A storefront for 20 people, a massive church for 50,000—such is the range of one of the most important forces in American religious life: the independent church movement.

Variously called innovative, hidebound, faithful, or divisive, independent churches have multiplied at an unparalleled rate during the last 25 years. How many are there? No one knows. But their number surpasses the count of congregations in the largest denominations. Some estimate 50,000 such churches, most of which are not included in the annual tally of about 331,000 reported by religious bodies in the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

How can we define an “independent church”? It is an assembly of believers that does not belong to a denomination. Neither does it have any organizational connections that bind it to the control of an outside hierarchy or authority.

We cannot enlarge this definition without encountering problems. An independent church may be a settled Bible fellowship in a middle-class neighborhood, an inner-city storefront church among the poor, a more-or-less continuous revival meeting in an old movie house, or a Bible study-oriented assembly in a rented hall.

Independent church government may approximate that of denominational churches. It is usually a hybrid, emphasizing democratic congregational control. However, in many independent churches the pastor himself is the government. Independent church theology has not led to lengthy creeds. Local church doctrinal statements generally follow “The Fundamentals” of 1909, or they are modeled closely on those of respected independent institutions. They emphasize the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the sinfulness and lostness of man, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, his ...

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