Thousands of Southern Baptist Convention delegates voted on a new president and several resolutions at their meeting on June 10, 2014. Photo by Van Payne via Baptist Press

Why Christian denominations aren’t going away (COMMENTARY)

 (RNS) Summer is the time when many Protestant denominations hold annual or biennial meetings to assess the state of their union, make policy decisions, and figure out the best way to maximize their partnership.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America meets June 8-12. Thousands of “messengers” from the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention will gather in Columbus, Ohio, on June 16-17. During the same week, the Evangelical Free Church of America will host its national conference in Vista, Calif.

Thousands of Southern Baptist Convention delegates voted on a new president and several resolutions at their meeting on June 10, 2014. Photo by Van Payne via Baptist Press

Thousands of Southern Baptist Convention delegates voted on a new president and several resolutions at their meeting on June 10, 2014. Photo by Van Payne via Baptist Press

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Denominational meetings may go on as usual this summer, but denominations, as a whole, have fallen on hard times. The Pew Forum’s survey of America’s religious landscape showed a rapidly declining percentage of Americans claiming a Christian identity. Among the 70 percent who still claim to be Christian, fewer and fewer identify themselves by their church’s denominational affiliation.

The rise of “the nones” (those claiming no religious affiliation on surveys) has gotten a lot of press in recent years, and deservedly so. But we shouldn’t overlook the rise of “the nones” within Christianity -- Christians and churches claiming “none” when it comes to denominational affiliation.

A century ago, most Christians saw themselves as Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Lutherans, and so forth. In the last 50 years, with the decline of mainline Protestantism and the rise of the cross-denominational evangelical movement, many American Christians began to abandon their denominational homes.

Today, many of the largest and fastest-growing churches in America do not belong to a denomination, while many churches that remain denominational have dropped the moniker from their church’s name (perhaps to avoid unnecessary barriers or baggage), and have thus become like their “nondenominational” counterparts, at least outwardly.

The bad news is that loyalty to historic church groups is waning, and for this reason, many Christians feel free to jump from one church to another, regardless of denominational identity.

The good news is that the imminent demise of denominations is premature, and a denominational affiliation is not the “hindrance” many believers consider it to be.

A recent survey by LifeWay Research shows that nonreligious people have a more favorable than unfavorable view toward a wide range of faiths. While many Christians have a difficult time explaining the differences between denominations, the nonreligious are even less likely to understand these differences.

That’s why having a denominational affiliation in your church’s name is unlikely to matter much to someone considering your church. In fact, the “Baptist” and “Catholic” labels have the highest rate of familiarity and they top the survey for favorable impressions.

As a millennial, I’m supposed to be adverse to institutions and interdenominational squabbling. The individualistic ethos and anti-institutional attitude of my generation has led many of my peers to dismiss the relevance of denominational structures. “Why bother with red tape when you want to get stuff done?” they ask.

To be sure, denominations contain relics of a bygone era and many elements need to be repurposed, or, in some cases, done away with. But my response is: “Why reinvent a system or structure that already exists?” For me, it’s a matter of stewardship, a willingness to work within a denominational structure and make it better, not do away with it and start from scratch.

But others might say, shouldn't we downplay denominations and celebrate “the ecumenism of the trenches”? After all, we're stronger when we stand together on the cultural battlefield and cross denominational lines when it comes to serving the poor, caring for the environment, or speaking up on the sanctity of all human life, and the reality of marriage.

I recognize the benefit of “mere Christianity,” the term C. S. Lewis used to describe Christians who worship in various “rooms” (where they approach various aspects of faith and practice differently), but then meet together in the hallway (to enjoy fellowship and unity in the foundational tenets of the faith). But I also see the benefit of church life in its glorious particularity -- not a watered-down “we appeal to everyone” generic church experience, but a textured and historic approach to Christianity.

