While most branches of American Christianity are shrinking, one strand continues to grow—non-denominationalism. But is that the most healthy situation for the faith?
According to a newly released Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who identify with a Protestant denomination has fallen 20 percentage points in just 16 years, from 50 percent in 2000 to 30 percent in 2016.
Meanwhile, those who claim to be a non-denominational Christian have almost doubled in the same time frame, from 9 percent to 17 percent.
The future continues to look less and less tied to denominational affiliation. Among college freshmen, “other Christian” has jumped 10 points in the past 20 years—the only affiliation to see significant growth.
Today, 15 percent of college freshman identify that way, second only to Catholic at 23 percent, which fell 13 points.
On the surface, this may seem encouraging. As millennials (and potentially Generation Z) are hostile toward labels and institutions, maybe non-denominational churches are the way to reach them.
But Roger Olson, theology professor at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, told Christianity Today this could be a troubling development.
“There is a trend toward what I call ‘generic Christianity’ that is very feeling-centered and pragmatic and somewhat anti-intellectual,” Olson said. “As denominational particularities are ignored or hidden, what’s often left is a ‘lowest common denominator’ spirituality that is often little more than ‘worship’ and ‘discipleship’ devoid of cognitive content. The result is often folk religion rather than historic, classic, biblical Christianity.”
One may think that a form of “lowest common denominator” Christianity would find a defender in the man who wrote Mere Christianity, a work defending core beliefs shared across denominations.
But that is not the case at all for C.S. Lewis. In fact, in his introduction to Mere Christianity, he asserts the need to move beyond the shared basics.
He likens his “mere” Christianity to a hall with many doors that lead to many different rooms. While Lewis writes that he wants to bring people into that hall, he notes that should not be the end of a journey.
“If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think preferable.”
He challenges readers to see the hall as a place of waiting, not camping. Christian converts should begin to ask which door is the true one.
Lewis is readily aware that people will come to different answers to that questions (not that there are actually different answers), but that doesn’t mean they should seek to make the hall their home.
In a way, true non-denominationalism attempts to forgo those attempts, ignore difficult questions and establish residency just inside the hallway of Christianity.
I say “true non-denominationalism” because there are numerous churches in which most of the members assume their church is completely independent, but it is actually a quiet part of a denomination or, at the very least, a network affiliation with other like-minded local churches.
But there is no way to go deeper into Christianity and truly remain in the hall. The further in you go, the more narrow the hall grows, forcing you to step through one of the doors.
What is the relationship between faith and works? When should baptism happen? What is happening when we take the elements of communion? How role do spiritual gifts play? Who leads the local church?
As you read more Scripture and think more about the Christian faith, you come across these topics and you should seek to know what the Bible teaches about these and more.
This, paradoxically enough, promotes true Christian unity, more so than attempting to gloss over any differences as if they were unimportant.
Earlier in the introduction, Lewis writes, “It as at her [the Church’s] center where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the center of each there is something, or Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”
If we want to make the case for being truly non-denominational, we will not find support from C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity, but also faithful member of the Church of England.
If you are outside, he would attempt to compel you to come inside, but Lewis would ask you not loiter in the hall.
Non-denominationalism is not necessarily bad, but it is an incomplete journey.