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 bodily resurrection, his second coming, and the necessity of personal repentance and faith for salvation.

In most recent years, independent churches have beefed up their doctrinal statements by adding strictures against divorce, speaking in tongues (if they are not Pentecostal), and by defining specific eschatological convictions about the Rapture of the church and the tribulation period.

Independent churches have generally not emphasized the theology of the church and sacraments. However, they have clearly stated the autonomy of the local assembly, and they have usually insisted on baptism for believers only.

In the last quarter-century, independent churches have grown so rapidly that they now boast some of the largest congregations in the country. The First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, has 52,255 members. The pastor, Jack Hyles, preaches to 13,000 in Sunday morning services. The Highland Park Baptist Church of Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose pastor is Lee Roberson, has nearly 55,000 members, with an average worship service of 7,000 people.

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Independent church growth often has been attributed to church splits, with the disenchanted members packing off to start their own church. In many cases, pastors who have lost favor with church leaders have simply resigned and started new churches. But in recent years, probably the most significant factor in independent church growth has come from old independent churches giving birth to new ones. It is not unusual in some localities to count six or eight thriving churches in different parts of town that were assisted at the outset by a large independent church.

Some independent churches owe their birth to hard pioneering evangelism. That is the story of Akron (Ohio) Baptist Temple. It was founded in 1934 by Dallas Billington, a factory worker with an eighth-grade education. He did not gather disgruntled denominational people, but decided that people he had won to faith in Christ needed a local congregation. He started as an independent and has remained one over the years. Today attendance tops 6,000.

Typical of most recent independent church growth is Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas. Meeting the needs of the black community from a strongly biblical yet independent base was the vision that brought this church into being in 1976. Under the pastorate of Anthony T. Evans, Oak Cliff has grown from 10 to 325 people.

Following his Sunday morning sermons, Evans invites questions from the congregation. Believing that personal understanding of Scripture is the key for every Christian, Evans incorporates a high level of participation into each service, including a regular time of sharing and prayer.

The burgeoning independent church movement has been matched by the growth of nondenominational schools and such religious organizations as missionary societies, literature ministries, and youth agencies. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that without the independent Bible institutes, Bible colleges, liberal arts colleges, and seminaries, the independent churches could not have thrived as they have.

Many pastors of independent churches came from schools such as Moody Bible Institute, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University), and Dallas Theological Seminary. More recently, a new crop of independent schools is attracting thousands of would-be pastors of independent churches. These include Hyles-Anderson College, Liberty Baptist College, and Criswell Institute of Biblical Studies. While many private colleges have foundered and died in the last quarter-century, many others have been born in the past decade. It is hard to tell whether the new schools came as a result of new independent churches, or whether the establishment of so many new churches brought a corresponding urge to start new colleges.

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Not too long after the battle between modernists and fundamentalists split the major denominations, the same thing occurred in missionary societies. Many independent boards were founded. They were called “interdenominational” rather than independent, because missionaries came from, and were supported by, denominational churches. The trend has changed significantly, with the rise of independent churches. When it came to finding outlets for their missionary zeal, they naturally turned to independent boards, such as those that comprise the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association.

In literature, publishing houses such as Scripture Press, Gospel Light, Union Gospel Press, and David C. Cook have prospered in tandem with the strong emphasis that independent churches put on Sunday school work. Independent churches repudiated the old International Uniform Lesson Series and found the independent publishers quick to provide biblical, closely graded curriculum materials.

The same pattern has been followed in specialized ministries. Independent churches have grown not only with independent publishers, but also with independent organizations for children and youth, some of them working in the churches (Christian Service Brigade, Pioneer Ministries, Awana Clubs) and some of them outside (Child Evangelism Fellowship, Youth for Christ, and Young Life). Again, during the past 25 years these movements have fed both leaders and programs into fast-growing independent churches.

