Quitting denominations

Christianity Sí, Denominations Non

Mark Tooley on June 4, 2021

There’s lots of conversation about Russell Moore’s quitting not only as head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy agency but the convention itself, joining a nondenominational church associated with the Acts 29 “network.” This Calvinist network baptizes babies, a taboo for Baptists! Moore is a lifelong Southern Baptist. 

Public response has focused on Moore’s estrangement from some in the SBC’s rightwing. But perhaps more indicative of our times is his leaving a denomination to which he’s belonged for a lifetime, served in senior leadership, including at its flagship seminary, and became its most prominent national spokesman. 

Another prominent Southern Baptist, Owen Strachan, recently announced his move from Midwestern [Southern] Baptist Theological Seminary to a nondenominational Bible seminary. Several black Southern Baptist clergy and their congregations recently have quit the Southern Baptist Convention, including prominent writer and preacher Thabiti Anyabwile of DC’s Anacostia River Church, which was planted by a prominent mostly white Southern Baptist congregation. Strachan came from the convention’s conservative side. Departing black pastors have complained they no longer feel welcome amid the convention’s polarization.

The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s second largest church after Roman Catholicism, has been declining in membership for nearly 20 years. It is now losing members at a faster rate than the much more liberal United Methodist Church, which has been declining continuously in the U.S. for nearly 60 years, and which is on the verge of formal schism.

Most of America’s historic denominations, including all of its liberal ones and many conservative ones, are declining.  Nondenominational Christianity seems to continue to grow. The age of large denominational agencies, publishing houses, and national leaders who speak to the nation seems to be ending.

The retreat of the great denominations is not per se a retreat for Christianity in America. Overall professed church membership is declining but active regular church attendance not as much. Many nondenominational churches don’t stress formal membership. There are also millions of American Christians who don’t regularly attend formal worship yet practice their spiritually individually, online or sometimes through small devotional groups.

Yet the decline of great denominations is a tremendous loss for American Christianity with national social, cultural and political ramifications. The denominations underpinned much of America’s civil society and informed much of its public discourse. Leaders in their local churches were typically community leaders interwoven with local government, industry, and schools. National leaders of these denominations were until relatively recently also national public voices. Denominations offered national networks including millions of people that compelled a more universal and less parochial outlook.

Now Methodist and Episcopal bishops, once prominently quoted in major newspapers on public topics, are largely ignored. Russell Moore may be the last head of the SBC’s public affairs agency who routinely appears in national media. SBC presidents, who are elected annually, have sometimes been national figures. Albert Mohler, president of what may be America’s largest seminary, might become the SBC’s new president later this month. He already is and will remain a national voice. But will his successors be?

The SBC and United Methodist publishing houses were once among the largest in America, and they directly influenced millions. But with their denominations’ decline, and with Christians no longer very loyal to denominational traditions and seeking their devotional material outside denominational channels, these publishing houses don’t have very bright futures. The future is especially dire for the United Methodist publisher, as post-schism traditional Methodism will likely depend on or develop other publishing outlets. The SBC publishing house at least can market its materials to a much wider universe of evangelicalism.

Many SBC preachers and writers will continue to have cachet beyond their denomination through their books and videos. Popular speaker Beth Moore recently disaffiliated from the SBC, although she did not quit her SBC congregation, and likely her speaking engagements and publications will churn forward unabated. Few of her fans likely care whether she personally identifies with the SBC. California SBC megachurch pastor Rick Warren has been in recent years one of America’s highest profile preachers and authors, although few knew of his SBC affiliation. His Saddleback Church does not advertise its Baptist ties. Increasing numbers of SBC congregations don’t, following a wider trend of churches that disguise denominational affiliations to be more welcoming or from indifference. Almost certainly many post-schism traditional Methodist congregations, and maybe some liberal ones, will avoid confusion or controversy over whether they are liberal or conservative by simply removing “Methodist” from public view.

