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Are Denominations a Thing of the Past?

In his 1972 book The Denominational Society, Roman Catholic Priest Andrew Greeley predicted that organized religion and denominationalism were so important to the fabric of America that, despite the skepticism of sociologists of religion, denominations would continue to be a vigorous part of American society for many years.

<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Greeley’s prediction did come true. Denominations are still very much a part of the religious scene in the year 2002. In fact, they continue to dominate religious life in America. Americans have not completely abandoned these institutions in favor of private meditation or a scientific worldview.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Yet predictions of doom and gloom with regard to denominationalism are once again being issued, and leaders of all major Christian traditions in America seem to be asking if denominations are on the way out.
 
The truth in 2002 is that denominational loyalty is no longer what it once was. The increasing interest in a “spirituality” that is detached from traditional religious teachings and institutions, the rising level of mobility of the American worker, the popularity of television preachers, and the growth of secularism, religious pluralism and ecumenism are just a few of the influences that have taken their toll on denominationalism.
 
Another blow to denominational loyalty is the “switching” factor. An increasing number of Christians no longer belong to the denomination of their childhood. They have “switched” to a new denomination, and these “switchers” are not firmly committed to their new denomination. Can denominationalism survive without members who embrace the heritage and teachings their particular denominations?
 
So the question of whether denominationalism will continue to be one of America’s essential features is an important one. Will denominations retain their uniqueness and survive into the 22nd century? Perhaps it is time to revisit Andrew Greeley’s book and look at his predictions about organized religion. 
 
Greeley wrote that denominationalism would survive in America because denominations offer answers to life’s questions and a place of belonging. Few other major social institutions offer such a meaningful belief system or set forth moral expectations. 
 
His statements energize those who lament denominational decline, and they challenge the thousands of congregations that make up more than 150 Christian denominations in America. 
 
Congregations must be places in which meaning and belonging are found, and for this to happen, changes must be made. But the good news—just as it was back in 1972—is that denominationalism will not fade from the scene any time soon. It will continue to be a distinctive feature of religion in America.
 
Pam Durso serves as assistant professor of church history and Baptist heritage at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C.