Leaders of newer churches and networks quickly discover the need to recreate the kind of infrastructure for mission work that denominational churches already have at their disposal. Furthermore, these newer networks often demand a quasi-denominational allegiance of their own. A century from now, it’s likely that there will be new and different denominations within Protestantism; it’s unlikely that denominations will have totally disappeared.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The question for Christians in denominational churches is this: How will we steward the resources and institutions we’ve received for the mission Christ has given us? That question should be at the forefront of all the annual gatherings taking place this summer, because the denominations most likely to thrive are those that devote their attention and resources not to the perpetuation of their own identity, but to the fulfilling of Jesus’ “Great Commission.”

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)



  1. “A recent survey by LifeWay Research shows that nonreligious people have a more favorable than unfavorable view toward a wide range of faiths”

    As usual Mr. Wax misrepresents facts to try to score points for his brand Christian fundamentalism. The survey said absolutely nothing about non-religious people nor represented views towards a “wide range of faiths”. It wasn’t even a wide range of sects within the faith of Christianity nor addressed any faith outside of it.

    It wasn’t that long ago that he was lighting the funeral pyres for denominations he thought strayed from the scriptural purity of his own fundamentalist belief.

    Now he is extolling denominations for having a pre-existing framework to deal with. I guess his paymasters at the SBC are giving him new instructions.

  2. Wax’s position is reasonably consistent, Larry. Just because some mainline denominations have pretty much messed-up to Hades (via tacit or overt acceptance of gay marriage and gay clergy), that does NOT mean that there’s anything wrong with them being a denomination per se.

    Denominational structures are A-Okay. It’s good to be organized and have some house rules on the table. The only question is what a given denomination is preaching and teaching and modeling.

  3. Consistent in its attitude of aggrandizing the fundamentalists at the expense of the rest of the faith. Making backhanded comments about those sects which are not in line with his own thinking.

    So we are both in agreement that his take on the survey was way off?

  4. @Louis- Jesus’ form of Christianity was TRUTH found in God’s word. No need for denominations. They are manmade sects that came about because of misinterpretation of scripture and a need to conform God’s word to man’s thoughts and desires and not the other way around. (Eph.4:4-6) 4 One body there is, and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. “ONE FAITH, ONE BAPTISM” not several thousand… (Gal.5:19-21) Now the works of the flesh are plainly seen, and they are…dissensions, divisions, sects… I already warned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit God’s Kingdom.
    So you see, Christianity was never meant to be “denominational” or sectarian. “Unity” was/is a mark of true Christianity. (1Pet.3:8) Finally, all of you have unity of mind, fellow feeling, brotherly affection, tender compassion, and humility.

  5. They operate the pension funds, that’s why.

    You could likely toss several presbyterian bodies, the Dutch Reformed, the United Church of Christ, and sundry troublesome provinces of the United Methodist Church into one kitchen sink. If the ECLA Lutherans manage to catch up with the Episcopal Church in manifestations of comical decadence, you can generate a second denomination out of that crew. You can manufacture a third out of ABC congregations Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo might fancy. Three corporations with distinct structures, sacraments, recitations and hymnody, one pile of blancmange.

  6. Aye. I suspect that if carefully questioned, most clergy in most decaying denominations would reveal the same set of dispositions, i.e. they went into it to be den mothers on salary, or, like the character in V.S. Naipaul’s Guerillas, have no important skills but are hired to be organizers of boys’ clubs. Everything else is just idiom, convention, and trumpery.

  7. Evangelical seminaries have got to stop training their students to smile in ways that make them look either drugged or like Joe Isuzu.

  8. “The bad news is that loyalty to historic church groups is waning…”

    That is good news, not bad.
    An extraordinary educational renaissance is underway thanks to the internet. Questions are answered at light speed. People have no patience with Authorities which cannot back up their claims.

    All your answers about God in one place.
    Millions of people are waking up from the sleep of religion every year.

  9. I believe the words of Jesus were, “That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). It cannot get any more unified than that. And we can see the results right here on this forum, and elsewhere, how the divisions have negatively impacted belief/faith. We have done everything the Lord told us not to do, so the results should be no surprise.

