Church Networks Are Replacing Church Denominations

According to the World Almanac, there are 168 Christian denominations in 13 major groupings in the United States.  There is no way to get a total on how many church networks there are in this country.  No association of non-denominational community churches exists that could tally their numbers.  The best I can do is a Google search.  Church networks also like to call themselves movements.

Surprising was that there at least ten networks beyond denominational sponsorship.  Most report how many churches are in their network.  The largest is the V3 Network of 1,400 churches. ARC (Association of Related Churches) with 765, Church Multiplication Network with 400, Stadia with 289, Pillar Network with 100 and Sovereign Grace with 80.

Before going any further we need to define “church.”  I work with a definition of a successful congregation plant as surviving five years and reaching financial self-sufficiency by then.     Many in the movement count what is basically a small house group of fifteen or twenty that may last only a year or so.  Most of such small group churches gather themselves into a network like the ones listed above.

These church planting networks bustle with special energy of young believers out to make a difference in the world.  Good outcomes are bound to happen.  In contrast, some tired districts in my church body have not successfully planted a new church in the last 30-40 years.

Many church planting networks are associated with major denominations.  These are the Gospel Coalition from within the Presbyterian Church of America. The North American Mission Board is with the Southern Baptist Conference. The Alliance is with the Christian and Missionary Alliance.  52 is the name of a network of 10 smaller networks in my Lutheran church denomination.

I am especially intrigued by the growth of congregations spun off from a mother congregation started by a magnetic pastor in recent decades.  The Vineyard is the largest, with 2,400 churches emerging from the first Vineyard started by John Wimber in1977 in Anaheim, California.  The Calvary Chapel Association lists 1,700 churches, spun off from Chuck Smith’s Calvary Church in Costa Mesa, California.  The Cornerstone network is an offshoot of Calvary.

The mega-church near me is Grace within the Christian Missionary Alliance.  Their Alliance Network has put considerable energy into helping their churches grow.  We at my church were green with envy when about five years ago they sent a starter core of 400 to an outer suburb where we had been trying for years to get a church plant off the ground.  That Grace spin-off grew rapidly to 800 and is still growing.  They already have their own church building.

The Journey is a new church in the Cleveland area on multiple campuses.  One of those campuses started just four years ago only a mile from our congregation.  I learned about it through one of our sharpest young men, who started his personal journey with them a few years ago.  What he describes to me is the way I would dream to have a congregation organized, especially for leadership development based on ministry giftedness in stages up to becoming a pastor.

Just reading through the Google lists of church networks conveys the grass roots energy of young men and women eager to do outreach ministries. Most have a business background and know how to plan and organize. Compare their energy and initiatives to mainline denominations who seem to be running out of energy.

What will the American church scene look like twenty years from now?  I am sure there will be many more community churches, some of which will feature “Non-Denominational” in their name.  Many of these will grow fast enough to become mega-churches in their community.  Traditional mainline churches will continue to whither, and many will die.  Almost all of the new community churches I have encountered work with Evangelical theology and assumptions.  Older established Evangelical church groups themselves are now starting to decline, too.

If I were not committed to my Lutheran church body and were younger, I would probably be looking at the Vineyard Association.  I like their approach to understanding the Spirit and doing Spirit-shaped ministries.  I suspect they would be willing to find a place for my Lutheran approach to theology and ministry.

The number of informal church networks continues to grow. What’s your prediction for traditional denominations?

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