et’s say you decide to visit a church from every Christian denomination in the United States. If you check out a different denomination every Sunday, your journey will take you more than four years.
Among Baptists alone, you’ll visit Progressive, Free Will, Primitive, Southern Baptist churches, and at least a dozen others. When you get to the Pentecostals, you’ll stop by the Foursquare, Open Bible, Pentecostal Holiness, Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God, Church of God, and many more.
Even though so many denominations are available, the greatest growth in the Protestant church over the last four decades has been in non-denominational churches. Soon, one-third of all Evangelicals will be non-denominational, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. Currently, about 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies themselves as non-denominational.
While speaking at the 2017 Evangelical Press Association Conference in Chicago, Stetzer discussed why many Christians are leaving denominations. He mentioned the following:
- The Evangelical denomination being most affected by this trend is the Southern Baptist Convention. (This is logical since the SBC is the largest Evangelical group in the U.S.)
- Many Christians have devalued the importance of being part of a denomination.
- The softening of denominational differences in worship (particularly in music) has made changing churches easier.
- Since speaking in tongues is more broadly accepted (for example, 50 percent of Southern Baptists now believe tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit), Pentecostalism is less distinctive than it once was.
As I reflect on the growth of non-denominationalism—realizing not only do some members leave a denomination, but sometimes an entire congregation leaves—I begin with the definition of denomination: “a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices” (Merriam-Webster).
Therein rests two reasons why someone might leave a denomination: (1) disagreement with its beliefs; (2) disagreement with its practices.
The Church of God has held to the same 14 statements in our Declaration of Faith since its adoption in 1948. It begins with “We believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible,” and ends with “We believe in the bodily resurrection; eternal life for the righteous, and eternal punishment for the wicked.”
Loyalty to our denomination would be stronger if we did a better job teaching those Biblically sound core beliefs. We need to realize there are valuable distinctions between the beliefs of most non-denominational churches and our doctrine, and we must embrace our doctrine. While we are not better than non-Pentecostal churches, we do make a significant contribution to the body of Christ through our distinctiveness.
Holiness matters . . . being baptized in the Spirit matters . . . foot-washing matters . . . the premillennial return of Christ matters.
Some people leave the Church of God because they become disenchanted with our structure and system. I’ll admit I’ve been frustrated, hurt, and disappointed at times.
However, I’ve gained perspective over the last decade serving as a member of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Curriculum Commission, made of representatives of five Pentecostal groups. Three of those denominations are smaller than the Church of God; one is larger. While the doctrinal differences between our denominations are minute, the structures are significantly different, and each one comes with its own imperfections. Moving from one denomination to another would simply exchange one system—with is particular strengths and weaknesses—for another system.
It’s no different with non-denominational groups. I have a relative serving on staff at a large non-denominational church governed by a board of elders. A recent dust-up caused some people to leave not over beliefs, but over practice. It happens everywhere.
In the first years of Christianity—centuries before denominations existed—believers had struggles concerning beliefs and practices. What religious rites must be observed? Who will take care of the widows? What are the guidelines for spiritual gifts? Who should and should not serve in leadership?
Yet the early church survived and thrived as believers learned to function as the family of God.
Today, God’s family has hundreds of millions of believers around the world, and I am one of 7 million who belong to the Church of God tribe. Our denomination is Biblically grounded, and we have Christian leaders intent on planting churches, developing young leaders, and obeying the Great Commission.
We’re imperfect, but we’re family.
We need each other, and the world needs us.