The Post Covid church is likely to look very different to what we’ve been used to. In fact, it already does with live streaming becoming a part of ‘normal’ church for those who are gathering back in buildings after Covid lockdown. Church disruption will increase from the first two emerging trends discussed in my previous blog post in this series.
The first trend is churches divesting property. The second trend is hybrid networked churches. These two trends will see the rise of two more trends – denominational fragmentation and a shift away from denominational leadership. These trends are already apparent but in a post Covid world they are more likely to accelerate, bursting the old wineskins of existing church structures.
The net impact of these emerging trends is less critical than the volatility they will create which will lead to an increase in competition between churches and experimentation of how we practice church, and a collapse and amalgamation of churches which together will result in an acceleration of a fragmentation of denominational structures.
The history of Protestant denominationalism has always been dynamic, competitive and chaotic.
The Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, however, tend to view church through an apostolic, missiological lens where old church structures and traditions are seen as decaying and in need of new wine skins.
The Emerging Church movement is another example that is premised on the deconstruction of the organised and institutionalised church with a rediscovery of the gospel through missional living.
Are church denominations dying?
We often assume the church we inherited is entropic, even dead. But the reality is that church is not a dead corpse but a living organism that continues to change and adapt to its times – for better or worse.2 We see this more clearly from the perspective of church history where different patterns emerge over longer intergenerational time spans.
Much of the church as we know it now has grown out of the Protestant Reformation. The revolutionary shock waves from the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg where Martin Luther nailed his thesis for debate in 1517 are still reverberating. It led to Protestant church denominationalism, which by its very nature is adaptive, competitive and fragmenting to this very day.
Church denominations trace their histories back to the Protestant Reformation that split from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, defining the Protestant Church by not only theological distinctions but also the territories and states in which they were founded – hence Church of England, German Lutherans and Scottish Presbyterians. Modern nations like France and Italy remained largely Catholic. But at the same time dissension was rife and new church expressions arose evolving into other denominations such as today’s Baptist and Churches of Christ1. Each of these Christian denominations had theological and doctrinal differences but were generally aligned within the umbrella of Protestant Christianity. Denominational church structures today seek to control church dogma, leadership through church ordained clergy and ownership of church assets such as property and buildings. See Church Economics 104 on the history of church accumulation of property and buildings.
The history of our churches in Australia demonstrates both the vibrant and competitive fabric of denominationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
One example of denominational fragmentation in Victoria, Australia, was the division of the Presbyterian Church into three branches representing the Established Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church – all formed from dissent and schism arising from different views on state control of the church.3
The more recent advent of trans denominational movements such as Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism led to post denominationalism. These movements spread out across the main stream denominations in the twentieth century. Churchgoers began to choose a church by its alignment to a movement – Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic.
These Christian movements differ from church denominations in that they are formed around central doctrinal tenets that have moved beyond denominational boundaries. Fundamentalists worry about Biblical inerrancy, Evangelicals are driven to evangelise and ‘win people for Christ’ (defined as becoming born again), and Pentecostals and Charismatics prioritise post conversion religious experiences of baptism in the Holy Spirit in their faith.
Such movements also led to the rise of the independent churches not bound to a denomination. Independent churches sprung up around movements either as break away groups or newly formed cohorts. This accelerated the fragmentation of church forms and led to a Church increasingly shaped by market forces of consumer choice, marketing, and product differentiation.
I have witnessed multiple forms of Pentecostalism first hand growing up in the church – from Full Gospel, Assemblies of God (AOG), Christian Revival Crusade (CRC) and the Apostolic Church (I’m keeping my list short!).4 The differences arose primarily from doctrine but also from differing views on church governance.
More recently, Pentecostalism has resolved its doctrinal rifts by mainstreaming its thinking. Speaking in tongues, for example, is no longer a prerequisite for salvation (as it was in some earlier cultic expressions) or even baptism in the Spirit (due to the charismatic influence). Pentecostalism has now regrouped and re-branded in the crucible of market forces as ACC (Australian Christian Churches), Hill Song and C3 Global Network (formerly Christian City Church) just to name a few.
