Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new expression of the community of God’s people began to emerge. Some refer to this time period as the post-ascension era; others refer to it at the apostolic period (Mackinnon, Calvin and the Reformation.) Some are inclined to call it “the church age,” while others see it more as the beginning of God’s redemptive plan of new creation (Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.) However, despite the varying frameworks that pastors, theologians, and historians of various strands may want to ascribe to this period, from all perspectives, something clearly new had begun in the world and, from a Christian perspective, God’s plan in redemptive history.
Organizing for Mission
This movement of Christ-followers has naturally organized itself for the advancement of Christ’s mission throughout the ages. In each major era, the church has taken on structures that are in part reflective of the wider socio-cultural context, whether that has been in the eras of Pre-Christendom or Christendom.
However, today’s cultural context is emerging to be quite different than the previous eras. One consequence has been a disturbance in the forms of church association that were developed during modernity, an era in which the reality of Christendom still remained. These associations of Christ-followers, or most commonly called “denominations,” are losing influence, both cultural and numerical.
The decline of traditional denominational structures has opened up a space for something fresh. New forms of ongoing, covenanted, translocal church networks are filling the vacuum. These networks will be organizationally expressive of today’s context, will provide synergy to the collaborative impulse of new congregations, and renewal to established congregational systems.
How the Church Organized in Pre-Christendom
Within a few decades after the resurrection of Christ, thousands upon thousands of ethnic Jews had reinvented their practices of faith around the central figure of Jesus of Nazareth (Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.) These were not merely some ahistoric, uncommitted religious sects with little to anchor them in their beliefs. Instead, these were largely people from a very committed, familial, and ancestrally oriented faith, with strident beliefs about the uniqueness of the God they called Yahweh.
By all accounts, thousands upon thousands of Jewish people converted to “the way”, and began to be called Christians and formed themselves into local ecclesia or assemblies of Christians that are now referred to as churches (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God.) Their numbers were so great that, within a few short decades, the movement had spread throughout the Mediterranean world and had crossed significant ethnic boundaries. Now, both “Jew” and “gentile” claimed together that they were followers of Jesus, who had been raised from the dead and was the embodiment of God on the earth.
As with all movements, these early Christ-followers sought ways of organizing themselves. During the early years, this happened rather organically and was principally exercised through the leadership of those who had actually walked with Jesus during his 33 years of life and ministry. Typically, every city had a larger community of Christians who then subdivided into smaller fellowships that were typically based around a particular person’s home or workshop (Viola and Barna, Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices.) One often finds greetings to these types of communities throughout the New Testament letters. Specifically, a greeting is extended to an individual (Priscilla, Aquila, Nympha, etc), and the “church” that is in that person’s house (Rom. 16:5, Col. 4:15). Sometimes these smaller communities met in local synagogues, which often were similar to houses or functioned as a dual role (Acts 17:1- 14). Many cities of the Mediterranean world were filled with these types of Christian communities.
The Christian communities had recognized leadership, particularly within the city-wide understanding of the body of Christ. Often these were called elders, but other forms were present as well, since eldership was primarily borrowed from the Old Testament (ibid.) For the first fifty to one hundred years, the original apostles and those they mentored and trained, served as the primary organizational locus for the collaborative activity of the early church. In time, these leaders, and the congregations they related to, formed an organic and unnamed trans-local network of churches. Many of the practices they began in this trans-local community continue in some form of collaborative church practice today. However, once that initial generation of leadership passed, the organization of this Christian community became more easily identifiable. It was not overly structured and controlled, and leadership was primarily granted through influence rather than mere position.
Yet, key leaders rose up in major cities to oversee the work in those cities and the surrounding regions (Ferguson, Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries.) People such as Clement, Polycarp, Cyprian, and Alexander arose and took on positions of bishops in this era (Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries.) Bishops were a first step toward formal church organization, though this organization was fully local to a particular area. Ignatius of Antioch made the first moves in this direction as he appointed one local elder as the presiding bishop above all the other local elders. He paralleled the bishop to Christ and the elders to the apostles (Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches.)
How the Church Organized in Christendom
This approach continued for approximately the next two hundred years, with increasing structure but not controlled, until Constantine determined that Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire. This decision, which many have referred to as the beginning of Christendom, dramatically changed the way the visible church expressed itself.
Beginning with that decision, and over the span of several hundred years, the Christian movement became increasingly tied to the political powers and organizational forms of the day, even after the Roman empire itself had officially collapsed. Durant states that Christianity “grew by the absorption of pagan faith and ritual; it became a triumphant church by inheriting the organizing patterns and genius of Rome” (Durant, Caesar and Christ.)
It was during this period that the seeds of what we have come to know as a “denomination” within Christianity developed. The first of these denominations was the Roman Catholic Church. Roozen and Nieman describe a denomination as “a group of congregations united under a common and distinct faith, name, and organization (Roozen and Nieman, Church, Identity, and Change: Theology and Denominational Structures in Unsettled Times.) Cathedrals were erected during this time in central locations to serve as a “church-center” for the other congregations of the area. The bishop was stationed at the Cathedral and provided spiritual authority to a particular region or diocese, which was analogous to the larger administrative units of the Roman Empire (Grant, Early Christianity and Society.) Furthermore, regional spiritual leadership beyond the bishop was also housed within the Cathedral Parish (Roxburgh, The Missional Leader.)