Meanwhile, greater numbers of Americans who are practicing or at least self-identifying as Christian move freely across denominations and congregations, including many Catholics. Multi-generational loyalties to denominations are ending. Lutherans now marry Catholics and become Southern Baptists before attending nondenominational Bible churches. There’s lots of stress on supposed church and Christian decline in America, but much of the dust is actually a great churning in which denominational ties are replaced by decades of church shopping interspersed by long sabbaticals away from formal church altogether. Some of this church churning is premised on a sense of victimization. Conservatives leave liberal denominations believing the Gospel was withheld from them. Liberals quit conservative denominations thinking themselves brainwashed or ideologically captive.

This unfolding post-denominational American Christianity is a tribute to the entrepreneurship of nondenominational churches and parachurch ministries that are birthed and thrive without denominational resources. In some ways they recall the dynamism of the Early Church or of current often persecuted Chinese Christianity, which is entirely nondenominational and yet seems mostly to thrive. These nondenominationals also recall America’s Tocquevillian spirit of creating new associations to meet contemporary needs.

The sadness about the post denominational world is that it is often ad hoc and individualistic. Great traditions that accrued across centuries are set aside and sometimes forgotten altogether in favor of some purportedly new and improved alternative. Post denominationalism often stresses personal choice. Sometimes although not always it is personality-driven. Its ecclesiology is almost always congregationalist, so there is little accountability if any to a wider community.

Leaders from post denominational Christianity become national figures through their social media, book sales, online broadcasting, or their public controversies, like secular celebrities. Post denominationalism may feed national polarization in that its participants when looking outside their congregations rely on self-chosen and sometimes self-segregating social media and news sources. This post denominationalism tends to create inward subcultures instead of identifying with a national culture, as churches previously long did through their large and historic denominations.

Russell Moore’s quitting the SBC to affiliate with Christianity Today magazine will possibly expand his influence and fan base. His departure may reveal less about Southern Baptist divisions and more about how denominations are becoming irrelevant.

  1. Comment by Brother Thom on June 4, 2021 at 7:47 pm

    We did our best to save our local UMC. We offered help in both our time, effort and even in large donations that carried the church’s million-dollar mortgage for several months. The same services we offered to our former UMC (they asked us to leave), have resulted in huge gains for the church we founded following our departure. There is no doubt that God rewards those who do His work in His name. We have seen it. There is also no doubt that God punishes those who turn against him for their own gain, we saw that too.

    The non-denominational route has allowed us the freedom to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It’s. not just a saying to us, we live each day.
    We are able to put 100% of our tithes and offerings to work directly supporting ministries that have changed the lives of those we serve. Our pastors serve without compensation, just as Jesus did.

    More than a 2.9K tuned in last week to hear our simply produced message. We let God use us to His glory, not ours. We don’t ascribe to being bishops one day, we only hope to serve the Lord today. Since day one, our goal was to reach one heart, one soul. God has allowed us to reach many more. When we turn away from trying to make man happy and focus on making God happy, miraculous things happen.

  2. Comment by Rick Carling on June 4, 2021 at 11:13 pm

    No. They already are irrelevant!

  3. Comment by Jim Radford on June 5, 2021 at 10:08 am

    For what it’s worth, I have always considered the “judgment” of God in the light of Romans 1, in which Paul says that “God gave them up….” I don’t believe that, even in judgment, God totally abandons his wayward people. It’s just, in my not-at-all-humble-opinionated-opinion, that God sets people free, so to speak, to reap the consequences of their autonomous, disconnected, individualistic bad choices. If I walk out from under the umbrella that God has provided, I’m going to get wet.

    Concerning denominations, my mother-in-law (who is a saint) has no problems at all with their existence. Her take on them is that “Somebody had a better idea….” In response to my own charge that denominations are the result of persons getting mad about this-or-that, or else they feel that their issues and needs, or some doctrine, or an aspect of a doctrine (e.g. “holiness,” which has been divisive in Methodist history), are being neglected or short-changed, and then they go start another church, which often morphs into a new denomination. I say that people couldn’t love each other enough to cover, forgive, and stay together. I don’t agree with my devout mother-in-law’s non-hostile response to denominations. On the positive side, however, the precursors and aftermath of doctrinal differences really do produce dialogue and debate. People write about it; people talk about it. That’s a good thing, I suppose. But, personally, I am not neutral with regard to denominations. “Despise” might be too strong a word, but it is not a too far-off description of how I feel.

