Denominations and Denominational Death Spiral

Denominations typically are seasonal in influence, as they are products of people of faith responding to cultural conditions of their point of origin.  Unless you are living in the time when a movement begins, denominations are collections of yesterday’s revelation, guided by principles for living in days that are long gone.  The seasonal aspect of their existence is what creates their limited long-term impact and viability. They are like yesterday’s bread with Jelly covering the mold.  Let me explain.

William Menzies (former Professor, Pastor, Historian of the Assemblies of God) wrote an excellent book that addressed Denominational life span’s (see yesterday’s post for context) entitled Anointed To Serve when he was in Office. He was disturbed at his conclusions, as he identified five cycles within the life of every movement or what would become a denomination. In his opinion, the A/G was in cycle 4 in the 70’s. An honest assessment of his findings would put them in cycle five now. The 5th cycle is the death cycle. Although those most who are in it would not concur with Menzie’s prophetic assessment, most scholars would. Incidentally, by the 5th cycle, denominational death isn’t closure and irrelevance. It’s conformity to the religious structure and beliefs of all the other groups that preceded them (Calvinism vs. Arminianism), minus the underlying Tenet positions such as speaking in tongues as initial physical evidence as a non-negotiable in every instance where fellowship is extended.

Denominational death is typically identified as the loss of the original focal points that made them unique, which normally includes the exclusion of those who want to revive the old ways. As a denomination begins to look like everyone else, the original rallying cry ceases to exist. The abandonment of “first causes” is typically led by the top leadership for growth and stability. Concerning the Pentecostal world of denominations that came into existence circa 1910-1930, this would be seen as snuffing out the embers of revival. It was believed that this would diminish gifts, moving away from highlighting tongues and insisting on their evidence in ALL church leaders. Services needed to includedynamic Altar ministry times that would consist of embracing and teaching being Slain in the Spirit (old school Pentecostalism) among others. Those were the practices and principles that were the cardinal truths Pentecostal’s organized around that distinguished them from their contemporary peers in the various faith expressions.

The packaging that this study in denominational life cycles identifies does not preclude people or denominations or denominational loyalties. It does recognize what has happened in EVERY denominational movement by identifying the five stages or cycles every group goes through, and dare I say it, what some are currently going through right now. There are sterling examples that are textbook among the Pentecostal groups that organized circa 1910-1930.

Denominating groupstypically take the lofty approach as to their superiority of belief and practice, wielding their position lethally at times against the next move of God. That is why mainline Pentecostals like the Assemblies of God have carte blanche rejected the Latter Rain Movement, the Charismatic Movement, the Jesus Movement, the Vineyard Movement, the Renewal Movement, the River churches and most recently Bethel Redding. The closer a denomination is to the 5th and final cycle, the more voraciously they attack the children their reticent behavior produces, creating a bastardized generation of leaders and groups that no longer fit within the old mold. This is the bane of denominations. That is not to say that they don’t have a place in the church. It is just a significantweakness that has yet to be overcome.

Even the Vineyard became subjected to its poison, both in the receiving end and in the distribution. We see this in the breakup with Calvary Chapel and the repulsion of Toronto Airport and their affiliates. This historical assessment isn’t dismissive of people. If people want to remain in a group or join a denomination once it has cycled out of the phases of decline, or while it is in the process of cycling out, more power to them. It takes a multitude of churches to reach a diverse human species. The assessment points out the inevitable abandonment of the original principles of distinction that created the initialseparation and the season that necessitated their point of origin, that’s all. Maybe I’ll address the marginalization or expulsion of those who try to maintain the first principles during a time of transition tomorrow. 

One more thing. These are the types of areas we studied at Liberty in the Church Growth and Church Management divisions. I hopethat a day will come when someone will learn from histories only lesson we ever seem to master, which is we never seem to learn from history. However, maybe the River Churches and the Bethel types will finally figure this one out and bless the next wave as it approaches the shores of our shared faith.

When Pentecostal services and churches begin to look like, feel like, sound like and act like non-Spirit filled denominational expressions like the Baptists/Presbyterians/Methodists/etc, the death knell has sounded concerning the principles and beliefs that the founders were willing to suffer being ostracized and to suffer religious persecution at the hands of their Christian contemporaries. This phenomenon is evidenced by the forced removal or pressured removal of old school hold outs and advocates to a return to the good old days and the good old ways. In Anointed to Serve: A History of the Assemblies of God, Menzies, without identifying modern revival anomalies like the Brownsville Revival in Pensacola FL, which was bastardized by the hierarchy of the denomination Brownsville was a part of for the most part, Menzies said you would know when the 5th cycle was in full force by how a throwback type of church or movement within the denomination or leaders of the new expression were treated.  

