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Let’s Go Camping: Understanding Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Camps

camps

To properly understand the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement, you must first understand the IFB concept of camps. In the IFB, a camp is the tribe to which you belong. It is a membership group that is defined by such things as what Bible version is considered the “true” Word of God, what college the pastor attended, approval or disapproval of Calvinism, open or closed communion, or ecclesiastical, personal, and secondary separation. Many IFB camps will have multiple “positions” that define their group, and admission to the group is dependent on fidelity to these positions. Many pastors and churches belong to more than one camp.

IFB churches, colleges, parachurch organizations, evangelists, missionaries, and pastors are quick to state that they are totally independent of any authority or control but God. Much like the Churches of Christ, the IFB church movement is anti-denomination and any suggestion that they are a denomination brings outrage and denunciation.

The IFB church movement found its footing as a reaction to the perceived liberalism in denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Convention. In the 1970s and early 1980s, I heard IFB luminaries such as Jack Hyles go on preaching tirades against the Southern Baptist Convention. Hyles would run down a list of the top 100 churches in America, attendance-wise, and proudly remind people that the list contained only a handful of Southern Baptist churches. Hyles made it clear that the attendance numbers were proof that God was blessing the IFB church movement. Hyles, along with other noted IFB preachers, encouraged young pastors to either infiltrate Southern Baptist churches and pull them out of the Convention or start new independent churches.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many local Southern Baptist churches, under the direction of their area missionaries, would not accept resumes from men trained in IFB colleges when there was a pulpit vacancy. They rightly feared that if they hired an IFB-trained man, he might try to pull their churches out of the Convention. This was not paranoid thinking. Almost every IFB pastor who came of age in the 1960s-1980s heard sermons or classes on how to infiltrate a denominational church and change it or take it over. Pastors were schooled in things such as diluting the power base. They were told that one of the first things they should do as a new pastor is determine who the power brokers were. Could they be brought over to the pastor’s way of thinking? If so, he should befriend them. If not, he should work to marginalize their power by adding pastor-friendly men to church boards and by flooding the church membership with new converts. The goal was to further cripple denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and to establish IFB churches in every community in the United States.

For decades, this plan worked and countless churches abandoned their denominational affiliations and became IFB churches. Added to this number were thousands of new IFB churches that were planted all over the United States. The IFB church movement, as a collective whole, was a religious force to be reckoned with. Their rape-and-pillage policy left carnage and destruction in its wake, not unlike the Charismatic movement during the same time period.

Despite taking over countless churches, starting new churches, establishing colleges, and sending missionaries across the globe, the IFB church movement could not maintain its meteoric growth. Over time, internal squabbles, scandal, doctrinal extremism, worship of personalities, charges of cultism, and a changing culture eroded what had been built.

IFB pastors were quite proud of the fact that many of the largest churches in America were King James-loving, old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone preaching IFB churches. Today, there is only one IFB church on the Top 100 list — First Baptist Church of Hammond.

Outside of Jerry Falwell’s church, Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia — now a Southern Baptist congregation — none of the IFB churches on the Top 100 list in 1972 have as many people attending their churches today as they did in 1972. Some, such as Emmanuel Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan — the church I attended while in college — and the Indianapolis Baptist Temple, have closed their doors. Others, such as the Canton Baptist Temple, Akron Baptist Temple, Landmark Baptist Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio, Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida are mere shadows of what they once were.

In 2008, only one IFB church was on the Top 100 Churches list:  First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana. They were listed as the 19th largest church in the United States, with a weekly attendance of 13,678.  This attendance number is less than their average attendance number in 1976.  Outreach Magazine lists NO IFB churches on their 2017 Top 100 Churches list. This does not necessarily mean that there are no IFB churches that are large enough to make the list. I suspect many of the larger IFB churches have stopped bragging about their attendance numbers or they don’t want to be grouped together with churches they consider “liberal.” 

Most of the IFB colleges that saw meteoric growth during the 1960s-1980s, now face static or declining enrollment numbers. Some have even closed their doors. Publications such as the Sword of the Lord, the IFB newspaper started by John R Rice, have lost thousands of subscribers. Everywhere one looks, the signs of decay and death are readily evident. A movement that once proudly crowed of its numerical significance has, in three generations, become little more than an insignificant footnote in U.S. religious history. While millions of people still attend IFB or IFB-like churches, their numbers continue to decline and there is nothing that suggests this decline will stop.

Many current IFB leaders live in denial about the true state of the IFB church movement. They now convince themselves that the numeric decline is due to their unflinching, uncompromising beliefs and preaching. Upton Sinclair wrote:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

I think this aptly describes what is going on among the leaders of the IFB church movement. Their continued power, control, and economic gain depend on them maintaining the illusion that the IFB church movement is healthy and still blessed by God. However, the facts on the ground clearly show that the IFB church movement is on life support and there is little chance that it will survive. Those who survive will liberalize, change their name, and try to forget their IFB past.

