Denominations used to dominate American Protestantism. Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and other denominations used to make up the majority of churches you would drive past in your neighborhood. Now new names pop up on church signs, names that denote no denominational affiliation. Non-denominational churches have been growing rapidly in recent years, and while I celebrate any faithful proclamation of the gospel and resulting growth in Christ’s kingdom, I still work in a denominational setting, and not by accident, but on purpose.
Some may say that this rise in non-denominational churches is inevitable, that denominations are now “past their prime,” but I firmly believe denominations are needed now more than ever. Denominations are uniquely suited to meet the challenges of our current cultural moment in the United States and the West. They provide the connectedness, resources, and accountability that our world needs. In fact, I am convinced that denominations are essential today.
Before I dive into exploring the rise of non-denominational churches, I must define what I mean by the term “denomination.” A “denomination” is not just a mainline or conservative, named denomination (like the United Methodist Church, Southern Baptist Convention, or Presbyterian Church in America), but a grouping of churches with intentional connection and shared biblical, doctrinal, and theological commitments who are on mission together for the cause of Christ. Denominations do not have to consist of 1,000 or more churches, but they must possess connectedness, shared mission, and shared accountability. These markers distinguish them from non-denominational churches.
Statistically, denominations have withered over the past few decades. This is due in part to the splits in each major Protestant denomination between liberals and conservatives and the decline of the mainstream denominations in the decades that followed. Though some of the people who left the mainline denominations ended up in new theologically conservative denominations like my own, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a huge number of congregants ended up in non-denominational churches. According to the 2020 U.S. Religion Census, if “non-denominational” were a denomination, it would rank as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with Catholic being the only larger Christian group in the United States.
Why have non-denominational churches seen such exponential growth? A pastor might decide to plant a non-denominational church for a number of reasons, and a congregant might be excited to join one for an equal (but different) number. For pastors, a non-denominational church gives a sense of greater freedom and flexibility of expression. Non-denominational pastors do not have to answer to set parameters established by a denomination, parameters that entrepreneurial pastors often seen as hindering their ability to customize ministry initiatives to suit their local context.
For congregants, non-denominational churches can have an appealing freshness and newness about them. Congregants often find dynamic, charismatic leadership in non-denominational churches, precisely because planting a non-denominational church requires exceptional entrepreneurial energy. Starting a new church from the ground up is not easy in any context; doing so without the backing of a denomination or other supporting group is even more difficult. The determination, charisma, and vision non-denominational church planters often possess make them magnetic leaders. Furthermore, abuse scandals have marred the names of many denominations for some congregants, as they associate the failings of one pastor (or several) in a group with the entire denomination. Non-denominational churches do not have this kind of baggage, as each church is seen as its own individual entity that is not responsible for the failings of any other pastor. The resulting preference for independent churches coincides with the increasingly negative attitude Americans have towards institutions, leading many of us to distance ourselves from denominational affiliation.
Finally, the rising number of seminaries untethered from any specific denomination may have contributed to the rapid rise of non-denominational churches. Seminary students, who may or may not have firm denominational convictions, can go to an unaffiliated seminary, graduate, and start a non-denominational church because there was never an expectation that they would plant or join a Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, or other denominational church. Historically, each denomination had its primary seminary for training pastors, but now many pastors, even those who serve in denominational churches, have graduated from seminaries that have no denominational affiliation. As the number of pastors graduating from unaffiliated seminaries increases, we can expect to see a correlating increase in unaffiliated churches.
In short, non-denominational churches seem to work.
Given this rapid rise in non-denominational churches, why have I chosen the opposite path, working for one? Even more, why do I go against the tide and argue that denominations are vital to the health of Christ’s kingdom here in the United States? I am convinced that denominations are crucial, and furthermore, I am convinced that God has called me to serve the branch of his church called the Presbyterian Church of America. I have been serving as the Coordinator of Mission to North America (MNA), a committee of the PCA, since September 2021. MNA is responsible for the outward-facing, missional engagement of PCA churches in the US and Canada. This missional engagement covers everything from church planting to outreach ministries and evangelism to mercy ministries–ministries that help PCA churches do neighbor-love in Jesus’ name. MNA’s aim is to cultivate kingdom advancement through the PCA in North America.
That phrase, “kingdom advancement,” is central for me. I am, by default, kingdom oriented. I want to see churches (both denominational and non-denominational!) come together to work for the cause of Christ and his kingdom. In my previous work, I worked with pastors from a number of denominations, and with a number of non-denominational churches, to seek the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in Washington, DC and beyond. However, in taking my current position, I made the choice to do a job as the primary part of my calling that gives less opportunity to engage churches outside of the PCA. I did this because I believe that doctrinally and theologically, the PCA is well-positioned to meet the missional opportunities that are being presented to us in our current cultural climate. As we lean more heavily into the implications of our already-existing doctrinal and theological commitments, we will be used powerfully by the Lord to serve the advancement of his kingdom.
Those doctrinal and theological distinctives are defined by a through line of commitment to the Word of God and the Reformed faith, though there is a variety of expression under the broad tent of our denomination. Individual PCA churches are closely connected by our shared commitments and shared mission, yet the way that mission is expressed varies. As PCA churches and members faithfully apply our theology through various means in their local context, we will be well-positioned to engage with all the upheaval of our current age. Only the gospel can meet the tide of the polarization, division, and rejection of historic Christian faith sweeping through our culture, and the PCA is well-equipped to faithfully and winsomely proclaim that gospel.
And I believe other denominations can do the same. This is true, in part, because a healthy, growing denomination is able to do far more than any individual church can do. A denomination can have a far greater impact because the connectionalism that binds its individual churches together provides essential resources to equip local churches to minister in their context. For example, in my own context, seven of the committees and agencies of the PCA: MNA, Reformed University Fellowship, Covenant College, Covenant Theological Seminary, Mission to the World, the Committee on Discipleship Ministries, and the Ridge Haven Conference and Retreat Center explicitly equip Christians to love their neighbors in Jesus’ name in their neighborhoods, on their campuses, in their workplaces, and around the world.
So, my denominational committee, MNA, exists to ensure that PCA churches are healthy and that church plants have the resources they need to flourish. We have a vision to see our denomination grow by 50%, from 1,932 churches to 3,000 churches by 2033. This will entail both church planting and working for the health and vitality of existing churches so fewer churches close. This will also require growing in our reflection of the kingdom in the vastness of its diversity (every nation, tribe, people, and language worshiping Jesus [Rev 7:9]), by pursuing church engagement in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The movement we seek to inaugurate is a vitality movement for the life and health of the church. It is a Spirit-empowered, prayer-saturated movement that only Christ can accomplish as he works to advance his kingdom through us.
I have presented my case for why I believe denominations are not “past their prime,” and specifically, why I think they are well-positioned to play a key role in advancing Christ’s kingdom in our current cultural context. Yet the question may still remain: doesn’t being independent also have advantages in advancing Christ’s kingdom that denominations lack? Often the question of efficiency and agility (see above) is raised when comparing independent churches to denominational churches, as independent churches seem to excel at both.
It is true that independent churches can move with greater speed and efficiency than a denomination, just like a motorboat can move with far greater speed and dexterity than an aircraft carrier. However, there is no sinless branch of Christ’s church, and churches must have policies in place to mitigate the sinful choices that will be made. Churches must strive to minimize the opportunity for abuse and injustice. The efficiency and agility of non-denominational churches often is bought at the expense of insufficient pastoral accountability. Who holds pastors to their vows in non-denominational churches? Yes, ultimately, we are all accountable to the Lord, but the Lord often convicts us and holds us accountable through our brothers and sisters-in-Christ. As a minister in the PCA, for example, I am accountable to other ministers in my presbytery and in the entire General Assembly. These levels of accountability should be a source of comfort for congregants, for it assures them that they have recourse if they are concerned by something their pastors or sessions do. Non-denominational church members may not have the same option when things go wrong.