It was the denominational leadership that directly influenced the demise of the revival at Brownsville Assembly in Pensacola FL through the forced termination of Dr. Michael Brown, as they tried to force the acceptance of credentials from the A/G or the church would lose its ability to finance its property. Michael Brown was already credentialed by another body and was hired with this information being fully known. This can also be said of Bethel Redding and other similar churches. There are people in the body of Christ who are trying to assert that Bethel Redding, Jesus Culture and other reputable people and movements are actually Kundalini practices infiltrating the church. When you see the innovators, those who want to maintain the original ideals, or those who want to embrace methodologies that help people in their quest to encounter Holy Spirit being kicked out or forced to leave, the 5th cycle is the new reality. 

The exclusionary practice that forces throwback leaders in a denominational setting to leave and that marginalize and diminish innovative seekers of change has a very real function among ministers, as it creates a climate of fear concerning trying to advocate whatever new model rises to replace what was given by the previous generation. This fear based dynamic typically lends itself toward a chilling effect against movement that would catapult the denomination back toward its original precepts and distinguishing markers concerning the reestablishment of first position. Advocacy and fear are huge, as it can mean loss of income, position and prestige. New American and Western systems today would be seen as Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Catch the Fire Toronto, Bethel Redding’s reassessed configuration following their departure from the Assemblies of God, Harvest Rock, MorningStar, etc. the former paradigm has always created a climate where the new is bastardized and diminished. Thus, the cycles begin again.

If you don’t mind, I’ll also comment on the exclusion of the Apostles and Prophets in most Pentecostal denominations dating to the early 20th century and their aversion to a proper, biblical view on demonization. They are simply a product of their time period. Most leaders in the early Pentecostal movement were ill-educated and they relied on the study tools that were easily available, which included the Scofield Study Bible. Many pastors and evangelists used this Bible’s study notes for sermon creation and for doctrine in most areas minus the Baptism in the Spirit and nominal gift expressions. Scofield along with Dakes Study Bible, and the fact that most Evangelicals were Dispensationalists theologically, with the Dispensational view dominating the day, which explains the exclusion of the Apostles and Prophets concerning offices in the church. It was a grave error that also exposes the problem of Denominationalism beyond the first thru fourth cycles of advancement. 

Denominational structures very rarely ever go back and change the verbiage and beliefs of the original cardinal points of practices (orthopraxy), while conversely shedding the Doctrinal pillars (Orthodoxy) that made them different and that made them unique, setting them apart from their contemporary ecclesiastical forces that they were attempting to be known as being separated from initially. This is why denominations cease to be relevant once they cross the tipping point where status and possession of property preservation become more important than advancing the Kingdom. The lack of reassessment typically leads to beliefs and practices that do not progress into the next move of God and/or cultural changes and values.

I was at the A/G meeting where the tipping point was crossed. It was at General Council in 1997. Rick Warren had just won a Lawsuit against the A/G over Plagiarism and Copyright infringement, as Springfield’s publishing arm, Gospel Publishing House had created a then new program titled: We Build People. It was based solely on Warren’s work, with LARGE tracts copied word for word. Because he patented his ideas, he won big time, and the A/G was forced by Judiciaries to pay him royalties and were required to use the Warren’s Purpose Driven program, albeit under the pilfered model’s reassessed name, We Build People. Warren, a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate, gleefully told us that this would change the A/G, virtually making them look just like his views in 20 years. His views include a diminished view of Holy Spirit as active, the gifts, the Offices, etc. He was right. Warren’s Purpose Driven model purposefully excludes the supernatural as it a dispensational based paradigm. My wife and I walked out of the meeting where he was speaking, which was also a concession based on the Lawsuit. He has made millions of dollars off of the A/G and his views have helped to tamp out the old revival fires that had once burned bright.

BTW: Thomas Zimmerman served as General Superintendent of the Assemblies from 1959-1985 and presided when the A/G rejected the Latter Rain Movement, the Jesus Movement, the Charismatic Movement and the Word of Faith Movement as being “not of God.” I would say they were “of God,” just not of the Assemblies of God, which is another indicator of the decline of a denomination as seen in the rejection of any similar movements that happen that were not exclusive to them in origin. The final capstone to this phenomenon is witnessed when the movement actually rejects sub-movements within its own structure, like the rejection of the Brownsville Revival and to a lesser extent, the rejection of Bethel Redding. I say to a lesser extent with Redding only in the sense that they voted to disassociate with the Assemblies and became a uniquely new expression, while Brownsville Assemblies of God remained within the denominational structure and did not disassociate.

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