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 baseâ€”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, consultantsâ€”the things the denominations that they despise once did. Make room, Yearbook of the American and Canadian Churches, for one more â€œdenomination,â€ the â€œFranchise Church, Inc.â€
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.