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What is causing evangelicals to split? by Dave Havir
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What is causing evangelicals to split?
By Dave Havir

The writer pastors the Church of God Big Sandy and is a regular columnist for The Journal.

BIG SANDY, Texas--A few years ago my wife began telling me about a Baptist congregation in her hometown in West Texas. She told me that the congregation had just experienced a church split.

I found the reason to be fascinating.

At the center of that particular church split were the concepts of well-known author Rick Warren, who has written books including The Purpose Driven Life (which has sold 25 million copies) and The Purpose Driven Church.

Apparently the younger people in the congregation were thrilled with some of the concepts discussed in the book, while some of the older people were not happy.

Their differences became so great that they could no longer coexist as a group.

What I thought to be an oddity at the time has become a growing trend in congregations around the country.

Linda Cartwright recently gave me a copy of the Sept. 5 edition of The Wall Street Journal because she thought I would be interested in an article on the front page. She was correct.

On the top-left column of the front page was an article with the headline "A Popular Strategy for Church Growth Splits Congregants." The article, written by Suzanne Sataline, had a secondary headline: "Across U.S., Members Divide on Making Sermons, Music More 'Purpose-Driven.' "


There were two reasons I was interested in the article.

First, I previously had looked at life with a myopic religious view and I now generally like seeing the big picture.

Second, when observing a specific situation I like to learn from the experiences of other people.

Many of our problems in life are not as unusual as we would like to think.

This article showed a perspective about why congregations split. It showed two sides of the issue.

Some people feel that congregations are dying and they need a spark and new life. Other people feel that proponents of change are taking believers away from the Bible and from valuable traditions.

Baptists in Mississippi

Ms. Sataline wrote: "In April, 150 members of Iuka Baptist Church [of Iuka, Miss.] voted to kick Charles Jones off the deacons' board. The punishment followed weeks of complaints by Mr. Jones and his friends that the pastor was following the teachings of the Rev. Rick Warren, the best-selling author and church-growth guru. After the vote, about 40 other members quit the church to support Mr. Jones."

She explained that Mr. Warren was spawning "an industry advising churches to become 'purpose-driven' by attracting nonbelievers with lively worship services, classes and sermons that discuss Jesus' impact on their lives, and invitations to volunteer."

Then she added: "But the purpose-driven movement is dividing the country's more than 50 million evangelicals. Some evangelicals, like the Iuka castoffs, say it's inappropriate for churches to use growth tactics akin to modern management tools."

The conflict in the Iuka congregation escalated when a Web site run by a critic of Mr. Warren posted a letter from Mrs. Jones describing her worries about Iuka Baptist and comparing the congregation's admiration for the pastor, Jim Holcomb, to the cult followings of Jim Jones and David Koresh.

A church meeting was called. Hundreds of people packed into the pews. After heated arguments, the congregation voted 150-41 to throw Mr. Jones off the board. In the weeks that followed, 40 church members quit.

Initially, the proponents of change appeared to be the victors. However, time has apparently modified the course of the congregation.

It has recently been reported that Pastor Holcomb has left Iuka for another congregation. A search committee was looking for a new pastor.

It is reported that the committee won't hire a pastor who will make Iuka purpose-driven.

It is possible that the parties on the two sides might be closer in their perspectives than they both realize. But the split has already occurred and emotions have stirred.

Orchids and onions

Ms. Sataline wrote the following about those who support Mr. Warren: "At a time when many churches are struggling with declining or aging congregations, advocates of the purpose-driven movement credit it with energizing congregations, doubling the size of some churches and boosting the number of 'megachurches' of more than 2,000 members. Mr. Warren says his church and nonprofit arm have trained 400,000 pastors world-wide."

Ms. Sataline wrote the following about those who do not support Mr. Warren:

"Despite successes elsewhere, the exodus at some churches adopting the purpose-driven approach has been dramatic. Since taking the job of senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lakewood in Long Beach, Calif., seven years ago, the Rev. John Dickau has watched attendance slide to 550 from 700."

Forcing change

Whether people like some of the changes or not, one troubling aspect is the examples of churches forcing changes upon their congregations.

Ms. Sataline wrote: "Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops . . . During a session titled 'Dealing with Opposition,' Mr. [Roddy] Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don't stop objecting.

"Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

" 'There are moments when you've got to play hardball,' said the Rev. Dan Southland, Church Transitions' president, in an interview. 'You cannot transition a church . . . and placate every whiny Christian along the way.' "

Vanity hinders learning

Whenever you think that your congregation is the only one that has challenges, realize that there is nothing new under the sun.

Many religious people (inside and outside the Church of God) like to think that God is blessing them when things are going well and that Satan is attacking them when things are going poorly.

In a sense, both concepts are vanity.

When things are going well, people like to think that they are blessed because they are the exclusive and elite believers in the world.

And, when things are going poorly, they like to think that they are the object of Satan's attack because they are the exclusive and elite believers in the world.

While it is important to avoid ignoring your calling, it is also healthy to learn from the experiences of other people and other congregations.

The reasons that cause many evangelical congregations to feel stress can also affect you.

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