So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if we had to move to the Phoenix area we’d be sorely tempted to make Scottsdale Bible Church our home church. We understand why our Navigators friends decided to settle here. And let’s be frank: anyone who has been part of a healthy parachurch community often has a hard time finding a church.
That being said, I’m more inclined to scrutinize a church I’d consider moving to than a church I’m just visiting like a tourist. So let’s do the rundown. This is an independent church; unlike some churches with names like “X Bible Church,” SBC is not affiliated with the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches or the Fellowship of Fundamental Bible Churches, or any denomination, for that matter. They have a history intertwined with Fellowship Bible Church in Chagrin Falls, OH, but that’s it. This can be a good thing; it can be a bad thing. Denominations are good for providing infrastructure and accountability, but they also tend to have their own direction and inertia; see e.g. the SBC in the Seventies and the Nineties, the Anglican communion and the ELCA today, for example.
But with independent churches there’s often nobody providing backup when things go wrong. There are no written policies for emergencies, there’s no contingency planning, and there may be nobody in leadership who has ever been through a serious crisis before. They may or may not be on guard against embezzlement, leadership appropriation or misuse of ministry property, or people who prey on children. And oddly, while the former categories are rarely newsworthy, the latter often is; take for example the recent coverage of the arrest of Alvaro Daniel Guzman for inappropriately touching a boy while working at Lakewood Church in Houston.
This is an especially difficult problem for churches: media coverage tends to be long on accusation and short on verdicts; the church rarely has a chance to clear its name; the person arrested, as is the case for Guzaman, sometimes has no prior criminal record; and even simple criminal background checks are sufficient to scare off potential volunteers, so churches tend not to require them as part of routine volunteer screening. This appears to be the case at SBC: volunteers are subject to interview by church staff, but so far as I can tell no background checks are required.
I don’t know what the right answer is here; people with nothing to hide often resent being required to submit to a background check; background checks often fail to find future offenders in advance; etc. But churches really need to take precautions against predators in their midst; I’d consider it a warning sign that a church doesn’t vet volunteers. Independent churches, especially, are often tempted to cover up anything that might lead to a scandal that would harm revenues, as they’ve got no denominational backup in the event of a crisis. So I’d consider the lack of background checks, combined with the self-contained accountability structure something of a warning sign. Not a warning sign of inappropriate activity, but a warning sign that the church may not respond well when something goes wrong.
Let’s just take is as read that I mentioned C. J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries here; I don’t know if the people who go by the pseudonyms “Wallace” and “Happymom” are credible or not, but their accusations against SGM Fairfax give me pause, and the story they tell should serve as a warning of how things can go wrong when churches have crises that may not be their fault but that they nevertheless handle poorly.