  10. As millions of people are waking up depressed, suicidal, anti-social, sexually depraved, violently mentally ill, in the bed of yet another sexual partner, waking up without a dad in the home, or, adults and teens that aren’t waking up because they are dead from a secular world (atheism, materialism, humanism) gone literally mad . . . , hundreds of millions of slaughtered unborn for convenience sake, yup, Max, millions of people are waking up as irreligious.

    And reaping what they sow.

    A world of hate, violence and vice as tolerated as a new cable channel.

    Now the working-insane garner a secular PhD and demand to lead us by inventing new forms of atheism that feeds the greed and vice of the new-depravity paradigm. Freethinkers? Hardly. Just the same old purveyors of tyranny with a new sheep jacket.

    You can’t say that God didn’t warn you. Well, I guess, you can, but the horrors of it just keep stacking up.

  11. Opium is the opiate of the secular people.

    We have to highlight atheism as doing to the populace what an insanity movement does.

    The laughable conclusion to the materialist attack on God is that in one point the atheist says “God is imaginary,” and then they decry the deaths and suffering of human beings, when there is actually no such thing as death in suffering in nature. What we see in nature is just matter being moved around in one form or another. Yet, the atheist claims that “we” should try to treat death and suffering as if it is something to be eased away or eliminated. If one was a “true atheist,” then seeking the alleviation of death, diseases and suffering would not even be contemplated, let alone a major expenditure of their time on earth.

    Thank God that there are some people that can see through the insanity of a materialism. Others unfortunately are duped by standard hucksters selling things.

  12. Not sure where you get your information from, but it seems to me that the world has always been a place with a lot of human wickedness. I know that things are tough in the United States at the moment, but I don’t think that the country is going to the dogs. The US has been there all along, along with the rest of the world.

  13. Artie, all the denominations are decaying. That is why the ultra-conservative ones are so hell bent on proseltyzing in the developing world and opposing sane family planning. They are hoping to make up the decline through overbreeding and cheap salesmanship.

  14. Lol, the comments here would make great propaganda for why not to be Christian, not to be affiliated with such sour people.

  15. @BB,

    “A world of hate, violence and vice…”

    1. Where is your evidence that things are worse than ever?

    2. And what changed in the world when Jesus stopped breathing?

    3. What did your Jesus accomplish with his unbelievably brilliant act of bleeding to death to stop hatred and vice?

    4. Before Jesus the world was full of war, starvation and misery. After Jesus – BINGO – same thing. What was the point of Christianity?

    5. The evidence shows NON- BELIEF leads to the safest, most egalitarian, richest, most educated countries on earth: Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, France, England, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Washington State, Japan….

    6. But the Religious places are filled with horrors:
    they are the poorest, most unequal, unfree, stifled, miserable of all: Middle East, Tehran, Baghdad, Afghanistan, Egypt, Baltimore, Bangladesh, Atlanta, Louisianna…

    Want misery? Go to a place where religion rules.

  16. Dear Be Brave

    This is the tone you use when you communicate with unbelivers?

    Do think they will see you as loving them?

  17. @BB,

    “hundreds of millions of slaughtered unborn for convenience sake, yup, Max…”

    ABORTIONS are a sad fact of life.
    And there would be a lot fewer abortions if Christians would get out of politics!

    Well funded Right Wing Christians:

    1. reject contraception.
    2. reject proper sex education.
    3. advocate for sexual repression including masturbation.
    4. reject homosexuality.
    5. force marriage vows on sexually active youth.
    6. Repress natural sexuality instead of celebrating it.
    7. Outlaw reasonable access to birth control in many states.

    No philosophies have led to more sexual dysfunction and misery than Christianity and Islam – the two juggernauts of anti-civilization.

