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Community Churches Part 2: Comparing Community and Denominational Churches

 

In the first part of this article I noted the rise of “community churches” in recent decades, and then some of the problems associated with the traditional denominational structure which are encouraging people to leave them in favor of community churches.


Obviously, not all denominations are the same. We can agree with many of the stated and historical positions of these groups without accepting others. Even within a single denomination there are local churches that are much preferable to others, probably depending most on who the pastor is, and how Biblically accurate, spiritually mature, and capable of leadership he is. In fact, even in “denominations” with which we have profound objections, like Roman Catholicism, we do not go so far as to say that every single member is not a Christian, but it is my belief that if such members are truly saved and genuine believers, it is in spite of the teachings of those churches, not because of them.


Now what is meant by the term “community church”?  Almost by definition they are non-denominational and independent, and so it is not surprising that they vary widely in government, doctrine, activities, worship, etc. People probably go to a community church because it really is oriented to that community, more than because of its doctrinal stance or historical background.


Denominational and independent churches have many of the same activities, with weekly services consisting mainly of times for worship, prayer, and preaching and/or teaching. Other regular activities may include youth groups, community service, prayer groups, Sunday School, “support groups”, testimony times, etc. The major differences between denominational and community churches are not merely in these activities, but are matters of history and doctrine, the presence or lack of control from “above” the local church, and the degree of formality in services, especially in worship.


While denominational churches tend to be more formal and traditional in their services, some of them have modernized their services in an attempt to maintain their declining membership. They may even have two Sunday services – traditional for the “old fogies”, and contemporary, for the younger sort who identify with that kind of music.


The following descriptions are my own observations and generalizations, but individual churches vary widely in administration and practice, so not all these descriptions will be true of every community church, or every denominational one.


A Comparison of Denominational vs. Independent Churches

1.       Origination

Since most denominations have existed for a long time (centuries), the opening of a new local church is the result either of missionary outreach, or a gathering together of members of a community, who already identify with that denomination. Community churches however, are often started and subsequently led by one or a few individuals who desire to see a church in their locale that is Christian, but unaffiliated with any denomination. They draw members either from new conversions or by attracting people from other churches.


Some community churches have grown to a dozen or more locations across multiple states, becoming almost mini-denominations, united in leadership and even legal incorporation. These may have a single “super-pastor” (although they would never use that term), and lesser “campus pastors” over each satellite congregation.


2.       Government – While some denominational country churches see themselves as community churches, and may even be trying to escape from their denomination’s control, most community churches are independent. That is, they are unaffiliated with, and not controlled by, any formally organized denomination. They therefore have no hierarchy of bishops above the local ministers or pastors, as is found in the Roman Catholic, United Methodist, and Episcopalian denominations. Concerning local church government, they can have any of the traditional forms – episcopal (leadership by one or a few elder/pastors), presbyterian (leadership by a group of elders), or congregational (decisions made by majority vote of church members).


Note: When I refer to pastor, I include any of the other terms commonly used to refer to a local church leader - pastor, minister, parson, “reverend”, etc. Although Biblically the terms pastor, elder, and bishop are used interchangeably, in many churches an elder is one of a small group of people who either assist the pastor in, or even control the local church’s operations and decisions. In the Bible, “elder” can also be applied to other of the “five-fold ministries” in Eph. 4:11-12 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers).


Along with the traditional (Biblical) offices of pastors, elders, and deacons, it is not unusual to have added various others, as youth pastor, music pastor, etc. Larger churches frequently have multiple pastors, usually with one being designated the “senior pastor”. Usually there is no controlling leader above the local church (like a “bishop” , “archbishop”, etc. in the traditionally hierarchical denominations). They may however group together with like-minded pastors in their area for support and prayer, and to share their successes or problems. If a new church starts as an outbranch of an existing church, there is presumably some oversight of the new pastor by the originating church.

 

3.       Consistency of doctrine

Most denominations can be identified with some doctrinal issue. When you go to a denominational church, you would expect to know generally where they stand on issues such as fundamentalism vs. liberal modernism, justification by faith, water baptism, holiness, social issues, whether they or for or against a “Pentecostal experience”, whether they are Calvinistic or Arminian, etc. The advantage of this is that you can attend with some confidence that you will fit in. The disadvantage is that you may never be challenged to question the validity of your beliefs.


But in actuality, many local churches place so little emphasis on doctrine that the members wouldn’t even know what distinguishes their church from others. For example, if you ask a Methodist why he is a Methodist as opposed to a Presbyterian (or vice versa), you would probably get a blank stare. In truth it is probably because that is where his family went, or because it is the most convenient location, or where his friends go. In a community church you would probably get the same response, or a statement that they like the worship service better.


With the degeneration of many of the seminaries from their traditional and theologically conservative roots, I would suspect that the reason denominational members are so often ignorant of the doctrinal distinctions of their denomination is that their pastors themselves either do not know, do not value, or perhaps even disagree with those distinctions. In fact, the message from the pulpit may in time come to undermine, rather than to reinforce those doctrinal truths.


