An analysis of the factors in the demise of the Bible Fellowship Churches

Jansen E. Hartman


     When the letter was received assigning the topic “Why Did They Die?" my first reaction was a negative one since professedly my conscious efforts have been directed in the past to the starting of churches and to the promotion of growth, or so I thought, However, as I became more involved in the study it became clear that a self-evaluation of my own thinking respecting the subject was a necessity.

     Those who are involved in the events of history usually are not the best qualified to make evaluations and judgments of those events. Subjective considerations tend to give the conclusions drawn dubious value. With these limitations in mind we shall endeavor to answer the question raised, "Why Did They Die?" With a view towards making our past a bit more understandable. If we can gain some self-understanding as a church perhaps we may be more receptive to the Holy Spirit’s leadings as He seeks to direct to greater fruitfulness in this new day.

    To lessen the degree of bias in the question raised it seemed wise to call upon our brethren to gain the benefit of their experience and to broaden the perspective with the hope of greater objectivity. A letter of inquiry was sent to about 55 men on our present ministerial list, including those who have retired, as well as those who are laboring with other agencies. Two letters were sent to former members of one of the closed churches. A letter was addressed to our good friend, Arthur Glasser, to discover guidelines for a study such as this to see if we were traveling in the right direction. The recipients of this letter were requested to present the factors that they believed were dominant in the closing of churches that came under their observation. Twenty-nine responses were received. Almost all of them provided valuable insights. An attempt has been made to incorporate the material received into this paper so that it will have some weight as a consensus report.

     It is my understanding that our attention was to be primarily focused on churches that were closed in recent years, namely, Elizabeth, N.J., Jersey City, N.J., Roxborough, Philadelphia Newark, N.J., Trenton, N.J., Brooklyn, N.Y., Binghamton, N.Y.,Glendale, N.Y. One pastor was able to share with us observations on why the church in Wilmington, Delaware, was closed. With the closing of this home mission appointment it appears that the Gospel Herald Society had gone past its peak and that a decline had begun which was to continue until 8 missions or churches closed their doors before the trend was spent. At least it is our hope that this trend has run its course.

    Closing churches has not been reserved to the present era alone, Pastor Harold Weaber made this interesting observation, "In doing some research in this matter, I discovered that 30 churches had been started and closed in the period from 1874 to the present time. I also found that the membership of the Bible Fellowship Church grew from 1577 in 29 churches to 9227 in 38 churches (not including the church extension works) during the period from 1913 to 1967. This shows an increase in the average church congregation from 54.5 to 111.1 during that period." It is possible that a venturing church will continue to face the problem of closing existing churches as a part of a pattern of progress and adjustment. Closing a church that no longer fulfills its purpose may be a matter of good stewardship.

II. Summary of Reports Received

    The following are the major factors listed in the returns as contributing the most to the closing of churches along with the number of times these factors were mentioned.

1. Leadership problems related to the pastor (19)

2. Facilities a handicap (15)

3. Problems in the relationship of the churches with the denomination (10)

4. Frequency of change of pastors (6)

5. Sociological changes (6)

6. Failure to attract, train and develop elders in the local church (3)

7. Failure to maintain continuity in evangelistic fever and thrust (6)

8. Withdrawal of God's blessing because of wrongdoing (3)

9. Failure of church to provide the fellowship and cohesiveness essential to growth (3)

10. Gospel Herald Mission policies not conducive to church growth (2)

11. Acts of God - loss of key members through death (2)

12. Churches located in areas already served by existing churches that have a similar witness (2) 13. Doctrinal changes in the denomination coupled with increasing tendency toward liturgy and coldness. (2)


     1. A divided church contributed to the eventual demise of several churches. Despite the appearance of oneness, the Bible Fellowship Church was a conference divided under two men who provided two kinds of leadership resulting in two camp meeting programs, two methods of approach to ministerial supply and a divergent approach to church extension. In fact, home missions was assigned to one presiding elder. It is a startling fact to realize that all of the churches that closed were those which were from the Gehman wing of the church. That does not mean that churches under H. B. Musselman all flourished without problems. It is also interesting to note how few churches were established in what might be called the conservative wing of the church. Rather it is to be noted that there was a tendency toward reductiveness with churches being served by pastors on circuits. The expansion of the church since 1900 took place largely in that segment of the denomination that pitched its efforts toward the frontiers of the churches' geographic boundaries. There were churches such as Lebanon, Mt. Carmel, Shamokin, Sunbury, York, Harrisburg, Philadelphia-Calvary, Philadelphia-Emmanue1 , Scranton, Staten Island and Chester-Wallingford that have survived and flourished - nurtured by the Gehman influence.

    Nevertheless, the divided church failed to give the support needed to provide an adequate beginning to the churches which died. The very meager beginnings in some cases limited and forecast the eventual end of these churches. Actually it was not church extension conducted by a denomination but individual efforts to establish churches tolerated by the Conference. In some cases expansion and the attempts to start new works met with a negative response from the denomination.

