Non-Denominational & Post-Denominational

In the last few years, two trends, distinctive but often conflated, have come to characterize the denominational identity patterns of American Jews. One we may call “non-denominationalism,” in which Jews decline to see themselves as aligned with Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, or Reconstructionism (the major denominational choices available to American Jews). On social surveys, when asked for their denominational identity, they answer, or are classified as, “Just Jewish,” “Secular” or “Something else Jewish.” In contrast, we have a relatively new phenomenon that embraces only a very small number of Jews, many of whom, it seems, are in their twenties and thirties.

This contrasting trend we may call “post-denominationalism.” It refers to committed Jews, congregations and educational institutions that abjure a conventional denominational label for one reason or another. As individuals, they experience ideological and stylistic differences with the available denominational options. As institutions, their leaders seek to appeal to a multi-denominational constituency, be it of congregants, students or donors.

The Unaffiliated

Evidence for the rise of simple “non-denominationalism” comes from the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Surveys, where we find that the number of adult Jews who decline to identify with a major denomination rose from 20 percent to 27 percent over the ten-year period. Both surveys testify to the lack of Jewish engagement of this group, that they are “non-denominational” rather than “post-denominational” (or, as some others might say, “trans-denominational”). Relative to Jews who affirm a denominational identity, non-denominational Jews disproportionately share the following characteristics:

– they were raised by intermarried parents;

– they are married to non-Jews; and

– they are unaffiliated with synagogues (12-15 percent vs. 50 percent of the denominationally identified).

A Report on the 2010 National Profile of U.S. Nondenominational and Independent Churches

For decades the press has reported that the independent and nondenominational church segment of the US religious landscape is growing. Dozens of new networks of these churches have sprung up and a plethora of parachurch resource organizations now exist to service their needs. However, almost no serious academic effort has been made to track or explore this “supposed” growing phenomenon. This project attempts to begin that task – to locate and then survey these churches that do not have an explicit denominational affiliation and include their voices in the national religious profile. The results of this exploration demonstrate just how significant this independent and nondenominational church trend is in contemporary American religion.

If the nation’s independent and nondenominational churches were combined into a single group they would represent the third largest cluster of religious adherents in the country, following the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention; second largest in the number of churches – following the Southern Baptist. Overall, this research found over 35,000 churches representing more than 12,200,000 adherents. In total, four percent of the US population worships in an independent or nondenominational church.

And the phenomenon is on the rise. Our study identifies a larger number of people engaged in nondenominational churches than Barry Kosmin found in the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008 where they estimated 8 million Americans identified as nondenominational Christians. In their studies, this count was up significantly from only 0.1% or 194,000 in 1990. According to the General Social Survey, the percent of Protestants claiming “no denomination or non-denominational” has risen from roughly four percent in the 1970s to fifteen percent in 2006. (The Ties that Bind: Network Overlap among Independent Congregations Christopher D. Bader Christopher P. Scheitle and Buster Smith).

Pew’s Religious Landscape Study also found significant numbers of Americans affiliate with independent and nondenominational churches, although the exact number and percent is not entirely clear given how they divided their labeling. It is absolutely clear, as Kosmin said recently, that “The rise of non-denominational Christianity is probably one of the strongest trends in the last two decades…. It is nearly as sharp an increase as the no-religion response.” Additionally, the Baylor Survey of Religion report claims non-denominational churches are the fastest growing Protestant churches in America and in 2006, as it is now, they are the second largest Protestant group just behind the Southern Baptist Convention.

Nondenominational churches are present in every state and in 2,663 out of the total of 3,033 counties in the country, or 88% of the total. They are the most dominant religious reality in 46 counties around the country. This collection of nonaffiliated churches, seen as a single entity, is among the top five religious groups in 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

• In 9 states, nondenominational churches are the second largest religious group in terms of the number of adherents.
• In 23 states, they are the third largest religious group.
• In 11 states, they are the fourth largest religious group and
• In 5 states, they are the fifth largest group.

These congregations should be seen as a separate and distinctive religious reality. If we begin to think of them as not just individual aberrant outliers or lone isolated congregations but rather as a unique religious phenomenon – as a distinctive religious market segment – then we can begin to address the question of why they have become so popular in the past few decades. As a group, they are a significant reality – one that demands consideration, study and reflection on why they are so prevalent currently.

