The Non-Denominational Reformation
Every 500 years or so in the history of the Christian church, a significant restructuring seems to take place.
Around the year 500, a church council at Chalcedon published what most of Christendom calls the clearest explanation of orthodox Christology: Christ is one person with two natures. However, large swaths of Christians—the Oriental Orthodox (such as the Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches) and the Church of the East—found the Chalcedon Definition lacking. And so the first major division in Christianity occurred.
About 500 years later, a hot-headed Bishop of Rome (or at least his hot-headed legates) and an angry Bishop of Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other,1 leading to nearly 1000 years of division between the western Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Some 500 years after that, a tempermental Augustinian monk in Germany posted some theses for academic disputation that started a firestorm of theological controversy, reformation, and church divisions—resulting in the proliferation of thousands of Protestant denominations.2
Now, the historian in me is obligated to note that using a clean, round number (500 years) to delineate these dates is somewhat artificial. There’s nothing inherently special about the passage of 500 years that leads Christians to say to one another, “I don’t like how you do church anymore.” But humans enjoy describing the past in easy-to-remember terms that serve as useful baselines for historical knowledge, whether or not they encompass the totality of historical truth (476, 1492, or July 4th, anyone?). Even so, given Christianity’s track record so far, you might expect another monumental moment to occur any year now, since it’s been about 500 years since the last major shakeup in Christendom.
The argument I wish to make in this article, is that we’ve already begun to see the next great restructuring of Christianity: the rise of non-denominational Christianity.
The Rise and Spread of Non-Denominationalism
The ongoing increase in non-denominational churches worldwide follows the basic pattern of Christianity’s previous shakeups. A series of significant theological and organizational battles occurs, typically in one relatively isolated geographical region, followed by a relatively rapid spread of the movement into other areas. As the change spreads, the movement undergoes a period of reorganization and coming to terms with the new structure (institutionalization).
Following the denominational wars in the United States (and elsewhere) during the 20th century, non-denominational churches began to emerge.3 Thus far, historians have not yet determined who the initial non-denominational reformer was, though factors such as a post-World War II emphasis on personal freedom, growing disillusionment with denominational infighting, the rise of trans-denominational movements (such as the Civil Rights Movement, Billy Graham’s Crusades, and the rise of parachurch ministries), and the tremendous success of the megachurch movement are likely influences.
Today, non-denominational churches are seemingly everywhere, and they’re increasing in number. From 1976 until 2014, the number of non-denominational churches increased by over 400% in the United States.4 Several years ago, the Hartford Institute estimated that some 12 million American Christians called themselves non-denominational.5 Although accurate numbers are difficult to find, it’s possible that some 100 million Christians around the world identify as non-denominational today.6
Case Study: St. Louis, MO
Saint Louis, the city in which I live, provides a fascinating case study of this growth. Traditionally split between Roman Catholics and Lutherans,7 Saint Louis has become home to many non-denominational churches, several of which are very large and influential.8 But equally fascinating are the number of churches that are not non-denominational but act as if they are. In St. Louis, several large and growing churches throughout the city have denominational ties that a) are not obvious unless you ask, b) do not appear on any signage, and c) are routinely deemphasized even in those churches. Churches like The Journey, The Crossing, The Gathering, and The Rock are non-denominational in form and function, even though they retain denominational connections.
Saint Louis is by no means an exception when it comes to these trends. The Hartford Institute lists six non-denominational churches among the ten largest churches in the United States, and most of the churches appearing near the top of this list do not obviously affiliate with a denomination, even if ties are still present.9 The growth of non-denominational churches in the US (and around the world) in the past fifty years has been rapid and shows no signs of slowing, even influencing churches with long-standing denominational ties.
Moving Toward Institution
Another sign of the non-denominational reformation is the emerging institutionalization of this movement through multisite churches and church networks.
Multisite churches are Christian gatherings where a single church organization holds services at two or more geographical locations. Church networks, while a little less clearly defined at this point, are more extensive groupings of churches, often with a common approach, geography, or mission. In essence, networks tend to function as resource sharing centers that attempt to sidestep the nuanced battles over theology and praxis that has come to define many denominations.
I postulate that the emergence of multisites and networks—both of which are still in their relatively early stages—represents the next step in the non-denominational reformation, the move towards institutionalization. These churches are coming to realize their need to better organize and define themselves, and the multisite and network movements are the most common forms of that institutionalization. Just as French, Swiss, and German churches had to wrestle with questions of succession and ongoing ministry after the the initial reforms of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, so also non-denominational churches (as a movement) are beginning to wrestle with how their shakeup can last more than a generation or two.
