I've been picking up on a real trend against the very idea of denominations of late. It seems to me that this feeling is particularly strong among emergents, but I know boomers too who are changing their church signs from "Wesleyan Church" to "Community Church."
I think I know at least in part what these trends are reacting against, and I think it is in part the same reason why "religion" has become a dirty word. For all intents and purposes, denominations used to think that their group alone had the truth. If pushed, they might admit that some people from other denominations might make it to heaven. But obviously these distant others didn't quite have things right. Either they didn't have enough "light" and were just ignorant, or they were perverse and wilfully believed the wrong things. This mindset also witnessed the countless founding and refounding of endless splinter groups who finally had the "true" variation on the parent theme.
But it's hard to hold to this philosophy if you actually know a few Christians from some other groups. It's hard to be quite so anti-catholic if you know a few spirit-filled catholics who nevertheless look at things differently than you do.
The problem as I see it is that if churches simply become islands of the universal, invisible church, there is no telling what they will become. I see two main alternative paths:
1. They will move increasingly toward the common denominator of all Christians out there. This has already happened to a large degree. The current evangelical non-denominational church is an baptistified Arminian-flavored mix with little attachment to historical orthodoxy but a fairly conservative Republican politic. The Bible is a controlling factor, but (as I have often argued) as somewhat of a mirror--the group finds in the words what it thinks it should find.
A non-denominational "core" tends to water down the flavors of Christendom to a blase, pretty tasteless mix.
2. It will slip back into ideosyncratic individual groups--this time without any denominational organization--each of which thinks it has the truth.
I have some thoughts on the "bastion of truth alone" concept of churches, Christian universities, seminaries, etc... the idea that individual churches should just follow the truth, that we should forget denominations but let them all just be Christian churches. This is the idea that Christian colleges, Christian seminaries, that they should just be Christian colleges and seminaries untied to denominations, that they should just be Christian and follow the truth.
The main problem I have with this approach is that it is exactly the philosophy that led to the splintering of Protestantism into ten thousands of denominations with that "truth." Non-denominations like the "Disciples of Christ" or the "Church of Christ" or the "Church of God, Anderson" sure have particular ideas and traditions like denominations that actually call themselves denominations.
Or, alternatively, this is the path that Harvard and Yale took back when they were church schools. The naked quest for truth without any traditional mooring almost always walks right out the door of Christianity.
So what do I advocate? Denominations as sociological groups with traditions that recognize they are just a small piece of the Christian puzzle. Does the Church of the Brethren want to foot wash? Great! Do it, maybe even require it of your churches--I'm fine with that as long as you acknowledge that this tradition is something God has given to your group and that it doesn't make you any more Christian than groups that don't foot wash--you're the "feet" in the body of Christ.
So Wesleyans don't drink. Does the Bible forbid drinking? Of course not. Are there Christians who drink in moderation who are just as spiritual as teetotaling Wesleyans? The correct answer is, "Of course there are" (visit England some time). Is it still legitimate for Wesleyans to say, "It is part of our identity not to drink"? It is, as long as we don't think we are better than other Christians for it. We are the liver in the body of Christ, the Nazirites of Israel. :)
As I see it, Christianity is a lot more potent and alive with diversity of this sort, with denominations that have traditions and are to some degree constituted as sociological groups. Do I think that Wesleyan theology is more accurate than Baptist theology? I do, but I don't think I'm more spiritual than a Baptist, and I suspect there are elements of Christian theology that they do better than Wesleyans do. Could we really capture the whole of God without some degree of paradox?
So I celebrate denominations. Are there too many? Sure. I would love to see Wesleyans and Free Methodists and a few other churches become a single church, for a start.
Do denominations take themselves too seriously? Sure.
But I think if we can see our denominations as "specialists" within the body of Christ, then Christendom is the richer. And if we don't band together in some way, then we will get a whole lot less done in the world for the kingdom.