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.