By Ben Cachiaras
When asked about the key to his success, Dick Clark, of American Bandstand fame, replied, “I don’t set trends. I just find out what they are and exploit them.” Worrying about trends can get you into trouble. So can ignoring them. At the least, it seems wise for church leaders to strive to be like the men of Issachar “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). In this spirit, I was asked to consider how we might understand and respond to the rising trends noted in “A ‘Postdenominational’ Era: Inside the Rise of the Unaffiliated Church,” a November 2022 article by Tracy Simmons posted at religionunplugged.com.
The trend is undeniable: Churchgoers are leaving denominational churches, and denominational churches are leaving denominations. One result is that in a time when there is understandable concern about the state of Christianity and church attendance in the United States, nondenominational churches are booming.
Between 2010 and 2020, nondenominational churches expanded by 2 million attendees and 9,000 congregations, according to the 2020 U.S. Religion Census (www.usreligioncensus.com). Nondenominational churches now constitute the third-largest religious group in the country after Catholics and the Southern Baptist Convention.
I recently consulted with an Evangelical Covenant Church that for years has operated on its own and is now considering officially cutting ties with their denomination. They are wary of the denomination’s direction and do not think the benefits of affiliation outweigh the pursuit of independence. Hundreds of Southern Baptist churches have changed their names, distanced themselves from the SBC, and pursued unaffiliated status.
A 2015 FACT survey reported a whopping 8,000 churches choosing to unaffiliate and become nondenominational, and another 2,000 considering the switch over a 10-year period. In her article, Simmons reported that longtime religion researcher Scott Thumma contends many denominationally affiliated churches functionally operate as nondenominational. Churches are making decisions about doctrinal positions, preaching and teaching content, worship music, and mission focus at the local level rather than looking to denominational headquarters. As the ground erodes for denominations, Thumma concluded we are officially in the postdenominational era.
Mainline congregations account for much of the migration. Between 2000 and 2016, several denominations saw serious declines, including The United Methodist Church (down 16.6 percent), American Baptists (19.31 percent), Evangelical Church in America (30.47 percent), and United Church of Christ (36 percent). An even worse exodus was experienced by the Presbyterian Church USA, which lost over a million members (a 41.28 percent decline) in that same period. Our Restoration Movement cousins, The Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), saw their membership cut in half (a whopping 49.88 percent drop).
This was all prepandemic. I’m confident the hemorrhage will continue toward its obvious end.
This trend should be no surprise to people whose movement began with founders fleeing the doctrines and constraints of their denominations. Both Thomas and Alexander Campbell discontinued their affiliation as Presbyterians in favor of an expression of faith unencumbered by denominational bonds. As millions follow this same trend today, we are reaping the benefits.
In his column from the January/February 2022 issue of Christian Standard, publisher Jerry Harris reported his research on our own movement of Independent Christian Churches. In roughly the same period as the above declines in mainline denominations, our churches that average 1,000 or more in weekly attendance more than doubled in size. Other churches in our fellowship also grew. In a recent talk on this subject, Tim Liston, lead pastor at New Hope Christian Church in Houston, Texas, said it’s nothing short of amazing what God is doing in our churches.
“I think it’s fair to say that in this 20-year period,” said Liston, “while many other churches and denominations have been in decline, a large segment of Independent Christian Churches were increasing and experiencing nothing short of a renaissance in growth and evangelism.”
What are we to make of these trends? As a movement historically devoted to a three-legged stool of evangelism, biblical truth, and unity, what response might we have to the swell of people leaving denominational churches and churches leaving denominations? I believe we have cause for caution, a reason to celebrate, and an opportunity to capitalize.
CAUSES FOR CAUTION AND CONCERN
I see at least three causes for caution or even concern.
First, some of the “growth” in nondenominational churches is the result of sheep swapping. In his book Triumph of Faith, Rodney Stark noted, “As some churches become secularized and decline, they are replaced by churches that continue to offer a vigorous religious message. In effect, the old Protestant Mainline denominations drove millions of their members into the more conservative [fellowships].”
Disagreement with more progressive political and religious views is behind much of the exodus of people who are filling nondenominational churches. The pandemic era saw a massive reshuffling of Christians, as people shifted into churches better suited to their preferences on masks, vaccines, racial issues, and other hot topics. A concern is that if (and when) things resettle, there will be greater homogeneity of like-minded folk clustered together in our congregations, . . . and that would be a terrible development.
We are a unity movement, not a uniformity movement. If the ties that bind us are merely strands of political agreement, racial sameness, ideological alignment, and sociological conformity, the nature of our fellowship will be impoverished and we will lose much of the breadth and beauty Christ intends for his body.
Second, absorbing parishioners who are leaving denominational churches is not the same as kingdom growth. We are a movement committed to evangelism, but sheep swapping—even if it enlarges attendance—isn’t kingdom growth. In fact, growth of this kind can distract from the real mission of seeking and saving the lost. While we are busy welcoming disaffected denominational Christians, we can easily become blinded to the more important and urgent slide of massive numbers of people away from any church at all. No matter how well we may be doing, the American church overall, at least numerically, is losing ground.
A 2020 Gallup poll found the number of Americans affiliated with a church is under 50 percent. Barna has reported that 30 percent fewer people in Gen Z (born 1999–2015) attend church than baby boomers (born 1946–1964).
