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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Why so Many?

Written by: on February 19, 2015

I recently spoke in a small Northern-Michigan city. While driving out of town, I passed an interesting sight; both sides of the road were lined with Evangelical churches. They were across the road from each other and next door to each other. It was almost a comical site. It reminded me of the way fast food restaurants line both sides of the road at expressway exits. I wonder why they are all together. Was property less expensive in that area? Were there some weird zoning laws that forced the churches to all be in one area? Is it possible that they did not want to be outdone by their “competition”? I don’t know the answer, but I was reminded of a major criticism I often hear leveled toward the Evangelical Church. I have often heard people cite the abundance of denominations and independent churches within evangelicalism as a blatant sign of their disunity. While I realize that people can use this as an excuse to not connect with a church, the observation is worth exploring.

In his book Evangelism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, D.W. Bebbington does a great job of not only tracing the history of the evangelical church in Great Britain, but also helps unravel some of the reason for the extensive number of groups.

While it is easy to identify the differences, it is important to remember that there are some core characteristics that help define what it means to be evangelical. “There is nevertheless a common core that has remained remarkably constant down the centuries. Conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism form the defining attributes of Evangelical religion.”[1] These beliefs are held in differing levels of priority, depending on the group, but for the most part, they continue to unite us. With that said, we cannot ignore that there are differences. Some of these differences have to do with geography and timing. A great example rest in the fact that many denominations have their roots in evangelistic events. Following mass conversions, such as in the time of Wesley and Whitefield, groups were formed around geographic locations or even around the leadership of a particular person. There were also obvious doctrinal issues that came into play such as Calvinism and Arminianism. But perhaps the greatest reason for these separations has to do with culture.

Following “the Lausanne Congress of 1974…it was commonly admitted by Evangelicals that the shape of their religion is influenced by the environment.”[2] The cultural environment continues to influence and challenge the church. “Denominational splits form an excellent index to the advance of fresh ideas. Repeatedly, new wine broke old bottles.”[3] Over the centuries, the church has addressed many cultural issues. At times, the church moves forward in unity, but more often than not, groups within the church move at a faster pace than the church as a whole. The sad truth is that sometimes the outside culture of the world holds great influence over the church. When this happens, people who bring injustices to light often make the church uncomfortable. In my own denomination, a group of pastors and laypeople who spoke out against slavery and the renting of pews was forced out of the Methodist Episcopal Church. As I read Bebbington, I see more than just three centuries of church splits, I see God working through groups, individuals, and denominations to impact their culture for Christ. Yes, there have been times that the church did not represent Christ in a very loving way, but “moulded and remoulded by its environment, Evangelical religion has been a vital force in modern Britain.”[4] I believe this also applies to America.

 

[1] David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1993, ©1989), 4.

[2] Ibid., 272.

[3] Ibid., 275.

[4] Ibid., 276.

About the Author

mm

Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

12 responses to “Why so Many?”

  1. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Brian…When I was pastoring down in Texas I often drove by a church named “3rd Baptist Church.” That always made me laugh…First Baptist and Second Baptist must have been run out of town. Sad but also comical.

    I appreciate how you addressed church splits when you said, “I see more than just three centuries of church splits, I see God working through groups, individuals, and denominations to impact their culture for Christ.” In many situations church splits represent a group of believers trying to impact culture in a way they previously couldn’t. I just wish the church could figure out a way to do this without splitting.

    • mm Brian Yost says:

      Good point, Nick. It is interesting how we can spiritualize a church split and call it a church plant. I worked with a couple of church plants in Hermosillo, Mexico. These were true church plants, not splits. I worked with the 7th, which was planted by the 3rd church and the 8th church. It took me a while to quit giggling, but the names worked for them. We now have 10 churches, and each one serves a different demographic. These ten churches are able to do what any one church would have a hard time doing.

  2. Travis Biglow says:

    Brian, yes the Evangelicals of today are split on so many issues and doctrinal differences. I find it hard to believe how Chrisitans dont understand the very thing that unites us is Christ whether their doctrine is more holy or more legal. We are united by one Spirit. I dont think Christ is going to separate denominations when we see him. We just separate ourselves while we are down here to be superior to another denomination! Wow like that really matters!

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      So true! If each of us can come around a table and focus on the things of Christ from our different church traditions, why can’t the rest of the world? It seems that churches are so busy trying to be successful in their own evangelical pursuits that they become a silo unto themselves. If we could come together with an evangelical focus, we would see huge revival and transformation taking place – just like in the days of John Wesley.