This fragmentation of church denominations as post denominationalism, recognises the shift of congregational loyalty away from denominations toward church movements and brands. In short, we are experiencing competitive market forces within the Australian church that have already fragmented denominational structures, ministers and congregations. We are already in a state of flux.
This fragmentation of church denominations as post denominationalism recognises the shift of congregational loyalty away from denominations toward church movements and brands.Tweet
If we add into this mix the post Covid trends of property divestment and hybrid church, we will see an acceleration of denominational fragmentation. By fragmentation I mean an increasing disruption and shift of power and control by peak denominational bodies over their constituent churches.
The two drivers of denominationalism – the keys to the church – are doctrinal adherence and resource support. Doctrinal adherence is fast waning as denominations have surrendered their credal ‘distinctives’ to the trans denominational movements.
Yes, there are of course still differences and disputes over dogma. But those in the pews are less concerned about such trifles than they are about the pragmatics of Christian fellowship, community support and raising families.
I have experienced this denominational ‘agnosticism’ from my involvement in Church of Christ partnerships with Uniting Church and Baptist churches seeking to merge congregations and resources in a local community. The challenges can be immense, especially around property and finance. But what this demonstrates is the ambivalence to doctrinal creeds from two distinct denominational churches seeking to merge people and resources.
In economic terms, church growth is driven by congregational demands around quality of services such as worship experience and pastoral care. It might seem crass to many but when you think about it, church franchises and brands expressed in state of the art worship complexes and church models are now the ‘marks’ of what define church.
Christian identification is expressed increasingly more by social markers defining a person’s identity politics. Ex-evangelicals, for example, are defining the faith from within and outside the evangelical camp on issues such as LGBTQ+, race and pro-choice.
Doctrinal adherence is fast waning as denominations have surrendered their credal ‘distinctives’ to the trans denominational movements.Tweet
Denominations are riddled with doctrinal heresies. Put any innocent pew warmer under a theological spotlight to test this. Of course, the heresy depends on your theology, but the point is there are many dogmas.
The options to navigating these dogmatic disputes lie between tolerating a broad church, insisting on a fragmented splinter or being swept up in a complete re-framing of belief and practice as expressed by the movements or the post evangelical emerging churches.
The retention of denominationalism going forward is more persuasive from the supply side of church resourcing – predominantly church buildings and ordained clergy (as opposed to the demand side of attracting people to church).
For denominational leaders, instead of asking what binds a person to the church (demand side church economics), we increasingly need to ask what binds a church to the denomination (supply side church economics)?
The answer is, not as much as we once might have thought. Why? Because church buildings and ordained clergy are not as critical to doing church as we once imagined.
There are three key markers defining today’s church.
1State recognition. Mainline churches such as Lutheran and Presbyterian trace their legitimacy from state sanctioned endorsement following on after the Protestant schism from the Catholic Church. In modern nation-states, churches are still legitimised. For example, in Australia churches are recognised as religious institutions. For most of us this is a given and free market. Any cult (or at least most) may apply.
2Training and supply of qualified and ordained clergy. The fragmentation and displacement of theological education has broken down the denominational barriers now struggling to defend the bastion of denominational seminaries. (I’ll come back to church leadership in my third post of this series The Post Covid Church.)
3Denominational held church buildings is the last defence line of denominational survival. But not for much longer. The divestment of church property, increase in hybrid church and ongoing market competition and experimentation of church forms will see this rapidly erode in the post Covid fall out.5
Unless denominational bodies and structures adapt and change they will die out or be forced to merge in an attempt at new life with other denominations. Some of the key hot spots to watch for in this space are:
- The ongoing acceleration of church franchises such as Hillsong chipping away at the crumbling denominational empires through competition and takeovers.
- The rise of inter-church support networks such as the Acts 29 network and Church Support Network rivaling denominational support and loyalty.
- Disputes over property control and ownership between churches and their denominational property trusts.
Can old wine adapt to new wineskins?
The smart operators are already adapting to denominational fragmentation as seen with one example of ‘in house church franchising.’ City On A Hill is a multi campus church established under a cooperative parish agreement in the Anglican Melbourne diocese in Australia.6
Denominations developing networked synergies, connecting resources and learned experiences along with inter-denominational and parachurch alliances and partnerships will be a big part of the way forward for church denominations.