First, a few words about methodology and definitions. These churches labeled themselves with many names – independent, non or inter-denominational, or unaffiliated but the decisive distinction was that they did not claim a singular connection with a formal denomination. Exactly what a denomination is, however, can be a gray area given the rise of countless loose networks, affiliations and fellowships of churches and the multiple affiliations of even the staunchest denominationally tied church (See the 1999 article What God Makes Free is Free Indeed: Nondenominational Church Identity and its Networks of Support by Scott Thumma).

This idea of what denominational affiliation really means should be explored further but for purposes of this census effort, nondenominational means that they claimed no connection with an organized denomination nor were they counted in the networks of churches such as the Vineyard Fellowship or Calvary Chapel Association which were already claimed in the Religion Census.

We are sure this is the best listing of independent and nondenominational churches in the U.S., but it is also true that this current listing is not entirely accurate. Accounting for all the independent churches in the country is an impossible task. The independent status or exact size of many churches could not be confirmed. Nondenominational and independent congregations are a very fluid grouping of churches. Within the time span of verifying the entire dataset, we found congregations that had closed in during the 18 months of the study.

Our methodology also favored larger and more established congregations. If a church does not have a phone listing, a web presence, or a permanent physical location it was likely to be overlooked. Additionally, some of the nondenominational churches listed may well be affiliated with a denomination but did not indicate it on their website, in their published material or possibly even identify this affiliation once we contacted them.

The National Picture of Nondenominational Churches

The overall national profile of these congregations shows several interesting patterns, and perhaps clues as to why this phenomenon seems to be growing (although let me stress that we do not have the data in this study to confirm conclusively that is a fact).

Mapping of the Churches

As seen from the maps of the individual congregations and the percent of concentration of nondenominational adherents in the US population,

Nondenominational Adherents in the US Population by County

these churches are dispersed in modest proportions almost uniformly throughout the populated areas of the country. Likewise, the plotting of those counties where nondenominational churches are the most dominant religious body also shows these counties are scattered throughout rather than having a single regional concentration although the Southern region accounts for almost half the churches.

Concentration of Adherents by States

Concentration of Nondenominational Adherents by County

A closer look at community size where these 35,000+ churches are located shows that they mostly parallel the distribution of the general population, except they adherents are more likely in metro areas above 250,000 and not as present in less populated counties. This is slightly different than the overall pattern of America’s congregations and concentration of all adherents.

Location of Adherent Populations by Community Type

Size of Area

U.S. Population

Nondenominational Adherents

Total Congregational Adherents

Metro of 5 million or more

24.6%

26%

26.4%

Metro of 1 – 4.9 million

29.5%

32%

27.8%

Metro 250,000 – .9 million

20.9%

22%

20.6%

Metro under 250,000

10.0%

9%

8.7%

Micropolitan 10,000 – 49,999

8.7%

8%

10.0%

Neither Metro or Micropolitan

6.3%

3%

6.5%

The location of nondenominational churches comes close to matching where the national population resides. This is in part due to the fact that as a growing phenomenon, nondenominational churches are newer and are more likely to be built when the U.S. population lives.

Location of Congregations by Community Type

Size of Area

U.S. Population Nondenominational Total Congregations
Metropolitan Counties

85%

78%

67%

Micropolitan Counties

8.7%

14%

17%

Neither Metro or Micro Counties

6.3%

8%

16%

In terms of the size of nondenominational congregations, the distribution resembles the national adherent profile quite well.

Adherent Size Distribution

Adherent Size

Nondenominational Adherents

Total Congregational Adherents*

1 – 49

11%

coming %

50 – 99

18%

%

100 – 149

38%

%

150 – 349

21%

%

350 – 499

4%

%

500 – 999

4%

%

1000 – 1999

2%

%

2000 or more

2%

%

*Based on the 2010 Faith Communities Today study of 12,000 congregations.

Megachurches often get associated with the nondenominational movement but in fact only about 35% of the Protestant churches over 2000 attenders are nondenominational. Nevertheless, roughly half of the nation’s largest and fastest growing Protestant churches, as determined by the most recent Outreach Magazine listing were nondenominational.

