Every year our church’s Denominational Relations Committee leads a month-long emphasis on Baptist heritage. The approach each year is different, but the point is to remind us of who we are as a Baptist congregation. Someone asked this year, “Why talk about denominations in a post-denominational age? Aren’t we beyond all that?” The answer would be “Yes” and “No.”
To understand what we mean by post-denominational, we must consider how we use the term “denomination.” If you are talking about judicatories, conventions, and bureaucracies when you use the term “denomination,” then we are well on our way to being post-denominational in the United States. Even in churches that embrace a connectional or hierarchical approach to church government (Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc.), less attention is being paid to what the “denomination” (read national leadership and governing bodies) decides and what a church as a local expression of that faith practices. Baptists are no longer the only ones who break away to form new churches or affiliations with like-minded congregations. This trend will continue.
On the personal level, many people no longer think of themselves as parts of a denomination, so they would probably describe themselves as “post-denominational.” They feel free to pick and chose the beliefs, doctrines, and practices that they will follow. In fact, most Americans tend toward espousing a self-defined, syncretic faith that “works for them.” This practice has been around for a long time and is not going away.
When local congregations use the term “denomination,” however, they are often talking about more than an affiliation with some particular entity or organization. They are talking about their identity. One of my professors in seminary pointed out that”Baptist” is a denomination. We are part of the worldwide denomination of believers called “Baptist.” There are many expressions of this denomination through alliances, assemblies, conventions, and associations, but they are all “Baptist.” They are not separate denominations.
Every church carries the heritage of some stream of the Christian faith. Even if the church calls itself “non-denominational” or “interdenominational,” it embraces a theology that it has received from the past—free church, Calvinistic, Pentecostal, or something else. Each church is the heir of a rich theological tradition whether it owns that tradition or not. This is true of “emerging churches” as well.
Our church is a Baptist church. It is both similar to and different from other Baptist churches, but it holds more in common with other Baptist churches than it does with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholic. Although Baptists would affirm many of the doctrines of those other churches, there are some that we as Baptists think are particularly important as heirs to the Baptist tradition.
Does this make us better than anyone else? Not by a long short, but it is who we are. We need to own that identity.
This is why we take some time every year to openly reflect on who we are as Baptists. We may disagree on the best way to carry out the mission that God has called us to, but we do it as recipients of a robust faith tradition.