Every IFB church, pastor, and college has what I call a camp identity. While they claim to be Big I Independent, their identity is closely connected to the people, groups, and institutions they associate with.

Some IFB churches and pastors group around colleges such as Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, Cedarville University, Baptist Bible College, The Crown College, Maranatha Baptist University, Texas Independent Baptist Seminary, West Coast Baptist College, Massillon Baptist College, or Hyles Anderson College. Others group around specific doctrinal beliefs, as do Sovereign Grace Baptists, Association of Reformed Baptist Churches in America, or the Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelical Churches. Some, such as Missionary Baptists and Landmark Baptists group around certain ecclesiastical beliefs.  Still others group around missionary endeavors. There are also countless churches that are IFB churches — churches such as John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church — but refuse to claim the IFB moniker. The Bible church movement, IFB in every way but the name, has fellowship groups such as The Independent Fundamental Churches of America.

Some of these groups will likely object to being considered the same as other IFB groups. Reformed and Sovereign Grace Baptists will most certainly resent being talked about in the same discussion as the Sword of the Lord and Jack Hyles. But many Reformed and Sovereign Grace Baptist pastors come from an IFB church background. While certain aspects of their theology might have changed, much of the IFB methodology and thinking remains. Some of the most arrogant, mean-spirited pastors I ever met were Sovereign Grace or Reformed Baptist pastors. They may have been five-point Calvinists, but they were in every other way Independent Fundamentalist Baptists.

Most people don’t know that groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches are really fellowship groups of like-minded pastors and churches. While they have many of the hallmarks of a denomination, their churches and pastors remain, for the most part, independent, under no authority but the local church (and God).

IFB churches and pastors trumpet their independent nature and, as their history has clearly shown, this independence has resulted in horrible abuse and scandal. But, despite their claim of independence, IFB churches and pastors are quite denominational and territorial. They tend to group together in their various camps, only supporting churches, colleges, pastors, evangelists, and missionaries, that are in their respective camps.

In 1983, I started the Somerset Baptist Church in Mount Perry, Ohio. I contacted Gene Milioni, the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church — the church where I was saved and called to preach — and asked him about the church supporting us financially. Milioni asked me if I was going to become a part of the Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship. He wanted to know if the church was going to be a BBF church. I told him no, and he told me that I could expect no support from Trinity unless I was willing to be a BBF pastor. I ran into similar problems with other pastors who demanded I be part of their camp in order to receive help.

Only one church financially supported me: First Baptist Church in Dresden, Ohio.  First Baptist, pastored by Midwestern Baptist College grad Mark Kruchkow, sent me $50 a month for a year or so. Every other dime of startup money came from my own pocket or the pockets of family members. I learned right away what it meant to be a true Independent Fundamentalist Baptist.

Over the years, I floated in and out of various IFB camps. I attended Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship meetings, Midwestern Baptist College meetings, Massillon Baptist College meetings, Sword of the Lord conferences, Bill Rice Ranch rallies, and the Buckeye Independent Baptist Fellowship. For a few years, I attended a gathering of Calvinistic Baptist pastors called the Pastor’s Clinic in Mansfield Ohio. When I pastored in Texas, I fellowshipped with like-minded Sovereign Grace Baptist pastors.

Every group demanded something from me, be it money, commitment, or fidelity to certain beliefs. If I were to be part of the group, I was expected to support the colleges, churches, pastors, evangelists, and missionaries the group approved of. Stepping beyond these approved entities brought disapproval, distance, and censure.

The next time an IFB church member or pastor tries to tell you he is an INDEPENDENT Baptist, I hope you will remember this post. Take a look at the colleges, missionaries, churches, and pastors, the IFB church member or pastor supports. It won’t take you long to figure out what camp they are in, and once you figure out what camp they are in, you will know what they believe and what they consider important. The old adage, birds of a feather flock together, is certainly true when it comes to the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church movement.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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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24 Comments

  1. Avatar
    William

    Are IFB churches going through the rebranding phase that many of the mainstream Baptist churches are? New, nondescript name like “Base Church”, hip pastor gear (black mock turtle neck a must) and AV equipment among other things.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Some IFB churches have certainly liberalized, embracing ideas and practices that they once called sin. IFB churches tend to be about 20 years behind the times. Over time, they embrace the very worldly things they once preached against.

      My wife’s IFB preacher uncle will tell you that he has never changed! Praise Jesus! However, he HAS changed his beliefs and practices over the 40 years I have known him. He can’t see it. Maintaining the myth is more important than reality.

      Of course, there will always be the Fred Phelps’s and Steven Andersons. They are few in number, cult leaders that will one day be forced to watch their children and grandchildren flee the cult.

