QUESTION: There are many different “preachers” on television these days. How do I know if they belong to a denomination?
ANSWER: In the past this question was asked more frequently, and the answer was more easily given. When we encountered a minister, we would likely know or be told the denomination to which he or she belonged. Today the question is less frequently asked and the answer is more complicated.
In the past, those who led congregations were usually affiliated with some familiar national or international religious body. These denominational ministers provided us with what we knew as the traditional faith communities of our neighborhoods. More recently, however, that has changed significantly.
Those who lead congregations and those who preach on television are often not associated with any of what we knew as the traditional faith communities. Many are now associated with a kind of movement known as “evangelical.” Evangelical describes an initiative that began in the second half of the 19th century as a reaction to religious skepticism and what some called liberalism. It grew slowly but steadily.
The general approach of evangelicals was often characterized by strong orthodox theology rooted in doctrinal fundamentals. Evangelicals would also hold the Bible as the ultimate (and sole) authority in religious matters. They tended to describe a clear conversion experience that charted a new direction in their lives. Within the evangelical, tradition some identified two sub-groups — fundamentalists and Pentecostals.
Fundamentalists might be seen stressing New Testament thought of separating oneself from that which was considered unclean or unacceptable. Pentecostals would adhere to some common evangelical principles, but also stress the charisms (gifts) described in the New Testament (especially healing and speaking in tongues).
The above are very general descriptions of movements within Christianity. Those who adhere to their principles may also be found in many of the “mainline” religious denominations as well as more independent Christian communities.
Today, however, in addition to evangelicals and those belonging to traditional faith communities, one finds a very large group of Christians who would identify themselves as non-denominational. While some of them emerged from existing faith communities, most began as communities gathered around an individual religious figure who grew the community in soil that was often uniquely its own.
Many of these non-denominational faith communities are some of the largest in our country today. While they may hold views shared with other faith communities (especially those identifying as evangelical), they are not led or “supervised” by any outside authority or governance. Frequently distinguished by a charismatic leader and a wide range of religious and community activities, they are truly independent of any other denomination. Their foundation is often rooted in a desire to distance themselves from what was considered as rigid doctrinal or creedal formulations found in other Christian communities.
Many of those preaching on television today are rooted in these non-denominational traditions. They preach more general New Testament themes seemingly without the need for the standard creeds or doctrines. Some have emerged from denominations, but clearly have moved forward in a more independent direction. They may cooperate with those who hold similar beliefs, but clearly guard their independence in areas of doctrine, worship and policies.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.