Making Sense of Christianity’s Branches: Meet a Non-Denominationalist
I bounced from church to church as a kid. That happens when you move a lot. A neighbor invited us to his Lutheran church. A Baptist school had an opening. The Catholic school had a good football team. The Presbyterians needed youth group volunteers. The Vineyard folks had a killer band. Bounce, bounce, bounce.
Over the years, I grew into the responsibility of deciding for myself what kind of church I wanted to be a part of, but that didn’t keep me from bouncing. Small groups and preaching and worship and community service and friendships and proximity to where I lived—all of these tugged on me and, in various places and seasons, steered me toward different denominations.
And maybe all of this made me care a little less about a church’s denominational affiliation and a little more about the church itself: its people and their passions.
On the thirteenth bounce, I landed in a non-denominational church. That’s where I got ordained. That’s where I’m raising my kids. That’s where I currently pastor. I love these people and their passions.
What Is a Non-Denominational Church?
The non-denominational category can feel blindingly broad.
Non-denominational churches come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Every one has its own flavor. Some of the largest churches in the world don’t have denominational ties, but the same goes for micro-churches that gather independently in homes around the globe. Some non-denoms (it’s okay to call us that!) lean in a conservative direction (often called “Bible churches”), but some of us bend a little more toward activism and social justice. Some churches trumpet their independence while others participate in “networks” that can feel like denominations in everything but name.
But basically, a non-denominational church is a church on its own. There’s no Bishop or district or Pope or central office above it. The church adopts and develops its own theological positions and its own missional programs. This comes with some benefits and some challenges.
Below are some of the benefits and challenges that I encounter in my particular non-denominational church: Chatham Community Church, just south of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I serve as the Executive Pastor.
The Benefits of Being Non-Denominational
I love being in a fast-moving, turn-on-a-dime, don’t-have-to-ask-anyone-out-there-for-permission kind of church. We can contextualize our ministry extraordinarily well to our local community. We develop our own ministries in-house: designing our own sermon series, writing our own daily devotional, creating our own small group resources. This leads to an awesome level of alignment. We’re seeing people connect with God and with each other all the time.
And I love the freedom to steal and borrow from other traditions. We can draw from Catholic spirituality, Presbyterian polity, and Pentecostal musical worship. We lifted our small groups rhythm from Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) and invite our network of small groups to study the passage before hearing a message about it on Sunday. And we get to partner with other churches in our area all the time in our efforts to engage our world for good.
We also can give people ministry opportunities that other churches might deny them. I can be a pastor here even though I don’t have an advanced theological degree. We have small group leaders who are new to their faith. We even have places where folks who don’t yet know Jesus can join in with us and serve. If you like InterVarsity, you’d probably like our church.
The Challenges of Being Non-Denominational
But there are times when it can be very difficult to be non-denominational. Our freedom to contextualize our ministry can also make it challenging to decide where our boundaries and limits are, and what we actually believe. Majoring on the majors is only easy when everyone agrees what the majors are. Every year we have a few folks who leave our community disappointed that we won’t or can’t bend in their direction.
We can also struggle to acquire the resources we need. We don’t have a denominational safety net to catch us if we fall or to fuel us when we’re ready to grow. We see sobering reminders in the news of leaders of non-denominational churches being seduced by their own fame and power and abandoning God’s invitation to live a life of love and faithfulness even while leading and serving. We know our vulnerability and that can produce some anxiety.
And there are, frankly, people who think we’re weird. We don’t fit their boxes. We mention race or culture or ethnicity in every sermon. We blend our music and sometimes sing in Spanish. We’re a 450-person, multi-campus church in an area full of small country churches. We focus on small groups. We cancel our worship services twice a year to do community service days. We have a campus in a school and another in the basement of an old textile mill. People just don’t know what to do with us.
Why Are There Non-Denominational Churches?
Although non-denom churches can be difficult to explain and define, I find them easy to justify.
Non-denominational churches exist because God’s people are diverse and his passions include the entire earth. Some of us just don’t fit into a denominational box. And some corners of our world—communities, ethnic groups, neighborhoods—just aren’t being reached by the existing denominational missions structures. Non-denominational churches are an important part of God’s answer to the question: how are you, Lord, going to reach “them,” and what are you going to do with “them” once they’re included in your kingdom?
You may be wondering how I came to this conclusion. Well, I’m kind of a “non-denominational” person, being both White and Hispanic. I don’t fit a lot of the common ethnic and social categories very neatly. My ethnic heritage wove a great big “Both And” into my spiritual DNA.
So it doesn’t surprise me to find something in God’s kingdom like a non-denominational church. God’s always making room for people. That’s his passion. And he’s the one who gives us our particular spiritual passions. Some folks find a home in an AME church or a Methodist congregation. For others, home looks a little different. For some, it’s Chatham Community Church. And I’m grateful for that.
Thanks for joining us at the blog for our series on some of the different streams and traditions that make up the broad body of Christ. If you missed the series intro, you can read it here. InterVarsity is an interdenominational ministry that welcomes students and faculty from all denominations and backgrounds. If you’re curious about what we believe theologically, you can check out our Statement of Faith, which our staff and student leaders sign each year. And feel free to comment below telling us what you love about your church/denomination!
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Jono Gay.
Steve Tamayo serves as the Associate Director of Strategy for LaFe, InterVarsity’s Latino Fellowship, and as a Digital Media Specialist for InterVarsity's Multiethnic Initiatives. He’s married to Amy and together they have four children and lots of adventures. You can find him on Twitter at @yostevetamayo.
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