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The Four Ws of the IFB


The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement began in the 1950s as a response to theological liberalism among American and Southern Baptists. Pastors pulled churches out of their respective denominations and declared themselves INDEPENDENT. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the Top 100 churches in America attendance-wise were IFB churches. The largest church in the country was an IFB church — First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, pastored by Jack Hyles. All across America, IFB big-shots held conferences to motivate and inspire preachers to do great exploits for God. A lot of emphasis was placed on church attendance. John R. Rice, an IFB evangelist and the editor of  The Sword of the Lord, is famous for saying, there’s nothing wrong with pastoring a SMALL church — for a while. Rice, Hyles, and countless other big-name IFB preachers believed a sure sign of God’s blessing on a church and a pastor’s ministry was increase in attendance — especially a steady stream of unsaved visitors filling the pews.

IFB churches used poor children as a vehicle by which to drive up attendance. Bus ministries were all the craze in the 1960s-1980s. IFB megachurches ran hundreds of buses, bringing thousands of people — mostly poor children — to their services. Churches ran all sorts of promotions and gimmicks to attract bus riders — world’s largest banana split, hamburger Sunday, and free bike giveaway, to name a few. Once at church, children were shuffled off to junior church programs. Teens and adults usually attended the main worship service. IFB churches often had programs to “reach” deaf people and the developmentally disabled (or “retard church,” as it was called back in the day). The goal of all of these programs was to bring hordes of unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines to the church so they would hear the gospel and be saved.

I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio for over eleven years. I started the church in 1983 with sixteen people. By the end of 1987, church attendance neared 200 — quite a feat in a poverty-stricken rural area. Somerset Baptist was the largest non-Catholic church in the county. At the height of the church’s attendance growth, we operated four Sunday bus routes. Each week, buses brought in a hundred or so riders, mostly poor children from the surrounding four county area. We also ran a bus route on Sunday night for teenagers. For several years, Somerset Baptist Church was THE place to be. There was a buzz in the services as visitors got saved and baptized. All told, over 600 people put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. And that was the primary goal. A good service was one during which multiple sinners came forward to be saved and repentant Christians lined the altar getting “right” with God.

During my IFB years, I attended numerous soulwinning conferences. These meetings were geared towards motivating pastors and churches to win souls for Christ. I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan in the 1970s. One of the songs we sang in chapel went something like this:

Souls for Jesus is our battle cry
Souls for Jesus we’ll fight until we die
We never will give in while souls are lost in sin
Souls for Jesus is our battle cry

Midwestern held annual soulwinning contests. The student bagging the most souls for Jesus received an award. Founded by Tom Malone, the pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church in the 1950s, Midwestern’s goal was to turn out soulwinning church planters. Students were required to attend church at Emmanuel. This provided the church with hundreds of people to run their bus routes, Sunday school, and other ministries. During the 1970s, Emmanuel was one of the largest churches in the United States, with a high attendance of over 5,000. (Today, Emmanuel is defunct.) Everything about the church and college revolved around evangelizing the lost. Students were required to evangelize door-to-door, seeking out lost sinners needing salvation. My favorite story from my days pounding the pavement in Pontiac came one Saturday when a young couple decided to give the two young men banging on their door a surprise. You never knew how people might respond to you when you knocked on their doors, but this couple so shocked us that we literally had nothing to say. You see, they answered the door stark naked!

What follows is the Four Ws plan many (most) IFB churches followed – Win them, Wet them, Work them, Waste them.

Win Them

The goal was to evangelize unsaved people. “Unsaved” included Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and countless other liberal or non-IFB sects.  My goal as a pastor was to go out into the community and knock on every door, hoping that I could share the gospel.

Wet Them

The first step of “obedience” we told new converts was to be baptized by immersion. New converts were encouraged to be baptized right away. Typically, IFB churches had/have a lot more new converts than they do new baptisms. There was a joke that went something like this: why do IFB churches baptize people the same Sunday they are saved? Because most of the new converts will never attend church again! IFB churches go through a tremendous amount of membership churn. It is not uncommon for churches to turn over their entire memberships every five or so years. I was taught not to worry about the churn. Just make sure more people were coming in the front door than were leaving the out the back door.

Work Them

Once people were saved and baptized, they were given a to-do list: pray every day, read the Bible every day, attend church every time the doors are open, tithe and give offerings, witness, and find a “ministry” to work in. Many IFB congregants were pilloried over not working hard enough for Jesus. Pew warmers were subjected to guilt-inducing sermons, reminders that Christians would want to be found busy working for Jesus when he comes again. No matter how much I tried to get congregants to join me in the work of the ministry, most of them showed up on Sundays, threw some money in the offering plate, listened to my sermons, and repeated the same things week after week. There was, however, a core group of people who drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak. Along with their pastor, they worked, worked, worked. The same group attended every service, gave most of the money, and staffed the church’s ministries. They were, as I was, True Believers®.

Waste Them

Eventually, the work, work, work pace wore out even the best of people, myself included. I have no doubt my health problems began back in the days when I believed it was “better to burn out for Jesus than rust out.” I worked night and day, as did the people who followed in my steps. Over time, preacher and parishioners alike ran out of steam. Ironically, the steam venting happened at Somerset Baptist around the time I embraced Calvinism. It was Calvinism, in many ways, that rescued me from the drive and grind of the IFB church movement. Over time, church attendance declined as we stopped running the buses and people moved on to other, more “exciting,” churches. Instead of being focused on evangelization, I set my sights on teaching congregants the Bible through expository preaching. We still were evangelistic, but gone were the days when we were focused on numbers. It was Calvinism that allowed me to take a deep breath and relax a bit — that is, until I moved to Texas be the co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf. For the short time I was in Texas, it was Somerset Baptist all over again, with a Calvinistic twist. I hit the ground running, starting new ministries and churches. Seven months later, I crashed, moving back to Ohio to lick my wounds.

People aren’t meant to be worked night and day. Eventually, they burn out. That’s what happened to me. I truly thought Jesus wanted me to work non-stop for him. However, I learned way too late that we humans need rest and time away from the grind. Many of my pastor friends figured this out long before I did. I considered them lazy, indifferent to the lost in their communities (and some of them were). However, they understood the importance of maintaining their health and spending time with their families. While I eventually came to understand the importance of these things, I wasted the better years of my life.

Were you an IFB pastor or church member? Did your church follow the four Ws? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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    Good article, Bruce. Answers the question “How did this crazy get started?” Having been raised Catholic, that whole culture is quite foreign.

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    Becky W

    For the kind of person you are, I think I would’ve liked you as a minister when I was still a conservative Christian. I think you wanted to help your fellow man and woman. Now you’re an atheist ministering to the wounded who are questioning fundamentalist Christianity. It’s your calling. 😉

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    I had never heard of the four Ws but that makes sense! We found that even in progressive church there was a push to get new members working right away. We joined a UCC in 2001 – it hosted a playgroup and the 2 retired men and retired lady who ran the group were really nice, so we gave the church a try after not liking a few other churches in the area. After a month of attendance they wanted us to join committees. I became a deacon and joined choir, and my husband joined finance committee. After 9-11 there was about a 2 year surge in membership, particularly among people in their 30s and 40s with kids. But people forgot why they started going to church and most of those families dropped out, and membership went back to mostly older people and 3-4 families with kids. The older folks ran off the great husband and wife pastoral team (with whom we became friends, and with their departure went another kid), and against our advice the church hired an older guy. My husband was agnostic leaning atheist at that point, and I had my existential crisis with the realization that Christianity was just another blood worship, so we left in 2008. With all their talk about wanting to grow and attract families, at the end of the day they wanted a pastor like them – older, near retirement- and they gave a lot of pushback on ideas my husband and I had. They are still struggling to get members as their older members die off.

