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I have heard "non-denominational" Protestant churches identify themselves as such because they believe they are above the squabbling and blindness that characterizes denominational Christianity.

I have heard Christians identify themselves as "non-denominational" because they aren't really loyal to any particular denomination at the moment.

I have also heard from non- non-denominationals that "non-denominational" is in essence a denomination of itself, because churches of this identification are actually related in their origin, theology, etc. Is that true? Are there any distinct characteristics of non-denominational Protestant churches besides the name?

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Non-Denominational Protestants are as difficult to pigeonhole into one set of beliefs as Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (and perhaps more so). Without a central Church authority it's impossible to say that they all believe X,Y, and Z. – David Jul 3 '13 at 4:43
Fwiw, everyone I've met from the Calvary Chapel churches claims their denomination isn't a denomination. – djeikyb Aug 18 '13 at 19:06
@djeikyb I go to Calvary Chapel and from all indications I see, they are a denomination like any other. They do hold to shared "distinctives" that characterize them.… Walk into any CC and they are the same - casual clothing, guitar band worship team, contemporary music, belief in Pre-trib Rapture, etc. – Steve Oct 20 at 4:44
@Steve heh. yep. walks and talks like a duck, but insists it isn't a bird. – djeikyb Oct 20 at 4:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

A Christian denomination is simply a group of churches which have agreed to work together (in over-simplified terms). Some denominations have very rigid structures, others not so much. They tend to share some degree of theological beliefs, but even within a denomination there may be a wide variance.

A non-denominational church, by contrast, simply does not belong to such a group.

It's quite analogous to retail chains. Some retail chains maintain very strict control over their various retail outlets, ensuring that branding is the same everywhere, that customer service is the same everywhere, etc. Cracker Barrel comes to mind.

Some chains maintain a very loose control, allowing franchisees to set cleanliness standards, customer service standards, etc. Phillips 66 comes to mind.

Then you have one-off, mom-and-pop stores, which have no corporate or franchise oversight at all, and they do whatever they wish. They may have the same standards of service and products as some chain stores, but not by mandate.

So asking what a non-denominational protestant believes, is a lot like asking what a non-chain store is like: It's all over the map.

Pretty much the only thing that non-denominational protestants all believe, is that they are not Catholics.

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Well said. There are as many versions on non-denominational as there are denominations, if not more. – outXast Jun 18 '14 at 22:47
I am a member of a non-denominational church, and my experience with others lines up almost exactly with this answer. They also tend to lean towards the conservative end of the protestant spectrum on moral issues. – Jjbroux Oct 19 at 20:53

As a non-denominational Protestant myself, I will admit that our independent-mindedness makes it more or less impossible to predict what a particular individual will believe. However, if you would like to know what the hypothetical "average" non-denominational Protestant believes, then that is totally possible.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has done some research, but mostly concerning the demographics and practice of non-denominational congregations, and not as much about beliefs per se. From their 2010 survey of 437 congregations across the country:

Which label comes closest to describing the theological outlook of the majority of your regularly participating adults?

  • 45% Evangelical
  • 20% Fundamentalist
  • 14% Pentacostal
  • 11% Charismatic
  • 3% Missional
  • 2% Moderate
  • 0.7% Seeker
  • 0.3% Liberal
  • 0.3% New Age
  • 3% Other

Barna is of course a great resource for these types of statistics. Among non-denominational Protestants:

  • 75% self-identify as "Born Again" 3
  • 60% believe "good works cannot earn a person salvation, but that salvation is a gift of God through the atoning death of Jesus Christ" 3
  • 67% are "absolutely committed" to Christianity 3
  • 70% believe "The Bible is totally accurate" 3
  • 59% believe Christians "must tell faith to others" 3
  • 48% believe "Satan is real" 3
  • 79% say faith has transformed their lives 4
  • 60% of pastors do not hold a seminary degree 5
  • 30% of pastors endorse Calvinism 5

TL;DR - A non-denominational Protestant is probably an Evangelical Protestant, and is somewhat more likely (compared to the average American Christian) to hold "traditional" Protestant beliefs about the Bible and Christianity.

Possibly related:
What is the difference between Evangelical and Protestant?
What is the difference between Protestantism and Evangelicalism?

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