What does it profit us to gain the whole world of exiting denominational Christians and lose the souls of the next generation? Swapping fish from one tank to another is not the same as being fishers of men and women. It’s wonderful to welcome unaffiliated people and churches, but the command of Jesus is to make disciples, not merely transfer them.
A third caution is that a glaring common denominator in declining churches is a shifting doctrinal stance on foundational issues. It seems obvious the mainline churches’ dedication to their ideology has contributed to the exodus and weakened their witness.
It is generally unhelpful to apply labels, but the facts are in: Over a lengthy span, churches that are growing and impacting their communities are doing so not just because they are nondenominational. They are doing so because they are holding to timeless truth by conserving scriptural authority. They are providing hope and answers to real-life problems. They are inviting people into Spirit-filled community and providing avenues of meaningful service, all grounded unashamedly in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
We are a people of scriptural authority. The strongest churches will continue to adapt creative methods and models of ministry without waffling on the faith once delivered. Watching massive numbers of people flee churches with loosened theological moorings should inspire us to continue to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of break and to prayer. (See Acts 2:42.)
REASONS TO CELEBRATE
But we have much to celebrate! As a result of the disaffiliation of congregations from their denominations and people leaving their denominational churches, we are experiencing “an invisible renaissance in our movement.” As Jerry Harris stated in his column from January/February 2022, “I don’t think there has been a time in our movement when we have experienced anything quite like this; the only era that might be comparable was the start of the Restoration Movement during the Second Great Awakening (the early 1800s).” Many people are hungry for a spiritual home that looks exactly like the churches we are trying to be!
A TIME TO CAPITALIZE
In short, this means it is time to capitalize on the trends. We are precisely the kind of nondenominational church many people are seeking. To capture them for Christ means we must ruthlessly focus on mission, not maintenance.
When I teach on the Restoration Movement, I first assign some reading, and then I ask students to describe the vision in 15 words or less. Students usually say something like, “Basic Christians clinging to Jesus, Scripture, and one another to reach the lost.” Not bad. And that is precisely what people exiting denominations are craving. That is the very expression of Jesus-shaped community that has capacity to connect with disillusioned, deconstructed, disaffiliated Americans. A cultural ripeness and spiritual receptivity exists right now for the simple expression of New Testament Christianity our churches are built for.
As more churches seek to unaffiliate from their denominations, we must be ready to welcome them into the fold of our fellowship, as several have done in recent years. Some churches who pull out of their denomination will mistakenly believe the best alternative is to go it alone, pursuing radical independence with no ties to anyone. But every church is part of “The Church” and needs to be aligned, accountable, and partnered with others in tangible ways. What they need is a tribe. That’s a trend we should capitalize on by entering conversations with churches that will otherwise become lone silos.
I find it deeply ironic when I hear Christian Church insiders who seem down on the Restoration Movement. They have a negative impression or have grown tired of our weaknesses; for whatever reason, they are embarrassed and feel they have “outgrown” us.
And then I speak with pastors of unaffiliated churches whose congregations are truly untethered to a denomination or any group at all. They are almost always lonely, isolated, and frustrated. They are starved for fellowship, fresh ideas, and support. They can find training and seminars, but they struggle with sustaining relationships with Christians who can walk through life with them. They can attend conferences, but they lack colleagues.
When they see the rich fellowship of pastor groups of which I am a part, and witness the wealth of camaraderie in the relational web of our tribe . . . when they see the growth of our churches, the effectiveness of our global missions (like Missions of Hope International in Kenya), made possible by many independent Christian churches voluntarily partnering for greater impact . . . when they see the effectiveness of our church planting, the health of our young people in vibrant CIY gatherings and colleges, I am increasingly asked the same question: “How do I get in?” We need to be ready with an answer . . . and open arms.
The irony reminds me of when Yogi Berra was asked about a popular restaurant. He replied, “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.” At the very moment some in our tribe seem to want out, God is bringing many more to the door. They are seeking the very thing our movement offers when we are at our best. Let’s invite them in, as an unexpected but welcome strategy for pursuing the unity and oneness Jesus prayed for.
God is stirring a hunger in unchurched and unaffiliated people. What they need is a tribe. What they need is what we have been at our best: a nondenominational fellowship, a movement of churches bound by relational equity and doctrinal harmony. A tribe providing the benefit of connection with other churches without the bondage of denominational shackles.
We will capitalize on the trend by living the principles of our movement, which offers congregational autonomy on the one hand but missional synergy with others on the other. This means a congregation is free to make its own decisions about how to engage in mission . . . but isn’t left to do it alone. We choose connection, knowing we are truly better together.
We must continue to reward individual creativity and entrepreneurial energy as pastors and churches try new things without being squelched by denominational constraints. At the same time, we must continue sharing innovative “best ministry practices” through opportunities such as Spire Network, ICOM, Exponential Conference, and many other national and local gatherings.
Restoration Movement founder Barton Stone baptized Samuel Rodgers, who rode on horseback to an area near Baltimore and gathered a group of Christians from the region. He urged them to unite as one. The thinking was, “You don’t need all these denominations. Come together as one church.” And they did. The result was the beginning of Mountain Christian Church in 1824. What God orchestrated 199 years ago, he now seems to be orchestrating in our own time. As Tim Liston recently shared in a presentation to a group of pastors, “What a great time to be part of the Christian Church!”
Ben Cachiaras serves as lead pastor of Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.