The last time we saw such a massive shift in Protestantism was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Holiness and Pentecostal movements spawned over ten major denominations. When one adds to this the formation of the Wesleyan Church (1843), the Free Methodist Church (1860), and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1870), all of which came out of the old Methodist Episcopal Church, it is easy to see just how large the divisions and realignments were.
It now seems apparent that something similar is occurring in the final decades of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. Not only are there new denominations forming, such as the Association of Vineyard Churches (1982), networks of churches are emerging that are quickly becoming a nucleus for local congregations leaving mainline Protestantism.
The trend of realignment among mainline churches can be seen in the formation of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (2012), the North American Lutheran Church (2010), and the Anglican Church of North America (2009). Both ECO and NALC were formed from networks of ministers and churches that had decided that renewal from within existing Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Anglican denominations was no longer possible. This realignment first began with the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (1973).
A similar move may be occurring within the United Methodist Church. The largest UMC congregation in the Mississippi Conference just finalized its departure. Having now left the UMC, the congregation remains part of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a growing network of local churches who want to maintain a more conservative theological profile. It is difficult to see the UMC holding together, due to the deep theological disagreements surrounding a host of issues. The only other option is the proposal by Billy Abraham, professor of Wesley Studies at the SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, to allow a “Mexit” for congregations and conferences that cannot embrace the current teaching of sex only within male-female marriage.
Many non-denominational churches are part of networks in which resources are shared. In evangelical circles, a good example is the Life.Church Open Network Community, supported by Andy Stanley’s North Point Ministries. The same holds for Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. The most prominent African-American pastor in America, T.D. Jakes, has founded The Potter’s House International Pastoral Alliance as a way of building relationships and sharing resources. An older network is the Joint College of African American Bishops, which functions as an umbrella structure in which bishops in different networks and denominations come together. There is no doubt that some of these networks will ultimately lead to denominational structures, since there is a small step between a network association and a denominational association.
Historians will look back on the half-century between 1973 and 2023 as the time when multiple new denominations and church networks came into existence and remade Protestantism within the United States. Ed Stetzer recently noted that if the decline of Mainline Protestantism continues, those denominations will cease to exist in 2039. What we need to see is that the decline of the mainline is really more about the remaking of Protestantism. As we celebrate 500 years of the Reformation, we should remember that a new reformation is occurring right before our eyes.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.