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Bruce, What Happened to Emmanuel Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan?

for sale sign emmanuel baptist church pontiac
For Sale Sign in Main Entrance Door, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Pontiac, Michigan

I recently received the following email from a reader named Dan:

I wrote before but never received any response. I just had some curious questions and have had them for a while so thought you might know. I am from originally Downriver and former IFB. Whatever happened to Dr. Tom Malone Jr ? I could be wrong but it seems like in the early 80’s he vanished and Emmanuel Baptist seemed to sort of brush him under a rug.

Another question why do you think Emmanuel [Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan] fell apart so rapidly? I know we are aware of the “personality cult” etc. but is there a more unique reason why it just collapsed? It was collapsing while Dr. Malone was still alive, yet First Baptist Church of Hammond and some other IFB [churches] didn’t collapse. (Yes many did) I am just sort of mystified about Emmanuel. I know Temple [Baptist Church] moved out of Detroit and was successful in Plymouth not being IFB. I was just curious about your opinion on the unique collapse of Emmanuel.

Dr. Tom Malone was the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan. Malone started Emmanuel in 1942, and by the late 1960s, the church was one of the largest congregations in the United States. Malone, a graduate of Bob Jones College started his ministerial career as an evangelist. His travels later brought him to Pontiac where he pastored several churches. In 1942, according to his biographer Joyce Malone Vick, Malone resigned from Marimont Baptist Church due to “denominationalism, doctrinal heresy, and liberalism.” From this point forward until his death on January 7, 2007, Malone was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor, evangelist, and conference speaker. One month later, his son Tommy, Jr., also an IFB preacher, died.

Malone started Midwestern Baptist College in 1954. Advertising itself as a “character-building factory,” Midwestern was primarily a training school for preachers. Not a large school, perhaps 400 or so students in its heyday, Midwestern trained hundreds of men, sending them across the country and to foreign countries to start IFB churches. My wife, Polly, and I attended Midwestern from 1976-1979. While we left Midwestern before our senior year due to Polly being pregnant and me being out of work, the college and Malone made a deep impression on our lives. Polly’s father, the late Lee Shope, attended Midwestern from 1972-1976, and her uncle, the late James Dennis, the former pastor of Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio, attended the college from 1961-1965.

Midwestern students were required to attend Emmanuel and work in its ministries. Without the college’s students, the church’s ministries would have collapsed overnight. I worked in the bus ministry, taught Sunday school, worked in the youth department, and held afternoon services at SHAR House, a drug rehabilitation facility in Detroit. Polly worked in the bus ministry her freshman year and sang in the choir. She also was part of a traveling handbell group for two years. All students were required to attend church every time the doors were open, tithe and give offerings, and go on visitation one or more times per week. Students were required to account for in writing their “works” over the past week.

By the time, Polly and I arrived at Midwestern, Emmanuel was already in decline numerically and financially. By 1980, Emmanuel was no longer listed on Elmer Towns’ list of the largest churches/Sunday schools in America. Other IFB churches topped the list, with First Baptist Church of Hammond, Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, and Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, coming in one, two, and three. Most of the churches on the 1980 list were IFB and Southern Baptist congregations. Today, only First Baptist of Hammond remains on the list. Hundreds of IFB megachurches have either drastically declined in attendance or closed their doors. Emmanuel was one such church.

By the late 1980s, Emmanuel was in steep decline. Sometime in the 1990s (I can’t find the actual date), Malone left the church, leading to wholesale attendance loss. Several years later, Malone would return, hoping to save his baby, but it was too late. Emmanuel eventually closed its doors. The church’s and college’s properties were sold off. Who received the proceeds from these sales is unknown. Midwestern, as an institution, moved classes to Shalom Baptist Church in Orion, Michigan. While Midwestern technically “exists,” it only has a handful of students (and may be defunct) and its website has not been updated in two years.

Dan wants to know what, exactly, happened that led to Emmanuel’s decline and closure. What follows is my educated opinion on the matter.