  3. mm Mary Pandiani says:

    In your reference to the Lausanne Congress statement in admitting that “the shape of their [evangelicals] religion is influenced by the environment,” I resonate with Bebbington’s words acknowledging that all theology and doctrine is done context (whether we like it or not). His words affirm the beauty of the evangelical world. But then that reality also causes concern. It makes me realize the dance we walk with not wanting to be too influenced so as to distort the truth to our own liking. That’s why I think God allows for the diversity – it forces us back to a state of humility where we don’t have all the answers. But we are still called to love each other…even the 3rd Baptist Church 🙂

  4. mm Jon Spellman says:

    But Brian, in light of Bebbington’s four essential elements of Evangelicalism, why don’t we say that all true Christianity is Evangelical? I mean how can we identify something that isn’t in possession of any of these four as Christian at all? I’m not trying to stir the pot here… or maybe I am
    J

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Keep stirring, John… “all true Christianity is Evangelical” – meaning that the true pursuit of Christian living will be evidenced by conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. This doesn’t mean that churches or denominations don’t have different beliefs, such as do we sprinkle or dunk? But, those doctrinal differences shouldn’t influence these four ways that we demonstrate our faith in Christ. I know many Catholics and Reformed traditions that demonstrate evangelical characteristics – sometimes much more so than the churches that label themselves as evangelical.

      We can see that evangelicalism has been influenced over time by culture, but I’d argue that we’ve also used the label ‘evangelical’ to propagate the message of “this church is doing things right, has the views that align to Scripture in the culture of that time, and to be truly saved one will be an evangelical”. This isn’t a spoken or public statement, but if we are honest it is an underlying attitude in many evangelical churches. Growing up in an ‘evangelical’ environment, church leaders warned of the dangers of being in a denomination that wasn’t ‘evangelical’. Yet, I know many churches labelled ‘evangelical’, that don’t demonstrate nor teach the four evangelical characteristics to believers. So, over time there has been disunity as being evangelical has lost it’s meaning in terms of the way one acts out their faith. It has become a church label or political platform. If one is evangelical, then it translates to certain opinions and stances on social concerns of the day. To the outside world, it denotes being on the left or right. There are, however, still evangelical bodies that have been able to rise above and propagate the true meaning of evangelicalism (George Fox Seminary is one such example). My hope is that their example will speak loudly to the rest of the world so that the true meaning of being evangelical will be understood.

      All this being said, being evangelical, based on the four characteristics is a very good thing. But, we must be careful of the context in which we identify as being ‘evangelical’ as it has become a term or label that carries a certain connotation depending on the circumstances in which it is used. My hope is that being evangelical can one day become a term that represents unity within the Christian community of believers and positive traits of the individual believer. But, for now it does very much represent disunity and controversy to the non-evangelical world.

      • mm Nick Martineau says:

        Good questions Jon and good observations Dawnel. I’d be curious to get Phil’s take with his Catholic upbringing. Just like you Dawnel…I’ve seen “evangelical” churches that don’t follow conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Yet, I have some anglican and catholic friends that value those qualities. What would Bebbington say about that?

  5. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Brian,

    “Following ‘the Lausanne Congress of 1974…it was commonly admitted by Evangelicals that the shape of their religion is influenced by the environment.'[2] The cultural environment continues to influence and challenge the church.”

    Good thought and I like your take on how culture offers/creates the tension of influence and challenge to the the church. I thought Bebbington did a really great job of tracking the weave of the “four pillars” yet showed all the rabbit trails that context created and probably the adaptations required to bring the gospel in those “moments”. I appreciate your good thinking and reasoning.

    • mm Brian Yost says:

      I think music is a classic example of the way the church responds to the culture around us. At one time, the church hired musicians to write “proper” church music. Then came Charles Wesley who was indignant enough to set some of his hymns to popular tunes and styles heard in the local pub. He was criticized, but he believed that pop music, with sound doctrine, could be a great tool for the church. Now Wesley’s hymns are “sacred” and accepted in the church (at least Arminian churches) while others have battled for the past several decades to bring a contemporary style into the church.

  6. mm Dave Young says:

    Brian,
    Without going into a too much detail, I’ve seen some splits that have resulted in multiple congregations, and multiple Christian organizations. I’m also in a community where every block seems to have a worn down, smallish church, with worn out smallish congregations. So what I take from your post is the hopeful perspective that much of the multiplicity is really the Spirit’s architecture and that God is at work. Albeit I rarely see the broad strokes of the Spirit, I more often see the discouragement of our own divisiveness. Really good post. Thanks

    • mm Brian Yost says:

      Dave, I certainly would not say that every church was started for the right reasons. In fact, I believe that the Spirit is often deeply grieved by our self-centered divisiveness. But I also believe that if the church is not reaching people for Christ (ie. a church that refuses to accepted people who are different from them), that the Spirit can move people to begin a new work in order to reach more people.

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