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Cannibalism: How New Evangelical Churches Grow

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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 or Charismatic 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 the 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 sixteen 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 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-John Hagee-Rod Parsley-Steven Furtick-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 the self-absorbed attempts of churches to be churches 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.

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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    Maybe it is a bit like me : After being in a relationship for 15 years I sometimes hear (about my jokes and stories), “You need some new material”.
    I recall church being a lot of singing the same songs and hearing the same lessons. The sermons were unique, but after a while they seemed to follow the same formula. I can understand the pursuit of “some new material”.

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    Bruce Gerencser wonders why none of the five evangelical churches in his area, either clergy or laity, have ever tried to knock on his door. Sad to say, I think there is one reason why they have not tried to contact you. All five pastors of those churches have listened to a certain sermon that have convinced them that you are beyond hope. I am gong to try to link to this sermon which I am sure all five of those pastors have listened to. If they have not listened to it, they need to if for no other reason as to learn how to really preach a sermon.

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      Darcy Walker

      “All five pastors of those churches have listened to a certain sermon that have convinced them that you are beyond hope.” Bruce has shown that most fundies don’t read enough of his website to know how to talk to him so that he will listen. Probably the same with that sermon you linked to. Fundies trying to confront Bruce start with where they are, not with understanding where he is.

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        One of the first Pentecostal / Charismatic worships I attended had a preacher that said, “I ain’t never read nuthin’ in mah life but the Bi-bul, and I ain’t never gonna read nuthin’ but the Bi-bul.” Cognitive dissonance is afraid of knowledge.

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    The less than spiritual clubby social function environment was a source of my early disenchantment with Protestant churches I attended. The Catholic church had more appeal in that regard, with a lot of ceremony and ritual, and wow look at the gold and the raiment the priest is wearing. Catholicism was more satisfying to whatever needs brought me to church(es). All the Latin and genuflecting and confessing left me feeling like I’d had a personal religious experience, certainly not a social one. Sophisticated mysterious rituals do seem to be more charming and seductive for some folks and charismatic personalities are not a factor in Catholicism like in evangelicalism. Whoever happened to officiate the Mass was hardly noticed, (by me anyway). The whole experience was somewhat hypnotic. I came to see it as designed to be manipulative and I couldn’t do it anymore.

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      John S.

      I was raised in the Assemblies of God, the “original” charismatic, dancing and waiving of hands, everybody praying on their own, etc. I saw the service change from a relatively “traditional” Protestant service to a more free for all entertainment based hyper enthusiastic service based on “praise and worship” that would just keep going on..and on..and on until someone spoke in tongues. And this was all before the sermon.
      I left Christianity for a long time, spending a while semi practicing Zen Buddhism.
      One day, while meditating, I literally felt a calling to explore Catholicism. This was in 2017. I contacted my local church, went to mass, and something clicked. I felt like I had “come home”. I was confirmed in 2018, and have attended a few different churches. Some have a more modern mass, some traditional with more Latin in the liturgy (NOT traditional Latin mass).
      Like you, I discern the biggest difference is the focus of the service- in mass it is the Eucharist. In evangelical churches it is the band and the preacher..and the fog machines and light show, etc.
      This is not to say one is better or worse than the other. Catholicism clicked for me (and still does, albeit without the recent political activism and bent towards hard conservative causes). I’ve always been more introverted and not much into public emotional displays of anything. The beauty and quiet reverence inside most Catholic Churches is also a personal draw.
      I don’t blame anyone who has either left Catholicism or is skeptical of it. I will not defend the indefensible. It is my personal destination, nothing more. I respect everyone’s individual journey.

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    Bruce, Best articulated description of the latest, incarnation of the Greatest Show on Earth. Who knows but just as the mall culture is curling up and dying, maybe this will be the last great gasp of a tyrannical church system.

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    Even the Catholic Church is trying to establish some “hip, cool” programs to reach out. I have a relative who has made a series of bad choices in life and is pretty near rock bottom, and he’s constantly posting Jesus crap. “The Chosen” series about Jesus, Hillingdon music (barf), daily devotionals, and some “Next Steps” program through the 2 local Catholic parishes near him. It’s really annoying, but every time he goes through a rough patch he ramps up the Jesusy stuff. Anyway, it seems like this joint program thru 2 parishes is an attempt to peel off some evangelicals because it seems more like evangelical church stuff than traditional Catholic mass.

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Bruce Gerencser