This was the atmosphere and attitude that prevailed when some of the short-lived churches were born.

     2. The Gospel Herald Society or Mission policy led to the demise of the churches which failed to survive. The Gospel Herald Society from all appearances had its own method of operation - actually it was not recognized officially as a part of the Bible Fellowship Church. It was a home mission organization operating with a different ecclesiology than that held by the parent body. In fact, the so-called "non-denominational" method and other features provided ground rules for the operation on the local level which were completely divergent from the main body of the denomination , all of the churches which closed had their beginnings under the Gospel Herald Society, They were never able to completely free themselves from the handicaps placed upon them. It is apparent that there was little effort to establish at the very outset a proper understanding of what the nature of the New Testament Church actually was. It is from this basic weakness that an improperly formed church organizational structure was erected.

     3. The leadership gap contributed to the eventual end of several churches, The failure of the denomination to provide for an adequate method of providing for the training of pastors or the esfablishing of policies that would lead to the adequate supply of ministers contributed to the weakened leadership in the churches referred to so often in the replies from pastors. It is not enough to lay blame for the weakness of churches on men who were forced by group pressures and rules to operate in a very narrow and restricted fashion. The question must be asked why were these men placed in these situations as immature and unqualified pastors.

    Likewise today the solution is not solved by simply saying experienced and qualified men will get the job done, The question to be faced is how and by what means would the Lord of the Harvest have us employ to assure an adequate supply of qualified men for places of leadership in the churches to avoid the failures of the past. Certainly one must admire the evangelistic zeal and courage exhibited by the young men of the past who ventured forth with sacrifice to begin new churches and their efforts were not without attended blessing and fruit. However today the rising level of education of the general population indicates it would be preferable to have men who have had long periods of training and who are long on experience and maturity.

     4. Provincialism in the homogeneous aspect of the Bible Fellowship Church has restricted its sphere of influence. We are a church bound more by cultural forms and tradition than we realize. Our customs and outlook have become so rigid and inbred that we appear to be "foreign"' to people in our own society.

The withdrawal from the urban area is an indication of our inability to cope with the problem of adjusting to changing circumstances. We may have been flattered when the people of Long Island referred to the people of Pennsylvania as being different but actually we should have become concerned that we would would become more closely identified with the people we were seeking to reach. The past indicated that we have to little concern for people outside of our own culture and class limits. It is useless for us to profess that we have a great interest in the millions in our own country when we refuse to bridge the gaps between these classes and ourselves. It would be more kind and honest to say that we are interested only in our kind and stay within our own kind and in our own homogenous group.

     5. The real reason for our failure in these churches is that God in His own Sovereign will chose not to make us the instruments of growth in the areas where these churches were located. It is Jesus Christ who will build His church. It is by the life of the Spirit that men are regenerated and growth is produced. We must recognize that God alone can do the actual work of saving people. If we believe that God has called us to a work of evangelism outside our circle then each of us must undergo a change in basic personal attitude, This change must be accompanied by a repentance of a kind that will transform our attitude toward people and procedures. I must find and accept the mind of Christ not only as a basis of unity among ourselves but also a basic outlook toward life and service. When we abide in Christ in full yieldedness to him the flow of life to others through us will begin.

State of Connecticut

Connecticut Valley Hospital

Middletown, Connecticut

Rev. Jansen E. Hartman

Berean Bible School

1020 S. Hall St.

Allentown, Pennsylvania

May 13, 1968

Dear Jack:

The following are a few of my thoughts in answer to your request:

1. In the opening of any mission I feel we failed to create an image of Pastoral Concern, I.e. first we were painter, carpenter, plumber, fund raiser, and then after a few weeks we became the preacher.

2. We took the full responsibility for all details of worship, financing and maintenance.

3. we failed to communicate to parishioners and community, "This is your church, let me as pastor help you build it."

4. We were too isolated in our concern, i.e, there was not a proper survey for ethnic nor family factors.

5. I feel that we could have made it a community concern through the children reached.

6. There was too much of a concern for canvassing and finances rather than a concern for reaching people through witnessing.

7. There was too much concern in making a mission self-supporting too quickly.

8. We placed an emphasis on youth, but failed to differentiate between naivete and youth.

9. For the naive person there was too strong an encouragement to identify with the leader who was older and more experienced. This gave rise many times to an over identification. I would illustrate by raising the question, “What young man could imitate Daddy Gehman and get away with it with respect?" Yet you and I know too many young men went down the drain because of this over identification.

10. There was not proper supervision. I find that this is one of the strongest points of deficiency with the mission program. I am now involved in supervising interns at the hospital, and I find that proper supervision makes the difference in most instances for the young and uninitiated. I am able to send a young Seminarian or Clergyman with supervision into any setting at the hospital.

11. Ordination is a must. Without this the mission has a fly-by-night aspect.

12. Missions were not a house of worship which attracted people through the symbolism which they could recognize and respect.

13. A Charismatic person with success was moved too soon. The factors of success were not recognized. The personality of the person following him was not taken into account. Differences were noted rather than complimentary factors enhancing one another.

