Even in small towns, there appears to be a shift afoot. People who once attended moderate-to-liberal mainline churches are leaving to attend non-denominational ones. Mainline denominations have done their best to assist this with their liberal gibberish.
Is this migration really a good thing? People leave a church where they were led in a confession of sin, heard three lessons read each week from the Bible, sang generally sound hymns, took bread and wine at a reprehensibly unfenced table, and heard a sermon featuring “help the poor” moralism, and they instead go to a church where the confession of sin is replaced with a drama, the Bible is barely read, the music is me-focused junk theology, the sacraments are a rarity, and the sermon is “10 tips for a better marriage” moralism. People aren’t shepherded in the mainline denominations. They aren’t shepherded in the non-denominational ones either; the bigger the church, the easier the invisibility. This is an improvement?
Ask people why this move to non-denominationalism. Are they fleeing liberalism and seeking greater Biblical fidelity? More likely, they are attracted by fun children’s programs, upbeat music, and an entertaining pastor. This is a subjective statement to be sure, but those attending them seem not much more Biblically aware than your average mainline church attendee.
People from established traditions – Catholics, Orthodox, etc. – look at these non-denominational churches and rightly ask: What do you believe? All too often, the response is a one or two-page statement that really is little more than the Nicene Creed in bulleted format. Ask for more than that and it’s “We believe the Bible.” The problem is that Mormons and Oneness Pentecostals and evangelical feminists “believe the Bible,” too. The question really is, what do you believe about the Bible? This is why substantive creeds and confessions of faith have always and everywhere been necessary. In a conservative Presbyterian or Lutheran church, the pastor has to doctrinally confess to the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Book of Concord. These confessions put a stake in the ground. There’s continuity, though imperfectly upheld.
Mainline denominations abandoned their confessions long ago; most non-denominational churches don’t seem to have any. The non-denominational church has no tradition of interpretation. Doctrinally, most are vaguely protestant, credobaptist, arminian, and dispensationalist. The church often rises and falls due to one charismatic pastor. Imagine the temptations of egotism, not to mention heresy! These churches have a conceit that they are not divisive because they just “believe the Bible,” but they seem to me the most divisive approach of all, the most quintessentially American in their desire for autonomy. Each church is an independent unit (otherwise, isn’t “non-denominationalism” just a silly pretense?). Instead of a hundred denominations, we have thousands of micro-denominations. That’s divisive.
Lacking the historic grounding and institutional accountability that retards the allure of faddishness, is it any wonder that non-denominational churches are increasingly willing to accept the world’s theology: marketing, feminism, the social Gospel, etc? They are the vanguard for the dumbest seeker-sensitive stunts, one of which I heard recently involved riding a Harley “onstage” during “worship.”
12/31 Addendum: This post is necessarily broad and subjective. I respect many folks who pastor and attend non-denominational churches, and with M.L. Jones and Iain Murray accept all who call upon the name of the Lord (ie. the Gospel as revealed in Scripture) as fellow believers. The basic point here is that creating new non-denominational churches — “rolling your own” — seems expressive of one of the worst aspects of American culture, namely the desire for autonomy. Many are as Gospel-free as your average mainline denomination, replacing good and bad elements and ending up no closer to Biblical fidelity.