Tom Malone was a southerner. His preaching style reflected the style found in southern churches. Malone was a powerful preacher, an orator, and a pulpiteer. In the 1940s-1960s, southerners who had come north to Pontiac and Detroit to work in the auto plants found their way to Emmanuel — a church that felt and sounded like home. These well-paid workers helped fund Emmanuel, as did students who worked at the various auto plants. (Students could get a job at Truck and Coach by going to the admission office and putting their name on a list. Polly’s dad worked at Truck and Coach for four years. More than a few students, after graduating from Midwestern, stayed in Pontiac, unwilling to leave their good wages for the paltry wages of the ministry.) By the 1980s, the auto industry was in decline. One need only visit Detroit to see the ravages of this decline. Job losses caused numeric and economic problems for churches, including Emmanuel. Fewer people meant fewer workers. Less money meant less building maintenance and staff. During the three years Polly and I attended Emmanuel and Midwestern, pleas for money were common. By 1980, buildings and buses needed major repairs. The bus fleet, in particular, was a rolling junkyard. Emmanuel ran 60-80 busses in the 1970s, though the fleet reduction was already underway by 1979, starting with the routes operated in Detroit. The church and college continued to hemorrhage people and money throughout the 1990s, leading to their eventual closure.

As student attendance at Midwestern declined, Emmanuel had problems staffing their various ministries. Increasing pressure was put on students to do more. While Polly and I attended Midwestern, we were expected to find non-student church members to fill in for us when we went home for Christmas. Good luck with that. Non-student church members were largely uninvolved in Emmanuel’s ministries. Without Midwestern students, the Sunday school and bus ministry would have collapsed overnight.

Fewer students meant less money and fewer workers. Students gave thousands of dollars to the church, and funded college fundraising campaigns. Without student money and work, Emmanuel had a big problem on their hands. Non-student members had become passive members, expecting students to do most of the work. Now that college enrollment was in precipitous decline, members were expected to pull their weight. This did not go over well. As offerings declined due to attendance loss, Malone cut ministries, hoping to stave off serious financial problems. By this time, I suspect the big money givers that helped fund Emmanuel’s rise to megachurch status were gone. In the Detroit metro area, there are IFB churches on virtually every street corner. Get pissed off at one church? Move on to another. Church hopping is common.

While Malone was a charismatic preacher, he could also be a bully, as could many church and college staff members. This kind of behavior is common in IFB churches and institutions. The IFB church movement revolves around men. These men can be quite demanding and controlling (generally speaking). Abuse and trauma are common — just ask former IFB church members. I suspect that over time, church members were less willing to put up with Malone’s authoritarianism. Rumors abound, but what actually went on behind closed doors remains unknown. Malone’s devotees continue to paint him as a saint, but Doc was a flawed, sinful man, a product of his time. I wish the people who knew him the best would be honest about the past. I have in my possession the book, Tom Malone: The Preacher From Pontiac. Written by his daughter Joyce Vick, the book glosses over Malone’s character flaws, foibles, and church problems. Such books are common in IFB circles. Man is deified, lest people think IFB preachers have feet of clay.

bruce and polly gerencser 1976
Freshman class, Midwestern Baptist College, Pontiac, Michigan 1976

IFB churches and their pastors are known for being unmovable and unchangeable. Malone was no different. As the culture around him changed socially, religiously, politically, and economically, Malone dug his feet in, vowing to defend “old-fashioned” Christianity — “old-fashioned” meaning 1950s. I suspect his immovability caused some members to seek out churches that weren’t as ardently Fundamentalist.

Take the things mentioned in this post and combine them, you have a recipe for a church’s decline and death. Scores of IFB churches that once ran thousands in attendance are now closed. Other IFB churches are shells of what they once were. In time, unless it changes, the IFB church movement will decline to such a degree that it will become a footnote in history. Every IFB church and institution I was associated with is in numerical and economic decline. Gone are the days of burgeoning attendances and overflowing offering plates. Now, it seems, IFB churches are focused on “quality, not quantity,” a philosophy they roundly decried 30-40 years ago.

