Some claim that there are over 30,000 denominations within Christianity. That might be true if every non-denominational church is counted individually. The real answer is further muddied because many groups we think of as “denominations” are actually conventions or associations and not denominations per se. In general, a church belonging to a convention, conference, or association has less external oversight than a church in a denomination but also fewer available resources. And denominations are nested. For instance, there are over 200 flavors of Baptist. And the main “denomination” in Germany is actually made of churches from three different theological belief systems that joined together more for administrative purposes than anything else.
So what are the most common denominations of Christianity? It depends on what you mean.
Worship and Theological Groupings
Charismatic — 584 million. Charismatic churches can be evangelical, fundamental, or liberal. They are characterized by an emphasis of experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit, often manifested by the use of tongues and belief in faith healing.
Evangelical — 285 million. Evangelical just means having an emphasis on sharing the gospel. The term can apply to about any denomination; even the Catholic Church has evangelical adherents.
Mainline Protestant — 220–305 million. Mainline churches are generally older and more formal, but they can also be more theologically liberal than evangelicals. Includes Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, American Baptist, United Church of Christ.
Fundamental — unknown. In its most basic form, a fundamentalist church believes in biblical inerrancy and rejects theological liberalism and cultural modernism. Some consider Catholics to be fundamentalists. There is overlap as mainline and evangelical churches can also be fundamentalist.
Liberal — unknown. Liberal Christianity teaches a way of interpreting the Bible that is less literal. They tend to emphasize the social gospel and de-emphasize Jesus’ miracles. Liberal theology is more common among mainline denominations.
Baptist — 300–400 million. Baptists can be evangelical, fundamental, or liberal. The name “Baptist” comes from the belief that only believers should be baptized—not infants. There are over 218 Baptist conventions, associations, and unions.
Pentecostal — 280 million. Pentecostalism began in the early 1900s and emphasizes the experience of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals are known for their belief that the signs gifts seen in Acts have continued to this day, as well as their enthusiastic worship. Pentecostalism is comprised of over 700 denominations.
Anglican — 85 million. The Anglican Church started pulling away from Roman Catholicism as early as the days of St. Patrick in 432, but it became fully autonomous during the reign of King Henry VIII when the Catholic Church refused to let the king divorce Catherine of Aragon. The Episcopal Church is the main American branch of Anglicanism.
Non-denominational Evangelical — 80 million. While many non-denominational churches are truly independent, there are a few that were planted from a single church and still maintain some affiliation. Examples are Calvary Chapel and Vineyard churches.
Lutheran — 65–90 million. Lutheran churches have about 36 different groups. And it should be noted that, in some European countries, it is nearly a legal requirement to register with a denomination and support them financially, even if the taxpayer does not attend services or even believe the church’s doctrine. Often, the Lutheran Church is chosen.
African Protestant — 60 million. African-initiated churches were started by local pastors and not missionaries from European denominations. Some sects developed because of cultural differences between native Africans and European missionaries, and some have theological differences and heresies that reflect this.
Presbyterian — 40–50 million. Although Presbyterianism started in Great Britain and has a long history in the United States, it is far more common in Africa, where it was introduced in 1898.
Methodist — 30–80 million. Methodism is an offshoot of the Church of England, an Anglican church. Methodists are primarily Arminian and emphasize good works. Their reliance on liturgy varies within the different congregations.
Continental Reformed — 20–30 million. Less known in the U.S., the Continental Reformed churches are Calvinistic churches with roots in the European continent, as opposed to Presbyterian and Congregational churches, which began in Great Britain.
Congregational — 5 million. Congregational churches are governed by the congregation, as opposed to a Presbyterian church, which is governed by a group of elders, or an Episcopal church, which is governed by an episcopate or single person—although this form of church polity is not limited to churches in the Congregational denomination. There are three main groups within Congregationalism, but none claim more than 2 million members.
Church of England (Anglican) — 80 million. The number may be an exaggeration. Other statistics mention 25 million baptized members and 1.7 million attending at least one service each month.
Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) — 67.5 million. As a fellowship, the Assemblies of God (AoG) is comprised of over 140 autonomous groupings. To make things more interesting, there are at least three other fellowships that include “Assemblies of God” in their name.
