Moving beyond Denominationalism

 Professor Mark Hulsether of the UTK Religious Studies department

In East Tennessee, it doesn’t take long to see a plethora of different denominations of Christian churches. Even for Christians, it can be hard to define and determine what separates these groups.

Mark Hulsether, religious studies professor at UT, said that one of the difficulties of distinguishing Christian denominations is that it doesn't make sense for most other religions.

“If you sort people into silos of denominations, then you’re not sorting them in a million other ways,” Hulsether said. “For example, the term does not make sense for non-Christian religions.”

Hulsether says that denominationalism isn’t always the first way to categorize these groups. The broadness of each denomination’s internal complexity complicates the process of defining that particular group. So instead, Hulsether uses the family resemblance model for Christianity.

“It’s all playing off of Catholics, which are a minority, but a very important one,” Hulsether said. “You have a tree branch with two main splits between Protestantism and Catholicism, with Orthodox Christianity and Mormonism over on the side.”

Hulsether says to use Catholicism as the original example, steadily branching farther out to Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Restorationists (Church of Christ), Baptists and Quakers.

This branching becomes increasingly more complex as more schisms between denominations themselves occurred throughout history. In fact, some of these sub-denominations may consider themselves completely separate from their parent denomination.

Instead, the shared sense of basic Christian beliefs — not a schismatic history — tends to be the binding element that connects all of these groups.

“I think it is defined best in terms of faith expression,” said Tim Elliott, deacon of All Saints Catholic Parish in Knoxville. “We’re more the same than we are different.”

In general, this shared belief centers around Jesus and evangelisation. While the degree of evangelistic views varies between followers, it nevertheless is a common characteristic of Christian religious identity.

Included in this communal aspect of shared Christian beliefs is the cultural background that surrounds these groups in East Tennessee. Because this region has a population consisting of many cultures, these qualities can also be seen in the practice of religion.

“The second way to divide these groups is by race. You have white Catholics and non-white Catholics, and most non-white Catholics in our region today are Latino, which is a group that is growing very rapidly,” Hulsether said. “And then you have the white Protestants and the black Protestants, with some Latino Protestants mixed in as well.”

It is also common for individual churches to have their own unique cultural makeups based on their locations. In the case of All Saints, the parish was formed out of need due to full sanctuaries in surrounding parishes. Thus, the formation of a new parish with its own identity.

“This parish is multinational and multicultural,” Elliot said. “We have large Hispanic, Polish, Lebanese, Czech, Filipino, Vietnamese and African communities in this parish. We’re made up of so many different groups, you can’t really call any single one of them a minority.”

Another important topic of recent debate is that of church and state. The last presidential election cycle spurred intriguing commentary on the impact of politics on church attendance.

“Convincing college kids to stay is a huge issue right now with conservative Protestants because some of the leaders are just firmly in the (President Donald) Trump camp,” Hulsether said. “But one of the major trends of the last 20 years or so is the younger a church is and the more conservative it is, the more likely it is that it will lose its youth.”

Again, individual churches have their own stances on this movement. Depending on the demographic, each church may see its own trends in regard to attendance among young adults.

“We have some very active young families,” Elliot said. “Any Mass you come to you’re going to see young people, so loyalty doesn’t necessarily lie in the parish itself, but rather movements of people between parishes.”

Generally speaking, the loyalty belongs to the belief system and practices of the religion. Instead of focusing on what makes the groups different, it is easier to focus on the shared history.

“I like to think that we’re united in a lot of different ways, even though there might be one or two little topics that we disagree on with other groups,” Elliot said.

However, the ever-present legal separation of these groups into their own separate entities proves to more challenging. On the other hand, the commonalities based on spiritual beliefs bonds the branches of Christianity on a more sacred level.

“But what denominations are is just all part of one big debate,” Hulsether said. “And even when you categorize it in this way, you still have to be attentive to what you’re missing as far as the internal divides and the fact that race cuts across all of these groups.

“In the end, (Christianity) always gets back to Catholics and Protestants breaking off from one another, at least historically speaking.”

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