This summer’s big regional youth conference has been cancelled. Because of tunes.

The leader of the denominational office notified all the churches in the region that he decided to pull the plug. The reason? Conference organizers had planned to use Christian songs that did not come from the official denominational worship book.

He cited church rules that require the “exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda” and “theologically correct hymns and materials.”

So, what has been gained by the cancellation of the youth conference? Well, the churches’ teenagers have been protected from attending a conference and hearing Christian songs penned by “unapproved” Christian composers. Instead, the kids spent the time at home listening to their usual secular songs.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case of churches’ desperate attempts to cling to their man-made sectarian rules, relics and soapboxes. They’re in survival mode. But their actions amount to acts of institutional suicide.

Most denominations in America are shrinking—some rather precipitously. Financial giving is down. Generally, the influence of the church in American culture is dimming. Faith in the institution of the church is waning, particularly among the young.

In the face of these negative trends, many church bodies have taken a bunker mentality. They’ve attempted to isolate, tighten controls, lob grenades at anyone outside their bunker, dig in and clutch what’s left inside.

Some believe their only chance for survival lies in denominational brand distinctiveness. And they’re resolved to ride their quaint distinctives to the very end. They’ve adopted the old Kodak brand mindset: “Our hope resides in clinging to what we’ve been known for, to what we’ve always done.  If we don’t stand for film, what do we stand for?” Kodak old-timers forgot they were really in the picture business, not the film business. Similarly, many in the church have forgotten they’re in the faith business, not the doctrinal nit-picking business.

These churches aren’t withering because they’re not gripping tightly enough to brand distinctives. Their enemy is not other brands, other churches, other believers, other doctrinal nuances. The enemy is much more elemental. The enemy is disbelief.

If we want any hope of reversing troubling church trends, especially among young people, we must focus not on tribal heritage, denominational branding, theological hair-splitting, or pharisaical purity. We must focus on Jesus—and his sacrificial love for us and all people.