Tom “Tommy” Malone, Jr. was a graduate of Midwestern, its vice president, and the church’s assistant pastor. While Malone, Sr. has an earned doctorate from Wayne State University — a rarity in IFB circles — Malone, Jr, had an honorary doctorate granted to him by his father. (Malone, Jr. did have an earned master’s degree from the University of Detroit. Midwestern gave numerous supporters of the college honorary doctorates. If you happen to come across a Midwestern grad parroting the fact he has a doctorate, it is most likely an honorary degree or a doctorate from an unaccredited diploma mill. (Please see IFB Doctorates: Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Everyone’s a Doctor.)

I know very little about what happened to Malone, Jr. I know he and his wife divorced. Malone, Jr. according to rumors, wandered away from the Lord, later returning to the fold. Malone, Jr, died one month after his father, in February 2007.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I wonder what enrollment and retention to graduation numbers are at uber-conservative universities are like (Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, etc…..I know Liberty University does well because of the copious amount of online degrees they offer). Even colleges like Cairn, Messiah, Union, etc…..

    • Avatar
      Kel

      Obstaclechick, I can’t help wondering what proportion of the student body in those schools are international students.

      One of my close relatives nearly went to Pensacola but, thankfully, decided against it in the end. The fact that the school is unaccredited discouraged them from attending. An especially huge waste of money and time if you’re international.
      I also heard that a young man from said relative’s church, who did go, ended up behaving rather “strangely”. Whenever asked about his studies, he would start delivering sermons from the Bible – he was not studying for the ministry.

  2. Avatar
    hertzlerus

    Thank you for sharing this. I found it quite interesting. I had left the IFB in 1979 and never really knew what happened to the movement.

    In a sense the IFB was a pyramid scheme. One could gain status by making converts. And those converts could gain status by making still more converts. When I was involved in the seventies, there were many available converts, so the movement grew. But as the movement saturated, and as people became more informed, the supply of available converts dwindled. People at the bottom had a hard time adding souls to their list of accomplishments. So they started making the same converts multiple times. Eventually people saw through that and got discouraged. I can see how this would cause the movement to implode.

    I agree with your explanation that another driving factor of the IFB movement was pastors like Hyles and Malone who brought southern culture up to northern cities that had many new arrivals from the south.

    By the way, Jerry Falwell seems to have survived the decline of the IFB movement. He was closely tied to Rice, Hyles and Malone in the seventies when I knew the movement. But he had a falling out with John R. Rice, and went his own way. He then concentrated on winning elections instead of winning souls. That seemed to work for him.

    Merle Hertzler
    mindsetfree.blog

  3. Avatar
    Jeff the Y2K destroyer

    I have 2 things to say Bruce.
    First, the odds of the Cincinnati Reds winning the 2022 World Series are higher than a dead Jesus returning from the sky to rapture us this or any year. I don’t believe in the predicted second coming because there was never a first coming.
    Second, as you know I spent 37 years in IT as a programmer and analyst. My career started in 1985 and even a decade plus before Jan 1 2000 I knew and understood the ramifications of the Y2K issue. Bach then dates were stored as MM/DD/YY due to space storage limitations. I perceived that this would be an issue in 2000 so I started early changing all dates to MM/DD/YYYY. So when the date came and changed to 2000 All my code was Y2K compliant. Simple logic and foresight to see what’s on the horizon is my “spiritual” gift (aside from music and choir directing).

    Take care buddy, I know you are hurting every day.

  4. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Although I never was involved with the IFB, I find this very interesting. While some might say that churches rise and fall due to the personalities of their leaders, it was very telling for me to learn that Hyles brought his Southern attitudes and preaching style to the only place in the Continental US where one has to go south to get to Canada. And the rise of the church had much to do with Southerners coming to work in the auto industry. Those facts underscore, for me, something I have come to realize: Religious organizations are products of culture and economics. When either changes and said institution can’t or won’t adapt,’it dies.

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Bruce Gerencser