Part I is here.
As I begin to describe the movement of Independent Christianity, I need to make a few things very clear. NONE of the staff or teachers of the Catherine of Siena Institute have ever been or are part of the “Independent Christian” movement! Nor have any of our posters on ID ever been part of it (as far as we know).
I am writing about this movement as a journalist, not an apologist. I am describing the second largest, fastest growing, and most missionary-minded Christian community in the world today because we have to recognize their existence in order to deal with them.
As a journalist, my job is to try and help you grasp the nature and significance of the movement. Since Independent Christianity is complicated to describe, I will spend most of my time describing and secondarily exploring some of the implications for the Catholic Church. I will not be spending my time in a detailed analysis and rebuttal of their many theological problems, not because I agree with their stance but because it would require another 20,000 words to do so and this is long enough as it is!
The Basics About Independent Christianity
Dr. David Barrett is the foremost expert in the world on the status of global Christianity and editor of the massive 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia published by Oxford University Press. He divides the contemporary Christian world into six ecclesial traditions or what he calls “Christian megablocs”. Five of these blocs are familiar historic groups: Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and what Barrett calls “Marginal Christians”; a bloc that would include groups like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The sixth bloc is a 20th century phenomena that goes by the name of “post-denominationalist Independent”. This new kid on the block is already a major player. As of mid-2007, Barrett estimates that Independent Christians number 437.7 million, or roughly 20% of all the Christians in the world. (The updated mid-2007 figures that I will be quoting are available online at Status of Global Mission, 2007 in the Context of the 20th and 21st Centuries (hereafter SGM), http://www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/globalchristianity/resources.php.) If Barrett’s figures are close enough for government work, Independent Christianity is second in size only to Roman Catholicism. It is larger than all historic Protestant groups (excluding Anglicanism) combined, twice the size of Orthodoxy, and over five times larger than the entire Anglican communion.
Independent Christianity is growing faster than Islam. Independents constituted only 1.4% of world Christianity in 1900. By 2050, Barrett estimates they will make up nearly 25% of all Christians and 8.5% of the world’s population. In 2007, the Catholic Church showed a minimal growth rate of 1.14%, while Islam’s annual growth was 1.81%. Independent Christianity led the way with an annual growth rate of 2.12 % - nearly double that of Catholicism. (SGM)
None of this is surprising in light of Independent Christians’ passionate commitment to proclaiming Christ – to the baptized and non-baptized alike. As a group, Independents are what Barrett calls “Great Commission” Christians. That is, they hold that mandate of Christ to evangelize, baptize, and disciple all nations is still valid and is the central mission of the Church. (According to the SGM, 703 million or 32% of all Christians in 2007 were “Great Commission Christians”.). The five nations with the largest numbers of Independents in 2005 are China, the United States, India, Nigeria, and Brazil. According to Barrett, 52% of Asian Christians, 30% of North American Christians, 22% of African Christians, and 7.3% of Latin Christians are part of the Independent movement.
In light of its global size and dynamism, you would think that “Independent” Christianity would register on the Catholic ecclesial radar. One reason it does not is that this post-denominational Christianity has only been recognized as a unique movement in the past 20 years. It is so new that it can be easily dismissed by the historically-minded as yet another fly-by-night “sect”. Granted that the word “church” has a very specific meaning in Catholic thought, this does not mean that “sect” is an adequate label for Christian communities who do not qualify as churches. This word tells the listener nothing and gives the strong impression that the group in question is too marginal to be taken seriously. In any case, the term “sect” is manifestly inadequate to describe a movement that is 437 million strong.
A second reason we may overlook Independent Christianity is that it is a development from within evangelicalism that intentionally leaves historic Protestant practice far behind. They are therefore not an obvious partner for the sort of ecumenical dialogue we are familiar with that engages traditional Protestant denominations.
A third reason is that the Independent movement is not structured in standard ways. Most Independent Christians are part of loosely affiliated “apostolic networks” held together by personal relationships, a common charismatic spirituality, and a joint commitment to proclaiming Christ. Barrett estimates that there were about 22,000 such networks or para-denominations in existence in 2000 involving 1.7 million congregations.
The fourth and most critical reason is that Independent Christianity is nearly devoid of and completely uninterested in the marks of the Church that are so central to Catholic ecclesiology: historic, apostolic, creedal, and sacramental. The movement is almost a perfect antitype; it is a-historical, anti-hierarchical, anti-intellectual, and non-sacramental. It is also massively “pentecostalized” in spirituality and ecclesiology.
There has been considerable debate about appropriate names for the movement within the movement itself. Peter Wagner, who has played a central role as journalist, networker, teacher, and leader, examined and rejected 60 different possible names. (Churchquake!, p. 38). There were leaders who objected to “post-denominational” because some churches involved are still active members of their historic denominations. Wagner now uses the term “New Apostolic Reformation” to connote the same group that Barrett calls “Independents.” A third term that is sometimes used is “neo-charismatic” (Barrett) or “Third Wave” (Wagner) meaning a person, church, or network that embraces Pentecostal/charismatic style spirituality but is not connected to a mainline or Pentecostal denomination. These alternative terms: Independent, post-denominationalist, New Apostolic Reformation, and neo-charismatic/Third Wave all reflect important qualities of this new bloc of Christians.
Click here to jump to Part III.