The United States is awash in Evangelical churches. I live in the rural northwest Ohio community of Ney — population 356. There are seven churches within five miles of my house, and six of them are Evangelical. Surely Ney, Ohio, has all the churches it needs, right? It does, but back in my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church-planting days, I would have looked at the religious demographic for Ney and concluded that the town didn’t have a church preaching the “truth.” You see, the Church of God, the other Church of God, and yet another Church of God, the garden-variety Evangelical church, the Methodist church, the charismatic church, and the Catholic church all preach from the same Bible as IFB churches do, but, in my mind at the time, none of them is true to the faith once delivered to the saints as an IFB church would be. So, with God on their sides and a wind of prayer at their backs, Evangelical church planters will go to communities already overrun with congregations and start new churches. Most of their “new” members will come from other churches. That’s the dirty little secret Evangelicals don’t like to talk about: that most church growth comes from transfers; people moving from one sect/church to another). “Look at how God is ‘blessing’ our new church. We are growing by leaps and bounds!” Yet, for the most part, these new members are most likely disgruntled people poached from other churches. (The largest church in Defiance County, where I live, is Xperience Church, an Evangelical congregation of almost 1,000 people that recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. The vast majority of the church’s members are transfers from other churches or people who were already Christians. This church is predatory, as are most church plants.) Of course, in the IFB church movement, it is generally believed that Catholics, mainline Christians, and charismatics are not even Christians — that they are following a false Jesus — so it’s okay to steal them from their non-IFB churches.
Calvinists, in particular, are noted for searching far and wide for churches that teach the gospel according to John Calvin. Back in my Calvinistic days, I had congregants who drove 30-45 minutes to our church just so they could sit under a man who preached the “true” gospel. In 1994, I became the co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elemendorf, Texas. The church was stridently Fundamentalist and Calvinistic. We had people who had moved all the way from Michigan and Ohio just so they could be members of a church that taught the “truth.” Think about how many thousands of churches they passed on their way to San Antonio, Texas. None of them preached the “truth”? There were several members who believed that the Christian gospel = the five points of Calvinism; that professing Christians who were not Calvinists were likely false Christians; that all the great Arminian preachers of the twentieth century were false prophets who preached an errant, heretical gospel. At Community Baptist, “truth” mattered. This led to numerous squabbles over doctrine; you know, one “truth” battling another “truth,” both believing they were right, straight from God himself.
According to the Bible, Pilate said to Jesus, “What is Truth?” You would think that after 2,000 years, Christians would have the answer to that question figured out; that by now they would be united around ONE LORD, ONE FAITH, ONE BAPTISM. Instead, Evangelicals fight among themselves over the slightest of doctrinal differences. Much blood has been spilled over how a person is saved and the method by which he is baptized. Evangelicals fight over eschatology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, soteriology, and a host of other “ologies.” Evangelicals tend to be literalists who believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. In their minds, the Bible is a divine roadmap, a blueprint or handbook for life. Thus, every jot or tittle matters; every word has divine meaning. That’s why many Evangelicals believe certain Bible translations are “true” and others just contain the “truth.” On the extreme fringes of Evangelicalism, you have IFB churches that believe the King James Bible is the “pure” inerrant Words of God. Over the years, I heard several preachers say that if the person who led you to Jesus used any Bible but the KJV, it was very possible that you weren’t even saved. In their minds, the KJV of the Bible was some sort of magic book, supernatural in nature, chucked by God over the rampart of Heaven 412 years ago.
It is for these reasons and others that Evangelicals continue to start new churches in communities already saturated with Christian churches. Why, even in the Baptist Belt, new churches are being planted. Why? I ask. Isn’t everyone in the deep South already saved? The real truth is that Evangelical church planting is much like opening a new hamburger joint. There’s a McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Sonic, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr, and Five Guys in town, yet the community “needs” yet another hamburger restaurant. So it is with church planting. Evangelical church planters convince themselves that such-and-such town NEEDS a new church — an Evangelical one. When a new hamburger restaurant comes to town, where does most of its business come from? Other restaurants. People have a fixed amount of discretionary money, so for a new restaurant to grow and thrive, it must poach patrons from other restaurants. All the new restaurant does is weaken the other ones. So it is with churches. They are predatory in nature. Rarely, if ever, do you find congregations that started with new converts. For all their talk about saving souls, Evangelical churches rarely increase their attendance through “winning the lost.” Why do the necessary hard work of winning souls when you can just steal members from somewhere else?
To answer the “what should I do” question, I say this: stop looking for Theological Nirvana®. It doesn’t exist. I don’t know of a community that needs more churches. How about trying to make one of the churches that already exist better? But, Bruce, God told me to start a new church! Sure, he did. As a former church planter, I know better. Church planters start new churches because they need the Jesus Buzz® that comes from planting a new church; that feeling of everything being new. People seek out new churches because they too are looking for a Jesus Buzz®. New churches are exciting. When Evangelicals can’t “feel” the Lord like they used to, they look for that feeling elsewhere. Where better to “feel” the presence and power of Jesus than in a new church? The problem, of course, is that new churches will one day become old, established churches, just like the ones people left years before. That’s the nature of the human experience, be it marriages, churches, or hamburgers.
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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