The independent Bible church movement began in the early 1920s and is still with us, albeit with less gusto or in new form. It ascended with the dawn of radio broadcasting and stage technology. With a little ingenuity and personality one could achieve fame and influence as a Christian broadcaster. But occasionally this led to notoriety and scandal instead, as was the case of Aimee McPherson. An articulate and assertive man or woman, endowed with a God-given talent for theatrics and drama, could in these special times establish a nationwide radio ministry. These “abilities” by some means fell under the spiritual gifting classifications of encouragement or exhortation.
The independent church movement gained further admiration among the anti-establishment activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This led to an interesting juxtaposition of the hippie counterculture from which the Jesus Movement originated. They became known simply as “The Jesus People.” The Jesus Freaks, as they were also called (affectionately) often viewed mainstream denominationalism as irrelevant at best and apostate at worst. The Jesus Movement then called for a return to communal living and, in some cases, asceticism – a happenstance coinciding with the opinions of the hip and cool “free love” subculture. A circle of discontent had begun to demarcate mainline Christianity. There were biblical proof texts to be found along the way.
Dogma was deemed unnecessary by the Jesus revolutionaries; indeed, theology was greatly discouraged. Apart from a sophisticated view of End Times millennialism, the Jesus Movement was without established conviction so it was fruitless to argue whether it was a Christian group or not. Historic articles of faith such as the Apostles Creed had been judged outdated or irrelevant. These “man-made” documents inadequately reflected the opinions and experiences of the Jesus Freaks. Creeds of any sort were condemned as being the invention of mere mortals. Traditional statements of orthodox belief were promptly replaced with fresh slogans such as “Get high on Jesus.” Jingles were also borrowed from folksy anti-establishment celebrities. An entirely new genre of music was thus born. “Love” or harmonious relationship was all that mattered now, and orthodox theology was declared to be too divisive to ride in The Jesus Train.
The Jesus People did not meet in “churches.” Instead they communed in “fellowships.” Also gone were the pulpits or anything else that might give visitors the impression that they were attending a traditional religious service. Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel, is generally considered to have started the church prop removal program in 1965.
Calvary quickly began to sow sister chapels. As ironies go, the Calvary movement discovered it needed to provide instruction for its many new churches … er, “fellowships” I meant to say. Calvary Chapel Bible College was founded and curriculum was sanctioned and disseminated in order to maintain official doctrinal standards … er, “core beliefs” I meant to say. Calvary wanted to maintain consistency in the teaching of its clergy … er, “leaders” I meant to say. Many of its adherents continue to insist that Calvary Chapel is not a denomination, but a “fellowship of churches.” Chuck Smith at one time was unenthusiastic to denominational structure, but in effect a Christian denomination is exactly what Calvary Chapel has become. In fact, with at least one thousand churches it is now on its way to becoming one of the largest.
Ecclesiastical independence has reinvented and rebranded itself over again in the 21st century. It is now called Emergent-Conversation-Post Modern-Neocharismatic-Post Evangelicalism. It can be called any combination of the aforementioned terms, or none of these things, too. Much like its Jesus People ancestor, the Emergent emphasize the developing and decentralized nature of the early church, as they understand it to have taken place. Apparently, the Jesus People, now aged fifty or sixty-something, have neglected to rear its young and idealistic progeny that that was precisely their own intent and purpose. It stuns the Jesus People independents to this day that their children are unable to detect this fact for themselves. It is as clear as the nose on one’s face, is it not?
Post Evangelicals mostly agree that they are disillusioned with the way the independent Bible church movement has organized itself. As it turns out, the independent Bible church movement has been perceived by young and restless Emergents as too “institutionalized, materialistic, worldly, and corporate.”
History, it seems, does not repeat itself in the church as frequently do unexpected incongruities.
To be continued …