14. The question must be raised for some areas such as New York City, “Do we want a mission, and for what reason The goals for any mission must be delineated.

15. There is a need for experienced men with their education completed, ordained, and with a salary. Many times the educational process competed with the mission’s time, and made the man a part-time pastor.

I hope this is helpful and is in time for you. The more I think of this subject I realize this letter could be five pages long.

Wishing you the very best, I remain,

Sincerely yours,

(Signed) Harold Yarrington,

Chief Chaplain


A Division of Gospel Light Publications

725 East Colorado, Glendale, California

Rev. Jansen E. Hartman

Berean Bible School

1020 South Hall Street

Allentown, Pennsylvania

Dear Rev. Hartman:

May 6, 1968

    While I wish to be as helpful as possible, I am in no position to state "the factors that you believe were dominant in the closing of churches that have come under (my) observations... identify the church and the reasons." During the years of my active association with the Bible Fellowship denomination I cannot remember of any church closing, or at least any that came under my personal observation. So it would be impossible for me to give historical specifics.

     I entertain personal conclusions concerning the general decline of our denomination, when all around us other denominations were enjoying growth and progress in depth. My recent observations and conversations with some of the leaders at the 1967 Annual Conference confirmed these conclusions.

1. There has been a shift in emphasis from evangelism and outreach to an ivory tower type of isolation and "comfort the dear saints" ministry.

2. There has been a decisive and divisive change in doctrine. At one time, I believe all the pastors held to a midway line between extreme Calvinism and Arminianism. For some years some of the influential leaders have held to what I would consider extreme Calvinism with Covenant theology. This has not only brought division between the pastors, confusion to the members, but has also stifled the evangelistic outreach which was one of the foundation stones in the origin of our denomination.

3. Ever since I can remember, there was a hierarchal opposition to the training and use of lay leadership. Jealousy of power and position was responsible for this.

4. The centralization of authority robbed the local churches of autonomy and incentive.

5. The home mission or outreach efforts of the denomination were completely dependant upon inexperienced "men in training" and the "Corner-Store Mission" facilities. Other denominations send their best men to open new churches, give or loan sufficient subsidies for attractive facilities and adequate support and immediately give full recognition to the new church at the annual conference.

6. Tradition, pharisaical extraction of “motes from our brother’s eye," jealousy among the pastors, plain laziness on the part of some of them, a tendency to not be contemporally intellectual, shallow topical preaching, lack of skill and time for personal counseling, shepherding without compassion and working without the fullness and power of the Holy Spirit.

All these have and do play a part in our denominational and evangelical stagnation.

I have written frankly but not confidentially. You may quote me to any extent you desire.

May God use your message to bring a new warmth to your own heart and a true revival to the shepherds of the flocks,


(Signed) C. Lesley Miller

        Director of Publications

Overseas Missionary Fellowship

237 West School House Lane,

Philadelphia, Pa.

Dear Jansen:

    Thank you very much for your letter of May 1st. I hasten this reply, although I am naturally aware of my inability to make any contribution to the Inquiry which you sent my way, as you doubtless can well surmise, I have not been in intimate contact with Bible Fellowship Churches that have died. In review, it seems to me that churches die in our day because of the following reasons:

1. Population shift resulting in a migration of members from the neighborhood.

2. Defective leadership. Some pastors are anti-intellectual. Others are very careless in their sermon preparation. At times they may be deficient in cultural appreciation. We must realize that the educational level in our congregations is steadily rising. People are becoming sensitive about matters of dress, speech, breadth of outlook, etc. If a pastor makes unwise comments on all of this pattern of change, he can alienate from himself the leadership segment of his congregation. When this segment is gone the church begins to die.

3. Unimaginative methods. I know churches that have not changed their patterns of operation in recent years. Whereas they are not deficient in praying, they are beginning to die. In contrast, those churches that examine critically their methods and which are courageous in making changes generally experience growth.

     I think that an evangelical denomination, such as the Bible Fellowship Church, needs a functioning committee devoted solely to the matter of church growth. That committee should study out all of the factors that they uncover when analyzing the churches that are growing. They also ought to analyze the churches that do not grow with a view to discovering as far as possible the reasons for this stagnation. Then they should set up targets for the denomination as a whole, and for individual congregation. Every church should be praying about multiplying itself. It should have selected some new area in which to plant a new church. Every congregation should examine its statistics at least once a year with a view to analyzing how much is the overall growth biologically (children of Christians), transfer ( members from other churches) and outright conversion. A church ought to be able to increase its congregation by 20% a year. At Least!

     Frankly, I would be very much interested in the results that you dig up. I could wish that you were in touch with Donald A. McGavran at the Institute of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary. May I suggest that you secure a copy of the March, 1958 Church Growth Bulletin. It discusses church growth in California and should whet your appetite for more insights along this line. This is written in much haste but with warm personal greetings. We thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,

(Signed) Arthur F. Glasser

      Director for North America