Unplugging from the Matrix, part 5

This is part 5 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

As I’ve been processing my personal journey and the obvious and continued decline of mainline denominations, I have found this description by Craig Van Gelder very helpful in explaining the current state of denominations. It’s found on p. 17 of The Essence of the Church: A Community Created By the Spirit:


  • Phase 1: Ethnic-Voluntarism Denomination, 1600-1800. This denominational type emerged in the early seventeenth to late eighteenth centuries and functioned as a coalition of ethnic immigrant churches of European parentage.
  • Phase 2: The Purposive-Missionary Denomination, 1800-1850. During the first half of the nineteenth century, this denominational type was formed as a national organizational structure responsible to introduce new churches into the expanding frontier.
  • Phase 3: The Churchly Denomination, 1850-1900. During the last half of the nineteenth century, denominations transitioned to this type as they built extensive institutional systems to serve the needs of their members.
  • Phase 4: The Corporate Denomination, 1900-1965. During the first half of the twentieth century, denominations created multiple agencies within an extensive bureaucratic hierarchy to manage the ministry of member churches.
  • Phase 5: The Regulatory Denomination, 1965 to present. In the last half of the twentieth century, a type of denomination has emerged that increasingly uses rules and policies to secure compliance from member churches.

So can denominations reverse the downward trend? What would it take to see growth happen? Or is the death of denominations inevitable – and the hope/sign of a future centered on Christ and His body (one holy, catholic church)?