Sunday, October 16, 2011

(Non) Denominational Identity.

This is just a brief post, a thought I have had while working on another idea. I wonder if somehow the very word denomination has picked up a negative meaning in modern American culture. I’ve been looking at some small churches lately, and have noticed an odd grey area in which a sizeable number of non-denominational churches have more locations and members than some denominations claim in total.

To look at one concrete example, Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Church has a network of individual locations and even a motto “One Church, Several Locations” but maintains that it has no denomination. Further, he has created a Willow Creek Association (WCA) to spread his message and biblical interpretations, which now has over 9,000 member churches in 45 countries. The Willow Creek Church itself has over 24,000 members, and is known for aggressively trimming its roles so these are likely accurate numbers. The application to join even says that WCA is only intended for churches with an orthodox understanding of the bible; Orthodox according to the doctrine of WCA, not any existing denomination, of course. While I am happy to admit that Willow Creek may not belong to any older denomination, the only thing that I can see that keeps them non-denominational as opposed to being the first generation of the Willow Creek denomination is an aversion to the word.

On the flip side, we can look at a denomination like the Evangelical Free Church in America (EFCA). This denomination has a very basic eloquent statement of faith, but lacks the organizational system to provide any unified direction or mandates to member congregations.. Further, each congregation is left to its own devices to find and elevate pastors when the need arises. Figures show that this denomination has about 1400-1500 member churches, and a total membership of around 300,000 total members, having had steady growth since its founding as a separate denomination in the 1950's. I have not been able to find any element other than age which makes the beliefs of the EFCA more rigid or unified than those of the WCA, yet they wear the label of a denomination with no complaint.

I am not sure why this is, although I do have some personal suspicions. In a brief overview, it seems that there is a relatively high correlation between how aggressively a church is marketed, and how likely it is to either fail to disclose a denominational affiliation or to belong to an organization which labeled itself nondenominational. It also seems that churches which are still guided by the founder, whether he remains the primary preacher or not, seem to have a strong desire to claim a lack of affiliation, even if they have created multi-state networks of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of churches sharing common beliefs. I have not had the time to make any study as to how or why denomination became a taboo word, but the fact that it seems to be is interesting to me.

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