The Future Of The Protestant Denomination

As we noted earlier, the Protestant denomination is essentially a European phenomenon that reflects the shifting patterns of church life and controversy in western Europe from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth. Patterns of religious affiliation and belonging that derived from the general situation of western Europe—and often the very specific conditions of religious life in England—were thus exported to the United States as self-evidently correct forms of Christian association. As a result, the emerging church life of North America was significantly shaped by the historical contingencies of western Europe.

This transplantation of European religious ideas to America must not, however, be seen as an unthinking and wooden undertaking with no attempt at modification or indigenization. We have already noted that seventeenth-century Puritanism in the Massachusetts Bay area shifted from the predominantly presbyterian model of church polity that was the norm in many parts of England to a congregationalist model. The simplest explanation for this development is that this model was better adapted to the American context. Again, the emergence of the Southern Baptist Convention can be seen as reflecting the local credibility of the voluntary association or voluntary society and the realization of its ecclesiological potential. The fact remains, however, that in many if not all respects most American denominations retained a surprising degree of continuity with their European pasts.

In 1929 H. Richard Niebuhr published a study of the origin of modern American religious denominations.19 They were, he argued, a distinguishing mark of American religious life, and they were here to stay, in that they were rooted in historical differences of social class, wealth, national origin, and race. Denominational diversity was thus the by-product of wider social divisions. This approach has been criticized for placing too much causal weight on existing social differences in shaping denominational identity when it is known that other factors are significant in shaping both denominational rupture or schism, on the one hand, and merger, on the other.20 Nevertheless, the merits of Niebuhr's argument were widely conceded.

Niebuhr's analysis pointed to the continuing importance of denomi-nationalism in the United States in that it was sustained by deeper social causes. To belong to a specific denomination was often to make a statement about one's historical origins or social status rather than one's theological beliefs. The predominance of Christianity in the United States seemed to ensure that Protestant denominations, while separate from the state, would form what was almost a cultural establishment in their own right. The future of the denominations seemed secure.

Even in the 1950s, the position of the Protestant denominations seemed secure. The membership figures of the five major Protestant denominations—Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists—increased each year. Social surveys made it clear that each denominational family saw itself as self-contained and sovereign. A 1955 Gallup poll showed that 96 percent of the adult population attended a church of the same denomination their parents attended. In another poll the following year, 80 percent of Episcopalians seemed to believe that it was wrong to worship with other Christian groups. The old demarcations were still firmly embedded in the fabric of Protestantism. As Will Herberg pointed out in his classic study of the American religious establishment at that time, the denominational system had become part of the basic assumptions of Protestants about America, as it had become part of the basic assumptions of all Americans about themselves.21

Yet by the year 2000 it was clear that things had changed. In 2004 researchers Tom W. Smith and Seokho Kim of the National Opinion

Research Center at the University of Chicago released a report, The Vanishing Protestant Majority, which showed that the number of Americans identifying themselves as "Protestant" fell from 63 percent in 1992 to 52 percent in 2002.22 The report pointed to a fundamental failure on the part of most Protestant denominations to evangelize and assimilate their own youth and young adults. It also observed that in recent years immigrant groups have not followed the older pattern of eventual identification with the nation's Protestant majority.

The mainline Protestant denominations are still there, but now they coexist uneasily with a growing group of churches that are clearly Protestant in their outlook but are also of very recent origin and see no reason to regard themselves as defined by the past. The entrepreneurial spirit that is so characteristic of Protestantism seems to have been redirected to activities outside, rather than within, the traditional denominational structures.

A group of factors seems to be implicated in this erosion of specifically denominational understandings of Protestantism, although it is not always clear which is cause and which effect. Here we briefly consider four of those factors before moving on to consider two that have had a particularly significant impact on the shaping of American Protestantism since about 1970.

In the first place, most Americans no longer regard a denominational marque, or "badge," as something that makes a significant statement about their historical origins or social identity. With the emergence of a consumerist mentality in American Protestant culture since about 1980, the driving issue is where to find the best preaching, the best Christian education, or even the best parking facilities. This mentality may lead a Protestant family to attend, say, a Baptist church in Florida, a Methodist church upon moving to California, and a Presbyterian church after finally settling in Chicago. The issue is not denominational identity but local pastoral excellence. In marked contrast, their grandparents would have sought out the local church of their own denomination wherever they went.

The second point follows on immediately from this. The emphasis upon the local facilities offered by individual churches leads Protestants to be more than willing to contribute financially and personally to church outreach and social welfare programs. Yet this often strong sense of belonging and commitment to the local congregation is rarely extended to the denomination as a whole, which is likely to be viewed as an inefficient and redundant bureaucracy that makes serious financial demands of local congregations while giving little in return. This perception is exacerbated where local congregations are in dispute with the mainline denomination over issues such as sexuality in ministry, and these conflicts often lead to local withholding of funds from the central structures. More seriously, even as the general decline in membership of many mainline denominations inevitably leads to reductions in financial support, the costs of maintaining denominational structures are rising. Many denominations are facing up to the fact that centralized downsizing and rationalization may be the only way ahead.

A third factor has to do with the rise of evangelicalism and the charismatic movement, which are both transdenominational in character.23 Both movements tend to prioritize fellowship and collaboration with other evangelicals and charismatics, irrespective of their denominational allegiance. Anglican evangelicals often feel more at home with Baptist evangelicals, despite the substantial differences between their denominations over matters of church structure and polity. This is seen in the rise of "para-church" organizations—such as Youth with a Mission or the InterVarsity Fellowship—which transcend denominational structures and divisions in order to pursue a cross-denominational agenda. This development has led to a slight blurring of denominational boundaries. Yet much more importantly, it has also led to the relativization of the denomination, which is often seen as a barrier to inter-Protestant or inter-Christian collaboration that must be transcended in the service of the gospel.

A fourth factor that has been identified as of significance by sociologists with a particular interest in Protestant denominations is the rise of "lay liberalism," which erases the clear boundaries separating believers from unbelievers.24 Where evangelicalism emphasizes the distinctiveness of Christianity, this pragmatic, laid-back lay liberalism feels able to renegotiate Christian moral and theological principles in the light of prevailing social norms. This has led to an erosion of the boundary between "church" and "world"—but also between Protestant denomina tions. Without clear "faith boundaries," identification with any particular form of Protestantism—indeed, even with Christianity itself—becomes socially meaningless.

These four significant factors suggest that traditional Protestant denominations may come under still further pressure in the future. It is far too early to speak responsibly of a "crisis" in mainline Protestantism. However, it is clear that forces are at work that will force redefinition and reconception of the traditional denomination. In addition to the four points just noted, we must examine two other, arguably more significant, factors that are essential to an understanding of the recent fortunes of American Protestantism—the rise of new ways of "being church" and the redefinition of "the other." In view of their importance, we consider these in some detail.

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