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Cannibalism, How New Evangelical Churches Grow

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Originally posted in 2015. Updated, corrected, and expanded.

If where you live is anything like northwest Ohio, new Evangelical churches are sprouting up like weeds in a gravel parking lot. You know — the weeds that keep returning no matter how much Roundup you spray on them. Here in Defiance County, they have spiffy new names, hiding the fact that they are generic, mostly-Baptist, churches. They present themselves as fresh, new, exciting places to worship God, complete with a relational pastor and the best damn worship band in town (props to the Ohio State marching band). One local new church called itself Fresh Life. Two years later, “Fresh Life” turned into same old shit, different building, and the pastor felt called to go somewhere else.

Here in Defiance County, Ohio, there is zero need for new churches. We already have more than one hundred churches for 37,000 people. The population is aging and in decline, and almost everyone professes to be a Christian. God, guns, and Republican politics are on display everywhere one looks. Out-of-the-closet atheists are few, and even traditionally liberal churches tend to be conservative. Why, then, is there a plethora of new Evangelical churches?

I’ll give the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement credit for one thing: their churches are initially and primarily built on evangelism. Granted, they think everyone who doesn’t believe as they do is non-Christian and headed for hell, but they do make a concerted effort to evangelize the “unchurched.”

I was taught in Bible college that the best way to start a church was to find the meanest, baddest man in town and win him to Jesus. If this man became a Christian and started living for Jesus, it would be the best possible advertisement for the church. Here in Defiance County, I am not the meanest, baddest man in town, but I am considered the resident atheist who hates God and Christianity. I would think that pastors would be lining up at my door trying to win the preacher-turned-atheist to Jesus. In the twelve years my wife and I have lived in the shadow of five Evangelical churches, not one preacher has knocked on our door. Why is that?

In the 1970s, the charismatics came to this area and began pillaging local established churches. Overnight, churches lost membership and income. In the 1980s and 1990s, these new churches experienced meteoric membership and income growth. Today, these same churches are in decline as their members move on to the latest, greatest churches in town. You see, it’s not about Jesus, worship, or even doctrine. It’s all about getting the best show for the dollar.  Entertainment-driven Evangelicals want to be pampered and have their “felt” needs met. Fail to do this and they will leave, complaining that they are not being fed or God is leading them elsewhere. If you want to study religiously-driven narcissism, just stop by one of these new Matt Chandler, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Ed Young, Andy Stanley, Perry Noble, Tim Keller wanna-be churches. Services are consumer-driven buffets for fat Christians who are only interested in having their “felt” needs met.

Where do most of the members of these types of churches come from? Other local churches. Overwhelmingly, their growth is transfer growth. One new church in Defiance has multiple services filled with people who used to attend other local congregations. Church leaders think they are being blessed by God, but what they are really doing is cannibalizing other churches. I am sure there are a few new converts, but, for the most part, the growth is driven by people changing pews.

And here’s the thing . . . a decade or so from now, another new, glitzy, we-have-the-most-awesome-hip-preacher-in-town church will come to town and Christians will leave the old-new church for the new-new one. I have watched this happen time and again, like the rising and setting of the sun. Evangelicalism is driven not by devotion to God, concern for the lost, or care for the sick and hungry, but by a narcissistic need to be relevant. This is why they spend enormous amounts of money on buildings, staff, technology, and feed-lot fattening programs for Christians.

What’s really happening is that wandering Evangelicals are changing which club they belong to. And that’s fine as long as Evangelicals are willing to admit “why” they are doing so. However, they aren’t willing to acknowledge that their new hippity-hoppity church is just their old church with a bigger sound system, better drum player, more charismatic worship leader, better coffee, and a preacher who can really “speak” to them.

I watch from afar, amused at their self-absorbed attempts to be relevant in a culture that increasingly has no interest in what they are selling. Much the same as when a town becomes saturated with fast-food restaurants and they begin trying to steal each other’s customers, new Evangelical churches come to areas already saturated with Jesus and steal members from other churches. It’s fun to watch. May the best band win.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

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    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I have not. I do know Luce was a hot commodity at one time, holding huge meetings all over the country.

      Promise Keepers is another group that used to hold huge meetings, but I haven’t heard anything about them in recent years. Evangelicals are fickle, quick to change brands if they can get more of their felt needs met. They have little loyalty. Break one of the rules and they will dump you quicker than you can snap your fingers. The first time I paid attention to this was when Amy Grant fell from grace. Why you’d have thought she was a follower of Charles Manson.

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    This is the history of The Richmond Outreach Center, A.K.A. The ROC. Someone tried to “hip” me to the church where many of the ROC refugees (as I call them) go to now. “Hey, the pastor’s really cool/he can relate/etc”. Same old shit.

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    Matt Martin

    100 churches for 37,000? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Boggling has commenced. I live in a community of ~20,000 (albeit down here) and we have 15 churches of varying denominations.

    We have more pubs than churches.

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      Hey, another great idea-compare and contrast pubs and churches.

