As I read through a list of seminary students involved in a preaching event, I noted that where their faith traditions were listed that a number indicated that they were “non-denominational” or “interdenominational.” I don’t remember anyone putting “none.” I would love to hear their definitions of these terms, but let’s just assume for a minute that by using either of these terms the student is saying one of two things: “I belong to a church that is not related to a particular denomination” or “I am not committed to a particular faith tradition.”
This seems to be a growing trend for some students in theological institutions. Many schools have diverse student bodies and enroll students from a number of denominational backgrounds, but some students indicate that they are not part of any particular denomination. My friend Dick Olsen at Central Seminary comments that he often asks students in a particular course to read fifty pages about their denomination or faith tradition. Some either don’t have one to read about or can’t find that many pages about their denomination!
Perhaps this is an analogy to the “I’m spiritual but not religious” mantra. In both instances, the people involved are not hostile to the spiritual life and may even want to serve a congregation but they are concerned about being specific in their commitment. How does this happen?
Could it be because the student has had a bad experience in a particular denomination or church no longer wishes to be identified with it? Certainly that is possible and there are enough problems in churches that many of us can understand that decision.
Maybe the individual became a person of faith through contact with a parachurch group or a non-denominational church. There have been campus groups (such as Campus Crusade—now “Cru,” Navigators, and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship) for years that are not connected to any particular church and many of those who came to Christ through the witness of those groups have started churches that are not related to a particular denomination.
Of course, it is possible that the student is just waiting for the right church or denomination to come along. They have not made a choice yet but they “will know it when they see it.”
This raises questions for theological educators such as “What is our role in helping a student to find a church home or affiliation?” and “If we are helping to equip this person for ministry, shouldn’t we have some understanding of the church or people that the student will serve?” Failure to answer these questions properly can lead to frustration for both the faculty and the student.
A new era brings new challenges, doesn’t it?