        • Avatar
          Bruce Gerencser

          Using Bible translations other than the KJV, using contemporary Christian or praise and worship music, loosening up of dress and social standards. Things that were sins 40 years ago are now okay. Preachers preached against going to video stores. Now? They have Netflix DVDs delivered to their home.

  2. Avatar
    Troy

    The more I learn about IFB, the more I’m glad it wasn’t on my radar growing up. (I had a friend that went to Springfield Christian but wasn’t a member, that’s all) My exposure to Christianity was extremely liberal Luthern denomination, which I outgrew but was a mostly positive experience.
    I can only hope that IFB continues to crash and burn. I enjoy your insider info about it Bruce.
    At first I thought the post was going to be about IFB summer camps. Probably not as bad as “Jesus Camp” though.

  3. Avatar
    Kittybrat

    Ah! Canton Baptist Temple used to be my home church. Reverend Harold Henniger was our minister, and this was IFB with a hall of fame in oil paintings of all the old greats! Billy Sunday, John Calvin, D L Moody, and on and on… all in that fire and brimstone camp~
    This is an excellent post, Bruce. You’ve really gotten into some nitty gritty.
    Just today I was so grateful I got away from all this. My sister posted something using scripture to prove her points… and included that we are to obey all parts of the Bible exactly… my old fiancé posted that anything that isn’t KJV is of the devil… and they are so adamant in their belief. They think the world is all wrong and that we have all be deceived. Why? They list mostly societal progress against bigotry and intolerance, along with scientific understanding.
    Hallelujah we’re outta there~ wish they’d open their eyes.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Sounds like my experience with my own famdamnily Kittybrat! Thanks for this… just knowing I am not alone is enough. Change is not possible except with ourselves and even then it is best to be patient and kind to oneself as we move bumpily along.
      The adamant believers are on acid. I took some many many years ago and was briefly in a drug-induced psychosis. The reality I entered was a real dream while waking reality departed. I had no idea where I was in this world at all. The closest I ever was to that insane state before was among the Fellowship Baptists. Both of these excesses darn near killed me but of the two, if one had to choose, I would recommend the LSD as I believe there is a far better chance you will come back from that trip than the IFB one.

      • Avatar
        kittybrat

        Brian,
        The nutty thing is, when with the funny family (famdamnily), it is WE who are the aberrations! LOL!
        The latest pic on my sister’s page shows a little raccoon visitor to her home… her home which sports one of those big open bible signs with a fucking verse!
        AAACH!
        As far as acid, if the fundies would ever have done it, they might just forget the dogma! LOVED acid!

  4. Avatar
    Melody

    Hey Bruce,
    I’ve got a question unrelated to this post. At the guest post comment form, do I tell you that I would like to write a guest post and explain a little about what it’s about or do I copy and paste my guest post in its entirety?
    Thanks!

  5. Avatar
    A Curious Person

    FYI – I found this page because I became curious about Fundamentalist Baptist Retreats and Camps. It is quite fascinating to see the evident fragmentation of Christianity. In this post alone, the concern over whose church is “THE Church” and which one has more attendance should be cause for concern even among Christians. When you elevate these concerns over collectively loving your neighbors and supporting your communities, I’m pretty sure you’ve strayed away from the messages of The New Testament.

    Assuming that the Christian God is THE God, what do you think God would have to say about the elevated importance placed on these concerns? I imagine it probably would not please Him. The character Jesus embodied the ideas of togetherness referred to as the One Body of Christ. How is that self-proclaimed Christians have strayed far even from their own faith? How would this ever encourage increased membership?

  6. Avatar
    Joe

    I am an independent baptist preacher. This is what I believe. 1. The Bible is the sole aithority of faith and practice. 2.Autonomy of the local church 3. priesthood of the believer 4. Converted and baptised church membership. 5. Two ordinances The Lord’s Supper, and Baptism.
    To lump all independent churches into a “movement” is like lumping every independent voter into a group. It is unfair to lump independent baptist churches into one mold.
    I graduated from Bible College without ever hearing, “go into a church and classify people, and change it from one denomination to another.” You would have to be a special kind of stupid to want to go into a church and change it. We were taught go out into the highways and hedges and compel people to come and receive the free gift of salvation, to take care of the fatherless and widows and to seek out the poor and destitute.
    You will be happy to know that I have copied your article and I showed it to several of my acquaintances and Friends and asked them if they were ever taught this. Each one found it commical. One even said I’m an independent baptist because I refuse to be in a movement. I would love to see you cite the preachers who gave you this info. I would love to contact them and see what nutty college the y went to.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I grew up in the Independent Baptist Church movement, attended an Independent Baptist college, married an Independent Baptist preacher’s daughter, planted Independent Baptist churches, pastored Independent Baptist churches, preached Independent Baptist revivals, preached Independent Baptist conferences, attended Independent Baptist conferences, read Independent Baptist books, handed out Independent Baptist tracts, went out into the highways and hedges winning the lost as an Independent Baptist preacher. My wife’s family is made up of Independent Baptist preachers, missionaries, evangelists, and preacher’s wives. I still closely follow the Independent Baptist cult, read Independent Baptist blogs, websites, books, and newsletters.

