Denominations are in Flux

In “The Missional Church in Context”, edited by Craig Van Gelder, it describes how denominations have changed in recent years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, denominations started to become regulatory agencies. The professional, bureaucratic, and organizational structures that had begun to take shape in the preceding years were now becoming the norm. Yet, they were unable to provide the desired cohesion that was required to address the new diversity being experienced. Russell Richey says: “Denominations have lost or are losing long-familiar adhesive and dynamic principles and are groping, often desperately, for tactics that work and unite”. The notion of a Christian nation that earlier denominational leaders dreamed about was not to be, because the United States was well on its way to becoming a pluralistic society. At the same time, however, there was a rising effort among conservative Christians to reclaim a moral foundation for the country. During this time, Robert Wuthnow notes, denominations “split badly and fairly cleanly into theologically conservative and liberal camps”. Christian unity would not occur across the country – or even within Christian churches themselves.

Without a clear, cohesive purpose, denominations grabbed for control by developing themselves into regulatory agencies, and they sought to win converts by establishing new mechanisms through consulting, marketing, and offering grants. But these efforts, while offering some short-term wins, did not produce the long-lasting results that were needed. “The top-down, imposed, common denominational grammar began to erode. And, as a result, church members began to shop among denominations to find a church home. This required denominations to refocus their efforts on establishing their own unique identity, which called for denominational loyalty and refined church polity.”

Outside the church, “the advent of new social movements opposing the Vietnam War, imperialism, racism, sexism, and capitalist societies” were visible signs of an emerging stirring that was taking place. Just as the dream of the United States truly becoming a Christian nation within a framework of civil religion was fading, so were the hopes of the “enlightened” beginning to weaken. Sociology, philosophy, the arts, literature, and science all experienced the first tremors that would soon question many of their basic ideals. While no one could clearly articulate what was going on, something was in the air and many were beginning to feel a turn coming.

Currently, denominations are in a state of flux. The organizational structures that were created, and that devolved into regulatory agencies, are no longer affordable or sufficient for the twenty-first-century church mission. Some are pessimistic about the future of denominations and have proclaimed their imminent death, while others are optimistic and have witnessed pockets of vitality and innovation. While opinions vary on the future status of denominations, one thing everyone agrees on is that denominations are in a state of transition. Transition is not something new for denominations; but, in order to move through this transition effectively, they have to address some key questions: “What is the mission of the church in the twenty-first century?” And “What is the role of denominations in the future?”


5 Responses to “Denominations are in Flux”

  1. Barry Ensign-George Says:

    Hi Clark,

    Thanks for this post. I hope that we (the PCUSA) will work together at answering the questions at the end of your post.

    I’d like to suggest two additional questions: “What is a denomination (today)?” and “How are denominations related to the one holy catholic and apostolic church?” I think part of the reason we’re in so much flux is because we have no substantial answers to those questions. We can’t think well about the future role of the denomination (of this denomination in particular) if we don’t know what a denomination is.

    I spend a fair amount of time thinking about those questions, so I’m glad to see you asking the questions at the end of this post.

    Barry Ensign-George

    • clarkcowden Says:

      Thanks for your reply! These are important questions that we need to be answering. There are some identity issues where we are going with this. Please let me know any other ideas you have on this.

      Clark Cowden

  2. Matt Ferguson Says:


    I see articles on this topic and they all seem to ignore the elephant in the room, even when they mention it.
    “Robert Wuthnow notes, denominations “split badly and fairly cleanly into theologically conservative and liberal camps”.
    Without unity in essentials beliefs there is no unity for disagreements will come up over too many things because it will be feared how those things are handled will have implication on what we hold as essential beliefs (and we all have them).
    The way forward is for denominations to get over this “big tent” idea. Most know you cannot hold “a” and “anti-a” as being true. The resulting conflict and disagreements rob time, energy, and money from weightier matters.
    Change our polity and structure as much as they want, it will not result in a healthier denomination because our problem is theological and not with those things.

