The limitations of the traditional denomination were being felt by some by the late 1950s.25 Some strongly entrepreneurial Protestants found themselves increasingly frustrated by the institutional inertia of denominational structures, which increasingly appeared to them to be unresponsive bureaucracies that were uninterested in local initiatives or innovations.
Such frustration, of course, is not new. The great Protestant preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, who played such an important role in the great fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s, once made the astonishing revelation that he had once considered leaving "the historic Christian organizations" in order to start his own "independent movement."26 Fosdick was dismissive of those who demanded ecclesiastical loyalty, holding that his only loyalty was to Christ. Yet despite his frustrations, he never set up his own church, even though his personal reputation was such that its future would have been secure. After all, he was widely regarded as the greatest preacher of his age and was regularly introduced to clergy conferences as "Dr. Fosdick, whose sermons you will have read and preached."
Yet deep in the heart of the Protestant understanding of God's dealings with humanity lay precisely the idea that would give a new sense of direction to those who shared Fosdick's frustrations but not his patience. Protestant understandings of the nature of the church locate its identity as a Christian body, not in its institutional history or connections, but in its fidelity in preaching and ministering the sacraments. So why not break free of such denominational control and establish congregations that were open to new ways of embodying Protestantism? They could preach and administer the sacraments just as well as before, but they would be free to develop new pastoral and evangelistic ministries.
These were dangerous thoughts as far as the mainline denominations were concerned. Yet the entrepreneurial individuals asking these questions could not be held back forever. Their sense of theological vision, coupled with a can-do mentality that was nourished and inspired by the Protestant work ethic, eventually drove them to achieve their goals outside the traditional denominations. Like Luther, they did not want to work outside their mother churches, but the needs and realities of the situation seemed to provide them with no alternatives. The outcome was a surge of new initiatives that met needs largely ignored by mainline denominations and set new patterns for how churches work, develop, and organize themselves.
The first wave of new developments took place in the 1960s. It was a time of ferment and demands for change. The strongly countercultural "Jesus movement" was widely seen as a protest against the social conservatism and institutional preoccupations of traditional Protestant worship that had led many to conclude that change was needed. Several major new Protestant movements trace their roots back to this time, including Calvary Chapel.
Calvary Chapel began in 1965 when Chuck Smith began to pastor a church of that name in Costa Mesa, California. The congregation grew quickly, reaching two thousand by 1967. The church reflected the informal, anti-establishment views of the Jesus movement. Guitars displaced pipe organs; robed choirs disappeared; instructions about when to stand, sit, recite, or read were dropped; and clergy dispensed with robes and dressed informally. Although traditional theologically, the mode of expression of that theology was quite different. The new emphasis of worship, especially of its music, was on deepening the individual's personal relationship to God.27
Yet the most interesting aspect of Calvary Chapel was its growth and its implications for denominational structure. At present, more than five hundred churches are affiliated with Calvary Chapel, mostly in California. Calvary Chapel insists that it is not a "denomination," but a "fellowship of churches." Where traditional denominations establish churches using a corporatist model of "branches" or "offices" of the central organization, Calvary Chapel's approach is more that of a franchise, an organizational form that avoids the financial and administrative overheads of traditional denominations. Any congregation prepared to accept the "Calvary Chapel Distinctives" can become a member of this fellowship and identify itself as such.
A similar model is used by the Vineyard Churches, which originated in Anaheim, California, and are particularly associated with John Wimber (1934-97). The Vineyard movement grew out of the Calvary Chapel network: Wimber led a breakaway group that was concerned in part that Calvary did not give sufficient attention to the role of spiritual gifts. The charismatic movement was becoming a significant presence in California in the 1970s, and Wimber had been involved in its development, teaching a controversial course on "signs and wonders" at Fuller Theological Seminary. Like Calvary Chapel, the Vineyard movement does not regard itself as a denomination, but as an association or fellowship. It has no centralized structures or authority figures.
The impact of such movements goes beyond the reshaping of denominational options and structures and the provision of new and less centralized models of the church. Developments such as these within Protestantism have led to new and informal worship styles, an explosion in "worship songs," a new concern about the dynamics of worship, and an increasing dislike of the traditionalism of formal liturgical worship, especially the cumbersome use of hymn books and service books, which many see as culturally alienating to "seekers" from within secular American culture.
This is perhaps seen most clearly in the emergence of the Willow Creek network, which traces its origins back to 1981. Founded in South Barrington, Illinois, just outside Chicago, Willow Creek Community Church aimed to present the Christian faith without the baggage of Protestant ecclesiastical tradition—such as clerical robes, hard pews,
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collection plates, and old-fashioned hymns. "Seeker-sensitive" worship would take place in an environment in which "unchurched" individuals could feel at home while learning about the Christian faith. Founding pastor Bill Hybels wanted Willow Creek to be "a safe place where seekers can hear the very dangerous, life-changing message of Jesus Christ."
Its success encouraged many other churches to use its methods. Once more, any suggestion that Willow Creek represented a new denomination was avoided. Individual congregations could associate themselves with Willow Creek; there would, however, be no centralized structures. Willow Creek—like Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard—has spawned a global network of churches that look to it for guidance.
The phenomenon of the "community church" allows entrepreneurs to develop their gifts in ways that would be impossible within the confining and restricting structures of most traditional denominations. These churches are strongly sensitive to the needs of their local communities, and their local grounding and knowledge inform their strategies and agendas. Most community churches are nondenominational and eschew the byzantine labyrinth of ecclesiastical politics. They see themselves as existing primarily for their members, and they have no great interest in supporting or sustaining the unwieldy and increasingly self-serving denominational hierarchies.
Perhaps the most celebrated recent example of a community church was established at Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California, in 1980 by Rick and Kay Warren, who had just graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas. It aimed to reach out to those who did not traditionally attend church, in a way that was seeker-sensitive, on the one hand, and theologically conservative, on the other. The vision was to establish "a place where the hurting, the depressed, the frustrated, and the confused can find love, acceptance, help, hope, forgiveness, guidance, and encouragement." Warren's best-sellers The Purpose-Driven Church (1995) and The Purpose-Driven Life (2002) have had a significant impact on the reshaping of Protestant attitudes toward creating community, evangelism, pastoral care, and outreach— all unimpeded by any denominational apparatus.
So is this the future? There will be other big community churches that develop distinctive ministries that work well and draw the atten tion of would-be imitators. A major transformation of the religious life of the United States is under way: the mega-churches are, in effect, becoming the new dioceses, with large numbers of orbiting planets. They are more responsive to social changes, easier to manage, and cheaper to run than traditional denominations. Just as the great medieval monasteries planted smaller monasteries ("daughter houses") in outlying regions, resourced by the mother house until they were deemed strong enough to be self-sufficient, so the mega-churches are spreading. The future of Protestant denominations in America will be deeply shaped by this major new trend.
The longer-term outcome, however, remains uncertain. Historians of American religion, such as Philip Jenkins, point out that certain cyclical trends can be seen at work over generations in the past, and these may well be repeated in the future with these new styles of Protestantism. As such groups become more established, they become more respectable. Their emerging leaders attend seminaries that become more liberal, with the result that the denominations themselves become more liberal in the next generation. This then leads to division within the denomination and the breaking away of groups to form more conservative or fundamentalist denominations, often with their own accredited seminaries. The future is far from clear.
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