In the 53 years I’ve been on this earth, there’ve been relatively few occasions when I have worshipped with a congregation of a different denomination.  As a child, during my elementary school years, I was sent to Vacation Bible School at churches of different denominations, mainly the “other” kind of Baptist in town, the Assembly of God and the Church of Christ.  And there have been a few times when, for one reason or another, I decided to deliberately attend a church that was quite different from my own.  At one point, becoming a bit disgusted with the fussing going on among various elements of Southern Baptists, I thought I might walk away.  I visited a couple of United Methodist congregations, a Presbyterian church and an Episcopalian church.  But I always drifted back to my Southern Baptist roots.

After moving to Pennsylvania last August, there were not many opportunities to “visit around,” and do what many people of my generation and older often do when they move by finding a church “of like faith and order,” by moving your church letter.  There are Baptists here, though they are not nearly as numerous as they were in Texas, and the Southern Baptists are few and far between.  The total attendance of all the SBC affiliated churches in our county doesn’t exceed 50, and in the association, which covers about 12 counties of the whole southwestern corner of the state, including its second largest metro area, the attendance probably doesn’t exceed 500 on any given Sunday.  The end result was that our “visiting around” to Southern Baptist churches didn’t take long. 

We weren’t completely without guidance in this matter.  Several of our colleagues suggested churches for us to visit, or invited us to their church.  There is a strong, conservative, evangelical presence here, though they may not be in the same percentages of the general population as they are in Texas, they are a significant percentage of the church-attending community here.  Conservative evangelicals are the majority of Protestants in the area, outnumbering the mainline denominations, though the Catholics are the predominant religious group in most places around here.  And there are some non-denominational congregations that fall into the category of mega-church, with all the bells and whistles.  We visited a couple of those, before settling on a small congregation affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. 

There are some differences between the CMA and the SBC, though it would be hard to detect them unless you spent a lot of time in churches of both denominations.  I had always been taught about Baptist “distinctives” in that subtle but firm way that pastors, college and seminary professors had of communicating that, while others may be Christian, we’re the closest to the way Jesus wanted his church to be.  Baptists have independent, autonomous churches, baptize by immersion, believe in regenerate church membership, and have a “unique” view of church-state separation.  Interestingly enough, so do the members of CMA churches.  The one significant difference I’ve observed is the way a church is organized.  CMA congregations have elders, who are the governing board and spiritual leadership of the church, including the pastor as head elder.  Deacons (and deaconesses), are involved in the church’s service ministries.  Doctrinally, while I wouldn’t call the CMA fundamentalist, I wouldn’t call the SBC that, either.  Conservative, absolutely, and in that vein, there is much theological similarity and agreement between the two.  Both groups also have a strong missionary emphasis.  The CMA, in fact, seems to be much more missions oriented, proportionately, with a US membership of around 400,000, but with overseas membership and missionary staff four times the size of the SBC’s foreign efforts.  Even here in the US, a large percentage of Alliance congregations are ethnic and language congregations.  That goes all the way back to the legacy of A.B. Simpson, who was the founder of the CMA. 

Denominational identity in the SBC is strong, but not nearly so in the CMA.  Most Alliance church members do not really separate or distinguish themselves from those in churches of other denominations, but are much more open to working with a wide variety of churches in various ministries.  They operate a few colleges and theological schools, but most of the pastoral leadership in the churches, as well as their missionaries, have degrees from schools affiliated with other denominations, or that are non-denominational.  There is more of a sense of being a missions movement than being a denomination.  And one thing that is completely missing in the CMA, at least from my observation, is the heirarchy of prominence that has so deeply affected the Southern Baptist Convention.  There is little desire or move on the part of denominational leadership for control, but rather, the leadership in key positions seems much more service oriented.  The Alliance, and its churches, are much more inclined to choose leaders they feel are called and gifted by the spirit, and who will demonstrate that commitment by their work, than they are to ask individuals to fill places of service because of who they are, and how important they have made themselves.  That’s been a refreshing difference.

So, after 46 some odd years of being a member of a Southern Baptist church, in April of 2011, my church membership in a Christian and Missionary Alliance church is an accomplished fact.  Ironically, my parents, who were raised in West Virginia, but moved to Arizona in 1951, were both saved and baptized in a CMA congregation in their home state.  Not finding one when they moved west, it was several years before they eventually found a church in which they felt comfortable worshipping, and it turned out to be the SBC congregation in which I grew up.  So, here in Pennsylvania, it seems that I have returned to my roots.


