Ernest Troelstch, in his classic book The Social Teaching of Christian Churches (1912), suggested a basic typology that has framed the way many religion scholars view the development of Christian churches. Troelstch argued that at their most radical, Christians tend to group themselves together in sects. These serve as antithetical groupings that stand against established churches, challenging these churches in order to bring about reform. Over time, however, these sects become more regularized, loose some of their radical nature, become institutionalzied, and finally end up as established churches themselves.
The most obvious example of this process in American religious history is the Methodists. Starting as a sect within the Anglican Church, Methodism had a radical edge to it, trying to bring about a holiness reform within the structures of Anglicanism. When that was no longer possible, they set up their own structures and eventually became the largest Protestant denomination during the 19th century. Another, late 19th century example is the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which banded together in a loose network around A. B. Simpson's "four-fold" Gospel.
I wonder, though, if a new typology is "emerging"--instead of sects, I wonder if the new grouping is one called "network." At the beginning, these networks feel free and somewhat radical, people who gather across denominational (or non-denominational) boundaries in order to form like-minded partnerships for mission. However, over time as these networks formalized beliefs, practices, and stories, they take on identities that foster denomination-like existences.
One example of this might be the Willow Creek Association. Shaped by the ministry philosophy of Bill Hybels, the Willow Creek Association serves as a network of churches that share denomination-like beliefs, practices, and stories, all of which cohere around Hybels own successful ministry. Another example might be the Calvary Chapel network (which according to the March 2007 Christianity Today is experiencing a great deal of difficulty). These networks are denomination-like, but they experience a great deal of difficulty when the original charismatic figure leaves. They tend to lose purpose, fail to transition generationally, and ultimately do not sustain themselves.
Some of our current generation of seminarians seem to prefer to think about joining "networks" instead of "denominations." The line of conversation often goes something like, "Well, all denominations do is fight over doctrine; I'm about mission. The way to foster mission is to bring like-minded people together; but in my denomination, there are extreme ____ [fill in the blank] who prevent mission from happening. Hence, I should join a 'network' out of a position of independency in order to pursue mission."
The problem comes from the fact that the networks do not inculcate an identity that shapes the group, its purpose, or its dynamics. For example, there are often no real accountability structures in networks, no doctrinal standards that have stood the test of time (or have been developed by and subscribed to by the group itself), no stories of long faithful pastors, missionaries, or church planters. Instead, what ties these networks together are common practices (contemporary worship music, aggressive evangelism and discipleship, small group ministries) and some common doctrines (often doctrines of grace). But there doesn't appear to be a binding identity for the network itself, other than it stands against "the denomination" or some other structure.
In this way, perhaps these networks play the role of Troelstch's "sects" in his typology. If so, then they will either become new denominations themselves or dissolve after the original founders/visionaries pass from the scene. And if that is the case, perhaps it might be better to find a "denomination" of which to be a part, with all of its flaws and infighting and imperfections, but also with all of its common stories, practices, and beliefs. In this way, one might find an identity not only for oneself and the emerging culture, but for one's children, grandchildren, and generations afterward.