    • clarkcowden Says:


      Thanks so much for your comments. Robert Wuthnow’s comments were really about the state of denominations in the 1960s and 1970s. It doesn’t apply to today. Back then, denominations were split badly and fairly cleanly. Denominations are no longer split cleanly. People don’t line up in neat boxes like they used to.

      It would be great to have unity in essentials. I think there is unity in some essentials and not in others. The question is then, so what do we do? We are in a time of transition. The question is how do we help the denomination transition to a more faithful, missional, Biblical, and theological place?

      I think the way forward is a journey of missional discipleship. I think the elephant in the room is our cultural captivity, our Biblical amnesia, and our missional confusion. Our divisive issues will not be solved by arguing, voting, or facing them head on. I think they will be resolved as a by-product of missional and spiritual practices. I agree with you that changing polity and structures won’t work. This article is not arguing for that. But how we “do church” is changing. Denominations are in flux. If we don’t join the Spirit in re-shaping this part of Christ’s church, someone else will do it for us.

      Thanks for the conversation.

  3. Matt Ferguson Says:


    I disagree that Wuthnow’s observation does not hold true today.

    Our problem is theological, not structural. The focus on being missional is simply the new hot topic. The Church has always been missional. Name me an era when I cannot find the Church doing mission in the world?

    From the very beginning until now. Yes, some parts of the Church family have done better than others in serving the least of these. And some parts of the Church family who once did very well in serving others are not doing as well today. But the Church has always been doing the work God has called it to do.

    Don’t get me wrong, we always need to be encouraging one another to do more as we strive to become more of what God has in mind for us but too many today seem to me to be acting as if being missional is some new idea.

    There is a significant theological divide in mainline churches. It has little to do with sex and a lot to do with ones view of scripture, Biblical authority, and proper methods of interpreting scripture so we are not seeking to mold God’s Word into our words.

    There are more people attending worship each week in the United States right now than ever before. People in mainline churches are often shocked to hear that but it is true. While our attendance percentages shift a bit from 45% to 40% over the last 50 years, there are so many more people today that even with a few percentage points less in attendance, there are far, far more people attending church today than ever in the U.S. But we have lost so many members in mainline churches that folks in those churches find it hard to believe.

    We wander from theological orthodoxy and we slowly die off. It really isn’t too much more complicated than that. Yes, there is more to it but not too much more. In 1960 there was about 90 million in worship weekly and today there is about 120 million in worship weekly in the U.S. An increase of 30 million more people in worship now than then—but they are not in the old mainline denominations and it has little to nothing to do with our polity, structure, that we are a connectional church.

    The growth is predominately in orthodox believing churches, associations, or denominations. We wander from the truth and we slowly die. When you look around the world and see where God is moving in powerful ways and there is great growth—it is in orthodox believing groups.

    Right belief leads to right action and that includes reaching out to those in need, seeking to meet their physical needs AND more importantly their spirittual needs. Giving the cup of cold water in Jesus Name.

    If interested, poke around the church where I serve God and see what we do in missions. Not everything is reflected there but you will see a very active little church of roughly 160 in worship attendance. We do this without having any interest in the fade of “being missional”. We do it because we are following God by coming to know God’s Word more andmore and living by what we are learning.

    What I get from the new fade book ‘The Great Emergence’ is we are in the process of a 500 year shaking out that will impact our alignments theologically. If I am right in understanding that part of the book, then I would say let’s embrace it and get ourselves realigned theologically. All the progressives in mainline churches can unite in a denomination or two and all the orthodox folks in mainline denominations can do the same. The mushy middle folks? It would be good for them to do some study and figure out what they believe or don’t. Churches that are mixed? Let them have 2 churches meeting in one building, ‘nesting” together. No need for one to have the property over the other.

    Unless we do something like the above we will continue to spend too much time on our disagreements within our current denominations. The enemy loves that option. Time, energy, money that could be better spent in doing mission will continue to be flushed down the toilet.

    All this talk about our unifying around mission work without being unified theologically on basic, foundational beliefs is nonsense—-utter nonsense. Why? Because we cannot agree what is Christian mission.

    Time to step off the soapbox and so some sermon research sitting on my desk and get ready for a funeral.

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