It has become common for many churches use the phrase “non-denominational” as a descriptor. They think that using that description will help unchurched people feel more comfortable participating in their churches. That might be true for people for some people, but for those who grew up in a denomination of some sort, and then dropped out, it may cause them to feel even more uncomfortable returning to church. People with a denominational background may feel that non-denominational means that a church is “anti” denominational and therefore those who were baptized, and perhaps confirmed, into a denomination may not be welcome. It may also make them feel like they are breaking vows they made in good faith to the Lord. It may also make them feel like they are betraying their family or heritage.
I have come to believe that it is better to use the phrase “inter-denominational” to describe a church that wants to reach out to the entire community. There are several advantages to this. First, it allows the church to actually be part of a denomination (which I highly recommend) without making that affiliation the first thing noticed by those who may be looking for a church. Though some will disagree with me, I think every church should be connected to a denomination of some type (read my post about that here and another one here). But I do not think many lay people are overly loyal to denominational labels any longer. If they grew up Methodist that may be the first type of church they look up on the Internet when they search for a church, but their loyalty to that group will only go so far. That same person might be drawn to a church that advertises itself as, “Our congregation is inter-denominational in nature, though officially affiliated with the Baptist Convention.” This lets a visitor know that the church does have some oversight from a larger body, but that individual attenders are from a wide spectrum. Based on my experience, this is closer to what many churches are anyway, so why not describe things accurately to begin with?
Second, the prefix, “non” can be implied as being negative. Many people are tired of hearing all the negative things churches are against. I may not be a Presbyterian, but I do not want to go to a church that constantly tells me how bad Presbyterians are. Though some denominations are better than others, when we categorize them all as being negative, it is a turn off to those who have fond memories of the church of their childhood, which was probably aligned with a denomination. When we use the prefix “inter,” instead of “non,” we portray a more positive view on how we relate to the larger church culture. Using the prefix “inter” makes it clearer that people from a wide variety of denominations are welcome. It also implies that one does not have to immediately give up ones connection to a faith tradition that may be important to the person’s heritage. Though it is highly likely that over time that commitment to the past will fade, not having to give it all up at once is important for those who are still trying to figure out what they believe.
As stated earlier, it is my opinion that every church should be part of a denomination. But since fewer people are as loyal to the brand as they used to be, that might not be the best way to promote a church. But we can still remain loyal and active in our own tribe, while removing barriers for those looking for a church community, by describing ourselves at “inter-denominational.” This is something to think about as we reach out to our rapidly changing culture.
Terry Dorsett has been a church planter and author in New England for more than 20 years. He is a happy husband, a proud father and adoring grandfather. He is a cancer survivor and believes that God works powerfully through times of suffering. Find all of his books at: