Christianity Today reports on new findings from the U.S. Religion Census:
In 2010, the US Religious Census identified 35,496 independent congregations without any formal denominational affiliation. The lead researcher, Scott Thumma, told CT there were almost certainly more than that, but it was the most precise count anyone had done to that point.
Using the same method in 2020, the US Religious Census team found 44,319 nondenominational congregations, with an estimated 21 million adherents. That makes nondenominational Christians the first or second largest group of Protestants in America, depending on how one counts. The Southern Baptists have about 7,000 more churches, but 3.4 million fewer people.
The next largest Protestant group, the United Methodists, can only claim about half the number of people as Southern Baptists, and the denomination has lost a number of congregations in an ongoing church split since the Religion Census tallied at total of 30,051 in 2020.
When I’ve seen headlines chronicling the decline of traditional and mainline Protestant denominations, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that some who have left Southern Baptist life, or Methodist life, or any one of the various other established Protestant bodies, have found spiritual community among autonomous, independent, non-affiliated, “nondenominational” local churches.
Additionally, because I have seen nondenominational church leaders and pastors who have displayed a deep passion for evangelism, a commitment to discipleship, the desire to serve, and openness toward and encouragement of the arts, creativity, and innovation, this data point doesn’t surprise me. Eventually, I thought researchers would find a way to capture what I suspected was happening on the ground. The rise of the “nones,” which the CT report also notes, has been a much discussed data point, but not the rise of the “nons,” which has been, up until now, hidden from view.
Some might think this development a good one and a sign that Christianity in America might be able to rebound from its decline, or at least that it is not dead yet. I think we’ll have to wait and see what it means. I rejoice when there are signs of vibrancy, growth, and transformation in the lives of those who take part in any Christian community. Autonomy, independence, and freedom from a denominational body brings with it certain advantages, including adaptability and flexibility within a rapidly shifting cultural environment. But there are also reasons to be wary, including the lack of accountability to a larger network of like-minded ministry partners, a less developed institutional memory regarding the doctrines and practices of a tradition, a susceptibility to celebrity, and clear divides that are broadly made and known between what is sound teaching and heretical leanings (at least among traditions with well-defined doctrinal commitments, rather than in those supporting “big tent” or doctrinally pluralistic approaches to connection).
Who knows what the future may hold? It may be that nondenominational churches create new kinds of connection, not necessarily formalized or solidified by way of organizational bloat and bureaucracy. Maybe new confessional movements will emerge. Maybe partnerships will be more informal and occasional rather than formal and ongoing. Maybe local commitments will take precedence over a global “brand” or “identity.”
Maybe this is a blip.
As institutional structures, I still think there is a place for the historic Protestant denominational churches. But God will need to renew them if they are to have a vibrant future. God can, and I hope God will. Maybe nondenominational congregations will give witness to what is possible, with God’s help. Otherwise, as John Wesley said in “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” the historic Protestant denominational churches in America will only display “the form of religion without the power.” The charitable among us will pray for God to renew us all, and maybe the not-so-charitable should, too.