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The Difference Between Independents and Mainlines and Its Implications
By: Bill Easum

Over the last 25 years, I’ve consulted with over 700 churches in over 40 denominations.  Early on, the churches were mostly Mainline; the last few years, they are more Independent than Mainline.  As the transition has unfolded, many things have become clear as to why Independent churches are far outstripping Mainline churches when it comes to numerical growth.  

The differences run all the way from theological to tactical. So, let me set out the differences I see, and maybe it will give you some ideas as to what you might be able to pull off in your church. Oh, one more thing – the Mainline churches that are growing are doing some or all of the following, also.

As you read my comparisons, keep in mind that I was a Mainline pastor for 30 years, with 24 of them in the same church, before starting my consulting ministry, so my comments about Mainline churches are not meant to belittle or harm but to instruct.

Difference One
The biggest difference is the one thing that drives their every waking moment – how will we convert a lost person to Jesus? If they feel they know the answer, they will do whatever it takes to accomplish it – in the most effective ones, even if it means throwing everything out, except Jesus, and going down a totally different path. This passion underlies all of the rest of the differences and cannot be underestimated.

Most Independent churches exist to transform individuals and, in some cases, the creation; most Mainline churches exist to conform to the theology or polity of their denominational. It is rare for a Mainline church to have conversions, much less measure their statistics.

For example, I’m working with an Independent church that just sent me their vital statistics for the year. Along with worship and finances, they were tracking first and second time visitors, new believers, and baptisms. I’ve seldom seen new believers tracked by a Mainline church. And even baptisms, if they are tracked, are mostly infants of existing church members.

So, the next time you wonder why Independents churches are growing, you now know the answer: because they exist to grow. They know their bottom line. Mainline churches don’t exist to grow and few know their bottom line, other than meeting the budget.

Difference Two
Independents normally have a much flatter, centralized structure than Mainline. In most cases, when an independent church needs to make a decision, a very small number of people are involved in the decision. Today, even in most large Southern Baptist churches, where congregational voting has been a hallmark way of making large decisions, most major decisions are made by a handful of people. One such church I know well has three people on its board, and none of them are members of the church. So, the church can turn on a dime and stay up with our ever-changing world. 

Difference Three
Most pastors in Independent churches don’t have to ask permission when making a major move. If they feel it is the thing to do (God’s will), they simply implement it. They may make some overtures to bring along as many of the main givers as possible, but they don’t ask for permission. They are going to do it no matter what. 

Mainline pastors, on the other hand, have to get permission before they take action, and, many times, the permission must come from more than one committee and board. Because they have to ask for permission, they have to spend enormous amounts of time “securing the votes” before taking it before a board for permission. This method makes radical change much more difficult because it’s hard to get a majority vote on anything radical in most Mainline churches. This method is fatal in a rapidly changing world like today.

Difference Four
Most Independent churches give authority to their pastor to be both the spiritual and administrative leader of the church. They either implicitly trust their pastor or they get a new pastor. Most Independent churches are pastor-driven with either staff-driven or, in the best cases, lay-driven ministries.

Most Mainline churches, at best, give spiritual authority to their pastor as long as it doesn’t affect how things are done administratively, and, at worst, they don’t give either spiritual or administrative authority to the pastor.  All they want from the pastor is to take care of them and fulfill their every wish. In most Independent churches, the outside, lost world is the center of attention; in most Mainline churches, the members are the center of attention.

Difference Five
Most Independent church members, if they have membership, act as if their church belongs to God; most Mainline church members (they all have memberships) act as if their church belongs to them. Mainline actions simply rule out any passion for the lost or urgency to change. After all, they like their church just the way it is and they don’t care if it is no longer relevant to the outside world – that’s their problem, not the Mainline church’s problem. But if the church is God’s church, and the people really believe that, then they are prone to asking, “What would God have us do to reach the lost?”

Difference Six
Many, if not most, Independent churches believe that sharing one’s faith is the pinnacle of discipleship. Most Mainline church members feel fulfilling discipleship is fulfilled in setting in the pew and/or a committee.

I was blown away at the end of one of my seminars where I talked a little bit about reducing or doing away with most committees when a gray-haired grandmother approached me with this question: “If we eliminate committees, how we will know who is faithful or not?” She was seriously equating sitting on a committee with commitment.  

Let’s take all of this further. I was talking with an Independent church planter I’m coaching when I learned that he had personally lead to Christ almost all of the 350 that attended his church on Sunday. Now compare that with the vast majority of Mainline church plants – the vast majority of the people who attend are church transplants, and if you ask the Mainline church planter how many of those people he or she had lead to Christ, it is not unusual to get the following reply – zero.

The Kicker
Now here’s the kicker. (I love kickers.) Most effective Mainline churches that reach megachurch status function like Independents rather than Mainline. Shouldn’t there be a major lesson here for any Mainliner wanting their church to grow and make disciples? Let me list them from what I’ve said in this article.

Mainline churches wishing to grow need to:

• Have an all-consuming passion for bringing the lost to Christ.
• Reduce the number of people involved in the day-to-day decision-making process.
• Reduce or eliminate most structure so people are freed up to be involved in actual ministry.
• Give both spiritual and administrative authority to their pastor and not make them seek permission to lead.
• Realize the church belongs to God, not them, and act accordingly.
• Begin sharing their faith with those who do not know God.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why Independents are growing and why Mainliners aren’t. The question is, “Do Mainliners have enough humility to admit they have been going down the wrong trail for decades and learn from the Independents?”  That is the burning question of our time for Mainliners.

If you would like to explore this article more, contact me at easum@aol.com.

Bill Easum is president of 21st Century Strategies, Inc. a full-service church consulting group since 1987 whose mission is to equip Christian for global impact, www.churchconsultations.com.

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