Confessions of a Denominational Snob
Commentary by Walter Hesford
I am a denominational snob. Blame it on my wayward New England youth. With my family I faithfully attended a Lutheran church. With friends I worshipped at Roman Catholic, Congregational and American Baptist churches, as well as a Conservative Jewish synagogue.
Out west, I continued my denominational ways, joining a Lutheran church and adding to the traditional churches I enjoined those of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists and Unitarians (yes, Unitarians, too, have rich traditions).
I am drawn to religious services deeply rooted in historic theological knowledge and worship practices. I assumed that nondenominational churches were giant gyms for folks who didn’t want much theological exercise on a Sunday morning or — worst case scenario — mega-churches for the MAGA crowd.
Two November news stories on nondenominational churches by Tracy Simmons both affirmed and challenged my snobbery. I wasn’t surprised to learn that in Spokane, as elsewhere, “Religious Census Shows Nondenominational Churches Thriving, Others Shrinking.” Nor was I surprised that — according to “Are We Entering a ‘Post-Denominational Era’?” — most of the nondenominational churches are conservative and led by clergy who are less theologically educated than denominational clergy.
Details about two small nondenominational churches in Simmons’s second article, however, woke me to the positive community role such churches may play. According to Dan Haugh, pastor of Stowe Community Church in Vermont, his church brings people with diverse political perspectives together. This can work, observes Haugh, since as an independent community, “We’re more centered on what we share than what may divide us. … God’s unconditional love for all people.”
We learn about Vine Church in Pasco, Washington, from Savannah Tranchell, who, with her family, joined Vine after trying out various denominational churches (including Lutheran). She enjoys the fact that Vine is diverse and egalitarian, with male and female leadership, and that, with local control, it reflects the values of the community.
Tranchell found denominational churches “almost archaic” in their use of hymnals and lack of electronics. Nondenominational churches, according to Simmons’ second article, tend to have worship services that are informal and innovative, making use of projector screens and contemporary music.
Though I can understand why this mode of worship is popular, I find it off-putting, probably because I myself am archaic. More pertinently, I worry that it is distracting and does not afford serious reflection or centering.
But then I have to acknowledge that Stowe Community, Vine and other small nondenominational churches may be more archaic than denominational ones in that they may resemble the house churches of early Christians mentioned in the New Testament (see, for example, Colossians 4:15 and Philemon 1:2).
These house gatherings were perforce informal and innovative. As Christianity developed within the aging Roman Empire, it became more hierarchical, patriarchal and concerned with establishing unifying doctrines — more like, in short, many denominations. (Other regions where Christianity spread, such as in Northern Africa, developed their own denominational traditions.)
Fluctuations in any long-lasting organization are inevitable and healthy. Maybe it’s a good thing that, as Scott Thumma, Director of Hartford Institute for Religion Research, asserts, “the ground is eroding for denominational identities” and that we are entering “a post-denominational era.”
Thumma notes that a fair number of denominational churches have drifted into the nondenominational fold, cutting their historical ties. Some split off-churches may simply be searching for more autonomy, as Thumma suggests, but I suspect that splits have often happened when denominations vote to be more inclusive, ordaining women, welcoming LGBTQ members, blessing same-sex marriages, etc. I know for sure that this happened within my denomination.
Thus, one reason I may remain a denominational snob is my fear that post-denominational Christianity will become more conservative, even reactionary — though Stowe Community and Vine provide some evidence to the contrary.
Another reason I think it is valuable to have deep historical roots is to be aware of how the Bible and how Christianity has evolved. Sure, being contemporary is important, but it becomes shallow without an appreciation and understanding of the past.
Finally, it seems likely that independent nondenominational churches lack the network to be a wide-spread force for good. Historic denominational church bodies, from Catholic to Quaker, from Episcopalian to Unitarian, are able to care for the world’s welfare because they have the structure to do so. My own denomination supports Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the largest faith-based, nonprofit in the U.S. serving immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
Perhaps, however, “nondenominational” will evolve into a denomination with its own roots and supportive branches, enabling its individual churches to reach beyond themselves.
Then again, perhaps I’m just an archaic snob and those nondenominational churches are fine just as they are.
Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho, he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.