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Blog / How Many Denominations Are There?: An Interview with Roger E. Olson

How Many Denominations Are There?: An Interview with Roger E. Olson

Roger E. OlsonWhat are denominations and why are they important? What’s their history, doctrines, and practices? How many are there and why do they exist?

Bible Gateway interviewed Roger E. Olson, who, along with Frank S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill, and Craig D. Atwood, is editor of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 14th Edition (Abingdon Press, 2018).

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[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, The Essentials of Christian Thought: An Interview with Roger E. Olson]

Why have you “always been intensely interested in denominations”?

Roger E. Olson: I grew up in a large and very religiously diverse extended family and was always fascinated by the theological discussions among my parents and relatives at family reunions. When I found The Handbook of Denominations in the United States in my father’s pastoral library I read it and was hooked on denominations.

Explain what a denomination is.

Roger E. Olson: A denomination is any group of congregations with strong connective tissue, even if that connective tissue is exclusively voluntary and fraternal. Many denominations prefer to call themselves “networks” or “fellowships” which makes them no less denominational.

How many denominations are there in the USA?

Roger E. Olson: A very liberal estimate is about 1200. A more conservative estimate is about 250. Everything depends on how one defines “denomination.” The liberal estimate includes non-Christian groups and religious groups found in small, isolated areas (for example, one county). The conservative estimate restricts “denomination” to Christian groups and looks for groups of congregations with more than merely regional existence.

What is the largest denomination? What is the smallest?

Roger E. Olson: The largest denomination in the USA is the Roman Catholic Church which, of course, does not consider itself a “denomination” but the one true church. Outsiders consider it one denomination among many, but admit it’s the one with the most members. The largest Protestant denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention.

The smallest denomination in the USA is probably the Schwenkfelder Church with only about six congregations. The reason it gets our attention is its historical and political prominence. There are numerous denominations with less than 100 congregations and a few thousand members.

If Christians are to be in unity with one another, why are there so many denominations and is that a bad thing?

Roger E. Olson: Many denominations exist only because they were founded by non-English speaking immigrants to the USA. Denominations can be in union with each other through fellowship and cooperation. The number and diversity is only a bad thing if it means true Christians severing communion with each other.

Is there a growing aversion to the term “denomination” in American church life, and if so, why do you think that is?

Roger E. Olson: Like many good words, “denomination” is widely misunderstood. There’s a mistaken assumption that every denomination thinks itself spiritually superior to every other one. Also, many people equate “denomination” with clerical hierarchy; many denominations have no such order.

The same kind of misunderstanding haunts the word “religion” in today’s increasingly secular Western world. Many people equate it with some kind of suppression of individuality and they prefer to describe themselves as “spiritual.”

Both “denomination” and “religion” have sociological meanings and uses that will continue regardless of popular misunderstandings and misuses.

Why do you believe the term should continue to be used?

Roger E. Olson: There is no adequate alternative to “denomination” that has the same semantic range of meaning and is, at the same time, quite specific.

How does the 14th Edition differ from previous editions?

Roger E. Olson: It’s more compact and streamlined, and answers common questions earlier editions did not address, especially about theological, doctrinal, and ethical distinctives of denominations.

How should this book best be used?

Roger E. Olson: It’s an excellent reference tool for pastors and other religious leaders but can also make fascinating reading for people interested in American religious life. If a person simply wants to know the basic facts about a denomination, they’ll find those facts in the Handbook.

Why is religion such a strong force in America?

Roger E. Olson: Religion is such a strong force in America because our very founding documents presuppose religion, or at least belief in God and the Judeo-Christian ethos permeates them. Also, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in American religion, whereas religion has largely been regulated by governments in many other countries.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Roger E. Olson: Philippians 2:12-13 — “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you to will and to do of his good pleasure.” It contains the whole message of the Christian life in a nutshell and equally emphasizes God’s grace and our responsibility.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Roger E. Olson: Everyone ought to have at their disposal a book like Handbook of Denominations in the United States simply to understand the many churches down the street, around the corner, and across town. It’s an indispensable tool for understanding Christianity in America today.

Bio: Roger Olson is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. He is a Baptist theologian, author of 20 books—including The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality Through the Biblical Story—dealing with religion and theology, and former editor of Christian Scholar’s Review. He has served also as contributing editor for Christianity Today. He holds the PhD in Religious Studies from Rice University and has taught theology at Oral Roberts University, Bethel University, and Baylor University.

Frank S. Mead was a renowned authority on American denominations. He served as editor of the Christian Herald and wrote for numerous national publications.

Samuel S. Hill, PhD, is professor emeritus of religion at the University of Florida and is a leading authority on religion in the United States.

Craig D. Atwood, PhD, is the Charles D. Couch Chair of Moravian Theology and the director of the Center for Moravian Studies at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Professor Atwood edited and revised the 11th through 13th editions of the Handbook.

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Filed under Books, Church, History, Interviews