The District Church could be a Baptist church. The lead pastor, after all, grew up as a Southern Baptist missionary kid and still has a lot of ties to that denomination.
It could also be Anglican, with the way it leans into liturgy and the church calendar. Or a social justice church, with its focus on the inequality so visible in Washington, DC, or charismatic, with its emphasis on prayer and sensitivity to the Spirit.
Instead, the church is a little bit of all these things. It is nondenominational, pulling together different Christian streams to minister effectively to the young white professionals who have moved to work in the capital, as well as the upwardly mobile Nigerians and South Koreans who’ve emigrated to the seat of the United States government.
“The strength of being nondenominational is there are fewer barriers,” said Aaron Graham, who planted the church with his wife, Amy, 13 years ago. “It allows you to lead with a brand that is more city-focused and seeker-focused. We respond to the questions people are asking. ‘Do you believe in God? Do you believe in the Bible? Do you believe God is at work in the world today?’”
Nondenominational churches like The District Church have been multiplying across America, according to the 2020 US Religion Census. Their numbers today dwarf the mainline churches that once dominated American public life. There are six times more nondenominational churches than there are Episcopal congregations, and five times more than Presbyterian Church (USA). If nondenominational were a denomination, it would even be larger than the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denomination in the US.
The popular image of these churches skews suburban. People picture warehouses turned into worship spaces near Starbucks, Panera Bread, and Home Depot. But a lot of nondenominational churches are in cities, too. There are more than 300 in Seattle, according to Scott Thumma, the Hartford International University researcher who led the team counting independent congregations for the church census. There are 537 in Phoenix and 797 in Atlanta.
But the most surprising growth of nondenominational churches may be in the nation’s capital. The city sometimes dismissed as a “swamp” has proved, in recent years, to be fertile ground for nondenominational church growth.
Between 2010 and 2020, the number of these independent congregations in DC more than doubled, from 61 to 145. And the estimated number of people attending them rapidly outpaced DC population growth. By 2020, more than 60,000 District residents were finding their way to nondenominational pews and those plush, stackable church chairs on any given Sunday.
“There was a stretch there where I felt like I heard about a new church plant starting up in the neighborhood of another church plant almost every month,” said Bill Riedel, who moved from Chicago to DC to launch Redemption Hill Church in 2010.
Not all of the new churches in DC are nondenominational, of course. Redemption Hill, for example, is part of the Evangelical Free Church of America and Acts 29. Affiliation often comes with much-needed support. But in a place like DC, it can also create obstacles to outreach.
“Most of my neighbors have never talked to a pastor before,” Riedel said. “The first thing they say is ‘What denomination are you?’ ”
If the answer is “We’re nondenominational,” church planters can skip some esoteric history that goes down a rabbit hole explaining old divisions and ecclesiological differences. The nondenominational pastor can just start talking about the kind of church they want their church to be and how they hope it will serve the city.
Clearly explaining a vision for the city became especially critical after a mob disrupted the certification of the 2020 presidential election. Some of the insurrectionists waved signs that said, “Jesus saves,” and others stopped to pray and invoke the name of Jesus. For many in the city, that became their image of white evangelical.
Evangelical pastors in DC had to explain how they were different. It was easier if they could emphasize their independence and autonomy.
But even setting aside the trauma of January 6, 2021, independence has been critical to outreach in the capital. Conservative nondenominational churches search for ways to bring together people who work in and against each administration. They respond to current events with prayer, apply the Scriptures to the world around them, and teach that the gospel is political, but not partisan.
Progressive nondenominational churches do this too.
“People are burned out on partisanship a lot of times,” said Tonetta Landis-Aina, pastor at The Table Church. “People are like, ‘I work on the Hill all day, I don’t want to talk about all that stuff.’ But we say we are political at our church. We are not partisan.”
Eschewing church affiliations also feels more honest to a lot of people, Landis-Aina said. She describes herself, for example, as a “barefoot Baptist” from North Carolina, influenced by both Black and white churches, with a theology centered on the belief that “God has always been like Jesus.” She studied at a Wesleyan seminary; was inspired to rethink church life in the emergent movement; and today reads Eastern Orthodox theology, Jesuit spirituality, and work on decolonization.
“We’re nondenominational, so we have a lot of freedom,” she said. “Freedom to be open and affirming and name theological diversity as accepted and allowed. One of the beauties of nondenominational space, for me, is we’re living out what’s already happening, you know? Look at people’s journeys.”
The Table reaches people in the nation’s capital who want a deep but simple faith that is nevertheless not just one thing.
Across the city, nondenominational churches like The Table and The District Church are pragmatic and missional. Not that nondenominationalism is always the strategic choice.
For example, Devin Turner, who planted the predominantly African American Revolution Church in 2013, considered joining a denomination or network when he started. He had no idea where he would get financial support, so affiliation with someone seemed like a good idea. He was assessed and approved by a church-planting group.
But he didn’t feel peace. He prayed and fasted until it became clear to him God was leading him to be nondenominational.
“I don’t think people care about the name on the building,” Turner said. “People care if you love them. ‘Do you respect me?’ ‘Do you see me as a person?’ That wasn’t the reason, though. I don’t know why God told me not to.”
Nondenominational churches in DC are not focused on being nondenominational. They could be Baptist. They could be charismatic. They could be in some other Christian stream. To them it doesn’t matter. They will borrow and adapt anything that helps them proclaim the Good News and make disciples in the nation’s capital.
“Our main thing is to reconcile people to Christ,” said Graham at The District Church. “If it isn’t helping lead people to Christ and reconcile with one another, we’re not interested.”
Daniel Silliman is news editor for CT. He reported this story from Washington, DC.
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