The community church movement is popular and growing. Community churches or “non-denominational” churches refers to independent local congregations which have no affiliation with the major denominations. Determining exact numbers is difficult. A study released in 2010 by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research reported that there were more than 12 million adherents in the U.S.A. to nondenominational churches.
Some trace the community church to nineteenth century America. “The earliest origins of the community church movement are likely from the nineteenth century and the practical concerns of many small American communities: there was not enough members of individual denominations to each have a congregation, and many times such Protestants would come together to establish a community church of sort” (Community Church Movement, astudyofdenominations.com).
However, a real movement began in the twentieth century. “The community church movement began in the early twentieth century alongside ecumenism and represented an attempt to aspire to the ideal of that movement: Christians, mostly Protestant and Evangelical, coming out of denominations and being unified in a community church concept” (ibid). The International Council of Community Churches (ICCC) was formed in 1950. Not all community churches are a part of this council.
It is impossible to summarize the beliefs and practices among community churches. Some have ties to major denominations but have replaced denominations names, rebranding themselves. Others have no ties to the major denominations. Some are charismatic. Others are not. Some have traditional denominational worship. Others are very non-traditional.
While many of these churches are self-described as being “non-denominational,” the reality may at times be better described as “all-denominational.” There tends to be de-emphasis on doctrine. “Unity” has priority over doctrine. One source says,
In many cases, these community churches were a true amalgamation of beliefs. In a quest for unity, each group would compromise on some doctrinal or practical point that caused contention with the other group. As a result, many community churches had very loosely defined beliefs and allowed wide variations of beliefs among their members.
Another says, “As denominational particularities are ignored or hidden, what’s often left is a ‘lowest common denominator’ spiritually that is often little more than ‘worship’ and ‘discipleship’ devoid of cognitive content.”
There is sometimes a trend to develop the church around what people want. Before Rick Warren launched Saddleback Church in 1980, he conducted a community survey. He writes, “I wrote down in my notebook five questions I would use to start Saddleback: (1) What do you think is the greatest need in this area? (2) Are you actively attending any church? (3) Why do you think most people didn’t attend church? (4) If you were to look for a church to attend, what kind of things would you look for? (5) What could I do for you?” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, chapter 11). While there is nothing wrong with asking questions, let us remember the church belongs to Christ. The first consideration should be on what He wants, not what man wants. Sometimes people want things that are not what they need (Isa. 30:10). Sometimes people want things that are unbiblical (2 Tim. 4:1-5). Sometimes truth offends (John 6:66 – 67; Matt. 15:12-14; Gal. 4:16).
Rick Warren comes from a Baptist background. Saddleback’s beliefs are basically Southern Baptist. He does not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, and he believes in eternal security or “once saved, always saved” doctrine. However, the Southern Baptist Convention has recently ousted Saddleback following the ordination of four female pastors. What do you expect when the model seems to be “what do the people want”?
Some community/non-denominational churches are about reaching or appealing to a certain demographic. Therefore, there are cowboy churches, biker churches, etc. While there is nothing wrong with reaching out to a certain demographic (we should be trying to reach all), the church should not be about culture but the gospel. The early church was composed of both Jews and Gentiles. God did not set up a Jewish church and a separate Gentile church. He set up the church. Jews and Gentiles attended together. I have heard some ask concerning a local church: “Is this an old people’s church or a young people’s church?” “Is this a city church or a country church?” “Is this a black church, a brown church, or a white church?” Such thinking is foreign to the scriptures and God’s plan. It comes from man and not God. What we should seek is to be His church, the church of Christ. It should not be our club, but His church. There should not be needless divisions among us over race, age, or culture. In Accra, Ghana there is a Ghana Police Church. What is next, Farmers’ Church, Shepherds’ Church, Bankers’ Church, Accountants’ Church, Teachers’ Church, Retailers’ Church, Oil workers’ Church, Railroad Workers’ Church, Steel Workers’ Church, Tailors’ Church, Cooks’ Church, Artisans’ Church, Rich people’s Church, Poor people’s Church? How many ways can we needlessly divide? Jesus brought together fishermen, a tax collector and even a zealot. The Gospel should draw us together in one body. There is room for all in the church of Christ.