How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
None. Lights will go on and off at predestined times.
How many Fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one. Any more than that would be considered ecumenical.
How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?
Calvinists do not change light bulbs. They simply read out the instructions and pray that the light bulb will decide to change itself.*
How many Arminians does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but the bulb must want to be changed.
How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?
And my personal favorite (since I am):
How many Pentecostals/Charismatics does it take to change a light bulb?
Five. One to change the bulb and four to bind the spirit of darkness in the room.
Ahh, denominations. It seems you're either in one or you hate them, or sometimes both. I can't tell you how many times I have heard people--non-Christians and Christians alike--say something like, "There are just so many denominations out there..." and apparently intend it to be a criticism. To be fair, their point is probably something about how denominations are often formed (or at least changed) for seemingly the wrong reasons and how this creates unnecessary division within the Church. For the present, I'll grant this. What I want to discuss, however, is the fairly recent trend of 'non-denominationalism' and the idea that it somehow solves the above problems while being true (indeed, truer) to the historic Christian faith. 1
Once in a conversation with a thoughtful Catholic friend of mine, I asked him which of the Protestant denominations he had the least respect for. His answer surprised me. Without really having to think about it he said, "Non-denominationalism."
I'll admit that I didn't really understand what he meant at the time, but the more I have thought about it, the more I think he was probably right. Now, please don't misunderstand: there are many very effective non-denominational churches. And if you happen to attend one of those, then I do not think you are in any way an inferior Christian (or even an inferior Protestant), nor do I have little respect for you. Non-denominationalism as an idea, however, doesn't hold too much water in my book. There are several reasons for this.
First, every Christian is in a denomination. "How is non-denominationalism even possible then?" you ask. To answer this, let's look at what we mean by 'denomination.' What is it that separates denominations, that keeps small towns full of churches and makes jokes like the above possible? Obviously, the answer is the particular beliefs of any one denomination and how they differ from all the others. More precisely, it's the way each denomination interprets the Bible and how it answers various questions that Christians have asked over the years regarding our faith. Generally, different interpretation/answers = different denomination. 2
My point is this: every Christian, whether a member of a denominational church or not, has opinions about those issues. More importantly, every church, whether 'independent' or not, will itself inevitably take a stance on many of them as well. So if declaring some sort of theological position (even if that position is, "We don't talk about those things...") is the basis for a denomination, then every church is a member of one. Even if they happen to be the only one. Calling it 'non-denominational' doesn't make the questions go away.
But it does often do something else, which is my next point. It removes one from the cover and accountability of tradition. Now I know that 'tradition' is a four-letter word for us Protestants, but the fact is Christians have been grappling with basically the same questions for over two thousand years now, and it would serve us well to pay attention to the answers that have been offered. The attitude inherent in the non-denominational ideology is that we--a single congregation--can be autonomous. That we don't need history or tradition or liturgy or (sometimes even) creeds; we can answer these questions satisfactorily on our own. Or worse, we'll just ignore them. This is, if I may say so, rather arrogant.
Thirdly, there is a semantic issue. Often what the term 'non-denominational' really means is 'contemporary music.' Chances are, even at these churches, whatever training the pastor/leadership received came with some kind of denominational bias. If you ask them a controversial question, you are likely to get one of a small number of responses, which will likely correspond to the way the question has been answered in the past...by denominational leaders. Music does not make a denomination. Let's call it what it is.
There's an old proverb about finding out why a fence was put up before removing it. Maybe this is a warning more Christians should heed.
* To all my Calvinist friends, I am very sorry. I know this is a mean caricature, but I just couldn't help it.
1 'Non-denominationalism' is not the same as 'inter-denominationalism,' and I do not want to confuse the two. There are very good reasons a given organization might be inter-denominational.
2 I should note that there may be non-theological reasons that denominations could be formed, such as leadership/administrative reasons. The Anglican/Roman Catholic churches might be a fair example of this. The criticisms I give here would of course not apply to these cases.