If you are interested in the specific characteristics of nondenominational churches, read the summary report of the Faith Communities Today Nondenominational Church Study. From the list of all nondenominational churches, we drew a sample of 4000 churches (roughly 11% of the total) to survey in-depth with a key informant questionnaire. Later, the overall national list was used to weight the survey sample by region and size. The survey response rate was 10.9 percent or a total of 437 churches. Even weighted, this subset survey should not be seen as truly representative of the entire nondenominational/independent phenomenon, nevertheless it, like the overall database, is the best picture of these churches that exists.

EndNotes:
The primary researcher’s interest in independent/nondenominational churches began many decades ago. Growing up in an independent Baptist church, attending several nondenominational churches, and then studying nondenominational megachurches, he has long been intrigued by them and their national patterns. His formal research on independent/nondenominational churches in 1997/98 with Hartford Institute’s Organizing Religious Work project, and then followed with a small study of independent churches for the 2000 Faith Communities Today effort. These studies offered a first glimpse into the phenomenon. In 2008, he was asked by RCMS leadership to propose a way to collect a listing of these elusive US churches. This effort coincided with the 2010 Faith Communities Today study and my two efforts dovetailed nicely.

Over the past several years, the primary researcher has been collecting nondenominational church lists found on the Internet. To this list were added eight additional listings of nondenominational congregations, house churches, megachurches, and independent networks of churches that were collected on the web and privately during 2009/10. Additionally, three purchased mailing lists of independent and nondenominational Christian congregations were added to the database. After all these lists were merged together, the database was then screened for duplicates, incorrect entries, and non-church listings.

Following this effort, a team of four temporary staff persons spent over 1000 hours culling the web to attempt to verify the status of these congregations. Every church in the database was looked up on Google and in the online Yellow Pages to confirm if it existed and if it was independent/ nondenominational. Every church was also emailed and/or called in order to confirm further their independent/nondenominational status, their membership and their attendance. Additionally, one of the staff members spoke Spanish and established contact with the obviously Hispanic/Latino churches in the listing. Approximately 30% responded to the request and verified their information. While engaged in this research, the staff deleted nearly a third of the original listing but also found additional church lists from the websites of newspapers, towns and counties that added new independent and nondenominational churches. They then attempted to confirm the information on these churches using the above method.

The research team would like to thank 2010 U.S. Religion Census: Religious Congregations and Membership Study, the Steering Committee members of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) and Lilly Endowment for their funding and support of this project. We would also like to thank in particular Dale Jones, Rich Houseal and Clifford Grammich for their guidance, assistance and map-making skills.

8 Reasons People Are Leaving Denominational Churches for Non-denominational Churches

While working on an unrelated research project, I recently came across some data published by the Hartford Institute of Religion Research. Though the information was five years old, it still seemed highly relevant today. In essence, the data showed that non-denominational churches are now the second largest Protestant group in America. Only the Southern Baptist Convention is larger.

Here are some of the fascinating nuggets from that study:

  • There are more than 12 million people who affiliate with non-denominational churches.
  • The research found at least 35,000 non-denominational churches in America.
  • Non-denominational churches are in 88% of the counties in the United States.
  • Non-denominational churches are one of the top five largest religious groups in 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In light of the growth of these churches, I conducted an informal Twitter poll and asked why people are moving to non-denominational congregations from churches affiliated with denominations. Here are the top eight responses in order. There is obvious overlap in some of the responses.

1. Denominational churches have a negative reputation. Some respondents used the phrase “negative brand” to communicate this reason.
2. Denominations are known more for what they are against than what they are for.
3. There is too much infighting and politics in denominations.
4. The denominational churches are too liberal. From what I can tell from these respondents, they are current and former members of mainline churches.
5. There is a general waning of institutional loyalty in institutions such as denominations.
6. Denominations have inefficient systems and organizations. They are too bureaucratic.
7. Some of the respondents could see no perceived benefit to belonging to denominations.
8. Denominations are not good stewards of their financial resources.

I plan on doing a second poll in the near future to see how respondents view denominations positively. In the meantime, let me hear from you.

What does a “non-denominational” Protestant believe?

I have heard “non-denominational” Protestant churches identify themselves as such because they believe they are above the squabbling and blindness that characterizes denominational Christianity.

I have heard Christians identify themselves as “non-denominational” because they aren’t really loyal to any particular denomination at the moment.

I have also heard from non- non-denominationals that “non-denominational” is in essence a denomination of itself, because churches of this identification are actually related in their origin, theology, etc. Is that true? Are there any distinct characteristics of non-denominational Protestant churches besides the name?