What about the independent community church then? Unfortunately, there may be little doctrinal difference from the denominations, because doctrine is so seldom valued and actively taught. Denominations have historical doctrinal positions that are often (not always) ignored, but community churches seem to have no doctrinal positions at all, except to “get saved”, get baptized, come to church, and bring your money.


Community churches may not even want to put out a doctrinal statement of any kind, because

>         It would be divisive. Since people come from so many different denominational backgrounds, an effort is made to avoid anything that would cause contention and scare them away.

>         The local leadership itself may not really be all that knowledgeable, or even concerned about doctrinal truth, preferring to give “feel-good” messages that will result in congregational enthusiasm, growth in numbers and contributions, and hopefully bigger buildings. Church success is often seen in numerical terms – the number of “decisions for Christ”, the number of water baptisms, the number of attendees, and the total offerings. While the need for individual growth and true spiritual strength is perhaps acknowledged, it seems to come in second to measurable numbers.

>         If the local church is governed by elders or by congregational voting, they may never be able to come to any agreement on a doctrinal statement. This could be because of their own ignorance of doctrine, or their own erroneous ideas. A church’s doctrinal position should never be determined by people who do not understand or value doctrinal truth.

>         Some people have a visceral dislike for doctrine, because it would require deep study and thought, and would imply that there is a right and a wrong way to interpret scripture. They say “Well, I guess we’ll just never know. Can’t we just get along, and avoid controversy?”.


4.       Formal training of church leaders

The denominational advantage is that they have the numbers, finances, and organization to have seminaries to prepare young people for ministry as pastors, teachers, scholars, etc. Their graduates have ready access to church assignments within the denomination, and local churches can look to the denomination for its leadership needs. This advantage is often questionable, because the seminaries often do not really teach what they say they believe, and thus turn out graduates who are either ignorant of doctrinal truth, or worse, function as subversives to subtly turn their congregations away from the truth. Another problem is that, like psychology majors, some people attend seminary in the hope that it will answer their own religious questions and issues, but instead come out more confused than when they went in. In fact, many of them are not regenerated believers themselves, and so enter the pulpit with nothing to offer but hypocrisy, ignorance, and unbelief (and psychology).


Community churches can look to graduates of some of the non-denominational seminaries for their own leadership, or for sending their young potential ministers for training. The problem is in selecting one that is Biblically reliable and that really teaches what they say they do. In looking at a list of non-denominational seminaries, there are some that I would never recommend to a Christian young man. In selection of a local pastor, particular attention must be paid to their real knowledge, experience, calling, and motivations, not just to their degree and “ordination”.


A denominational church may not have much of a choice in their pastor, since they may be assigned by “headquarters” and rotated to move ineffective or “problem” pastors along, and to promote the “good” ones to the big cities with more consequential congregations. In my experience growing up as a Methodist it seems that the best, most spiritual, and inspiring messages I heard were from very little country churches where the genuine pastors could be shunted off and not “cause trouble”. The big city churches were for the movers and shakers who may not even be Christians, but are good organizers and leaders, and align with the societal norms. Note that this is only my opinion, based on somewhat limited experience.


5.       Worship

I believe that one of the strongest draws for community churches is in the area of worship. Many denominational services seem dead and lifeless (probably because they are). People are naturally drawn to music that is more lively and upbeat, and invites more active participation. They also dislike the old hymns, as I once did, because they associate them with the dead way they were sung. Much of the current “contemporary” worship music doesn’t contain any kind of doctrinal truth, but concentrates on the feelings and introspections of people whose worship is mostly self-directed. This is masked by musical performances that use a combination of extreme volume, stage lights and effects, and a style of music mostly indistinguishable from that of the non-Christian world. Most of the music is copyrighted and performance rights purchased from the religious music industry’s powerhouses.


Whereas denominational churches tend to use fully planned services (sit, stand, recite, sing, listen, …) governed by preprinted bulletins, community churches use the same level of preplanning but dispense with the bulletins, doctrinal recitations, and hymnals, preferring wall projection of song lyrics. While this appears to be a hugely successful model, it is notable that when I have been in churches with loud, modern music and semi-professional “worship teams”, almost none of the congregants are singing. They just stand and watch the stage performance. But on the rare occasion when one of the old tried-and-true hymns are sung (like “Blessed Assurance”, or “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, or “I’d Rather have Jesus than Silver or Gold”), people in the seats actually sing.

 

I suppose that after reading this it may seem that I am against everything, either denominational or “community”. This is not true. I have been in a denominational church (Assembly of God), and am currently active in a community church, but must admit that I am quite concerned with the direction of American churches, either denominational or independent. My prayer is that real believers can escape denominational control, but at the same time that our community churches would come to value and stress doctrinal truth from scripture, as well as giving people the help and encouragement they need to flourish in non-doctrinal activities like prayer, fellowship, solving personal and family problems, etc. I would also like to see churches have more genuinely personal and active, spiritual, holy worship that reinforces doctrinal truth, and is not hindered by the performance aspects that presently dominate.

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