  18. i think the main reason many churches are deciding to the denominational name from their name is it will make it easier for them to leave an apostatized denomination without really looking any different from the old. all one has to do is look at the American Episcopal Church to see the problems that would result in leaving the denomination. the most annoying name is the generic numerical church name with the denomination like First Baptist Church city. i live close to a mainline denomination church that is nothing like the stereotype. just think about it you can visit the different Baptist churches in a community and only thing they have in common is the belief in believers-only baptism much like we find the SBC. why does the SBC still call itself Southern anyway for since when is Chicago in the south or Detroit?

  19. You think missionary work is something new?

  20. Missionary work sans imperialism is still a relatively new concept (less than a century at best). Well you have to make up the numbers being lost in the rest of the developed world. Its effects are generally a mixed bag when it comes to bolstering the numbers.

  21. So you think Christian sexuality is more “dysfunctional“ than the brand it replaced in Rome — where a girl would be sold in marriage often while still pre-pubescent and then passed about among a series of husbands, none of whom had any responsibility to be faithful nor to care for her sexual needs while he amused himself with temple prostitutes and enslaved sexual playthings of both genders and as young as possible, and of course deciding unilaterally which of his wife’s offspting to raise or feed to the animals or have dismembered in utero in grisly procedures that ancient doctors recorded in disgusting detail and which it is amazing that any woman survived.

    Gosh, thanks for telling us what kind of a sexual ethic you prefer.

    It’s no accident that WOMEN were the primary drivers of early Christianity’s growth.

  22. Were it not for missionary work sans imperialism the Church would never have made it out of Jerusalem. We’ve come full circle, is all.

  23. Max,

    Scandinavia? The countries with the Cross still on their flags?

    Or are you talking the Scandinavians that looted, raped and pillaged all over the earth before becoming Christian nations and getting civilized like you show?

    Oh and for science . . . you mean the science used to create weapons of mass destruction, or the convenience products that are literally killing our planet as we type back and forth at each other?

    And for our world of “secular” (sexualized” youth? Now of course, they need a promiscuity cancer prevention vaccination.

    Yeah, yeah, you go with a lunatic world of individual selfishness and I’ll stick with The Church and the Gospel.

    But make sure your little children have plenty of condoms as they head off for school OK?

    Which of course, condoms are as antithetical to nature as are same gender sex acts. But you go dud violating naturalism al you want to. I’ll stay civilized and safe from bad consequences fro loose living.

  24. @Shawnie:

    “where a girl would be sold in marriage often while still pre-pubescent…”

    And the bloody death of Jesus stopped this bad behavior? By doing what? By endorsing God’s rapes and murders?

    “Cursed be he who does the Lords work remissly, cursed he who holds back his sword from blood.” (Jeremiah 48:10)

    JESUS Agrees – “Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law” (John7:19) and “For the law was given by Moses,…” (John 1:17).


    “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse.” (1 Peter 2:18)

    Some of us have too much self respect
    and intelligence to seek out kernels of goodness in this awful religion.

  25. You seem to be under the spell which says religion solves all problems.

    Religion solves nothing.
    But that doesn’t mean there are no problems which require immediate attention!

    You are like a person who throws up his hands to God when you spot a leaky faucet.
    It fixes NOTHING.
    So the rest of us – who apply thought instead of prayer – are left to repair the leak with whatever we can manage to find without your help !
    Then you dare to complain that the plumber isn’t perfect?!

    Science is the most reliable way we fix broken faucets and other problems in the real world. Science cures for diseases.

    Your God fixes nothing. And the belief in this nonsense delays real solutions in the meantime!
    Religion is a public nuisance and a blunder. Like smoking and booze – keep it to yourself.

  26. It is abundantly clear in our denomination how they view available resources. Survival of the denomination comes before survival of congregations—making “nones” out of their most faithful. “Mission” is always the rhetoric, but if mission is the real purpose, it is failing. Close the churches. Grab and sell the properties. Pay salaries for another year or two. (ELCA, by the way.)

  27. @BB,

    “Now of course, they need a promiscuity cancer prevention vaccination.”

    That is just ignorant.
    All sorts of horrible diseases are spread through sex – including the flu virus which kills 20,000 Americans every year!

