As a kid in Missouri, I was a Baptist. In Missouri that meant not only that I belonged to an important church but that I was on the right side of the great eternal divide, ready to defend my salvation against the other contenders around me. When my family moved to Arizona, Baptists were perceived differently: we were the tail end of white evangelizers who hoped to bring faith and education to the Native American and Mexican laborer population. In southern California, our next stop, people thought we were from Texas and thought of us as one more exotic breed on the Pacific shores.
For at least the past generation, mainline Protestants have been worried about declines in membership. One camp has taken up the rallying cry of conservatives (and some vocal sociologists) who claim that theological “strictness” and clear church-culture boundaries mark the path to reversing this decline. Others have claimed that the church’s aim is not to be “successful” by the world’s standards.
On the cusp of the 21st century, a strange thing is happening. Congregations—not all, but a noticeable number—are choosing to highlight their denominational particularities. While for some this might not seem s