shelf life denominations have in our globalized and rapidly changing world. Listening to Mark Driscoll, founding pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, deliver a 2009 presentation about the Acts 29 Network ("We Are a Movement") led me to ask new questions like "Has my own denomination peaked?" Driscoll speaks about the unfortunate cycle of Christian movements becoming museums. First, movements start with radical change and innovation. For example, a response to changes in culture or a desire for maintaining biblical orthodoxy can create a movement. Secondly, as a movement grows and gathers followers, there is a need to organize. Theology develops, leaders emerge, names are chosen, vision statements are created, and so on. Third, movements mature and become institutions. Institutions have structure, order, governance, and controls that emerge to reproduce desired behaviors to preserve a particular institutional culture. Fourth, movements become museums when their self-preservation distracts them from keeping up with addressing culture. They become irrelevant. Museums, says Driscoll, have pastors who are simply "curators" of the organization telling stories about people who did great things in the past.

In Driscoll's framework, your conservative denomination will become a museum if the following occurs: It fails to recontextualize the Gospel as needed according to shifts in culture; it becomes theologically focused on heresy hunting by way of making matters unclear in the Scriptures the litmus test of orthodoxy; creates a "good ole boy" network so that younger leaders cannot have a respectable voice unless the right people are known; it makes an idol out of methods and preferences by attaching proof-texts to desires and calling those "orthodox"; it refuses to learn from and associate with Christians who are not in their tradition; it refuses to adopt ideas developed outside their tradition; or it abandons the Gospel and biblical orthodoxy altogether. For a tutorial on decline simply look at all of the denominations and movements that were birthed in Western Europe during the Reformation in terms of their influence in Europe today. Will this happen in America?

I'm not suggesting that denominations do not have a significant role to play in the Kingdom. Denominations can provide great resources for the church. I am wondering, however, if denominations may be a large factor in making Christianity culturally irrelevant when they do not radically reform methods while remaining faithful to the faith once delivered for every generation. Instead of change for the better many denominations simply split into new institutions that tend to influence one generation before the next group plateaus, becomes irrelevant, or splits again. The cycle continues and, in the meantime, the lost are not reached with the Gospel. Perhaps, then, progressive missional movements are needed outside of formal denominational structures for every generation so the church is reminded of her mission.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Liberating Black Theology. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.

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