      When I used to sit in church every Sunday myself, I eventually started thinking about the purpose of the church and what good it was doing in the world. Why are we all sitting here on these padded pews every Sunday, enjoying the air-conditioning? What is that accomplishing? Why do we feel like we’re living the Christian life because we meet at this building three times a week?

      Oh, I know what I was gonna say-what does church require from you? It’s quite easy to go and sit there. I always felt like I didn’t have any special talents or skills, so that was the only club I was eligible to belong to.

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    Hey now, no shit-talking about PK! I used to love their events!! Went to several & always came home well fed & a better husband! (Of course, I’m divorced now, but hey:)

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    When I was at uni there was a meeting at the start of every term where church leaders told students about their churches. It was done in the right spirit with the pastors not trying to sell their church.

    That was until a ‘new church’ started one year that was exactly the same as the pentecostal new frontiers church in the city – they even rented the same school but had their service in the afternoon. The long haired surfing pastor gave it the hard sell and promised free lifts in a bus along with scones. A friend of mine heard him telling students that his church called ‘network’ was a church for cool people. That year their seats were full as students were swayed by the gimmicks. From what I hear, 10 years later, they now only get a couple of students. Bring on the next fad…

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      Yes, it’s fad after useless fad among fundies. They’re sure, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that this latest fad will be THE ONE that brings folks back into their church in droves. They never seem to notice it doesn’t, but jesus merrily on to the next one. Here in the Uk, my fundy friend is enthusiastic about a new thingy called ‘Church from Scratch.’ They meet in homes and describe their movement as ‘playful, affirming and collaborative.’ Isn’t that exactly what we’ve all been waiting for all our lives?……a ”playful” church

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    I would agree. In my town there are loads of evangelical churches, yet new ones seem to start up quite regularly. I can’t see what purpose they serve other than empire building. If people really wanted to spread the gospel they would go to somewhere in the country where evangelical churches are in short supply.

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    This hit home.
    I was the resident drummer for The Roc for over 5 years. I showed up, knew the songs and was always prepared. Move to a new building and suddenly another drummer they’ve been grooming (who was technically better than me) replaced me. Why? “Because god is moving us in another direction”.
    And yes, a new exciting Andy Stanley church nust relocated near me. Hip pastor, a light show that would rival any manor concert, etc….the usual garbage.

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    When I was in college I was active in campus ministry, we prayed for the lost and evangelized, but I never saw any converts. The people we got to join our group were all from catholic or protestant upbringings. Once in our group we worked to deepen their commitment (radicalize them) but chalked it up to conversion.

    I figured praying for souls to get saved was a prayer that God would have been glad to answer? I wasn’t praying for me, I was praying for others. So looking back, it was an indicator of God’s absence.

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    Where I live in Northeastern NJ, we see the Korean churches and Latinx churches expanding. Aging Protestant churches rent out their facilities to the Korean and Latinx congregations until those congregations buy their own facilities. A synagogue near us was just bought by a Korean evangelical congregation. The largest congregation in our area is a Korean evangelical megachurch that recently bought a warehouse down the street from its already large church to start a community center. Every town has a Catholic church, and due to the large population of Italian, Irish, and Latinx descendants in the area, those churches retain membership, though a good number stop attending after their youngest kid goes through confirmation.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Kyle dresses in the new robes, the jeans and jacket, the zippy, cool hair pomp, the biceps and the whole works to visually work on stage with his rythmical repetition, his driving give-give-give and very regular chorus of all-for-you-Jesus. The best speakers (Kyle is not quite there yet) know how to seduce listeners with tones and heart-felt themes. They come out on the stage and set it up, a big greeting and then the ‘Are you READY people!!!’
    I was drifting along with Kyle’s advertisement, almost enjoying how the waves were speeding me up in the river, how the tones were being cranked up and driven at the listener and then I found myself thinking how wonderful the world is when people want to help one another, want to do whatever they can to serve people, to feed them, hold their hands, plant them a garden. People for people, is what I thought.
    Do you think Jesus would mind if we just let him be and worked in the garden for each other, for ourselves too? Do you figure we should go to eternal damnation because we let Jesus just be an example of giving, for instance? Do we have to tell our children the consequences of not complying with Kyle’s message, his oral massage?
    We’ve heard Kyles before and they will come again and again for us. People will pour their resources into another new church for another new season and when others observe the old pattern being repeated, the church-planters will cry out. “We have a vision, God’s own vision of something new, something deep and wide and washed in the blood!”
    Yep. Be better to belt a loud, Do Lord, and get over it, go back to weeding that garden so the carrots can flourish.

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    Also good for the local donut shops…go in any Sunday morning… there will be hundreds of dollars of donut orders going out… all to local churches…because Jesus loves him some donuts!

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    Lemmings, but cut-rate ones. They don’t understand they’re supposed to jump off… instead they follow their friends to another cliff.

    I saw the nomadic thing with my family while I was growing up, too. They wandered with their friends from church to church. I thought then and still believe now that not ONE of them had any idea what they were looking for and wouldn’t have been able to stop.

    They’re like little kids, thinking that someone else has a better thing and wanting to have it for themselves.

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Bruce Gerencser