Question: "What is a community church?"
Answer: All across America are churches with “Community” in their names. What are community churches, where do they come from, and what do they have in common? That question has no simple answer, but this article will attempt to give a suitable one.
As pioneers spread across the North American continent, they brought along their personal religious beliefs. In some cases, it was their beliefs that directed them to move, like the pilgrims who settled at Plymouth and the Mormons who settled in Utah. In most cases, individuals and families were looking for a new start, whether they were driven by the gold rush, the land rush, or some other factor. These hardy people established communities, and those communities became the home for new churches. Since most “civilized” people attended church in those early days, there were usually several churches established as the towns grew in size. It was not uncommon for a relatively small town to have a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Catholic church, a Lutheran church, and a Presbyterian church, among others, each one with a congregation of 30 to 50.
Over the years, as the towns grew or shrunk, so did the churches. Sometimes two or three churches would merge together when they became too small to support themselves independently. When these mergers happened, there was inevitably a question over what to call the new body. Since the parishioners came from different backgrounds and held different beliefs, there was often some strain over the impression that one church was the “winner” while the other one was the “loser.” To alleviate that strain, both churches would agree to a new name that didn't reflect the past history of either denomination. Since the new church was the only church left in the community, it was natural for the new body to be called the “Community Church.”
In many cases, these community churches were a true amalgamation of beliefs. In a quest for unity, each group would compromise on some doctrinal or practical point that caused contention with the other group. As a result, many community churches had very loosely defined beliefs and allowed wide variations of belief among their members. These churches typically focused on the essentials like personal faith in Christ and avoided the potential division that came with detailed doctrinal beliefs. Sometimes the new church would retain ties with a denominational organization for the supply of pastors and other administrative needs, but often they became totally independent congregations, supported solely by the communities they served.
Another way community churches were formed is through changes in denominations and the local churches. The majority of pioneer churches were formed with the assistance of various denominations, as they sent out circuit-riding preachers or missionary pastors to start churches. Over the course of time, some of these denominations changed their beliefs as they merged with other denominations or were influenced by new theological trends in seminaries. The country churches were usually less attuned to current trends, but spent more time in personal and group Bible studies. As a result, the country churches were often more conservative in their doctrine than the denominations which they represented. When these differences began impacting the local churches, many withdrew from the denomination and became independent community churches, believing that they were obeying the command of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to “stand fast, and hold the traditions” that had been taught. There were a large number of churches that followed this pattern during the rise of the fundamentalist movement in the 1890s. Along with individual churches, there were associations formed for the newly independent churches to find fellowship and support.
In more recent years, the name “Community Church” has been applied to newly planted churches which did not want to be identified with any particular denomination. These independent churches are as varied as the denominations they seek to avoid. They may be charismatic or traditional, ecumenical or isolationist, contemporary or old-fashioned. Some have ties to denominations but have replaced the denominational name (e.g., “Baptist”) in an effort to be more appealing to the unchurched. This mindset is based on 1 Corinthians 9:22, where Paul said, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
There is nothing unscriptural about community churches, although some may hold to doctrines or practices that are unbiblical. Anyone considering a community church should personally examine the beliefs and practices of the church to determine where they stand. Most churches make their doctrinal statements available, either on their website or through their offices. Whatever the name over the door, every church has a set of beliefs and practices that defines them. As individual believers, we should follow the example in 2 Corinthians 2:9 and find out if the church we are considering is “obedient in all things.”