      In other words, I stand by what I have written.

  7. Avatar
    Southern Lady

    I was disappointed this post was not about actual camps-of which I have great memories. Re anything IFB is now doing or used to do, my main reaction is, Who Cares! I guess they were big in the 60’s and 70’s, and, sure, I grew up in it. But do I find it remotely interesting now? No. Well, actually, facets of it interest me because it was my childhood. But not the theology part. The music will always be a part of me. The camps I went to each summer. The Sunday School parties, the cookouts, the Homecoming Dinners outside, the running around outside the church while my mom talked forever to a friend after the service. Those are good memories.

    In the last 25 years of so, my only instance of being in an IFB church is at a funeral. Oh, I think I did watch a couple services online also. It felt like going back to the 1960’s. It amazed me that there were people who still got all into the preaching, etc. It felt like they were stuck in a time warp. I don’t know, maybe it’s just that I’ve moved on, so it’s weird to me that they have not.

    But I don’t think there can be many of them left out there. I don’t actually know. It feels like all that was “in” in the 60’s and 70’s, but it’s very “out” these days. Does anybody really care about denominations these days? Is theology “out?” I hope so.

  8. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I didn’t even know about IFB until I attended a Christian school that was nondenominational but the vast majority of the staff were IFB. Newer teachers were required to have graduated from one of the approved colleges like BJU, PCC, Tennessee Temple, etc. We were part of the American Association of Christian Schools and the Tennessee Association of Christian Schools. Those schools were all hardcore fundamentalist Christian schools. More “liberal” Christian schools weren’t part of AACS or TACS. I remember that some of the male teachers were pastors, and they were always starting up new tiny churches that didn’t last long. There was a big push among faculty to convince students to go to Bob Jones, PCC, Tennessee Temple, etc, though few students did. Even in the late 80s the school was dying – our graduating class of 31 was the last “large” class, and the attrition rate from elementary and especially middle school was high as parents decided to send their kids to less strict Christian schools in the area. Eventually the school rebranded as less conservative with a new headmaster (one of my friends from high school who had transferred from Bob Jones to Clemson after freshman year because BJU was too conservative even for this preacher’s son). The school closed in 2008 – it just didn’t change fast enough to compete with less conservative Christian schools.

    But even among faculty there were camps – the BJU and PCC grads had a “rivalry” and competition to see how many students they could convince to go to their alma mater.

  9. Avatar
    BJW

    It’s always fascinating to hear the background politics of different groups or denominations. Turns out they are all the same in their jockeying for power and prestige.

  10. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Joe strikes me as telling it as he sees it and in my early recollection (among believers) there was little full-blast out in the open rejection of even the most common evil in the fifties and sixties in Canada, Roman Catholics (who are of course all hell-bound). It was all about inference, quiet grins and wee shakes of the head, ‘no’. What Bruce has done here is state the business case of the IFB camp and it merely shows the boundaries set for campers. There are those who do not stay within the prescribed chain-link and they will get a quiet grin, a wee shake of the head. It they do not silently fall into lock-step once again, then there is little doubt that punishment will soon follow. That is after all what evangelical Christianity itself accomplishes all across the nation today!
    Lots of folk go week after week for the service but never have a clue about the running of the business. I was a preacher’s son in the movement and never knew how it really worked and was interconnected with the camp until I was well into adulthood.
    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
    Yes indeed. As it is often wasted breath to share reason with a person who is long-time church-goer believer. Once the life of the believer is ‘churched’, a kind of herd immunity to Reason sets in… Being skeptical is a sin!
    So it is, perhaps that Joe is quite disturbed by Bruce’s observations and cannot fathom how the man could assume the views he shares could apply to others: Certainly nobody Joe knows!

  11. Avatar
    Mike Smith

    Love the new layout!

    For all the noise about being independent, IFB folks really aren’t all that independent. Even in the church that I attend, and tends to be more “independent” than others they are definitely on the Heartland Baptist Bible College train. We are just as political as any other group out there.

  12. Avatar
    Mike Smith

    One of the VERY few things Jack Hyles was right about is that most groups start out as a movement, then a machine, then finally a monument. I think the concept of a “Bible College” as we know it will go away and local church pastors will actually train pastors inside their church and pastors will actually have to – my goodness- work a real job and be part of the real world. Might not have the mega churches of the past but I’m thinking that would be a good thing – on so many levels.

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