  4. Comment by Jeffrey Allen on June 5, 2021 at 11:26 am

    Denominations are not bad. The term arose to accommodate the belief that even though Baptists, Methodists, etc were different, They were still a part of the same Christian Faith.

  5. Comment by Loren J Golden on June 5, 2021 at 12:26 pm

    “(The Acts 29) network baptizes babies.”
     
    This is a bit inaccurate.  The Acts 29 Network has no doctrinal statement regarding the practice of paedobaptism v. credobaptism, leaving the decision up to the individual churches in the Network.  Immanuel Nashville, the congregation that Russell Moore is joining as its Minister in Residence, offers parents a choice of whether to baptize their infants (i.e., the paedobaptist position) or merely to “dedicate” them (a practice consonant with the credobaptist position but which has no precedent in Scripture).

  6. Comment by Loren J Golden on June 5, 2021 at 2:31 pm

    “(Post denominationalism’s) ecclesiology is almost always congregationalist.”
     
    “Almost”?  I am having a difficult time trying to think of a single post-denominational church whose ecclesiology is either Episcopal or Presbyterian.

  7. Comment by td on June 5, 2021 at 8:14 pm

    The problem with non-denominational churches is that they have absolutely no guarantee that they are following and teaching the faith that was handed on by the apostles.

  8. Comment by betsy on June 6, 2021 at 10:32 am

    I grew up when the Mainlines still had some spiritual sway and still managed to be a significant source of God’s grace in my life and absolutely formed my understanding of God and His ongoing story of redemption. I am not comfortable with the thought of rootless generic evangelicalism; it is too much of a wide open concept. I have frequent contact with a person who recently walked away from a local blowing and going non-denominational church after years of involvement. Her reasons are eerily similar to the reason I walked away from the local UMC: The focus became about making as many people as possible “comfortable”. The founding pastor of the non-denom spent years as a missionary in Central America. When he initially founded the church upon his return to America, it was something different and deeper, but as time passed the elements that made it deeper and different began to disappear and as my friend put it, “less biblical”. “Biblical” without church tradition is shaky ground”. The reason the UMC was a significant source of God’s grace in my life was because its worship was steeped in church tradition and the voices of the saints. I never had any doubt that Christianity was about something that transcended right here and right now. The current non-denom movement may be doing a good job of impacting right here and right now, but if it fails to simultaneously transcend it I question its staying power. There are enough insiders within the contemporary worship movement who are concerned about where all that is headed that I do not even want to try and embrace it. My three adult children who grew up in the local UMC when it was something completely different are not interested in the non-denom contemporary worship movement. According to the most recent Pew research, Americans attending church has dropped to an all time low of 48%.

  9. Comment by Loren J Golden on June 6, 2021 at 2:12 pm

    To be perfectly fair, many, if not most, non-denominational churches are rooted in Scripture, faithfully preaching the Word week-in and week-out, even if the leadership lacks the formal accountability to a presbytery, synod, conference, diocese, or similar body.  From my experience, I know that Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas, is; I just disagree with their adoption of dispensationalism over covenant theology, rejection of the doctrine of the Limited Atonement, and their practice of credobaptism.
     
    Many non-denominational churches, however, are not Biblically sound, likely because of the lack of that accountability.
     
    But lest we forget, affiliation with a denomination by no means guarantees Biblical fidelity, as abundantly proven by such denominations as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, and the American Baptist Churches USA, all of which have compromised on certain basic Christian doctrines (e.g., the infallibility of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the Substitutionary Atonement, the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the reality of Miracles, the Marriage Covenant limited to one man and one woman) to the unbelieving world.

