Question: "What are the mainline denominations?"
Answer: People in our society often use terms which seem concrete, yet upon closer examination, are actually very unclear. In a culture such as ours which has strong Christian roots, general references to churches and denominations often become cloudy in their meaning. When people speak of “mainline denominations,” they are usually referring to the historic denominations such as Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc. Since each of those groupings is quite varied, and there have been a number of splits and mergers, the actual meaning of the term “mainline” gets harder and harder to determine.
One way of categorizing churches is by very broad groupings. The Barna Research Group, in some of their surveys, breaks people into four general groups: Catholics, Protestants, Born-again Christians, and Self-identified Christians. Four out of five Americans place themselves in the “self-identified” category, though only 47% of these adults attend regular weekly services. Four out of ten Americans fit in the “born again” category, and 59% of these adults regularly attend church. One out of five Americans identify themselves as Catholic, which is the largest denomination in the United States. Nearly half of Catholics (49%) regularly attend services, and 24% of Catholics fit in the “born again” category by their beliefs. Protestant adults are 52% likely to attend weekly services.
The Barna Group breaks those categories down more specifically in other surveys, creating twelve distinct denominational groups, though they don't all represent specific denominations. Those groups and their percentage of the US population are: Assemblies of God (2%), Catholic (22%), Episcopal (2%), Methodist (6%), Lutheran (5%), Mormon (1%), Pentecostal (2%), Church of Christ (2%), Adventist (1%), Presbyterian (3%), Baptist (17%), and Non-denominational Protestant (5%).
If these mainline denominational groups were broken down into more specific denominations, the list would be very large indeed. A partial listing would include: Assemblies of God, Catholic, Episcopal, Free Methodist, United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Salvation Army, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Free Lutheran, Lutheran Brethren, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Mormon, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, United Pentecostal Church, Church of God (Cleveland, TN), Church of God (Anderson, IN), Foursquare, Vineyard Churches, Church of God in Christ, Adventist, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Disciples of Christ, Southern Baptist, General Association of Regular Baptist, American Baptist, National Baptist, etc. These listed are among the most recognizable denominations, though there are others, and any listing is bound to leave some out.
Not included in this list is the variety of independent or non-denominational church fellowships, as they exclude themselves from any denominational categories. Even some of those listed are not truly denominations, but associations or fellowships of autonomous churches, like the Southern Baptist Convention. Typically a denomination exercises authority or control over the local churches regarding doctrine and practice, and often owns the property where the local church meets. In contrast, associations and fellowships tend to give support without exercising control over the local ministries.
Why are there denominations? Even though God only gave one Bible with one gospel, people do have different ideas of how to understand and apply it. When churches identify with one another on common ground, they band together. When they disagree on points of doctrine or practice, they tend to separate. This disagreement is not because of ambiguity in Scripture, but often it is because of sinfulness or ignorance in people. James 4:1 asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Again in 1 Corinthians 3:4, Paul wrote “for when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not being merely human?” Jesus' own desire was that believers would “be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). As Jesus prayed for this unity among His followers, He was very clear that the basis of that unity would be “the words that you gave me” (v. 8) which is the truth which purifies us (v. 17). Sadly, many Christians primarily identify themselves not as Christ followers, but by their denomination. While association with like-minded people is important, we need to be careful to keep our priorities right, and ensure that our devotion to Scripture is higher than our devotion to denomination.
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