As a non-denominational church in Franklin, we often get questions from visitors about which “pigeon hole” we fit into inside of the common, modern, church “flavors”. We exist to live in loving Christian community. Every Sunday, we gather to study the Lord’s word and to worship Him.
But for those of you who want a bit of a history lesson, you might find this to be a fascinating dive.
There are approximately 200 active Christian denominational groups in America today (and about 45,000 globally). Some of the larger groups include the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church. Additionally, many Protestant groups associate with various branches within the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Nazarene, and Methodist denominations. This article profiles various aspects of non-denominational churches, and addresses the following questions:
- Where and when did denominations arise?
- Are denominations profiled in the Bible?
- What do non-denominational churches believe?
- What is the biblical model for the New Testament Church?
What Does it Mean to Be Non-Denominational?
A non-denominational church is a Christian church that operates autonomously and is not formally aligned with a particular denomination. A non-denominational church is not accountable to an outside leadership group (such as a regional office, a Director of Missions, or a Bishop), and generally operates independently in the area of missions (rather than partnering with other churches to send or support missionaries).
Studies show that most non-denominational churches are conservative and evangelical. Most non-denominational churches incorporate liturgical aspects into their worship and maintain a belief in the core aspects of the Christian faith (a belief in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, heaven, hell, sin, Satan, the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper).
A member of a non-denominational church is considered a Protestant Christian.
When Did Churches Start Going Non-Denom?
It is difficult to clearly define the beginning of the use of the terms denomination and non-denominational churches as there is no specific date, place, or person identified with breaking away from the authority of Bishops in the early years of the Catholic Church. Many believe that between 200—1517 A.D. most evangelical churches not aligned with the Eastern Orthodox or Catholic Church could be considered non-denominational. During this period of history, many churches were established and operated quietly outside the authority of Priests, Bishops, Popes, and Patriarchs. Though not known as non-denominational churches at the time, many operated as autonomous Christian Churches, adhered to Christian doctrine, and encouraged embracing biblical principles—these are key markers in defining a non-denominational church today.
The history of the establishment of the non-denominational church is more clear after the 16th century. In 1517, Martin Luther, a priest and scholar living in Germany, posted a list of doctrinal concerns on the door of a grand cathedral. This sparked a wildfire which became a movement now known as the Protestant Reformation–a turning point in Christianity. In the 100 years that followed, the beginning of what today are known as mainline churches and denominations were established (Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.). In addition, many independent, autonomous, Christ-centered churches were birthed—many of which could be considered non-denominational churches though the term was unknown at the time.
Many believe the formal beginning of American non-denominational churches start with movements encouraged by Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone. In the early 1800s, Thomas Campbell served as a ministry leader in Pennsylvania and Virgina, and Stone ministered in Kentucky. Both men advocated moving away from denominational squabbles concerning doctrinal differences (and the authority of the Roman Catholic church) and establishing ministries that operate as independent churches. Both taught that the authority of the local church should be vested in the congregation and leadership of the church.
Thus, the Campbell-Stone Restoration movement was born. With the help of Thomas’ son, Alexander Cambell, many non-denominational churches were established in the next decades. The movement encouraged congregations to refer to themselves simply as disciples or Christians, to follow God’s word, and to not align with a specific denomination. The leadership structures in these churches were often congregational (similar to some Baptist churches) or elder-led (similar to that of the Presbyterian church).
Many mainline denominations experienced profound division and apostasy in the ranks during the latter half of the 20th century (and on into the 21st century). Accordingly, while attendance in the Catholic Church and many mainline denominations decreased, the non-denominational church has noted an increase in overall attendance and has been successful in establishing many new churches.
Can A Non-Denominational Church Ever Really Be Non-Denominational?
It is possible for a Christian church that operates autonomously, without an outside accountability source, and without being affiliated with or committed to a particular denominational group, to be classified as a non-denominational church. However, churches that refer to themselves as non-denominational (often, in the attempt to erase or minimize labels, such as Baptist, in the hope of reaching more people via the guise of being more ecumenical) but affiliate with Christians in a specific denominational group, are not non-denominational and, I believe dishonor God by being disingenuous.
What Do Non-denominational Christians Believe?
Non-denominational churches generally adhere to the core tenets of the Christian faith and encourage discipleship and Christian life development. Though there are exceptions, the belief system in most non-denominational churches honors Christ and aligns with the teachings of the New Testament Church. However, as accountability structures are limited and the doctrine of one church can vary greatly from another, people attending non-denominational churches must be vigilant to ensure that teachings honor Christ and align with the core teachings of Christianity.
Examples of Non-denominational Churches
Though many have removed denominational indicators from their church name, most “community” churches are not non-denominational. Notable non-denominational churches include Hillsong Church, Willow Creek Community Church, Lakewood Church, Gateway Church, and Grace Church. Many examples of non-denominational churches exist in the Western world—some with modern forms of worship and some favor very liturgical worship styles. Non-denominational churches can offer significant variety in the scope of church experience.
Pros and Cons of a Non-denominational Christian Church
There are pros and cons in considering attending a Christ-centered non-denomination church. Typical pros and cons include:
- The local church will not get caught up in regional or national denominational squabbles
- The local body can seek God to lead and determine its destiny without permission from a non-local accountability body.
- The church is free to determine its leadership structure and mission support efforts.
- Without strong accountability, a rogue leader (or leaders) can move the church away from correct doctrine.
- At times, an outside authority source is helpful in mediating conflicts and providing valuable counsel
- Partnering with sister churches in mission endeavors is often very gratifying and can allow smaller churches to have a bigger reach and impact for Christ.
Why You Should Try a Non-Denominational Church
1 Corinthians 12:18 notes that the Holy Spirit leads people to particular places to worship and serve the body of Christ “as it pleases Him.” All should attend and serve in the church God leads them to. Strong, New Testament teaching, non-denominational churches honor God and may offer dynamics many denominations do not.
What Does the Bible Say About Non-Denominational Churches?
The Bible does not specifically mention non-denominational churches. The biblical position is that there is one church, Christ is the head, Christ is to be proclaimed, and in all things, Christ is to be honored.
What Percent of Christianity is Non-Denominational?
Surprising many, Christianity Today recently reported that “non-denominational is now the largest segment of American Protestants.” Christianity Today noted: “If nondenominational” were a denomination, it would be the largest Protestant one, claiming more than 13 percent of churchgoers in America.”
Why Are Non-Denominational Churches Growing?
Studies show that more than 9000 non-denominational churches were established in the last decade. Division and apostasy in many mainline churches contribute greatly to this trend. Many non-denominational churches have been successful in reaching younger generations as their church structure is unincumbered by certain cultural traditions ingrained in some older denominational groups.