March 14, 2005

The franchise church

Filed under: Books,Ecclesiology — Camassia @ 11:42 am

Following up on another point, a PMC friend who’s been reading my blog asked recently what species of Baptist the church in Spirit and Flesh was. Basically, he was asking, was it really fundamentalist, or did the author just assume that Baptist = fundamentalist? It’s a good question, because the word fundamentalist certainly gets misused a lot these days, and a lot of people don’t realize how diverse the Baptists are.

Shawmut River Baptist is in fact independent of any denomination. But the pastor was trained at Jerry Falwell’s seminary in Virginia (whose name escapes me at the moment) and the congregation and the associated school get most of their theology and educational materials from that milieu, so I think the word is appropriate here. (And the preacher spends a lot of time fulminating against Darwinism, abortion and homosexuality, so he certainly fits the popular idea of a fundamentalist.)

Actually, this brings up another interesting point about the book. James Ault is the son of a Methodist bishop, and in fact one effect of this study was apparently to bring him back to his faith (though the hasn’t happened yet up to where I’ve read, so I can’t tell you any more details). So I’m sure Ault knows the problems of denominational bureaucracies as well as anyone, but he feels that Shawmut River’s detachment from a denomination causes some serious problems. Since the church relies on donations from its largely blue-collar congregation, it’s perenially short of funds, and in fact the pastor lives mostly on his veteran’s disability rather than on an actual salary. There’s also no higher authority to appeal to when disputes break out (short of God himself), so the church has already suffered one split before Ault shows up and suffers another one shortly after he finishes making his film. This is a problem that afflicts many fundamentalist churches, Ault notes.

Ault points out that Falwell’s empire, and others like it, fill “denomination-like functions” for churches like Shawmut River. Megachurches often spawn a number of smaller satellites, and sometimes found Bible colleges and seminaries that turn out people of like theology as reliably as any demonimational institutions.

This all reminded me of Martin Marty’s recent column in Christian Century about the “franchise church”. It no longer seems to be online, but Wesley Blog summarized it here.

The franchise churches tend to have a base—a quasidenominational virtual headquarters, from which signals of worship and activity get beamed to other sites. These full-service organizations have to offer fast-food operations, theaters, game rooms, athletic facilities, soft rock, kids clubs and many other things which the competing franchise church also offers. So is the denomination dead or merely being transformed? The megachurches and franchise churches promote seminars, publishers, networks, conferences, evangelism projects, credentialing agencies, consultants—the things the denominations that they despise once did. Make room, Yearbook of the American and Canadian Churches, for one more “denomination,” the “Franchise Church, Inc.”

The Internet Monk also laments the trend here.

In my church travels, the idea of going to a nondenominational church never appealed to me. Partly this was because I has no idea what I’d be getting, but also because the idea of the congregation as an atom floating loose in the great “invisible church” somewhere didn’t make sense. I also couldn’t figure out what sort of identity a church could have without some affiliation with a larger tradition, without a story of itself. The traditionalism of a community like Shawmut River, where the past beyond a generation or two disappears into the “eternal yesterday,” shows me to some extent why this makes sense to them; but of course many churches, especially in Los Angeles, are not like that. I guess that the formation of the franchise church shows us that where denominations don’t exist, we have to invent them.


  1. Another very interesting post! I am also a bit put off by non-denominational churches. Like you, I’m drawn to systematic theology, and non-denominational churches generally have less to offer there. Also, I tend to think (perhaps unfairly) that such churches are organized more around the particular preacher than the Word.

    You wrote: This [splitting] is a problem that afflicts many fundamentalist churches, Ault notes.

    Isn’t this, though, how every Protestant church, fundamentalist or otherwise, was formed?

    Comment by Tom T. — March 14, 2005 @ 9:24 pm

  2. Yes, but in the first centuries of the Reformation most Protestant churches still hung to the idea of being the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” so they would not split unless they thought the other faction was actually heretical. The fundamentalist churches are, as you noted, very much centered around the pastor, and as Telford remarked to me recently, pastor-driven churches can only grow so big before you have too many people too far removed from the pastor. That’s what happens at Shawmut River — nobody accuses anybody of being the devil’s spawn, they just argue over leadership and the handling of money and so on.

    It’s also interesting that at the same time that fundamentalist churches have developed with their tendency to split, older and more liberal churches have shown a tendency to merge. The ELCA, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalists all came about from mergers, and the ELCA and the Episcopalians sorta-kinda got together (they’re in communion and they do joint services and that sort of thing). I think the United Methodists are called that because they formed out of a previously disorganized group of churches, but probably my UMC readers could tell you more about that.

    Comment by Camassia — March 14, 2005 @ 9:53 pm

  3. Also, I tend to think (perhaps unfairly) that such churches are organized more around the particular preacher than the Word.

    In my experience, I would very strongly agree with this. I spent 6-7 years of my life in a non-denominational church. I left when I went to a 4-year Christian University in San Diego, and ended up joining a Nazarene church a few years back. They went through 2 or 3 pastors while I was at Christian Life Center, and while the last pastor there, there was a huge range of different types of Christianity on display. Sometimes it was very liturgical, and other times it was full-on rolling-in-the-aisles, holy-laughter, slaying-of-the-spirit, speaking-in-tongues Pentacostalism. I’m being very literal about that previous sentence, by the way.

    And now, their new pastor is probably at his most passionate when he is engaging in blatant patriotism and nationalism. When I’m at home during parts of the year that are not near July 4th, his sermons are really hard to stomach because he just abuses Scripture, really, taking things horribly out of context to fit into all of his hobby horses. I try to listen with an open ear and heart, but it’s very, very difficult.

    Maybe one day, when I resume my blogging, I’ll scan in a copy of the script from last year’s Fourth of July “service.” It was truly idolatrous. The problem, of course, is that I don’t know how to speak to my parents about it without deeply offending them, so I haven’t really as of yet… it’s probably one of my biggest faults: finding gracious language to speak about the truth of things. Maybe, though, it’s not my place and I’ll leave certain things up to God. I’m not sure exactly what that means at times, but it’s all I can do.

    Comment by Eric Lee — March 15, 2005 @ 3:50 pm

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