In 1955, when Will Herbert wrote his classic volume “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” one in 25 church-going Americans tended to change denominations over a lifetime. In 1985, one in three Americans changed denominations over a lifetime. In this current decade, it’s more than one in two, or about 60%, which means many Christians will change denominations in this century. Not only have we seen a decline in denominational loyalty in recent years, but an increase in the number of people who identify with a network, special purpose group, or parachurch group, rather than a particular denomination.
These accelerated shifts have changed the way many perceive the importance of denominations, resulting in additional changes to the denominational diversity that has developed in North America over the past 200 years. While there are significant changes to observe, we dare not miss the importance of geography as we address this topic.
As the country has migrated westward over the past hundred years, new movements and denominational offshoots have developed. Certainly geography has shifted, but the generalizations about geographical presence and denominational influence still hold. Roman Catholics continue to have great sway in New England, Lutherans are most prevalent in the upper Midwest, Baptists are a majority in the South, and Dutch Reformed are sprinkled across the heartland.
Perhaps even more important than geographical regions is the kind of city or town or place where one resides. Great differences in the understanding of denominational importance exist in metropolitan areas compared with rural towns. Suburban areas are where the majority of generic megachurches are located. Surprisingly, more than 50% of all churchgoing Americans attend less than 12% of all churches. Denominational labels mean less and less for the majority of these megachurches.
Sociologists at Boston University have tracked these changes, highlighting the differences on the east and west coasts when contrasted with areas in the middle of this country. About 30% of the people on the two coasts respond positively to the importance of denominational identity, compared with about 70% in the Midwest and the deep South. Such comparisons are even more exaggerated from rural to urban areas: 84% of people who live in rural areas persist in thinking that denominational identity is important, compared to less than half of that number in suburban and urban areas.
One more important point regarding place: The majority of churches are still found in rural areas, while most people now live in urban and suburban areas, pointing to another reason for decline in the importance of denominations for people in this century.
Furthermore, most of the mainline denominations have sadly lost their way. Some have become disconnected from their heritage, and even more so from Scripture and the great Christian tradition. Some today are not only post-denominational, but also on their way toward becoming post- Christian as their conversations focus on issues of inclusiveness and universalism, sexuality and inter-religious spirituality. Postmodern influences, shifts in population and perceptions regarding denominations, and the decline of mainline denominations have combined to bring about changes that frankly are hard to calculate.
So, what does this say about the future of denominationalism? I want to say that while denominationalism is in measurable decline, denominations still matter. Certainly the kind of structure that denominations provide for churches is important. The Christian faith needs both “structure and Spirit,” to borrow words from historian Jaroslav Pelikan, in order to carry forward the Christian message.
If, however, we focus too much on structure, we wind up with unwanted bureaucracy. Should we focus too much on the Spirit, we unwittingly move toward an amorphous form of Christianity. Let us pray for balance even as we hold out hope for the future of healthy denominations to serve the cause of Christ and cooperatively advance the good news of the gospel message.
David S. Dockery, president of Trinity International University, is the editor of “Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future.”