Answers

A Christian denomination is simply a group of churches which have agreed to work together (in over-simplified terms). Some denominations have very rigid structures, others not so much. They tend to share some degree of theological beliefs, but even within a denomination there may be a wide variance.

A non-denominational church, by contrast, simply does not belong to such a group.

It’s quite analogous to retail chains. Some retail chains maintain very strict control over their various retail outlets, ensuring that branding is the same everywhere, that customer service is the same everywhere, etc. Cracker Barrel comes to mind.

Some chains maintain a very loose control, allowing franchisees to set cleanliness standards, customer service standards, etc. Phillips 66 comes to mind.

Then you have one-off, mom-and-pop stores, which have no corporate or franchise oversight at all, and they do whatever they wish. They may have the same standards of service and products as some chain stores, but not by mandate.

So asking what a non-denominational protestant believes, is a lot like asking what a non-chain store is like: It’s all over the map.

Pretty much the only thing that non-denominational protestants all believe, is that they are not Catholics.


As a non-denominational Protestant myself, I will admit that our independent-mindedness makes it more or less impossible to predict what a particular individual will believe. However, if you would like to know what the hypothetical “average” non-denominational Protestant believes, then that is totally possible.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has done some research, but mostly concerning the demographics and practice of non-denominational congregations, and not as much about beliefs per se. From their 2010 survey of 437 congregations across the country:

Which label comes closest to describing the theological outlook of the majority of your regularly participating adults?

45% Evangelical
20% Fundamentalist
14% Pentacostal
11% Charismatic
3% Missional
2% Moderate
0.7% Seeker
0.3% Liberal
0.3% New Age
3% Other
Barna is of course a great resource for these types of statistics. Among non-denominational Protestants:

75% self-identify as “Born Again” 3
60% believe “good works cannot earn a person salvation, but that salvation is a gift of God through the atoning death of Jesus Christ” 3
67% are “absolutely committed” to Christianity 3
70% believe “The Bible is totally accurate” 3
59% believe Christians “must tell faith to others” 3
48% believe “Satan is real” 3
79% say faith has transformed their lives 4
60% of pastors do not hold a seminary degree 5
30% of pastors endorse Calvinism 5
TL;DR – A non-denominational Protestant is probably an Evangelical Protestant, and is somewhat more likely (compared to the average American Christian) to hold “traditional” Protestant beliefs about the Bible and Christianity.

What Does It Mean to Be Non-Denominational?

To be non-denominational or undenominational, means to follow after Christ and His words. “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Colossians 3:17). Thus, if one strives to be nondenominational, one would seek the approval of Christ. This makes sense, in light of the fact, that it is Christ who saves. In John 6:68 we read, “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” In this verse, Peter asks a question and then answers it, by saying that Christ has the words of eternal life. Hence, if Jesus has the words that save, does it not seem reasonable to turn to His words–the New Testament? Those words we commonly know, from Matthew to Revelation.

To be non-denominational in worship means to practice what Christ has spoken in the New Testament. In John 4:24, Jesus teaches us that “God is a Spirit; and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” Thus, in the assembly of a non-denominational meeting, one would find:

Teaching: Acts 20:7 and Acts 2:42
Prayer: Acts 2:42; 1 Thessalonians 5:17 and Ephesians 5:20
Singing: Ephesians 5:19 and Hebrews 2:12
Lord’s Supper: Acts 20:7 and Matthew 26:26-30
Giving: 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 and Acts 11:29

These teachings, and these teachings alone, make a worship service nondenominational. Additions to the worship service of God would make the assembly denominational in nature. Why? Because the people would be following after their interests or beliefs, instead of the words of Christ.

To be non-denominational would involve the people being one, as Jesus prayed, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20-21)

As Paul pleaded with the church at Corinth, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). The concept of denominationalism, in the very definition of the word, is contrary to what our Lord prayed for and to what Paul pleaded. To be non-denominational would mean to be one with Jesus and not divided. May we always strive to be right with God and pleasing in His sight.

Nondenominational Christianity

When people ask me what I am religiously, I usually reply, “I’m just a Christian, not a part of any denomination.” I believe the religion of the New Testament can correctly be called “nondenominational Christianity.” What is “nondenominational Christianity”?

