The United States is the most Christian nation in the world. Not by percentage, sure, that’d be Vatican City—but by sheer amount of people, it’s the USA by a landslide. And with all those believers walking around, it’s only natural that we’ve had some disagreements.
It’s been joked that there’s as many forms of Christianity as there are Christians. And in the United States, that’s almost true; this country is the most denominationally diverse nation on the planet. There are hundreds of denominations with tens of hundreds more autonomous congregations spread across the United States. And with all that variety—with traditions, ecclesial families, and denominations galore—it may also be natural that we ask, Who’s right?
Well, this is not the list for that (though, I may tilt my hand at times). What this is the list for, however, is the denominations I find most interesting, unique, pious, and theologically astute. Still, this is just for fun, and by no means should you expect any sort of consistency. But having said that, let’s try to lay out some criteria for our assessment:
As best I can, I’ll try to analyze denominations at their most granular level, though that’s not always feasible (especially, as I have not visited all of them); for example, I’ll look at congregations part of the Southern Baptist Convention, rather than just Baptists churches in general. Admittedly, my evaluation won’t always be fair purely because of the nature and size of some of these denominations. To use baptists again as an example: the tradition is historically Reformed (Calvinist), though not every baptist congregation identifies as such and even members of those that do are sometimes unaware of these convictions (and default to American individualism). It’s impossible to take all of this into consideration, so I’ll be painting with broad strokes here.
In addition to each denomination’s size and worship style, I’ll try to give a succinct description or background of the movement as well as my reasons for ranking them as I did. For assessing the worship style of these traditions, we have a few options: I could give a 1-to-10 rating on how liturgical their service is, or perhaps, I could measure how long their average sermon lasts. But ultimately I think the folksy labels of “bells and smells,” “brass & class,” and “pine and “pain” will serve us best. The first—a reference to Angelus bells and incense—is a common descriptor for liturgical, High Church services. Slightly less well-known, brass and class—from candlesticks and well-to-do members—describes traditional Broad Church denominations, while pine and pain refers to the cheap pews and brimstone-orientation of Low Church congregations. Obviously these labels are caricatures and focus primarily on the wealth of a church—we’ll use them, however, to categorize how liturgical they are and the general feel of their services.
And one final qualification, in case my mother is reading: don’t worry, Mom, I’m not converting any time soon.
10. The Catholic Church
Size: 51 million
Worship Style: Bells & Smells(it doesn’t get any more liturgical than this)
Description: The Roman Catholic Church is far and away the largest discrete Christian denomination, making up 15 to 20% of the United States population (though the country is primarily Protestant). It also boasts the clearest historical lineage connecting it to the earliest Christian religion. Today, the age of the Catholic Church manifests in complex traditions and ornate rituals, and its size brings with it a sort of cultural religion, not at all different from the Jewish community.
Reason: Though I prefer all of the groups that have broken with the Catholic Church, there is something special in its history and legacy of Christian theology. When one worships in Catholic Mass, there is an unmistakable joining with the saints of the last two millennia.
9. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Size: 6.59 million
Worship Style: Pine & Pain (which feels weird to say given the niceness of their facilities and the friendliness of their faces)
Description: Though its position as a Christian denomination is debatable, the Mormon Church views itself as a continuation or subset of the Christian family, as contrasted with, for example, Muslims who view their religion as derived but distinct. Mormon theology goes beyond traditional Christian ideas in numerous ways, most centrally in the prophetic work of Joseph Smith and its other sacred texts. Despite being the largest denomination founded in the United States, its members live exceptionally distinctive lives, noted for their kindness and radical ethics (like tithing and avoiding caffeine). Their pervasive missionary efforts and virtual control of the state of Utah also set them apart.
Reason: Though its origin and supplemental theology are suspect, to say the least, the conviction and success of the LDS Church are more than enough to get it on this list. Its members demonstrate real change, and as will be seen throughout this list, its radical ethics do not go unnoticed.
