Conference Asks: Do Denominations Matter?
Do denominations matter?
No—not for most people who are looking for a
church to attend. At least, that’s what Reginald
Bibby told participants at the 16th Believer’s
Church Conference, held June 12-16 at Canadian
Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg.
|Reg Bibby: “Solid family
ministries” key reason why people choose
one church over another.
According to Bibby, a University of
Lethbridge sociologist and one of Canada’s
leading trackers of Canadian religious trends,
“solid family ministries” is a key reason why
people choose one church over another.
“If you want to touch people’s lives, touch
their families,” he said, adding that programs
for children and youth are “one reason why
evangelical churches are growing.”
Bibby was one of several keynote speakers who
addressed the Conference theme of
Congregationalism, Denominationalism, and the
Body of Christ at the Conference, which was
sponsored by CMU’s Institute for Theology and
the Church. Other keynote speakers were Sheila
Klassen-Wiebe, Assistant Professor of New
Testament at CMU; Fernando Enns, Professor of
Theology and Director of the Institute for
Theology and Peace, Hamburg University, Hamburg;
and Jonathan R. Wilson, Professor of Theology,
Carey Theological College, Vancouver, B.C.
Among Christians Inevitable
Are denominations still important?
For Bruce Guenther, the answer is yes.
Bruce Guenther: God can use differences
among Christians for his glory.
In a paper titled “Toward a
contemporary theology of
denominationalism” Guenther, an
Associate Professor of Church History
and Mennonite Studies at Mennonite
Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno,
CA, noted that while denominations have
created disunity, they have also been
the bodies that have “mobilized
Christians to action.”
He went on to say that “doctrinal
differences among Christians are
inevitable” since the “Bible is not
clear on all matters.” At the same time,
“no single human structure can fully
represent the whole church of Christ,”
Differences among Christians can also
be useful, he stated, saying that “God
can use them for his glory . . . they
can be used to bring further light and
Christians, he said, need to hold in
tension their “desire for unity” and the
“reality of differences,” he said,
adding that “unity is not the same as
Denominations that can “express
themselves in non-arrogant ways” may
still have a future, he said, adding
that “true unity” is best expressed when
denominations “cooperate in common
was one of 24 people to present papers
at the Conference.
Bibby went on to say that when it comes to
choosing a church, people tend to stick with the
familiar—Anglicans looking for a new church home
will tend to look for another Anglican church,
and Baptists will likely seek out a different
“The denominational walls are not tumbling
down,” he said, citing research showing that
“there is not a lot of switching going on.”
Bibby also noted that while the evangelical
church in Canada has grown in numbers over the
past century to 2.4 million today, Canadian
evangelicals are only eight percent of the
population—the same figure as in 1971 and 1951.
“That’s a success story,” he stated, adding
that their success is attributable to family
ministries, being open to innovation,
“addressing ultimate issues” and “placing
demands” on people.
“The message is that if it costs something,
it must be worth something,” he said.
In the U.S., however, it’s a different story.
Evangelicals there comprise 33 percent of the
population, or over 100 million people. “They
are marginal in Canada, but mighty in the U.S.,”
he said, noting that you don’t see many Canadian
politicians “wooing Evangelicals” like you do in
Key trends that affect the church today, he
said, include moving from “dominance to
diversity”; individualism, or “moving from we to
me,” with a growing reluctance for people to
formally become members of churches; and
“deference to discernment,” as people lose
respect for institutional authority.
There’s also a loss of identification with
denominations, he said, noting that “many
congregations want very little from their
During a concluding panel discussion,
Mennonite Brethren Herald editor Laura Kalmar
noted that Conference speakers had suggested
that differences in the church were useful, and
that “denominationalism was not equal to
J. Denny Weaver, former professor of Religion
at Bluffton University, noted the significance of
context. How Canadians, who live in a cultural
mosaic, talk about the Believer’s Church is
different from what it means to Americans, who
live in a country dominated by civil religion.
“It’s a very different conversation” in his
country, he noted, where the Believer’s Church
“poses an alternative to religious nationalism.”
Other Conference participants noted that
future gatherings should include more people
from the global south, as well as more people
“under age 45.”
Selected papers and presentations from the
Conference will be available this winter;
contact CMU at
firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Click here for more information about
the Believer’s Church concept, and the history
of Believer’s Church Conferences.
Posted June 21, 2008
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