Denominations: Surviving the ‘70s

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century December 21, 1977, p. 1186. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


America has been undergoing some sort of religious revival, but one that has not led to prosperity for most of the denominations. The challenge to churches, both left and right, will be in finding the balance between institutional self-preservation or self-assertiveness on the one hand and the act of living with open hands and hearts in service of others to interpret the surrounding world on the other.

In 1944 the then “undenominational” Christian Century published several articles under the heading “What’s Disturbing the Churches?” Nineteen years later, in 1963, the now “ecumenical” weekly took another turn and had numerous writers ask, “What’s Ahead for the Churches?” By that time, according to Editor Kyle Haselden: the earlier question was no longer apropos. The editors of 14 years ago were bothered that little of anything seemed to be disturbing the churches, which were still riding relatively high after their boom in the 1950s. The question was, how would churches face the idealistic challenges of the era of President John F. Kennedy, Pope John XXIII and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Most authors in the series asked whether the churches would risk many of their resources to deal with political, ecumenical and social issues.

Those who enjoy the cycles or pendular swings in history may be charmed to note that in 1977 the churches are bothered again. Some of them did use resources for the struggles of the 1960s, but they were also weakened by those struggles; many became bewildered by both spiritual and secular changes in that decade. As we reread the essays of the last series, it impresses us to note how low the institutional expectations of most mainline church writers were. But at that time they were less preoccupied than people now seem to have to be with institutional survival as such.

Many American denominations have lived during the past ten years somewhere between Rainer Maria Rilke’s “To Survive Is All” and the graffito “If we don’t survive, we also won’t do anything else.” Not that any of the medium-sized church bodies in America is at the point, of near-extinction; yet statistically only the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have much to brag about among the larger groups. Catholicism holds its own so far as membership ticker tapes are concerned, but no one doubts the extent of the crisis reflected in disastrously declining mass attendance and vocations to priesthood and religious orders, to say nothing of the crises of faith and meaning that go with these other declines.

All the churches have survived, and most of them will continue to do so, languishing somewhere between and 3 million. They have little prospect of seeing their graph lines go up radically in a time of decline in the rate of population growth and in the face of numbers of other contrary societal forces. The more conservative churches are still growing, riding the boom in both authoritarian and experiential religion that the mainliners have not quite known how to exploit. The evangelical-fundamentalist-Pentecostal subcultures have expanded significantly since 1962, and their meaning-systems have been drastically transformed while these churches embrace the world of advertising and celebrities, sex manuals and affluence, theological adjustment and new styles of witness. But there is something of a revolving-door character to their parade of accessions, as people convert from group to group. The market potential for conservative religion, larger than anyone predicted, is finite and quite possibly on the verge of being reached. In any case, thoughtful people in these churches where the language of survival has been less urgent -- and such thoughtful people are legion -- are asking questions of meaning which show that they too are “bothered” and have to look at “what’s ahead.”

Modern Inventions

Obscured behind these queries about the relative prospects of various religious factions and styles in America is the tantalizing one: Why bother with denominations at all, as late in Christian and American history as 1977-78? The denomination seems to be a very curious agency, one that hardly merits much attention and concern. Nowhere in the Bible will you find a trace of anyone’s anticipation of this form -- unless negatively in Paul’s questions about Christ being divided, with some followers belonging to Cephas and some to Apollos and some to Paul. Nowhere in 15 or 16 centuries of Christian history will you find serious theological proposals for defense of such forms. They are modern inventions, usually justified on political, economic (laissez-faire, free-enterprise competition) or, among the most conservative, Darwinian evolutionary (“survival of the fittest”) grounds.

Though the word “denomination” began to appear in England before the American experience came to full term, it was the separation of church and state, the disestablishment of the churches, and the voluntary principle in church life which created the void on the spiritual landscape that denominations were invented to fill. No great theological genius devised the form perhaps Thomas Jefferson did more than anyone else to necessitate it, as he sketched out the grounds for the American Revolution. The itinerant revivalists of the First and Second Great Awakenings in America played their part as they called into question the churches of the established order and asked each citizen to decide for himself or herself to “get religion,” and what form to get.

The denomination has served America well. It drained conflict into harmless channels. Replacing the holy wars of the Old World have been religious patterns that left few dead bodies, though competitive denominational missionaries in many a new suburb have come down with ulcers, heart disease, endocrine disturbances, alcoholism arid, as they say, “other specifically Christian diseases” in their scrambles. Without question, the competitive business model, whether or not it has been religiously justifiable, has worked.

Denominationalists added greatly to the vitality of U.S. and Canadian religion, for they helped minimize the anticlericalism that goes with establishment, permitted few believers to relax, and were able to offer something for everyone. Indeed, they still do. There are few ecological niches and crannies in the environment that sonic new denomination cannot be designed to meet. No space exists between denominations in our sociological forms. Start a movement, be anti-institutional, work for “emerging viable structures of ministry,” try to unite all the churches, and you soon find yourself designated a denomination in the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. That process gives no sign of diminishing or being ended in the immediate future.

Identity and Issues

Denominational life is rich in paradoxes and contradictions. Denominations were formed to help assure the integrity of each group’s creed and way of life, yet on most vital issues one learns little about what people believe and how they act by learning to which church they belong. This has long been true of the creedally vague mainline denominations, but it is surprisingly noticeable among the professedly more defined conservative ones. Who knows to which denomination Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday and other evangelists belonged?