Considering Some Problems
To be clear: my contention about the non-denominational reformation is a theory about the currents of Christianity, a theory with much to work out and many more questions to answer—both theologically and methodologically. On these topics, a number of questions remain that need to be addressed in order to better understand the state of the global Christian church with respect to the non-denominational reformation.
Is non-denominational an accurate term to use? By-and-large, non-denominational churches have emerged out of particular circumstances and situations rather than as a wholesale response to a particular council, person, or church. In contrast to non-Chalcedonian churches, mainline Protestants, and (to a different degree) the Catholic and Orthodox churches, non-denominational churches don’t have a clearly defining trait. As currently used, the term “non-denominational” lacks a defining origin or characteristic other than simply “not belonging to one of the many organizational structures of denominational Christianity.” As a result, the terminology around churches that are non-denominational can vary considerably (“independent” is also sometimes used) and can be fuzzy.
How do we count and categorize non-denominational churches? We desperately need better ways to count and categorize non-denominational churches. For years, church statisticians have relied on central denominational offices to provide information on the number of churches, congregants, baptisms, and so forth that have been used as the counting numbers for tracking church growth and decline. Existing studies by Gordon-Conwell, the Hartford Institute, Pew Forum, and (even) Wikipedia tend to lump these churches into a broad “other” category. This makes it nearly impossible to fully account for the number of non-denominational churches in existence in the United States, let alone in geographies with less infrastructure or fewer surveys from Pew or Gallup running about.
Is non-denominationalism simply a regional (i.e., North American) movement? Within Christendom, it is sometimes difficult to discern between a regional movement and the start of something much larger. There have been numerous more-or-less regional movements within Christianity which were influential for a time and then faded (for example, Gnosticism, pietism, and quietism). So it could be that non-denominational Christianity is a largely regional phenomenon that’s been exported to particular places around the world. Of course, most of the significant events that have shaped global Christianity began as regional issues. In 451, Chalcedonian Christological debates may have seemed like an eastern problem; in 1054 it was clearly a Rome v. Constantinople issue; and in 1517, many people thought the debate would remain confined to German universities. While non-denominationalism began (at least in its present form) and is most popular in North America, it is by no means a specifically North American form of Christianity. You can find non-denominational churches (and non-denominational churches that have taken the steps of going multisite or using networks) worldwide.10
What about movement churches? The general difficulties of tracking non-denominational churches are compounded when it comes to “movement” churches, those congregations which haven’t official shed denominational ties but still functionally operate as non-denominational bodies that are more closely aligned to a network than a denomination.11 Above I noted several local congregations in St. Louis that are functionally non-denominational but retain their denominational ties; one of these churches is even in the process of officially becoming non-denominational. Keeping track of that sort of information would be incredibly helpful when looking at the non-denominational reformation, although no standards yet exist to help with that process.
The spread of non-denominational churches shows no signs of stopping (or slowing down) even as North American culture moves away from treating Christian identity as normative. I’ve suggested that this movement may represent the next great shift in Christendom, following in the paradigm shifts of Chalcedon, the Great Schism, and the Protestant Reformation. To better understand this trend, however, some key questions need to be answered about how we understand non-denominationalism and monitor its development. May Christ’s Church on earth continue to take root in our world, even as we look for these answers.
1 Ostensibly over the filioque controversy (about from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds, the (original) Father or the (western addition) Father and Son.
2 It’s commonly said that there are some 33,000 Christian denominations in the world. There are some problems with the methodology and taxonomy of this number; Gordon-Conwell estimates some 47,000 denominations, while others advocate for a more general “about 200 major denominations plus thousands of independent and non-denominational churches” approach.
3 While we can trace a form of non-denominationalism back to seventeenth century Scotland, the movement did not begin in earnest until 20th century North America. In terms of historical parallel, I would liken this to the Protestant Reformation: we could (and some do) speak about historical predecessors to Luther (namely, Wycliffe and Hus), though Luther bears the standard as the progenitor of the Protestant Reformation.
4 Ed Stetzer, “The Rapid Rise of Nondenominational Christianity,” Christianity Today, 12 June 2015. Available online here.
5 Scott Thumma, “A Report on the 2010 National Profile of U.S. Nondenominational and Independent Churches,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Available online here.
7 The second-largest Lutheran denomination in the US, the Missouri Synod, is headquartered in Saint Louis.
8 Grace Church, Faith Church, Saint Louis Family Church, and Word of Life Church are four of the largest that are recorded on most registries of megachurches (1,000+/weekend).
9 The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, “Database of Megachurches in the U.S.” Available online here.
10 See Warren Bird’s database of Global Megachurches.
11 This isn’t a problem new to non-denominational churches either; statisticians have long struggled to accurately assess how many churches belong to the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements which, historically, have transcended denominational lines.