This is but one of many occurrences that marked out certain people as “official clergy.” When the division between the Eastern and Western branches of the church occurred in 1054, the Eastern Orthodox Church continued to operate in an organizational manner that encouraged collaboration (Cairns). They did not simply fall apart and become a disbanded set of isolated congregations; they were organized in some form of relationship to one another, and brought onto the wider Christian religious scene another denomination (Tickle.)
A half-century later, the Protestant Reformation in Europe brought about the development of most of the so-called “mainline denominations” of our day— the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the United Church of Christ. All of these, and all their offshoots, formed specific ways of organizing and relating to one another, and over time these become more complex. Early in their history, they took on more of the form of a society of people led by a certain ideology, but eventually they became well-organized (Mullin and Richey Reimagining Denominationalism: Interpretive Essays.)
This occurred particularly as Protestantism, in its many forms, made its way to America. The combination of a religious history and the principle of religious freedom that was found in the “new world” created the perfect combination for modern denominational life (ibid.) Churches could now peacefully coexist within a nation and had the freedom to develop into like-minded organizations. These organizations were typically formed as the result of a shared background of the committed laity, typically from a particular ethnic background (Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America.) Most scholars of denominationalism recognize this “ethnic or provincial voluntarism” as the first stage in the development of the modern denomination (Elton, The Missional Church in Context: Helping Congregations Develop Contextual Ministry.)
In time, the modern denominations began to take on greater form as they structured themselves for partnership in mission. This partnership was built around the central idea that they were tasked with the evangelization of the growing nation and the wider world (Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People.) Several missionary societies were formed during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, predominantly within a particular denominational family (Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today.) These missionary societies provided a strong impetus for churches to be actively engaged in mission work, but it was mission work that they accomplished together. In other words, they became committed to one another for the purposes of mission. This is generally regarded as the second phase of denominationalism (Ahlstrom.) Next came “churchly” denominations that flourished following the civil war. During this phase, denominations grew in terms of participation through immigrants and renewal movements, but focused on strengthening their specific identity through an increased confessionalism (Elton.)
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the emerging field of organizational theory began to influence the denominational communities. Complex systems arose with multiple denominational staff in local and regional areas to support the denominational work. In turn, these gathered into larger national organizations.
This is understood to be the “corporate” phase of denominations and it swept virtually the entire Protestant mainstream (Mullin and Richey.) These are the denominations that most are familiar with today. From this point until the latter half of the twentieth century, the denomination as a religious organization continued to expand on the basis of shared identity/affinity (from stage one), shared mission (from stage two), shared confession (from stage three), and shared structure (stage four). Currently, most denominations find themselves in the fifth stage, which is an extension of stage four in the sense that the denomination is still very organizational, but the purpose of these organizational entities has turned towards regulating the churches and regional/local associations within them as opposed to mobilizing them for expansion (Elton.)
Even in spite of several splits and mergers, the denomination is still the primary shaper of church life today and represents the historic example of a trans-local (i.e. beyond one region), covenanted (a shared form of commitment), collaborative association around mission. Nancy Ammerman, a prolific observer of the nature and state of denominations describes them this way:
They have a reliance on the American experience of voluntarism and pluralism in religious life. They are trans-local clusters of religious identifications and behaviors (and the people and organizations connected to them) that are chosen and developed by their members and exist alongside other, similarly constructed, more or less-distinct religious clusters (Ammerman, Congregations and Community.)
While Ammerman says that denominations have a reliance upon the “American experience,” they are certainly not something distinctively American. Likely, many people would contest the first part of her definition, particularly for those denominations that arose out of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. What is across the board, though, is that denominations are a community of religious practice that has certain norms, beliefs, theologies, ways of organizing and operating, educational preferences, and a host of other areas, that help to make them distinct from other such communities.
Almost all of these organizations have distinct histories that are preserved and help to speak into the direction of that organization in the future. In classifying and categorizing denominations, one would look for:
- A set out system of rules with structures, practices, and polity
- Established patterns of structural ties of authority and participation for the purpose of accomplishing their work
- The sustainment of a public narrative through social practices (worship, education, mission) about identity and purpose
- The facilitation and nurturing of relationships among fellow denominational citizens (Ammerman, Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners.)
Clearly, the majority of the church throughout history has always leaned toward relationship and collaboration among other like-minded churches.
In the United States today, the majority of churches are still organized into one of the 650 existing denominations (World Christian Database.) Even the many modern independent and non- denominational churches, which are not denominationally affiliated, still work with other churches and organizations at some level. Historically speaking, though, the covenanted (meaning they purpose to be in relationship), collaborative (meaning they work on mission together), trans-local community (meaning they span towns, zip codes, time zones, etc) has predominantly developed through denominational structures. These structures have been the essential backbone of American Christian faith, and the collaborative work of these respective families of faith has produced significant kingdom advancement both locally and globally.
Organizing the Church in Post-Christendom
However, as has been observed and documented across a spectrum of denominations, there is an emerging tension within the denominational systems in the west. In some cases, the hemorrhaging has been a slow process of gradual decline over nearly a half-century. For others, the decline has been more recent and more rapid.
Interestingly, in spite of the widespread denominational decline, church collaboration is not in question among congregations as new forms of trans-local covenanted community are developing in the west through the establishment of new church networks (Gibbs, ChurchMorph: How Megatrends Are Reshaping Christian Communities.) Many of these networks have arisen through the emergence of new missional churches striving to interact with the current cultural environment (Stetzer and Putman, Breaking the Missional Code: How Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community.)
Fresh Expressions US seeks to help revitalize existing denominations as well as inspire and equip new networks, all to join in the mission of God.
Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase. ￼