This Christmas I had the pleasure of reading through the Handbook of Denominations in the United States (13th edition). For those who are not familiar with this book, it’s an encyclopedia of sorts giving a brief history and overview of the theology/practice of the Abrahamic religious denominations active within the USA as of 2010. Granted, the Handbook only lists those groups with at least 100 congregations and/or five thousand members so there are some smaller denominations/groups that are not listed.
The Handbook itself is split into three major selections according to the three major Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As to be expected, the Christianity selection takes up the bulk of the book with the various denominations listed alphabetically according to the major traditions within Christianity (i.e. Lutheran tradition, Reformed, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian tradition, Holiness tradition, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches tradition, etc.).
Under the Judaism and Islam section, the Handbook lists out all the major traditions of those Abrahamic religions. This to me was one of the coolest parts about the Handbook as it was nice to understand a little more about the different sub-groups within Judaism and Islam.
For example, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) was under the “Holiness Churches” tradition within “Christianity.” The Union for Reform Judaism was placed under the “Judaism” selection just like Sunni Islam and Wahhabism was placed under Islam.
Interestingly enough, the Vineyard was listed under “Pentecostal Churches” tradition within “Christianity” section. This is odd to me as the Handbook includes a “Community and New Paradigm Church” sub-group that would have seemed a better fit for the Vineyard… I guess the editors of the Handbook look more towards the Charismatic actions of the Vineyard rather than our theology (which my Pentecostal family members would quickly point out!) is not Pentecostal. This grouping may change in the 14th edition as Roger Olson, the new Handbook editor, is considering creating a “Third Wave” or “Renewalists” sub-group in which the Vineyard will fall. Time will tell.
Another cool thing about the Handbook was that it showed me that it wasn’t just Protestant churches who was dividing up over various issues. Under the Catholic tradition sub-group, the Handbook listed 11 different Catholic church denominations! Some of which split off from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1900’s while other were older splits from Europe. Each of these groups, however, followed the basic theology and practice that one would think about when referring to the Catholic church. They just don’t all agree with Rome.
All in all, I would recommend church leaders owning a copy of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States as it would allow one to quickly find out the basic history and theology/practice of the different groups within the USA. For example, if someone in your church asks you about a group – or you pick up a book and want to under the background of the author – or if someone new joins your church and you want to understand where they come from… in all cases the Handbook would give you a quick glimpse into the denomination in question.
Now to put the Handbook on my wish list as I borrowed the library’s copy for the holidays… 😕