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    I grew up Freewill Baptist, with friends who were Independent Baptist and Church of God. The main difference between Freewill Baptist and Independent Baptist is that the FWB believe that you can lose your salvation. So, most of my life, I was worried that I might not make it to Heaven after all – and would make sure to practice 1 John 1:9, almost compulsively. Many of us “re-dedicated our lives to God” at the altar Sunday after Sunday, believing we had blown it during the week. The four Ws were definitely preached and practiced at our church – with the added fear that NOT bearing fruit in your life was a sign that your love for God was lukewarm or cold – which meant God would spew you out of His mouth. It wasn’t until I sat under a Calvanist pastor as an adult that I finally stopped believing that you could lose your salvation. (The introduction of Calvanism by a “Baptist” pastor who snuck his reformed theology onto an ignorant congregation over a handful of years was also the catalyst that forced me to really search the scriptures.) The fact that a “man of God” thought that he had a right to accept a position at a Southern Baptist church, that he then slowly “reformed” into a Calvanist church, made me question everything. And I just couldn’t understand why this pastor didn’t seem to care about evangelism out in the community…..unless the prospective member had money or importance. I became miserable at this church because they weren’t practicing the four Ws. I spent a lot of time disgusted because it was almost impossible to find a church that was “on fire for God”. We currently attend a Southern Baptist church, which is incredibly liberal compared to the way I was raised. (I wear pants to church, we have contemporary worship, some of the women follow famous women teachers who – for all intents and purposes – are preachers, we get music from prosperity/charismatic churches like Hillsong, etc.) Needless to say, I spent a lot of time feeling guilty and uninspired at this church, too. Events in the last few years started the ball rolling in me questioning everything that I believe about God…and the hardcore Baptists do have one thing right – it’s easier to NOT be on fire and still fit right into a Southern Baptist church. ?

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      Karen the rock whisperer

      I find that the older I get, the more my fingers choose odd letters when I type. I mutter “do what I want, not what I tell you” at my device, fix the error if I can, and go on to the next oddly-spelled word.

      It sounds terrifying to think you might lose your salvation and maybe not realize why. Wow, what pressure! I grew up Catholic, and I suspect the Catholic Church created Confession (formally the Sacrament of Reconciliation) to help deal with this problem. Confess your sins to a priest, do the required penance, and you’re good with God again. Of course, eventually the priests and their higher-ups turned the penance into a cash cow, but eventually reforms killed that and today penance is usually in the form of prayers.

      I wish you well on your journey of questioning. May you arrive arrive at a comfortable state where your psyche can bloom.

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    Ian for a long time

    I attended an IFB church in the mid 80’s, from the time I was 11 until I was 15. I heard the 4 Ws idea, just not in those terms. The pastor preached in this over and over, but only a few dedicated people actually did what was being taught.

    When evangelists would come, they always encourage door knocking and soul winning. This would last for a couple of weeks, but then die off. Even the pastor wasn’t doing what he preached. My dad, his best friend and an old man were the ones who tried to keep the fire going. Unfortunately, it was just a candle flame.

    When we started attending a Southern Baptist/IFB church, things were the same. This church settled into Calvinism (or Sovereign Grace as they haughtily call it), and the fervor for winning souls was lost. At this point, it was all about purity of doctrine and The Trail of Blood. It became a dick measuring contest over whose church could be traced farther back in history.

    But, even in a Calvinistic church, only a few people worked hard at being a good Christians, even though there was no soul winning or outreach ministries. It was so bad there that even cleaning the church building was something that didn’t always get done.

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    Husband was a pastor for a while, non-stipendary, he was a teacher too and all due credit to him, he was very caring of his flock. He thanked them, encouraged them and appreciated that they were volunteers with possibly stressful jobs but still they found time to run the church’s clubs/bible studies etc every week. If someone wasn’t seen for a while, he always followed them up sensitively to see why they were missing. My observation was, and still is, churches are very careless and wasteful with people and cause much hurt to some by their callous attitudes. My DH also led from among the people. When he took over a church, he saw the potential for youth work that they hadn’t had. He organised a working party to paint the church hall, and, like the other members, agreed to paint on till the job was done – which it was at 2am, and he had to go to work like everyone else the next morning. My last vicar sometimes pressured me to do more, I did a lot of school assemblies, but basically she was just downright lazy, didn’t like having to be there for 8 45am, and had several excuses over the months why she shouldn’t come and help me. Yet she boasted at clergy gatherings of her church’s great youth work. She really didn’t believe in getting her ‘hands dirty.’ she was above that! She lost me and others by her thoughtlessness towards her volunteers.

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Bruce Gerencser