Reaction to declining numbers of those attending or joining churches vary. There’s plenty of blame going around, from those who claim younger generations are shallow, self-centered, and screen-addicted to those who argue that the separation of the generations into age-related ministries in recent years never allowed children and youth to be integrated into the life of the church. There are some who see ever more empty churches as a positive sign; now that it’s socially acceptable to be churchless, there will be less people in church who are just there to please others and more true believers.
Many see what’s happening in the church as cyclical changes. Phyllis Tickle argued in The Great Emergence that pivotal times in the history of the church happen every 500 years or so, as the church has a giant rummage sale of ideas which leads to a new and more vital form of Christianity. In an article on the Christianity Today website entitled “The Future of the Emerging Church,” Tickle stated that “We are seeing the start of a post-Protestant and post-denominational era.”
What does it mean to be in a post-denominational era? We can look to the emerging church which is disillusioned with the institutional church; yet, besides emerging house churches or independent churches, there are also emerging denominational congregations. However, in emerging churches, even denominational ones, the “beliefs are determined by all the people involved, not by the clergy nor the tradition with which the church is affiliated,” according to research quoted by Tony Jones’ blog post “The Emerging Church Is What It Says It Is.”
Not only are post-modern, emergent Christians not looking for denominational statements to define their theology, they may actually see denominational connections as having strong negative aspects. Jeffrey D. Jones in Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations talks about how new understandings of mission began to develop as Christendom ended; it “could no longer be viewed as something that happened half a world away, but rather as something right outside our door” (151) . For Jones this means that there is no longer an easy delineation between a church’s operating budget and its mission budget…Given the reality that much of the money that is given through traditional denominational mission channels is used to fund staff salaries and pay utility bills at denominational offices, it is increasingly difficult to maintain that this form of mission giving is somehow more legitimate than paying for staff and utility bills to support the local mission of the congregation (151).
Whereas once local churches looked to the denomination to provide statements of belief and polity, resources for worship and Christian education, mission and other world-wide ministries for the local church to support, now the denominational connection may be seen as preventing a church from following its own conscience and call to ministry as a unique entity, especially as both staff and congregation may find themselves disagreeing with denominational stances on social issues, such as the United Methodist Church’s stand against gay marriage, which is at odds with many of those in the United Methodist Church.
As local churches struggle to survive financially, their denominational connections can add to their difficulties. The upkeep of an aging structure is a burden on a congregation which has outgrown its building. In some denominations, a denominational agency may own the church building, rather than the local church, making it difficult to explore the possibility of moving to a more cost-effective location. Denominations may require a church to have a full-time paid pastor despite the willingness of laity to handle (non-sacramental) pastoral duties.
Chris Xenakis, in a blog titled “The Donald Trumpification of Authorized Ministry: Some Lenten Thoughts about Dying Churches, Congregational Resurrections, and Pastoral Leadership,” quotes John Dorhauer’s book Beyond Resistance which states that many Mainline churches are so financially strapped that “full-time, seminary-trained, ordained clergy are [now] an impediment” to their mission and outreach. The mission of these churches is holding rummage sales and fundraising dinners in order to pay the salary of their full-time pastor.
The Hartford Institute for Religious Research in “A Report on the 2010 National Profile of U.S. Nondenominational and Independent Churches” states that nondenominational churches are on the rise. If those in mainline and other denominations continue to see their denominational connections as more of a burden than a blessing, it won’t be surprising to see the numbers of nondenominational and independent churches continue to rise.