8. The United Church of Christ
Worship Style: Brass & Class
Description: The United Church of Christ is a mainline denomination with roots in Congregational,Reformed, andLutheranchurches. This naturally leads to its self-proposed four-word description, “Christian,Reformed,Congregational,and Evangelical.” The tradition gives special attention to ecumenical or unity efforts, and is perhaps best known for its championing of civil rights.
Reason: To be honest, the UCC is primarily on my radar because its name is 66% similar to my own fellowship’s and because of Barack Obama’s involvement. Still I appreciate the UCC’s orientation as well as the Congregational tradition of which it is a part.
7. The Greek Orthodox Church
Worship Style: Bells & Smells
Description: The other ancient institution of the Church, Orthodox Christianity represents a brand of the faith—depending on who you ask—equally old as Catholicism. This branch is subdivided by region and culture, the Greek Orthodox being perhaps the most well established, yet because of this cultural sensitivity, all forms of Orthodox Christianity make up a meager 0.5% of American Christianity. While being just as liturgical as the Catholic Church, Orthodox Christians distinguish themselves by their emphasis on patristics, mystery theology, and theosis.
Reason: I first became interested in the Eastern Orthodox Church when I was little and learned that they too did not use instruments for worship—they were kindred spirits. Since then, my appreciation has shifted to their theology of transformation rather than litigation. Also, the hubris of the name “orthodox” is so bold, I like it.
6. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Worship Style: Brass & Class
Description: The Disciples of Christ are the other great tradition to come out of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Though their numbers are not nearly as strong as the Churches of Christ, they have had a more recognizable position in American religion purely for their emphasis on unity. Though at one time not too different from the COC, they crossed the Protestant line from evangelical to mainstream, now mirroring their sister tradition only in their congregational governance.
Reason: I favor the Christian Church denomination for the (admittedly shallow) reason that the history of their tradition is tied up in my own, but also because of their ecumenical goals and the blessing it has been to many of my friends.
5. The Episcopal Church
Size: 1.67 million (0.5%)
Worship Style: Bells & Smells (the definition of “High Church”)
Description: The Episcopal Church is a branch of the Anglican Church (which makes up a surprising 1.3% of the United States population). For those unfamiliar, the Anglican Church views itself as “Protestant, yet Catholic,” essentially meaning that it is very similar to the Catholic Church without subjugation to the Pope or some of Catholicism’s more exotic dogmas. Episcopalians, themselves, made a similar step by separating from the Church of England after the Revolutionary War. Theologically, Episcopalians are a decidedly more liberal group than most American Christians, while maintaining a deep historical Church reverence.
Reason: Its spiritual and political bent is what draws me to the Episcopal Church, its longtime opposition to the death penalty and its work in the Civil Rights Movement. It boasts these meaningful positions alongside a theologically and sacramentally robust religion.
4. The Presbyterian Church (USA)
Size: 1.3 million
Worship Style: Brass & Class
Description: Presbyterianism, comprising over 2% of the population, is a Reformed movement originating in Scotland. While its theology is largely reflective of the work of John Calvin, it has a special Congregational flair, depending on the leadership of local elders. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is the larger, mainline branch of this movement.
Reason: While no stranger to liturgy and Christian tradition, the Presbyterian Church represents a more Protestant and intellectual version of Western faith than many of its mainline or European cousins. Also, this is about as high as I feel comfortable putting a Calvinist group on this list.
3. Mennonite Church USA
Worship Style: Pine & Pain
Description: Mennonites represent a singular strand of the Anabaptist legacy, perhaps the most persecuted Christian group (largely by other Christians) in the religion’s history. Though not exclusively, as with the Amish or Hutterites, many Mennonites descend from a common ethnic group. While the Mennonite Church USA leans progressive, some Mennonites reflect the Old Order Amish who avoid modern conveniences in favor of simple living—others prefer a more mild understanding of minimalism. Central to their belief system is separation from evil, pacifism, and believer’s baptism.