    Vaccines are a way to prevent diseases. Vaccines were not invented by God or by Prayer – they are a man made answer to your God’s abject silence on the issue.

    Which is why countries with good sex education have much better population control and fewer teenage pregnancies!

    THAT IS THE WHOLE POINT OF SEX EDUCATION! To help young people deal with sexuality in safe, supportive and HEALTHY ways!

    As opposed to your Religio-fear-mongering nonsense about children having sex! Good grief!

  28. It got so much harder now that you can’t forcibly convert people anymore. 🙂

  29. “where a girl would be sold in marriage often while still pre-pubescent and then passed about among a series of husbands, none of whom had any responsibility to be faithful nor to care for her sexual needs while he amused himself with temple prostitutes and enslaved sexual playthings of both genders and as young as possible”

    Leave the Duggars out of this! 🙂

  30. dmj,

    Emotional appeals to Atheists are not enough in any case.
    “Seeing the love of Christians” won’t change my mind.
    Just as the love for humanity felt by great Atheists Paul Newman, Oscar Schindler, Jonas Salk and Charles Schulz would not change your mind either.

    Nor should it.
    If God exists there should be solid, demonstrable reasons to believe in it.

    If emotions are all you have, then you are in the same pointless situation as Muslims or Hindus or any other religion.

  31. Mature people don’t fornicate. Mature people have self-control.

  32. God gave us His Word. Men made denominations. God did NOT make them. There is no reason to defend them. We are to represent God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Anything beyond that is shaky ground indeed. The body of Christ is made up of believers in Christ. Those who have received Jesus as their Savior and Lord and turn away from their sinful past. God is the One who bring in new members, not man. It is His work from beginning to end. God certainly can and does work within these “denominations”, but His power is often greater apart from them. God bless

  33. Not really. We won over an empire with no force at all.

  34. The death of Jesus did not stop such atrocities of fallen human nature, of course. But it DID introduce the highly novel phenomenon of people having a problem with it. So sorry that we ruined what you consider a superior sexual ethic.

    And of course everyone (perhaps not you) knows that the word rendered “perverse” in some translations does not mean perverted in a sexual sense but harsh or, literally, unreasonable. It implies both dishonesty and cruelty. The Greek word is “skoliosis” which comes from the root word for “dry,” implying something bent or crooked from dryness– an apt description for an unsaved master who has not tasted “living water.” Nowhere does Paul ever instruct slaves to submit to sexual immorality, and early church history is replete with histories of heroic women who welcomed death rather than to do so.

  35. Dear Max

    Most people (but not all)) agree that proofs for the existence of God do not exist. Many people accept God because they have had radically non-linear experiences. My hero Bertrand Russell had such an experience and took it in a non-theistic way. Other people having the same experience might choose to use the g-word. Who cares?

  36. @Shawnie:

    “death of Jesus did not stop such atrocities…it DID introduce the highly novel phenomenon of people having a problem with it.”

    You have read nothing Asian or Greek philosophy if you think that.

    “everyone (perhaps not you) knows that the word rendered “perverse” in some translations does not mean perverted in a sexual sense”

    I’m sure many Christian slave masters were careful to point that out to their slave women.

    “Nowhere does Paul ever instruct slaves to submit to sexual immorality”

    Why do you disown Peter? Don’t like him?
    How did this get into your ‘Holy’ Bible?

    “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are PERVERTED JERKS.” – (1 Peter 2:18)

    Change perverse to ‘creep’ or ‘immoral jerk’ and see if it fixes the verse.

    Now think of the comfort it gave to rapists.

  37. Mythbuster:
    Fornicate (for-ne-kate), a term used by judgmental religious zealots to disparage any normal, healthy consensual sex act which happens without having first undergone a prerequisite, authoritarian, tribally sanctioned magical pairing ceremony with superstitious propitiations and magical incantations to a presumed deity or deities.

    Since religion would die if not for these magic ceremonies such consensual sexual enjoyments are forbidden and given a nasty sounding name.