  10. Comment by Gary Bebop on June 6, 2021 at 3:13 pm

    If Russell Moore is taking a position at Christianity Today, does that signal CT is moving “back” to a faithful, traditional evangelical worldview? I would wish it so but doubt it’s more than illusionary. It’s very difficult for contemporary Christian influencers (denominational or not) to reckon with their own ideological concupiscence. Who will resist the new gods?

  11. Comment by Michael on June 7, 2021 at 12:26 am

    But what were the mainline denominations but non denomination personality based movements. Wesley and Whitefield formed what became Methodism in reaction to the dead Anglicans. Luther formed what became Lutherans in reaction to the Catholic church etc…

  12. Comment by Lee Cary on June 7, 2021 at 3:55 pm

    “Yet the decline of great denominations is a tremendous loss for American Christianity with national social, cultural and political ramifications.”

    I disagree. I consider the decline of large, stagnant bureaucracies with an artificial hierarchy of authorities as an advancement for Christianity.

    “Now Methodist and Episcopal bishops, once prominently quoted in major newspapers on public topics, are largely ignored.”

    Right, and they, collectively, deserve to be ignored. Their tepid and largely ineffective leadership offered little to organizations in distress. They took the long course is social justice with a well-developed theological platform, and cracked their institution wide open. Arrogance ruled.

    “Almost certainly many post-schism traditional Methodist congregations, and maybe some liberal ones, will avoid confusion or controversy over whether they are liberal or conservative by simply removing “Methodist” from public view.”

    It’s just as well. The meaning of the word “Methodist” has evaporated since the 1960’s.

    “Conservatives leave liberal denominations believing the Gospel was withheld from them. Liberals quit conservative denominations thinking themselves brainwashed or ideologically captive.”

    Fair enough. Each should go where they are welcome and feel simpatico with the theology. It’s Freedom of Religion.

    “This unfolding post-denominational American Christianity is a tribute to the entrepreneurship of nondenominational churches and parachurch ministries that are birthed and thrive without denominational resources.”

    Absolutely spot-on, 100% accurate! Freedom, entrepreneurship, more contemporary worship without the funereal music, clergy without the black robes of judges, casual dress allowed, and more deliberate use of Scripture.

    “The sadness about the post denominational world is that it is often ad hoc and individualistic.”

    I have family members who attend a non-denomination church. Nothing ad hoc about it.

    “Its ecclesiology is almost always congregationalist, so there is little accountability if any to a wider community.”

    Since when were the boards and agencies of the UMC accountable to the laity. I was a UMC clergy for 25 years. The laity were left in the dark as to what was happening at the national level. Me, too, even when appointed to a conference level position.

    “Post denominationalism may feed national polarization in that its participants when looking outside their congregations rely on self-chosen and sometimes self-segregating social media and news sources. “

    With respect, this sentence makes no sense at all. What is “self-segregating social media and news sources”?

  13. Comment by David S. on June 8, 2021 at 9:21 am

    Mr. Cary,

    I am presently a member of the PC(USA), formerly a member of one of the most prominent SBC churches, and grew up in both the Baptist and Methodist church. As I am navigating how I will relate to the PC(USA) going forward (we have the tricky issue that my wife is quite comfortable in the PC(USA)), I am finding out as I became more aware of what publicly goes on at the national level, that it seems the church bureaucrats really do not care what the laity think and believe (even with smiling pleasant faces and not saying so) that it is beneath their dignity to be held accountable.

    While never explicitly saying so, one gets the impression that if one has a degree from any of the denomination’s official seminaries (or a high-profile seminary officially-affiliated, or traditionally-aligned, with another denomination), then who are we in the pews to raise questions on anything, whether it is a deviation from catholic orthodoxy or even that of the denomination’s individual tradition, such as Reformed, Wesleyan, or Lutheran. And, the attitude seems even more pronounced, if the church bureaucrat in question has an MDiv or DTh (or other such degree) from a “flagship/lead” seminary such as Princeton (for the PC(USA)), Union-NY, or other such institution. Forget the fact that the laity, particularly in TEC, PC(USA), and to a lesser extent the UMC, may have a number of higher educational degrees themselves, are accomplished in their own fields in their own right, and are quite capable of taking into consideration whether or not something makes sense in accordance with orthodoxy.

