Where Have All the Presbyterians Gone?
Nondenominational churches are the fastest growing in the country
By RUSSELL D. MOORE
Are we witnessing the death of America's Christian denominations? Studies conducted by secular and Christian organizations indicate that we are. Fewer and fewer American Christians, especially Protestants, strongly identify with a particular religious communion—Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. According to the Baylor Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches now represent the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and they are also the fastest growing.
More and more Christians choose a church not on the basis of its denomination, but on the basis of more practical matters. Is the nursery easy to find? Do I like the music? Are there support groups for those grappling with addiction?
This trend is a natural extension of the American evangelical experiment. After all, evangelicalism is about the fundamental message of Christianity—the evangel, the gospel, literally the "good news" of God's kingdom arriving in Jesus Christ—not about denomination building.
The post-World War II generation of evangelicals was responding to congregations filled with what they considered spiritual deadness. People belonged to a church, but they seemed to have no emotional experience of Christianity inside the building. Revivalists watched as denominational bureaucracies grew larger, and churches shifted from sending missionaries to preach around the world to producing white papers on issues like energy policy.
More and more Christians choose a church not on the basis of its denomination, but on the basis of more practical matters.
The revivalists wanted to get back to basics, to recover the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus. "Being a member of a church doesn't make you a Christian," the ubiquitous evangelical pulpit cliché went, "any more than living in a garage makes you a car." Thus these evangelical ministries tended not to talk about those issues that might divide their congregants. They avoided questions like: Who should be baptized and when? What does the Lord's Supper mean? Should women be ordained? And so on.
The movement exploded. Before 1955, there were virtually no megachurches (defined as 2,000 people per worship service) in the country. Now there are between 850 and 1,200 such churches and many are nondenominational, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Evangelicalism wanted to open its doors to all believers and it often lacked roots in the traditions of particular congregations. So many evangelical churches have a generic identity. This has changed the feel of local church life.
Where hymnody once came from the spontaneity of slave spirituals or camp meetings, worship songs are increasingly now focus-grouped by executives in Nashville. The evangelical "Veggie Tales" cartoons—animated Bible stories featuring talking cucumbers and tomatoes
—probably shape more children in their view of scripture than any denominational catechism does these days. A church that requires immersion baptism before taking communion, as most Baptist traditions do, will likely get indignant complaints from evangelical visitors who feel like they've been denied service at a restaurant.
But there are some signs of a growing church-focused evangelicalism. Many young evangelicals may be poised to reconsider denominational doctrine, if for no other reason than they are showing signs of fatigue with typical evangelical consumerism.
For example, artists such as Keith and Kristen Getty and Sojourn Music are reaching a new generation with music written for and performed by local congregations. Yes, prosperity preacher Joyce Meyer sells her book "Eat the Cookie, Buy the Shoes," which encourages Christians to "lighten up" by eating cookies and buying shoes (seriously). But, at the same time, Alabama preacher David Platt is igniting thousands of young people with his book "Radical," which calls Christians to rescue their faith by lowering their standard of living and giving their time and money to Church-based charities.
And though nondenominational churches are growing, the Southern Baptist Convention—the nation's largest Protestant group—has over 10,000 students studying for ministry in six seminaries right now.
If denominationalism simply denotes a "brand" vying for market share, then let denominationalism fall. But many of us believe denominations can represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared about—personal conversion, discipleship, mission and community. Perhaps the denominational era has just begun.
Mr. Moore is dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.