About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

6 responses

  1. Robert Lee says:

    Please tell us what you moved up to the N.E. to do? What is your new job? Why in the world did you leave Houston? Do you like it up there? How’s it going so far? Your new church sounds awesome…. Jesus saves people and not denominations, so enjoy your new church and CMA, OK?

    But, I have asked before in this Blog comment section why and what you are doing there, but you did not reply… so I am dying to know what your up to my friend.

  2. Robert Lee says:

    OK Lee. this is the 4th time or so I have asked you this question… you see, you keep talking about your wonderful move up to the NE part of the USA and I am glad you are happy in that frozen, God-forsaken area… just a joke. But I keep asking you, “What are you doing there now?” Are you a pastor? Teacher? Steel worker? College Professor? Retired? Pittsburgh Steeler ticket salesman? Seriously, I would love to hear about what your life there and what’s going on and what you do now after you left God’s country here in TEXAS. Adios Lee, and PLEASE reply soon and let us all know.

    God bless you Bro.

  3. Lee says:

    My daytime internet access is on a system that blocks blogs, so I sometimes miss what gets posted here. I accepted a position as the head administrator of a small Christian school up here. That’s pretty much been my calling and ambition since about 1983, it took a long time and a lot of hard work, including a couple of detours. When I started looking in the fall of 2009, I didn’t restrict my search geographically. When I started getting calls to come to interviews, they were all east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio except one on the banks of the Potomac. This one was a perfect fit. Lord willing, I will retire from here.

    I lived in Houston from 1979 to 1985, moved away, and then came back in 1995. People asked me then, “Why in the world would you ever want to come back here after you left?” We did, mainly because of work, though my wife enjoyed living there. It was just time for a change, and while Western Pennsylvania does have its share of winter weather, there are long, long stretches of pleasant days where the temperature is in the 60’s or 70’s, there’s no humidity, there’s a breeze and you can spend the whole day outside without bursting into a sweat. There’s nothing like the outdoor dining up on Mt. Washington or down in the theater district of Pittsburgh.

    The CMA was more or less a circumstance of geography. Lacking very many SBC churches, we just started visiting around the area, and found this church about a mile and a half away. Last Sunday, we had a carry in dinner after church, and I nudged my wife and asked her, “If you didn’t know where you were, how would you know that you weren’t at a church dinner in Texas?” The table had two kinds of lasagna, two other pasta dishes, several sausage casseroles, pierogies, potato casseroles, veggie mixes of various kinds, lots of salad, and not a piece of fried chicken in sight.

  4. Well, if you have to leave the SBC, I guess you made a pretty good choice. I’ve often said there are some churches out there who are Baptist and just don’t know it.
    Glad things are going well in the north country.
    David R. Brumbelow

  5. David Wright says:

    Howdy, Lee–Dave Wright here, formerly of South Main Baptist, Houston.
    Bumped into your blog while randomly surfing the web.
    Say, I couldn’t help but notice that as you indexed the various “other” denominations where you tested the waters, you completely omitted your foray at at BONA-FIDE, MODERATE, CBF congreation. Horrors!!
    Why you even taught Sunday School amongst those heathen heretics!!
    :):):)…sorry dude, just had to rib you a bit.
    Delighted to learn that you and Joanne are happy in PA and that you landed a good gig with the school. I myself am now in education.
    Yep, I left the Steeple Business behind two years ago. Just too much blood, backstabbing, and bulls***t, I’m afraid. Now I teach/coach Speech and Debate and teach intro couses in philosophy and psychology at a small non-sectarian school in Tulsa.
    Shelli and I spend every Sunday at Bedside Baptist with the New York Times as our lection. And we don’t miss church life one iota . (not that I’m bitter or anything…)
    Courage, Peace & Grace to you, Big Fella, and to Joanne as well.
    May you enjoy a Brave Journey in this chapter of your lives.

  6. Lee says:

    Yeah, I guess I did find a church home among the “heathen CBF” for a while, though the church was much more of a typical, traditional Southern Baptist congregation than many of those which are now spoken of as characteristic of the denomination. It was the essence of what being Southern Baptist was about to those of us who are past 50 years of age. And though they had severed their ties with the SBC, at least their direct ties, they were still in the BGCT, which, as one of the SBC’s affiliated state conventions, still made it a Southern Baptist church by identity and connection. It was a seamless transition both into their membership and out of it.