This becomes especially clear in cases of abuse or other injustice in the church. Trials can take a very long time in the PCA and other denominations. Judges must work through thousands of pages of testimony, trying to discern what is right. Waiting for justice can be especially frustrating in our day when we can instantly publish our opinions on social media. The wronged and abused can immediately voice their opinions in the public square and to obtain an audience for their pleas for justice, while at the same time, they must wait for justice to be done. Yet though this process may seem painfully slow at times, this slowness minimizes the chances of making quick judgments and finding out that we have actually acted unjustly in our haste to see justice done. If we are to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (Mic. 6:8), it will require gospel grace and fortitude, a lot of gospel grace and fortitude. We must be patient as we wait and work for justice. The structure of denominations is the necessary framework for justice that independent churches lack. And while denominations sometimes still get it wrong, the odds are far better, the checks and balances far more robust.
Furthermore, denominations provide a venue for people to come together across lines of difference to worship shoulder-to-shoulder with people who have little in common except that Christ gave himself for them. The church should be a place where we marvel at the work of God in bringing people together. Homogeneity in the church is to our detriment. Such homogeneity proclaims a message that says, “This church or denomination is only for this kind of people.” When we send that kind of message, we truncate the gospel and its impact in our communities.
We do not get to choose who is part of our biological family. The same is true of our church family. We need to be shaped by each other and to learn from each other the nuances of what it means to follow the Lord, which we do when we hear each other’s diverse perspectives that enhance our understanding of what it means to be God’s people. Denominations help make this possible, as they often connect people from far more diverse backgrounds than any one local church body can connect.
Not only do denominations in general provide a venue for people from diverse backgrounds to come together, but they are also particularly well-equipped to empower beautiful community to flourish in our local contexts. To turn to my own denomination as an example one more time, the doctrinal and theological framework of the PCA compels us to pursue beautiful community in our churches. Sadly, we have not always lived out the full implications of what we say we believe. However, MNA is zealous in our pursuit of beautiful community in the PCA. We presented this vision in a video entitled, “One Church, One Mission, It Takes All of Us.” This video features a diversity of men and women from various backgrounds reciting a verse about our unity in Christ in various languages. This diversity reflects the PCA right now. Because of our denominational identity, we can see this reflection. Though we must see this in the local context of individual churches, at the same time, it has exponential potential through a denomination. This is in part because we get to resource each other and learn from each other in terms of best practices in engaging the diversity in our neighborhoods. For example, MNA has ministries to help churches reach Haitian Americans, Hispanics, Koreans, Native Americans, Portuguese speakers, refugees, and immigrants. No single non-denominational church can have such a robust supply of resources at their disposal.
The temptation to go non-denominational, and therefore seemingly be more efficient, effective, and agile, is long gone for me. It is not that I don’t have frustrations as part of my own denomination, but I would have frustrations anywhere. There is no perfect, frustration-free branch of Christ’s church. I am convicted by my sense of call to serve the Lord denominationally, in my case in the PCA. I have disavowed the notion of greener grass somewhere else. There is only different grass in other branches of Christ’s church. This is the field the Lord has called me to labor in. If the Lord called me out of the PCA, I believe it would be to another denomination. Without any ill will or sense of harsh judgment against them, but at the same time with considered argument, I personally have no desire to be part of an independent, unconnected church.
This is because I believe independent churches give up too much if what they are after is efficiency. We should be after long-term kingdom effectiveness, and seeing kingdom effectiveness requires us to bear fruit in that long-term, something that sometimes actually requires inefficiency. What we as believers and churches should strive for is faithfulness to Christ and his kingdom, first and foremost, and over decades and centuries.
Simply put, serving Christ’s kingdom through a denominational church is often harder than serving in a non-denominational church. But I believe it is better, because there is opportunity for greater kingdom impact through denominational work. The ability to resource one another for gospel mission in various communities is enhanced when you have a connected church. You do not have to reinvent the wheel when you are connected to people who are committed to teaching you and discipling you as you pastor a congregation. The ability of the church to disciple and discipline its members is enhanced when you have the kind of connectionalism only a denomination can provide. For this reason, denominations are still worth the effort, for through them God is advancing his kingdom in unique ways. Therefore,
I still believe in denominations.