    Even worse, is that while some denominations, such as PC(USA), may permit conscientious dissent as part of polity, it always seems that the only acceptable and permissible dissent by the church bureaucracy is whatever jives with the liberal, so-called “progressive”, theological trend of the day. (Obviously, as the experience of Mr. Moore and Mrs. Moore have born out, the same is true in the traditionally conservative, so-called “evangelical” denominations as well.) In my experience over the past 18 months as I have interacted with denominational officials or followed denominational publications and communications, to object, even on sound and supportable biblical grounds, elicits at best a we recognize your right to form your own opinion, but you should know that this is what names your derogatory epithet do (since all the -isms have be degraded in epithets in their own right by the theological left) or we recognize the right to dissent, but we are not going (to seemingly lower ourselves) to address your problems with this matter.

    Sadly, as I was sharing with a Methodist pastor recently and plan to share with my Presbyterian pastor soon, is that by towing political party lines and allegiances, which is what is generally happening on most social justice issues, these bureaucrats place the clergy/ministers/pastors in the local congregations in an impossible situation. You catch the flack from the bureaucrats’ myopic pronouncements and damnation of the laity for daring to question anything that they say or do.

    Lastly, if it were up to me, I would go to a denomination such as the PCA or ACNA, where politics and social justice may be addressed as needed, but have not become the idols that these are in far too many a mainline or major denomination (to capture RCC and SBC). No denomination is perfect, but when a denomination has replaced the simple message of the gospel and the simple Christian life espoused in the Scriptures with complex secular philosophy and ideals, no matter how noble or useful some of these may be, then the denomination is starting to espouse a false Christ and a false gospel, and something in the end is entirely not historic, orthodox Christianity.

  14. Comment by Jeff on June 8, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    “I am finding out as I became more aware of what publicly goes on at the national level, that it seems the church bureaucrats really do not care what the laity think and believe (even with smiling pleasant faces and not saying so) that it is beneath their dignity to be held accountable.”

    David, you nailed it. Even Methodism’s own “conservative” “traditionalist” Wesleyan Covenant Association operates in “broadcast mode”: their bureaucracy talks, we laity listen, period, end of story. (Oh, you can “message” them and get a “reply” from one of their drones… but it’s an information-poor bureaucratic reply.) But, this is the Methodist institutionalist way, and has been for a very long time. We lay peeps are too dumb to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Or to discern, by testing, what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. However we can surely contribute our time and treasure to support the clergy, the episcopacy, the bureaucracy –for that we’re fit!

    “…one gets the impression that if one has a degree from any of the denomination’s official seminaries … then who are we in the pews to raise questions on anything…”

    Again you nailed it — please allow me to add that these seminaries are themselves a hotbed of exactly the leftist indoctrination that plagues ALL of our academe. I have to chuckle at td’s comment earlier that “the problem with non-denominational churches is that they have absolutely no guarantee that they are following and teaching the faith that was handed on by the apostles”. Ha! If you sit under the pastoral care of a mainstream pastor that was “educated” at seminary in, oh, probably the last twenty years, you are pretty much guaranteed NOT to get a contender for the faith — but rather a woke warrior for the “social justice” of the marxian world order!

    ~Thanks and Blessings, David!~
    jeff

  15. Comment by Loren J Golden on June 8, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    “My wife is quite comfortable in the PC(USA).”

    David,

    What reasons has your wife given for not considering a PCA church? Also, does she respect the authority of Scripture, or does she at least say that she does?

  16. Comment by td on June 8, 2021 at 2:23 pm

    Jeff- yeah, i laughed at my own comments, too!

    Obviously, my comments were based on what the theoretical purpose of a religious institution is, not based on what many of the mainline denominations currently see as their role.

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