The young adults' pastor at one of California's largest Presbyterian churches found the Bible in college through evangelical fraternity brothers. Steve, who has the sun-tanned looks of a tennis pro, loves the Gospels. What he feels a bit indifferent about is his denomination. "I was ordained a Presbyterian," says Steve (not his real name). "But it doesn't matter. I could be happy in almost any church."
In fact, Steve has just returned from a workshop at the nondenominational Willow Creek "megachurch" outside Chicago. He calls the experience "unbelievable" and plans to use Willow Creek techniques of spicing his sermons with contemporary film clips. "The pastors here aren't looking to the denomination for help," he says. "We're looking for where the spirit is moving."
For mainline Protestant denominations these days, the story is a familiar one. Since the 18th century, the often finely honed differences between Protestants have been a defining feature in American religious life. But in the spiritual hurly-burly of the late 1990s, many of the distinctions between the traditions have blurred, if not disappeared altogether, in the day-to-day life of churches.
"It's been disappearing for a long time, but no one's really noticed," says theologian Stanley Hauerwas of the Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. "Today if you ask ordinary Methodists about [John] Wesley's doctrine of perfection, or if you ask a Presbyterian about their doctrine of election, most will say, 'What?' "
Loyalty in the pews
Many strong pockets of those loyal to their denominations and traditions do exist, even fiercely so. Yet while the central structures of denominations such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists remain relatively strong, for a growing number of their clergy, especially younger members, the older identity no longer carries the same meaning.
Many pastors, in fact, now seek to downplay their affiliation. At the 2,500-strong liberal All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., fliers only use the phrase "All Saints."
Again and again, pastors say, the daily demands of local flocks, efforts to create more "user-friendly" styles of worship, or new populations of seekers who care little about church history tend to make denominational issues less relevant. As a result, debates on the "end of the denominations" or the "future of the churches" are hot at church headquarters and in theology schools.
Some pastors feel a disappearance of denominational identity is good - freeing churches to experiment and forcing them to practice what they preach in the marketplace of ideas.
Others say an evaporation of identity is symptomatic of a deeper loss of spiritual vision - and that without strong denominations the churches will evolve into inward-looking, capricious fiefdoms. "It's tough," says church historian Martin Marty. "People don't want nondescript or generic Christianity. But no one seems to know what direction to take the richer or more descriptive forms of faith."
Dramatizing the vanishing denominational boundaries, this summer five of the nation's largest mainline faiths, representing 12 million of the nation's 80 million Protestants, will vote on whether to share "full communion" with each other for the first time ever. Between June and August, assemblies of Lutheran, Reformed, United Church of Christ (UCC), and Presbyterian denominations will decide whether to allow ordained ministers in any of the faiths to serve in each other's churches. At the same time, Lutherans and Episcopalians will vote on allowing exchanges among their ministers.
Full communion will only occur if all the parties agree. Moreover, it would not force churches to take pastors from other churches, but simply allow local congregations to call them if they wished. "This isn't anything like a full merger," says John Thomas, an assistant to the UCC president of ecumenical affairs. "But it is a step toward removing barriers between us."
In some ways, trends toward interchangeable ministers matches the enormous church switching and church shopping going on among parishioners, particularly baby boomers. Mainline denominations, such as Congregationalists, Methodists, and American Baptists, have lost out, declining by more than 60 percent over the past 25 years, according to recent studies.
"These days, people are more interested in the product than the label," says Don Miller, author of the forthcoming "Reinventing American Protestantism." Baby boomers "are less interested in traditions and historical consciousness. People just don't care about the spiritual debates of the past. They want to be the artists of their own lives," he says.
Hence, today Methodists attend Presbyterian churches, and Presbyterians attend Lutheran churches. Often the distinctions don't matter. What matters is the message, child care, the type of music, and a variety of small groups. "People may join a UCC church in one county, or a Lutheran in another," says Andy Lang, spokesperson for UCC in Cleveland, who was raised a Roman Catholic but now belongs to the Episcopal Church. "People go where they feel comfortable."
Moreover, the erosion of a sustaining identity comes at a time of great growth among "outsider" churches that have distinct identities, such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.
The membership of denominations has also been cut into by churches like Willow Creek, which use new worship styles, borrowed from popular culture to communicate the Gospels.
Other competition in the faith market includes a recent fascination with New Age beliefs and the subculture of seminars that go with them. And then there is the secular culture's own demands and diversions. "It's the postmodern world out there that has a cacophony of different stories and new faces in the crowd," says Mike Regele of Percept, Inc., a church consulting firm in Orange County, Calif. "That, and the fact that there is doubt and apathy inside mainline churches about our own core story, the story of the birth and resurrection of Christ."
Among Baptists, in particular, institutional affiliation is often fuzzy. Calvary Community Chapel, for example, meets in an artsy Rohnert Park, Calif., civic center. The church began nine years ago with a handful of Baptist families. Today it only retains a nominal affiliation. "We don't stress our background," says a senior member. "We don't think about it, it never comes up, it isn't important."
What is important is an active and open expression of faith through a dramatic service that features a rock band and singing. "People here aren't boxed in by a certain belief," says student Matt Crocker, whose father is a Presbyterian minister. "The denominations don't come into play."
By contrast, one block away, at the Berean Baptist Church - whose motto is "every member a minister" - an elder says: "We certainly do know why we are Baptist. We didn't come out of the Reformation. We teach directly from Christ's message in the Bible. We don't hide it."
Protestant denominations are a uniquely American invention. They arose out of the religious ferment of the 1700s and were given protection by the Constitution. They tended to attract believers of similar economic and class levels. But more important, they emerged from disagreements and different ideas about the central New England Puritan question: "What must I do to be saved?"
"The American denominations were a remarkable experiment in human history," says Nancy Ammerman of the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "No place else in the Western world could you find established churches living side by side in relative peace."
In recent years, denominations have been involved in tough internal battles ranging from atoning for past racism to the changing of longtime hymn books. A vote last month by the Presbyterian church requiring celibacy among unmarried clergy is an example of how denominations are preserving their core identity.
The dilemma for many progressive denominational advocates is how to have a church that address larger social and global questions, yet remain distinctly tied to a deep worship of God. Diane Kessler of the Massachusetts Council of Churches feels that denominations will survive, but in different forms. "A lot of the denominational structures are now being viewed as service agencies," she says. "That raises real questions about sustaining a church, in the classical sense."
For longtime observers like Dr. Marty, denominations are essential as places to root churches that feed people spiritually "In my view there is no person in general, no church in general," he says. "Without a church that survives in a denomination you have tribalism and ethnic bias. With a church you are forced to wrestle with realities beyond your own locality and beyond your own prejudices."