Calvary Chapel (non-denominational) — 25 million. This number is an estimate, as Calvary Chapel churches do not have formal membership. There are about 1,500 independent churches associated with the movement. Their humble beginnings in Southern California took off in 1965 when Chuck Smith broke away from the Foursquare Church and ministered to hippies and surfers.
Evangelical Church in Germany (Lutheran) — 24.5 million. The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) is a federation encompassing nearly all the other Protestant denominations in Germany, including Lutheran, Calvinist, and United. Churches are restricted to regions in Germany that reflect borders from 1848. These churches do not infringe on each other’s territories, so if a Lutheran parishioner moved from one region to another, he would go to the church in that region, even if it is Calvinist or United. In addition, any pastor is welcome to preach at any other church.
Church of Nigeria (Anglican) — 18 million. Anglicanism was brought to Nigeria in 1842 and 22 years later saw its first local bishop. It broke from the Church of England in 1919. They oppose the ordination of homosexuals and stand in communion with other Anglican and Episcopal churches that do the same.
Southern Baptist Convention (Baptist) — 16.2 million. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Baptist body in the world and the second largest Christian body in the U.S. after the Roman Catholic Church. Southern Baptists are evangelical and generally conservative in their theology.
Apostolic Church (Pentecostal) — 15 million. The Apostolic Church began in Wales. They emphasize missions and the teachings of the New Testament apostles. The largest national church is in Nigeria and has 4.5 million members. They believe in the continuation of the offices of apostle and prophet.
Vineyard Movement (non-denominational) — 15 million. The Vineyard Movement split from Calvary Chapel in 1982 when its founder, John Wimber, started emphasizing healing and other sign gifts, although they have formally moved away from prophetic words. The worship style is generally charismatic but varies depending on the individual congregation. They value missions and being casual and undogmatic.
Zion Christian Church (African Protestant) — 15 million. The Zion Christian Church (ZCC) is the largest church in Southern Africa that originated in Africa and not Europe or England. Other sources say they may only have 5 million members. Engenas Lekganyane, the founder, had a background in Anglicanism, Apostolicism, and Catholicism. In 1948, Lekganyane’s son moved the church’s emphasis away from signs and toward more Bible teaching. Their practices still include prophecy and healing, and they believe that their church’s leader is their mediator to God.
Fang Cheng Fellowship (Pentecostal) — 12 million. Fang Cheng is the second largest denomination in China and one of the largest house church networks in the world. In the early 2000s, they experienced persecution by the Chinese government; in 2000, 130 members were arrested, and one leader was imprisoned from 2004 to 2011.
United Methodist Church (mainline) — 12 million. Formed by the partnership of the Methodist Church (USA) and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, the UMC is Wesleyan/Arminian in theology. It is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. Worship style is a mix of liturgical and evangelical.
International Circle of Faith Apostolic Churches (Pentecostal) — 11 million. International Circle of Faith Apostolic Churches (ICOF) emphasize repentance, baptism for the remission of sins, receiving the Holy Spirit, and racial equality. Their own statistics claim over 25 million constituents.
China Gospel Fellowship (Pentecostal) — 10 million. Also known as the Tanhe Fellowship, the China Gospel Fellowship is a house church network and the second largest Protestant denomination in China. Devoted to reaching minority groups, they are targeted by the government and suffer persecution from other religious groups as well.
Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim (African Protestant) — 10 million. Like many African-originating denominations, this one started out of a desire for signs and wonders. Where the European missionaries saw voodoo, the Africans saw Bible-based sign gifts—particularly healing. Ambiguity abounds as they claim to fight witchcraft and demon possession but prophesy and perform strange miracles.
The size of a denomination does not necessarily reflect how biblical the churches’ teachings are. Pentecostals/Charismatics tend to place far too much emphasis on subjective, mystical experiences. Mainline churches, in an attempt to stay culturally relevant, often reject parts of the Bible, including the passages against homosexual behavior and women preachers. There are many good denominations, and each has good and bad churches. It’s best to study the individual church’s statement of faith and ask about its practices rather than blindly keeping loyal to a particular denomination.