Saturday, August 6, 2022

Denominational Churches in Non-Denominational Clothing

There is a very obvious trend among evangelical churches to deemphasize their denominational affiliation, if they have one. They take names that omit the name of their denomination, and in many cases you can scour their website without finding their denomination mentioned at all. Here are a few examples, at least two of which do have a non-prominent references to their denomination. I wonder how many of the sites will provide you enough information to determine their affiliation.
A cursory inspection of those sites might lead you to assume that they are non-denominational evangelical churches. They are all evangelical, to be sure, and they are each affiliated with a different denomination. Why does it matter?

According to research published on the Christianity Today website the non-denominational churches in the United States are no longer drawing quite so many members in from mainline Protestant churches as they used to. In fact, the majority of their growth is now organic, through reproduction, with a significant 'pipeline' of new members coming in from Roman Catholic backgrounds. This is significant in a number of ways, but here are two.

First, while mainline Protestant denominations continue to decline, the people they tend to lose now are young people who leave once they become adults and never come back or go anywhere else. They become what many refer to now as the 'nones.' Typically they either describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious,' agnostics, or atheists. 

Second, the reported 17% of former Roman Catholics who are now members of non-denominational churches are a testament to the fact that not all former Catholics are giving up on the Christian faith. Perhaps, like me in my youth, they read the Bible and became persuaded that the church found their is unlike the Roman Catholic Church of today. Or, maybe they left in disgust over the sexual abuse of children by priests, and the complicity of bishops in covering it up. Maybe it's both and then some. 

Third, most people tend to continue identifying with the religion in which they were raised, at the very least because that's where they have family and other connections. Many might disappear from church for a time, but if they turn up anywhere again later, it will likely be the same as what they grew up with. Non-denominational churches are increasing in comparison to others not solely through conversions but also through reproduction and some measure of retention.

What is it that attracts people to non-denominational churches, and why do denominational churches now mask their affiliation even when their denomination doesn't have a bad public image (as in the case of the Southern Baptist Convention)?

Channeling my former evangelical self I can speculate somewhat safely. There is a culture of anti-institutionalism along with a desire for a church that is 'Bible believing' and not perceived as beholden to denominational 'traditions of men.' I have no idea how many times back in my youthful days as an evangelical missionary and minister I was told by someone with a wrinkled nose that they had no use for denominations. It was pretty frequent.

On a more positive note, I do also recall a desire for non-denominationalism because it appeared to be a move in the direction of Christian unity.  By rejecting denominational labels and gathering only around the Bible in the name of Christ they were affirming the unity of all Christians. At least, among evangelicals who were to be considered the only 'real' Christians. Catholics and others might also be saved, some would say, though to hear them tell it, it would be only by the skin of their teeth.

Meanwhile, the mainline Protestant churches often emphasize their denominational affiliation and traditions. Look through the websites of the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, or United Church of Christ and you will often see the denominational name in the parish's name and even the denominational logo up front on the main page. Often under 'About Us' you'll see something of the history not just of the local parish, but also about the larger denomination. This is going in the opposite direction of where evangelical churches appear to be headed, but then the mainline Protestant churches are also trying to play to a different crowd. For one thing, if they used denomination-free names and had websites that downplayed the connection they might end up with evangelical church shoppers showing up on Sundays and leaving quite annoyed. 

At the same time, who really is the target audience of the mainline Protestant denominations? I don't think they know for sure, although perhaps they would point to the supposedly more progressive 'nones.' The 'nones' tend not to trust 'organized religion,' or else having been raised without formal religion are completely indifferent to church. 

This trend toward hiding denominational affiliation among evangelical churches is easy to understand. There's the innate American distrust of institutions that drives people toward congregational polity along with a commitment to the Bible only, as though it could ever be interpreted cleanly without any reference at all to a religious tradition. The emphasis on individual personal faith as well certainly must contribute to the wider embrace of believer's baptism, something that just a couple of centuries ago would have seemed quite odd to most Christians other than Baptists. 

Returning to the local churches listed above, here they are with their denominational affiliation:
As I noted above, most of these denominations don't have a great deal of notoriety outside of their immediate circles, so hiding the name likely isn't about a problem with the denomination. It's representative of adaptation to a climate that rejections denominationalism and favors local ownership and autonomy.