Attend a National Association of Evangelicals convention and watch the delegates talk about what concerns them most. Almost never do they concentrate on the sacramental issues that help constitute them as Baptist or non-Baptist, or on historic Calvinist-Arminian lines that once separated them. Attend a lay gathering of conservatives and you will walk away thinking that their denominations are named the Followers of Corrie Ten Boom, Pat Boone, Francis Schaeffer, Marabel Morgan, Anita Bryant, Robert Schuller or Ralph Martin.

Denominations were supposed to provide the battlelinies between Christian groups. But today it is seldom that one denomination pitches battle against another. All the real spiritual bloodshed occurs within the communions, as Catholics, Southern Presbyterians, Missouri Lutherans, even Southern Baptists and most certainly Episcopalians have demonstrated in recent years. You cannot tell the players without their programs and can almost never tell them by their denominational names when scraps over Pentecostalism, scriptural interpretation or even church order surface and engross people.

Local Expressions of Faith

A third paradox: denominations themselves generated much of the ecumenical ethos that led many to predict that the denominational form would wither as the ecumenical spirit prospered. Yet while the ecumenical movement is in trouble, the ecumenical spirit never had it so good -- Christians in general are quite at ease with each other on many levels. Nonetheless, denominationalism outlasts all the theologies designed to replace it. The relative declines in status and power of world, national, regional, state and local councils of churches occurred for many reasons, not the least of them being a “new denominationalism” that found people scurrying back to and huddling in their denominational homes in a time when senses of identity were hard to come by.

The nonblack world was told that there was supposed to be something called “black religion,” but to the knowing analyst of the black churches it was dangerous to confuse AME, AMEZ and CME brands of black Methodism, to say nothing of the competitive styles of black Baptist groups.

A fourth paradox: while the denominations survive as some means or other of helping people link up with traditions and find spiritual families, they are grossly undersupported. While per-capita giving increases in most churches each year, the gains do not keep up with horrendous inflation. This factor leads hard-pressed congregations to keep funds close to home, and the bureaucratized church bodies have had to cut staffs and programs as a consequence. At the same time, people have chosen to favor regional and even more local expressions of faith. This choice has inspired them either casually to drag their feet or willfully to withstand some of the appeals from “headquarters.” So denominations are curiously caught between the ideology and spirit of ecumenism and the practice and spirit of localism.

Beyond the Language of Survival

To list all the besetting circumstances around the denominations is to describe institutions that seem to have little future. Few denominational leaders are either celebrities or well-known spiritual guides in their own church bodies; the media have created spokespersons entirely outside the line of appointed and elected officialdom who tend to speak for the churches. People from one denomination do not care much about what goes on in another, and as a result, news of church bodies rarely receives coverage. Paradenominational agencies keep springing up to distract people from the church bodies. “Invisible religion,” the do-it-yourself, customer-oriented personal faith that spreads so rapidly today, leads people to ignore the denominations even when they no longer protest against structures.

Alternative kinds of pension plans and health-care programs liberate many professionals from their mystical reliance on their own denominations.

In short, we have seen one final paradox: that America has been undergoing some sort of religious revival -- let’s leave it at some sort” today, shall we? -- but one that has not led to prosperity for most of the denominations, even though they are the most entrenched means of organizing religious response beyond the local zone. Fourteen years ago almost all the series authors expressed at least halfhearted confidence that each denomination would survive. Then each could move to ask questions about relations between them and, even more, how they would use their resources to face theological and ethical issues.

By now, churches have all heard the message that they will prosper to the degree that they choose to distance themselves from others, arrogate truth claims to themselves, and become aggressive and competitive and triumphalist. Conversely, they are told that they will suffer if they wish to make an ethical impact on the larger society, be friendly to one another, be open-minded and open-ended. Now it may be that the climate will soon change and that just as the latecomers would tool up for the inverted style, people will begin to look for something different. Dean Kelley properly pointed out early in the 1970s that conservative churches are growing -- but not all of them grow, nor do those that grow all do so for the same reasons and at the same pace. Meanwhile, mainline churches struggle to hold their own and often suffer loss, but not all congregations within these bodies experience such loss, and from their experience some of the denominations might take clues for their own future course. Finding the balance between institutional self-preservation or self-assertiveness on one hand and the act of living with open hands and hearts in service of others or to interpret a surrounding world: this seems to be a challenge that will continue to face churches both left and right in the years ahead.

‘Tribal’ Life: What’s Ahead

We who edit The Christian Century are committed to both ecumenical and local ventures, but we also confess to being “institutional church freaks,” observers of and participants in denominational life. As such, we hope that those who do use their treasures and traditions for the sake of others will prosper in new if chastened ways. We will remain friendly critics, puzzled at their survival capacities and hopeful about their intentions. Somehow they tend to serve as “tribes,” forms of more-than-familial life that keep people from being overwhelmed by the blur of generalized religion yet challenge them to look at more than their own backyards and neighborhoods.

Now it is time for us to join readers in listening to people who can give close-up views of the churches’ life and prospects today, to ask both “What’s disturbing them?” and “What’s ahead?”