“Christianity” is not a term used in the Bible. It means “the religion of Christians.” (Webster. 400) Christians are disciples of Christ (Acts 11:25-26), followers and learners of Jesus Christ. Christians are “in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 1:3-12; 2 Timothy 2:10) To get into Christ, one must be “buried with Him through baptism into death” (Romans 6:3-4) “from the heart” (Romans 6:17-18), i.e., with sincerity and understanding (Ephesians 6:5-8; Matthew 13:15-16). Baptism is unto the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). Thus, those and only those people who have with sincerity and understanding been immersed unto the remission of sins are Christians. Therefore, “nondenominational Christianity,” is limited to those who have been scripturally baptized.

Nor is the word “denomination” found in the Bible. However, the New Testament mentions denominations a number of times under a different name. The Jews in the days of the Lord and His apostles were divided into “sects.” (Acts 5:17; 15:5). A “sect” is “a division or group based upon different doctrinal opinions and/or loyalties.” (Louw & Nida. 11.50) The sects of the Jews believed and taught doctrines at variance with each other and wore party names as an indication of sectarian loyalty (Acts 23:6-8). The Jews even considered Christians to be a sect of Judaism (Acts 24:5; 28:22) and derisively called them “Nazarenes.” (Acts 24:5) Paul implied Christians were not a sect (Acts 24:14).

The same Greek word rendered “sect” is also translated “factions” (1 Corinthians 11:19) and “heresies.” (Galatians 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1) The word primarily means

a choosing, choice…; then, that which is chosen, and hence, an opinion, especially a self-willed opinion, which is substituted for submission to the power of truth, and leads to division and the formation of sects…. (Vine. 2:217).

Everyone has opinions, things he thinks are true but cannot prove by the Bible. If he treats his opinions as if they were divine revelation, by teaching them as divine truth and/or insisting that others follow them, he becomes an heretic (Titus 3:10-11, King James Version) or “divisive man” (New King James Version), and must be rejected (Ibid). Heresies (sectarianism) is a work of the flesh that will keep one from inheriting the kingdom of heaven (Galatians 5:19-21).

The brethren at Corinth were dividing into factions (1 Corinthians 1:11). This was a reflection of carnality (1 Corinthians 3:1-3), which will cause one to be lost (Romans 8:5-8). They had sectarian loyalties demonstrated by their sectarian names (1 Corinthians 1:12). The apostle rebuked their sectarianism (1 Corinthians 1:13). He urged them:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

This verse contains the keys to being nondenominational. We must speak the same thing, have no divisions, and have the same mind and judgment. Doctrine does matter. Those who go beyond the doctrine of Christ lose fellowship with God and His people (2 John 9-11). The “doctrine of Christ” is not limited to the truth about the nature of Christ Jesus (verse 7). It includes all divine truth (verse 4). To be nondenominational, our faith, teaching and practice must be limited to those things clearly authorized by the Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:17).

If we believe, practice and teach things unauthorized by the New Testament, we are sectarian (denominational). If we make our opinions, whether formalized as creeds or catechisms or unwritten, the standard by which we determine fellowship, we are sectarian.

Furthermore, we must not be guilty of sectarian loyalty as reflected by party names (1 Corinthians 1:12). As individuals, we may be called “believers” (Acts 5:14), “disciples” (Acts 9:1), “saints” (Acts 9:13), “Christians” (Acts 11:25-26) or “members” (1 Corinthians 11:27). As a group, whether local or universal, we may be called “the church” (Acts 8:3), “the Way” (Acts 9:1-2), the church of Christ (Romans 16:16), “the church of God” (1 Corinthians 1:2), “the church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:14-15), or “the general assembly and church of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12:23-24, plural, indicating membership). All these names are used to include all scripturally baptized believers in their relationship to Christ and God.

If we have loyalty to a religious party, a group larger than a local church and smaller than the universal body of the saved, we are denominational. This party loyalty is reflected by party names. Sectarian names include the various denominational names (Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc.) but also names of less formal parties (Conservative, Liberal, etc.). We can also show sectarianism by insisting on only one divinely authorized name for God’s people, whether as individuals or as a group, to the exclusion of others. Those who claimed, “I am of Christ,” were also a party (1 Corinthians 1:12).

We must truly be practicing nondenominational Christianity. Anything else is sectarian and sinful.