JACKSON, Tenn. – Oct. 9, 2009 – Though church denominations are in decline, Union University President David S. Dockery said he is still convinced of the benefits they provide, such as structure, connections, coherence and accountability, especially for groups like the Southern Baptist Convention.
“I believe (denominations) do matter, and they will continue to matter,” Dockery said. “But if, and only if, they remain connected to Scripture and to the orthodox tradition. Even with all of the advancements of our technological society, we still need some kind of structure to connect and carry forth the Christian faith. We need conviction and boundaries, but we also will need a spirit of cooperation to build bridges.”
Dockery spoke Oct. 8 at “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism,” a conference hosted by Union to mark the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement. While the idea of denominations is negative for many people, Dockery said denominations have been important throughout Christian history “to carry forward the work of those who come together around shared beliefs and shared practices.”
The Union president acknowledged that the rise of so many Christian denominations came about because of multiple divisions and spats over matters of secondary and tertiary importance. He traced the development of denominations, from the early church through the Protestant Reformation and especially during the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States.
Denominationalism “is primarily an American phenomenon,” Dockery said. “Not because America is the only place where denominations can grow and proliferate, but because the freedoms in America have enabled denominations to expand, to flourish, and to break off from those from which they were birthed. …
“Unfortunately -- I say this carefully and a bit dreadfully — I believe this development has resulted more in the Americanization of Christianity than the Christianization of America,” he continued. “Because of this we need to think in a fresh way about denominations. We need to think anew about the structure that will be able to carry forth the Christian movement in the 21st Century.”
In recent years, Dockery said denominational identity has been in a rapid decline. For example, he cited statistics indicating that in 1990, about 200,000 people in the United States classified themselves as “non-denominational.” By 2009, that number that skyrocketed to more than 8 million.
The decline of denominational significance began as a result of the influence of liberalism in the early 20th century, Dockery said, and continued through the reaction of fundamentalism to liberal drift in mainline denominations. In more recent years, Dockery attributed the lack of denominational identity with the rise of parachurch and special interest groups that have become more important among evangelicals than churches.
The rise of trans-denominational movements is one of the most important developments in Christianity over the past several decades, Dockery suggested.
“No longer do people identify with kindred spirits in vertical alignments, as Lutherans, as Anglicans, as Presbyterians, as Methodists or Baptists,” he said. “Instead, people identify more around other connections and identifying markers such as fundamentalists, conservatives, evangelicals, moderates and liberals. Thus liberal Anglicans and liberal Methodists have much more in common than liberal Anglicans and conservative Anglicans.”
Another great change to Christianity in recent years is its growth worldwide, Dockery said. Whereas the United States for many years has been the capital of worldwide evangelicalism, statistics indicate a shift is taking place. For example, he said Africa now has more Christians than the United States has citizens.
Dockery argued that this shift provides a tremendous opportunity for Christians to think in fresh ways about the rifts that have divided them in the past.
“We must realize that our real struggles are not against fellow Christ followers, but rather against the demonic, secularism and unbelief,” Dockery said. “What is at stake if we do not take our eyes off the intramural squabbles that seem to characterize most all of the denominations is a loss of the unity within the Christian movement and a loss of the mission focus of the Christian movement in the West.”
He said that denominations will continue to have a place in evangelicalism in the future, and “denominations that thrive will remain convictionally connected to their tradition, while working and exploring ways to partner with affinity groups and networks, and seeking to understand better the changing global context around us.”
Dockery closed his address with a call for Christians to commit themselves to the gospel and issues that are of greater importance than denominational distinctives, such as: a commitment to the authority of Scripture, the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, a heartfelt confession about the trinity, the uniqueness of the gospel, the enabling work of God’s spirit, salvation by grace through faith alone, the importance of the church, the hope of Christ’s return and the sacredness of life and family.
“Let today be a day in which we move from handwringing to hopefulness,” Dockery said. “Let’s work together to advance the gospel and trust God to bring forth fruit from our labors resulting in renewal to churches, networks, structures, denominations and denominational entities for the extension of God’s kingdom on earth and for the eternal glory of our great God.”
Audio from Dockery’s address is available at www.uu.edu/audio/Detail.cfm?ID=433.