Those denominations struggling to survive without collapsing will need to restructure their closed systems and introverted hegemonies over affiliated churches.
Smaller congregational governed denominations may have hope by adapting to a more open ended, dynamic modified distributed network (compared to the existing hub and spoke network)7 more suited to supporting enterprise church models and leveraging missiological developments and enterprises, and experimental church forms. (See my previous post The Post Covid Church. Part I for a discussion on enterprise church and missiological developments.)
The asset rich, episcopalian and heirachical governed churches are more entrenched and likely to weather the storm longer but a simliar re-think must come if they are to remain relevant and true to their mission.
In my next blog post of The Post Covid Church I will explore the trend away from denominational church leadership to grass roots activism and community engagement that will continue to burst the old wineskins and distrupt the existing structures.
- Historically, Churches of Christ has seen itself as a movement and not a denomination. Arguably, the expression of some of the more recent Churches of Christ structures behave more like denominations than movements.
- “At first glance, religion in its most familiar congregational form, by contrast to clothing production, appears to be an island of immutability. But initial impressions can be deceiving. The idea that the business of religion alone has changed not a bit in the last quarter millennium is misguided.” Hudnut-Beumler, James. In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar (pp. xi-xii). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.
- Miles Lewis (ed), Victorian Churches: Their origins, their story & their architecture, National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Melbourne, 1991, p9
- See Barry Chant, Heart of Fire: The Story of Australian Pentecostalism (The House of Tabor, 1984)
- “Conservative congregations have long wanted to depart but were stuck due to the denomination’s power to confiscate their properties. Now some impatient congregations that advocate full LGBTQ+ inclusion are quitting.” What’s Really Going On In US Mainline Protestantism? in Religion Unplugged
- See Andrew Menzies and Dean Phelan, Kingdom Communities: Shining the Light of Christ through Faith, Hope and Love, (Morning Star Publishing, Reservoir, Victoria, 2018) pp89-95 for a good discussion on the future of denominations as modified distributed networks.
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One church that has weathered the storms of division is the Roman Catholic Church as it holds its members by offering affordable education to children who grow up in the ways of the Church. In class, they say their prayers and constantly espouse virtues even from Primary school. There is some attrition as students are exposed to tertiary life, but generally the Roman Catholic Church has maintained better than others its numbers. To the errant, there is the invitation “Come home to Rome” and this denomination has the attraction of liturgy, tradition and values dating back 2000 years. Protestant churches lacking the unifying figure of the Pope – an earthly figure people can relate to – are constantly splintering as the article so clearly mentions – into many fragments and to slow down disintegration they look to form unions with other Protestant denominations thereby diluting the very doctrines that make them distinct. For 200 years, Protestant churches have left their moorings and embraced social change conforming their standards to keep in step with the liberalization of society. This includes a more horizontal structure in church structure which appeals to egalitarianism in most western societies. Where does it end? The emerging church will follow a diverse outcome with a consumer choice church offered to whatever a niche or large group of people seek. Churches will innovate trends and conform to trends all in the name of numbers so that they can fund their church property and staff. For those that follow a more lay person structure, such issues will not be pressing but house churches tend to become quite isolated and have a short duration.
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I agree that the Roman Catholic Church is not subject to the Protestant churches fragmentation but it does have its own challenges, of course. Another exception is the non-western church, in the global south for example, that will impact us through increased migration patterns. Admitedly my focus in this post has been on the western Protestant church which in my view has largely succumbed to the seduction of the market at the cost of the gospel.
I can attest, as a not-yet-excommunicated (c)atholic, that I have felt the splintering first-hand…which is why I prefer churches that buff their pews regularly…non-ephemistically speaking.
I suspect that rather than hierarchies and structures dying, there will simply be new types of hierarchy and structure. The buy-in will be increasingly fluid and changing. We humans do however like to organise in groups. The new structures are IMHO based around culture (and culture-based theology) and individual-centric aspects; as opposed to geography, community and a historical orthodoxy.