The Rise and Fall of the Great Denomination


When today’s largest denominations were formed, they began as reform movements––zealots about particular aspects of Christian life and doctrine. Leon McBeth begins his sweeping history of the Baptists by noting that they “emerged out of intense reform movements.”[note]Page 21 of The Baptist Heritage[/note] John Wesley wrote of his fear, not that the Methodist movement would ever disappear, but that the Methodists would stray from “the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”[note]From Wesley’s “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” August 4, 1786. Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, 9:527[/note]

Our major denominations began with a common doctrine, a zealous spirit, and a particular discipline––a set of norms for Christian life, discipleship and mission. These were their unity.[note]Yes, the Church is ultimately united in Christ. But that’s the unity of the entire, catholic Church. For the exclusive unity of denominations, we can only go so far as doctrine, spirit, and discipline.[/note]

They developed structures to support that unity. These usually started with a set of articles of belief to identify the common points of doctrine, and often something like a handbook for how the movement functioned. In the Methodist tradition, we know this as our Discipline. The first American Discipline, approved in 1784, was 44 pages long. It reads like a leaders’ manual––in question and answer format––with questions like, “What general Method of employing our Time would you advise us to?” and, “How can we further assist those under our Care?”

Our denominations began with a united mind and purpose and supportive structures. Over time, we’ve become divided in mind and purpose. Our norms for discipleship and mission (e.g. an advised general Method of employing our Time) are much less clear. How are we united now? Chiefly by our structures. Those once-supportive structures now have a more coercive role. We think less in terms of norms and more in terms of rules, less about what is advisable and more about what is permissible. That once 44-page Methodist Discipline is now 804 pages long, and it no longer includes that advice about general Methods for employing our Time.


Structure is a great servant and a lousy master.

A friend recently asked me if denominations are fighting for a superficial unity. We have a paper unity, external and regulated. But do we have real unity of mind and purpose? The kind of unity that celebrates a common doctrine, spirit and discipline? Most of the denominational wrangling we witness today would suggest not.

Moreover, by my observations of the United Methodist Church (I’m not familiar with others enough to speak for them), the unity we have regulated and enforced is primarily a bureaucratic unity. Our churches and denomination have a particular way of conducting business. But we have done little to regulate a particular way of conducting worship and discipleship.[note]Yes, the UMC has a Book of Worship with Services of Word and Table. The vast majority of our churches don’t follow this order. Unenforced regulation is no regulation at all.[/note]

Compare this to the high church traditions––Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy––who hold to common liturgies. Why? Because of the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). These traditions have a different sort of regulated unity. We could call theirs a confessional unity, a sacramental unity. These traditions are far from perfect. But they have a deep kind of unity, the kind that can persist under trial. I doubt the same for a bureaucratic unity.

The Rise of the Network and Coalition

What denominations have been doing since the Reformation is now happening in a different form. Those people united in mind and purpose are less likely to create a new denomination today. Instead, we’re seeing them come together in looser affiliation, in networks and coalitions.

In many regards, these look similar to those old denominational formations, but they’re not the same. Denominations are exclusive and centralized. You can’t be both Methodist and Baptist. You belong to one and are governed by its rules. The hierarchies are clear, the common purpose less so.

By contrast, these new networks are decentralized. The common purpose is easier to identify than the chain of command. The common documents look more like norms the group holds than rules to be enforced. I expect that where these networks and coalitions enforce anything, they’ll look much more like the high church traditions I mentioned above––focused on common belief and perhaps common practice, rather than common structures.

Of course, as these networks grow, the question will be whether the allure of power and control causes them to centralize. In The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, the authors point to Alcoholics Anonymous as an excellent example:

Nobody owns AA. Bill [its founder] realized this when the group became a huge success and people from all over the world wanted to start their own chapters. Bill had a crucial decision to make. He could go with the spider option [centralization] and control what the chapters could and couldn’t do […] Or he could go with the starfish approach [decentralization] and get out of the way. Bill chose the latter. He let go.

What does this mean for denominations?

They’re undoubtedly declining, wielding less influence than they did a few decades ago. I don’t know that they’ll cease to exist, but I expect that people within those structures will give their best energy to the cause of the networks they belong to. For those who crave a stronger ecclesiastical unity than networks provide, I expect a continued movement to Anglicanism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

I witnessed some of this at the New Room conference last year. The conference was for people in the Methodist/Wesleyan tradition. I was interested to see just how strong people’s allegiances were to those Wesleyan principles––particularly the doctrine of holiness and the discipline of catechesis. At the same time, I was surprised at how weak most people’s denominational allegiances were. Especially because I’ve written about the “local pastor option” in the UMC, I had no less than a dozen people ask me to talk to them about their ministry options in the UMC. They were all willing to serve in the UMC if they could get the shoe to fit. But they were determined to serve according to the principles of the Wesleyan tradition, wherever they were.

(A note to the UMC: these are great, rising leaders. Every single one of them wonders whether the UMC structure of itineracy fits their ministry values. Not because they’re selfish and want it their way. But because they want to do ministry as rooted insiders, not temporary outsiders. We aren’t losing our best leaders because the route to ordination is too long or hard. We’re not losing them because we don’t pay enough. We’re losing them because of itineracy. The UMC may be okay with that. But we should at least be asking whether our traveling pastor structure is of the essence of our church.)

To be sure, I’m happy to be a United Methodist. I expect to be one to the day I die. I believe I can live out the principles of the early Methodist movement from within the structure I’m a part of now. But it’s the Wesleyan/Methodist movement that holds my deeper allegiances. [edit: I wrote this in 2015, when I still believed the UMC could endure as the denomination that it looked like on paper––and in reality where I was. Sadly, I think the UMC as we know it is in its final days. Whatever it is I’ll be a part of, I don’t believe the UMC of the present will exist for me to continue in the rest of my life. I know the Wesleyan/Methodist movement will endure. And I absolutely expect to be a part of that in some form throughout my life.]


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