By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
If we’re talking about tithing, then the one-dollar bill seems to be the most popular denomination... I kid, I kid.
I don’t think this question is talking about denominations of U.S. currency but rather those distinct grouping of believers. Which denominations are the most popular? I suppose first, we need to define what a denomination is.
What Is a Denomination?
A "denomination" is not a term that you will find in the Bible. Though you already see the seeds of denominationalism in the church at Corinth. Some follow Paul; some follow Cephas; some follow Apollos…But that’s not a very good advertisement for denominationalism, is it?
There is actually a specific legal definition of a denomination. This definition is connected to legal marriages. According to the Law Insider, a religious denomination,
“…means an organized society, association, or body of religious believers or worshippers consisting of not less than 25 persons professing to believe in the same religious doctrines, dogma, or creed and closely associated or organized for religious worship or discipline or both.”
A less legal definition is given by Merriam-Webster, “a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices.”
Given this rather broad definition, you will not be shocked to learn that it is estimated there are over 40,000 Christian denominations.
What Makes a Denomination Different Than Another?
I have sadly lost my source to this “joke.” Though it’s a little too close to reality to be terribly humorous:
“It is an undoubtedly fictional story of a man that was walking across a bridge one day, only to find a man standing on the edge about to jump. So, this guy runs over and tries to stop the guy. ‘Stop, don’t do it.’ ‘Why shouldn’t I jump?’ ‘Well, there’s so much to live for!’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Well, do you believe in God?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Me too!’ ‘Are you Christian, Buddhist, or something else?’ Christian. ‘Catholic or Protestant?’ Protestant. Me too, Episcopalian or Baptist? Baptist. Me too. Southern Baptist or Northern Baptist? Southern. Me too. Are you a General Southern Baptist or a Reformed Particular Southern Baptist? Reformed Particular Southern Baptist. Me too, Reformed Particular Southern Baptist, Reformation of 1879, or Reformation of 1915? 1915. DIE HERETIC SCUM. And the man helped out the desperate man’s cause — he pushed him off the bridge.”
That is a decent representation of how denominations have come to be. There are some denominations that are very similar and are differentiated by minor interpretive differences. Occasionally the difference might have come from a missionary strategy.
It’s also possible that the difference is only due to the locale. But more times than not it is because of a doctrinal or relational dispute that a group splinters off from another. And some of these denominational splits have long been resolved, but the groups have remained separate.
Not every group is different because of a specific split. This is why some will have very similar theology but a much different culture or history. At other times, it is because of specific doctrine.
To get an understanding of some of these differences, consider some of the more popular Protestant denominations within the U.S. Someone with Baptist convictions in regards to baptism will not be at home in a Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, or Anglican church.
While the Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican could be united around the question of baptism, they would then diverge on questions related to Calvinism. And if we bring in a discussion of the Lord’s Supper, then all of these groups will have slightly different views.
One could ask about the difference between a Methodist and a Presbyterian, and that answer would be different at different points in history. Methodism originated out of a dispute with the Church of England.
In the early days, the lines between Methodism and Presbyterianism might have been blurry, depending on which particular Methodist or Presbyterian we are talking about.
The Calvinism of Whitefield would have been more at home within Presbyterianism, but the Arminianism of Wesley would have been dismissed.
There are many other illustrations that could be given. But hopefully, this shows that the difference between denominations is often a complicated story. Many agree on particular points but diverge on others.
The Most Popular Denominations in America
It’s kind of hard to define popularity here. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention boasts 16 million strong, but I’m not sure I would define them as “popular” at this moment in history.
With the sexual abuse scandals, among other things, they might be one of the most disliked denominations at the same time.
And knowing that many of these churches have bloated membership rolls, 16.2 million is likely an inflated number. Nevertheless, according to Thom Rainer, these are the top 15 denominations by their membership:
- Southern Baptist Convention: 16.2 million members.
- The United Methodist Church: 7.8 million members.
- The Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million members.
- National Baptist Convention: 5.0 million members.
- Evangelical Lutheran Church, U.S.A.: 4.5 million members.
- National Baptist Convention of America: 3.5 million members.
- Assemblies of God: 2.9 million members.
- Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): 2.8 million members.
- African Methodist Episcopal Church: 2.5 million members.
- National Missionary Baptist Convention of America: 2.5 million members.
- The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS): 2.3 million members.
- The Episcopal Church: 2.0 million members.
- Churches of Christ: 1.6 million members.
- Pentecostal Assemblies of the World: 1.5 million members.
- The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: 1.4 million members.
If you wanted to consider Catholicism a denomination, it would become the largest, with roughly 51 million adherents.
There are also many non-denominational Christians — and some of these groups could actually be considered denominations (here’s looking at you, Christian Church/Disciples of Christ). The Disciples of Christ (often known as the Christian Church) are believed to have 679,563 members.
According to Scott Thumma,
“If the nation’s independent and nondenominational churches were combined into a single group they would represent the third largest cluster of religious adherents in the country, following the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention; second largest in the number of churches – following the Southern Baptist. Overall, this research found over 35,000 churches representing more than 12,200,000 adherents. In total, four percent of the US population worships in an independent or nondenominational church.”
So, does that mean that the third most popular denomination is non-denominationalism?
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