Explosive growth has brought problems. Leaders of independent churches, laymen and pastors alike, have discovered that by itself independence does not solve problems of church government, outreach, and doctrine. Many independent churches have split several times over picayune matters centering in personality clashes. They have suffered from the ego trips of pastors subject to no authority other than their own.

Few checks and balances restrain independent churches. Some have been run for years by an inbred governing board of deacons or elders, with no constitutional provision for new blood. Many independent churches have struggled with constitutions and bylaws. As pioneer pastors have approached retirement, they have quickly rammed through constitutional changes. Some have refused to retire, taking a small flock with them.

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Slipshod financial policies have hampered independent churches. Pastors have been short-changed because of insufficient pensions and hospitalization plans. Missions and benevolences have become battlegrounds, because elders and members sometimes only want to support pet projects. There is little room for hard-nosed evaluation of independent missionaries, schools, and publishers.

At the same time, independent churches are the fertile hunting ground for college and mission board recruiters and for prospective missionaries. They could fill their pulpits throughout the year, Sundays and Wednesday nights, with all the people, organizations, and ministries seeking support.

Obviously, one of the hardships of independence hits when the church needs to find a new pastor. There are no denominational files or recommendations to draw upon. It is everyone for himself. It is not easy to get significant data about candidates’ qualifications and experience. Many times, pulpit committees from independent churches scour the country for a year or more, looking for pastoral candidates. They are being helped somewhat by the placement offices of some independent seminaries.

The care of theological students and missionary candidates is a weak link in independent church life and development. Each church basically has its own doctrinal and ordination standards. It is no secret that in some cases unqualified candidates for the ministry are quickly ordained. Likewise, missionary candidates are thrust upon independent churches, having been approved by independent boards, but the churches have nothing to say about such appointments.

For years denominational executives and pastors have categorized independents as reactionaries and fighting fundamentalists. Too often it has been an apt description. Independents have rationalized their way around biblical injunctions for church unity by emphasizing “spiritual” unity and the unify of the “invisible church.” Plainly, they have had trouble working with themselves and with denominational men on the local level.

The growth of independent churches has been so significant in some areas that pastors of these churches have organized their own fellowships. They have done this for mutual prayer, support, and continuing education, as well as for insurance programs. Nevertheless, independent churches have been limited in cooperative evangelistic and social outreach. Some have cooperated with mass evangelistic crusades, but others have refused to join any common efforts, even local charitable projects for the poor. Some independents have not been able to find common ground with other independents.

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However, some associations of independent churches have functioned for years. The Independent Fundamental Churches of America counts over 1,000 member churches. The Bible Baptist Fellowship of Springfield, Missouri, offers a cooperative program in missions, education, and publishing for 2,800 independent Baptist churches. The Southwide Baptist Fellowship includes 1,400 churches.

None of the problems cited above has deterred the flourishing independent church movement. A recounting of the drawbacks of independence should not obscure the vitality of the movement and the strength of independent churches. Doctrinal distinctives and separatism have not prevented congregations from meeting the needs of people.

A fact of denominational history in the last 25 years is that many people abandoned their churches for lack of orthodoxy, biblical preaching, evangelistic zeal, and missions. They found these things in independent churches. They also found stability in independent churches, as well as a freedom to innovate and support a variety of causes.

In recent times, independent churches have pioneered in areas abandoned by some large denominational churches. They have fostered church growth by backing families to start new churches in outlying suburbs. They have started to minister to minorities, to immigrants and refugees, to the poor and the handicapped. They are using television, radio, films, and literature effectively.

What is ahead for independent churches? More growth seems a safe prediction, because the public’s hunger for solid, understandable, practical Bible teaching shows no sign of abating. As long as independent churches major on Bible teaching, evangelism, and strong Sunday schools, their future seems bright.

Elmer L. Towns is dean of Liberty Baptist Seminary, Lynchburg, Virginia. The Complete Book of Church Growth (Tyndale, 1981) is the most recent of his many published volumes.

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