Reason: A radical departure from most of what has come before on this list, Mennonites and the entire Anabaptist community represent a powerful dedication to the teachings of Jesus and his words from the Sermon on the Mount. Their radical devotion to the faith—especially in the face of the persecution they’ve experienced—should inspire any Christian.
2. The Church of Christ
Size: 1.1 million
Worship Style: Pine & Pain
Description: Though a true Church of Christer may object to being included in a list of denominations, the fellowship is the largest to come out of the American Restoration movement and makes up nearly 2% of the United States population. Though their roots are in poorer, rural Christians, they are notable for their biblical literacy, scientific reading of Scripture, and distinctive a cappella worship services. Related to the Christian Churches, their similar goal of unity manifests primarily in a desire to replicate the New Testament Church.
Reason: Duh. (Aside from my own experience, I find power in the COC’s theological freedom—though it sometimes results in what many other denominations would consider heresy—and its members’ unparalleled engagement with the sacred text.)
1. The United Methodist Church
Size: 6.5 million
Worship Style: Brass & Class
Description: Methodists in general make up over 4.5% of the population, and its largest denomination, the UMC, is the third biggest denomination in the country. The theology of Methodism is based primarily on the work of John Wesley which emphasized, among other things: assurance, Scripture’s place in our knowledge of God, and, most importantly, the process of sanctification. The denomination has historically focused on missionary outreach as well as acts of charity and caring for the poor.
Reason: This may be a boring pick for number one, with few distinctive traits to separate it from what has already been mentioned. But that is exactly what I find valuable in the Methodist Church; it represents an excellent middle ground between what I like in the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (coincidentally, the two denominations named after Greek titles) and even the Mennonite tradition—it recognizes the importance of the Church’s history while also caring how the Christian’s life is changed. In Wesley’s special dedication to sanctification, the importance of Christian character and progressively becoming more like Christ is made clear.
In place of an honorable mention list, let me make a few other notes:
- Baptist – The Southern Baptist Convention—or the Baptist denominational family in general—is the largest Protestant denomination and is thus defining of what Christianity in America looks like. Baptists, as a whole, are nice people, but I find in them the various elements of my own tradition that I dislike without the interpretive consistency.
- Nondenominational – I guess technically this label doesn’t apply to our list here, but since the majority of non-denoms are just slightly more liberal Baptist churches, we can feel safe in treating them like a cohesive denomination.
- Pentecostal – Pentecostalism is often recognized as the fastest growing denomination, and this has brought with it the interest and acceptance of its more established peers. Still, the time spent trying to mine their theology for relevant application to other groups I feel could be better spent elsewhere.
- Lutheran – They’re the OG Protestants, but I’m afraid this denomination didn’t have enough unique merits to warrant a spot on the list.
- Holiness – Holiness churches, such as the Church of the Nazarene, are nice, having roots in Methodism and Anabaptism, but again, their virtues weren’t enough for me to outweigh some of their more distinctive theologies (e.g. a second work of grace).
- Congregational – If you’re like me, most of your knowledge of Congregationalist comes from John Irving and Stephen King novels. They’re the broader denominational family of the United Church of Christ, and they’re pretty neat. Maybe they should have made the list.
- Adventist – Adventists, or the more well-knownSeventh-day Adventist Church, are too far away from mainstream Christianity and are too consumed with niche issues of eschatology for my taste.
- Jehovah’s Witness – The same complaint stands here as with Adventists, but doubly so for their nontrinitarian beliefs.
- Quaker (Religious Society of Friends) – Quakers are great. They make terrific oatmeal, and I admire their nonviolent lives. Alas, the pacifism spot on the list was already taken by the Mennonites.
- Unitarian Universalist – Unitarians, in general, are hard to classify as Christians for their rejection of one of the faith’s most distinctive doctrines, and Unitarian Universalists (by their own admission) hardly qualify as Christians in any regard. Still, their identity as a most liberal form of religion I find fascinating.
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