  38. I already explained to you what the operative Greek word was. It did not have sexual connotations.

    And you do NOT want to wander off into Greeks and their attitudes about sex–particularly since you’ve already taken the position that theirs were superior to ours.

  39. There is plenty of suffering in the natural world, whether or not one includes humans in that description. I take it that you think that humans are not part of the natural world, since you proclaim that suffering can only be recognized with an acknowledgement of some deity.

    Take a look at primates, dolphins, elephants, wolves, and other social creatures that suffer distress and grieve missing and dead companions. A recognition of suffering in others is also fairly clear in observation of social animals. Conspicuously missing from behavioral descriptions is any indicator that they acknowledge a deity.

    Because we can infer suffering on the part of non-humans but cannot infer a non-human knowledge of deities, it is clear that theism is not required for a recognition of suffering. Furthermore, because theism is not required for an understanding of suffering, one can be atheist and recognize suffering and acknowledge its implications, your insensitive and ignorant comments, aside.


    Slavery – Yes (Luke 12:47)
    Rape Pretty Captives – Yes (Matthew 5:18)(Deut. 21:10-14)
    Capital punishment – Yes (Luke 19:27)(Matthew 24:51)
    Genocide – Yes (Matthew 5:18)(Exodus 22:19)
    Sexual repression – Yes(Matthew 5:28)
    Merciless punishment – Yes(Mark 16:16)
    Lying – Yes(John 20:29)

  41. Shawnie:

    There is nothing you will find in all of Greek mythology
    which compares to the nightmare of Jesus:

    “Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

  42. Actually Jesus gave us a Church, of which the gates of hell shall not prevail against (Matt 16:18), which is the pillar and foundation of Truth (1Tim 3:15). And it was that Church which wrote, determined, and compiled the New Testament.

  43. You are a proud member of the worlds biggest cult. Full of idolatry and doctrines of demons. You need to repent and become a member of the true Church which Jesus Christ indeed established by His blood.

  44. I love the complete lack of irony some Christians have. How one can decry perceived idolatry in others yet engage in talk of blood sacrifice which is pretty reminiscent of idolatry.

  45. You’d have to be one of the body of Christ and conversant in scripture to understand. Outsiders misunderstand our doctrines as much now as they did when ignorant Romans thought the Lord’s Supper was involved cannibalism.

  46. Sacrifice of bodies and sanctifying with blood. Use such terms outside of a Christian rant and one associates such things with stereotypes for idol worship. Again, one has to appreciate the lack of irony in such things.

    When one is wrapped up in their own belief and dogma, they seldom are comfortable looking at things from an objective perspective. Unintentional irony is a common affliction to them. Its not ignorance, far from it. Its simply being observant of things which are largely not addressed.

    Consuming the body and blood of Christ isn’t eating and drinking a person? The doctrine of transubstantiation says otherwise. Consuming of the divine godhead is a major feature of agricultural cults. Plenty of people have seen the connection between Jesus and “year king” myth. Christianity has had an adulterous affair with idolatry since inception. 😉

  47. Larry, I’m afraid you are confused between what the Bible teaches and what man has invented through Catholicism. Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of Me”. Just as Jews remember the Passover (which points to the blood sacrifice of the True Lamb-Jesus) so believers are to remember what Jesus did for us by delivering us from God’s wrath by His own blood. Catholicism made up transubstantiation along with many other teachings of men. Shawnie is right, you do NOT understand.

  48. Is the mission Jesus the Christ gave us actually represented by the institutions we call denominations? Said mission has become obfuscated by our tenacious devotion to man-made dogma, creeds, and rules. In my opinion denominations are the antithesis of what Jesus had in mind. Paul warned the early churches of mans commandments becoming more important than Gods commandments. Surely denominations have made us more guilty of that than anything Paul could envision. We need to stop parsing the Bible and arguing about which theologian is more right and focus on the teachings of Jesus.

  49. Is there any reason God shouldn’t remain silent on diseases.

Leave a Comment