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Three Questions About the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church Movement

good question

Last week, I received an email from a reader named JT, asking me three questions about the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. My responses are below.

How come many Americans haven’t heard of the Independent Fundamental Baptist church movement?

Most Americans don’t understand that there are flavors of Baptist Christianity, everything from liberal to hardcore Fundamentalist. The IFB church movement is on the far right of the Baptist spectrum. People are often surprised to learn that millions of people attend IFB churches; that at one time, many of the largest churches in the United States were IFB congregations.

The IFB church movement has fallen on hard times. While there are still IFB megachurches, most IFB churches are in numeric decline. IFB colleges are in decline too. Many of them have closed their doors in recent years. Why? As Americans have become more progressive/liberal, IFB churches have dug their heels in, claiming that they are the holders and defenders of old-fashioned Christianity — old-fashioned meaning the 1950s. Racism, bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, and anti-intellectualism plague the movement, as does conspiratorial thinking, Trumpism, and Qanon ideology. Scores of IFB church members participated in the 1/6/21 insurrection. Despite these things, millions of people attend IFB churches (and IFB adjacent sects such as the Bible church movement and the Southern Baptist Convention). Virtually every community in the United States has an IFB church. That people don’t know that these Baptist churches are IFB reflects how indifferent Christians have become to denominationalism (and yes, in the loosest sense of the word, the IFB church movement is a sect/denomination)

Do ex-IFB church members get shunned by church members, pastors, evangelists, and IFB families?

The short answer is yes. IFB churches are exclusionary and anti-culture. While they might grudgingly admit that non-IFB Christians are True Christians, in practice they believe they alone preach the faith once delivered to the saints. That’s why a community can have numerous churches, yet an IFB church planter with come to their town and will start a church. Why, there’s no Bible-believing church in town, the IFB church planter says. I know I believed this when I planted churches in Somerset, Buckeye Lake, and West Unity — all in Ohio. These churches were surrounded by other Bible-believing, Bible-preaching churches, but they weren’t IFB.

Personally, my wife, Polly, and I have been shunned by IFB family members. Polly’s late father was an IFB pastor, as was her late uncle. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.) She also has cousins who are IFB preachers, evangelists, and missionaries. Polly’s extended family has largely shunned us. Only one of them is friends with us on Facebook.

Polly’s mom is dying. She has cancer, congestive heart failure, and kidney failure. I would be surprised if she makes it to Christmas. We are planning to drive to Newark, Ohio tomorrow to visit with her and help her, kicking and screaming, get her house in order. We are somewhat estranged from Polly’s mom, but since Polly is the last surviving close relative, it is up to her to make sure everything is taken care of after her mom dies. Of course, there will be a church funeral at the Newark Baptist Temple to contend with. Ugh.

Two years ago, Mom sent us her funeral demands. We gave it a cursory glance, at the time. We know we will have to endure being preached at by her pastor. The funeral service will be all about Jesus, as most IFB funeral services are. Yesterday, I got Mom’s funeral demands out and gave them a careful reading. What stood out was the fact that the Gerencser family — her only living daughter’s family — will have NO part in the funeral service. Mom’s demands were quite detailed. Only IFB family members will have a part in the church and graveside services. It’s hard not to conclude that Mom is punishing her oldest grandchildren for her daughter’s and son-in-law’s unbelief. We will, of course, abide by her wishes, knowing that this will be the last sentence written in our IFB story. I told Polly that when we drive away from Newark some day after her mom’s funeral, I plan to look in the rearview mirror and give a middle-finger salute.

We wish it could be different with Polly’s family. However, their theological beliefs keep them from loving as we are. As long as we are atheists, we will be evangelization targets — not family members, not friends.

Do Independent Fundamentalists Baptists know that they are indoctrinated in a cult?

I was a guest on Clint Heacock’s podcast today and we talked about this very subject. Religious sects, by definition, are cults. (Please see Questions: Bruce, Is the IFB Church Movement a Cult?) However, not all cults are equal. IFB churches cause psychological (and physical) harm. They are not, in any way, benign. That said, IFB church members don’t think they are part of a cult. In their minds, cults are sects such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Charismatics, and others. Why don’t they see that the IFB is a cult too? When you are in the IFB bubble, everything makes perfect, rational sense. The beliefs and practices are “Biblical.” I never thought I was in a cult. I never doubted that my beliefs were right. When you are conditioned and indoctrinated in certain beliefs and practices, it is impossible for you to see your sect’s weaknesses and contradictions. This is especially the case in the IFB church movement. Congregants isolate themselves from “lost” people; from the “world.” Their churches become their families; the hub around which their lives revolve.

I hope I have adequately answered JT’s questions.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 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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    (Re: your mother-in-law’s funeral plans) When Jesus predicted he wouldn’t bring peace but a sword and set family members against each other, he was sadly correct. Possibly this is why when you see “family” in a Christian right wing political lobby it invariably translates to “hate”. (e.g. the “hate” research council)

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    Bruce, I am sorry that so many family members have shunned your family because you don’t believe in their mythology anymore. It is awful that they put the rules and instructions of their mythology ahead of their love for real, live people. They’re doing what their rules say by not having fellowship with nonbelievers, but that’s cruel.

    I didn’t feel weird quite as strongly just being a member of a Southern Baptist church because out in the real world, we dressed normally. But when I was on school trips with the fundamentalist Christian school, then I felt weird. We obviously stood out as religious kids because all the girls wore skirts, and all the guys had short hair and wore belts and their shirts tucked in. Intuitively, I felt strange around educated people, particularly scientists, because our religious teachings were at odds with actual history, science, etc.

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    I’m so sorry for Polly. Having your dying mother think you’re a sinner all but beyond redemption, and much of your family agreeing with her to the extent of writing you both out of any participation in her funeral, has to be awful. I hope that, when it happens, the funeral is less disheartening than it seems that it might be.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, I wish Polly’s mother could see Polly as simply her daughter, and you as Polly’s husband, and your children as her grandkids, nothing more, nothing less. Should anything else matter to one who is dying?

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    Having grown up IFB the son of an IFB preacher and having attended IFB schools from grade school through college I can say with authority that your descriptions of the IFB are 100% correct.

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    Steve S

    So excited to hear you on Clint’s podcast Bruce! I’ve been listening to Mindshift for a while and was wondering if I would get to hear you on it. Praise Odin!

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Bruce Gerencser