The Lynchburg paper is reporting that Elmer Towns has been named to replace Ergun Caner (they omit any mention of Dan Mitchell) and add a few more nuggets:
He served as dean of the seminary from 1979 to 1992.
Towns will remain dean of LU’s school of religion.
Towns was not part of the committee [that investigated the Caner matter].
The seminary enrolls 500 residential students and 6,800 online students, Towns said.
Towns also spoke at Liberty Convocation on Wednesday; he announced plans to increase the size of the seminary to 1000 resident students and 10,000 total students.
We still don’t know anything about the committee that investigated the Caner situation, apart from the fact that it was either headed or named by Ron Godwin and may or may not have included Godwin himself.
And what did I learn my first online visit to Liberty Convocation? Elmer Towns is replacing Dan Mitchell as dean of the seminary. Readers with long memories may remember that Dan Mitchell replaced someone named Ergun Caner as dean. Mitchell was interim dean; Towns apparently is not.
This is one reason I love YouTube.
This is a classic clip from the Seventies-era Old Time Gospel Hour show. It opens with a balcony shot of the congregation with the Sue Willmington oval inset, then shifts to a tight shot of Jerry telling an invitation story and transitions to a shot of Jerry in profile without Sue inset.
Those yellow choir robes didn’t last; they switched to a TV-friendlier blue in the Seventies. The platform was reconfigured in the Nineties, putting a gap in the choir behind Jerry, arranging the throne-like chairs behind the pulpit in a semi-circle and giving the stage a feel that was more like a TV show set and less like a small Baptist church grown to fit.
I’d love to know who that is walking behind Jerry, sitting down, and arranging his glasses and hair. Those gestures could be Elmer Towns, but the posture and the ear look wrong.
Elmer Towns has a bunch of the books he’s written on his website in PDF form, available for free download. Of the 76 items there, a handful are study guides, and he has Church Aflame available in two parts, leaving roughly 69 books. Of those, by my count 19 or 20, or about 28%, are devoted to various aspects of church growth: church growth techniques, Sunday School techniques, studies of fast-growing churches, historical revivals, etc. And it turns out I was wrong about him being outside the mainstream of the Church Growth Movement: his Practical Encyclopedia of Church Growth is replete with references to Donald McGavran, former missionary to India and founder of the movement. Oddly enough I didn’t find any references to management guru Peter Drucker; it’s entirely possible that I didn’t look in the right place, or it may be that Drucker’s influence in the movement has been overstated.
Regardless, Towns’s influence on Jerry Falwell, on Thomas Road, and on Liberty has been huge; he’s the head of the School of Religion (not the seminary; that’s another part of the organization chart), was one of the founders of the college, and was one of Jerry’s right-hand men for years. He was rumored (unconfirmed and probably false), along with Harold Willmington, to write Jerry’s sermons. During my time there in the Eighties, while Jerry Jr was in law school and Jonathan was still an undergraduate at Liberty, it was rumored (unconfirmed) that if Jerry had died suddenly the ministry would have passed into the hands of four people who would have acted as regents, more or less: Towns, Ed Dobson, singer Don Norman, and Harold Willmington. Of those four, Norman left in 1989 or so to return to singing gospel music with The Harvesters Quartet, and Dobson left in 1987 to follow M. R. DeHaan as pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Towns and Willmington are still at Liberty.
I hesitate to use a term like “first-rate mind” to describe Towns or Willmington because I’m not in a position to judge, really, but in every anecdote I ever heard about either one of them they came off as smart, quick, well-prepared, etc. I don’t know how Jerry found them but they were great finds and have made huge contributions to the ministry over a period of more than forty years.
One of the paradoxes of the fundamentalism I grew up with is that it is simultaneously separatist and evangelistic. This isn’t the case with all fundamentalist Christian groups: some are explicitly racist (Christian Identity), some are so separatist as to be cult-like (Exclusive Brethren), etc. In our group, of course, our evangelism was exclusively at the service of the local church, so we tended to do things focused on getting people to attend our church. We had a day a week where people (men, mostly) went out in pairs, knocking on doors, sometimes talking to them about Jesus but mostly inviting them to visit our church.
This is one of the jumping-off points between fundamentalist churches and evangelical churches that makes the two groups kind of difficult to unwind: because our brand of fundamentalists focus so much on the local church we tend to see numerical growth of our local church as being indicative of its spiritual health. Or, put bluntly, our church is big because our preacher is right, exclusive of other preachers. So when we encountered the kind of Church Growth methodology that was (and to a degree still is) so important to Elmer Towns and Jerry Falwell we didn’t realize how much of a mixed multitude of fundamentalists and evangelicals we saw at church. Whatever Jerry is, Elmer Towns is primarily a church growth expert; he’s written a bunch of books, some of them primarily pastoral, but the greatest plurality of them are on church grown methodology. Which is why if you go looking for Elmer Towns clips you’ll find interesting items like this:
which to my layman’s ears sounds like a discussion of technical detail of church growth rather than anything doctrinal. It’s also why Towns shows up in the history of both large evangelical churches and large fundamentalist churches, including places as solidly IFB as First Baptist, Hammond.
I got to Liberty through a maze of fundamentalist Baptist churches; after my parents married we attended Thomas Road briefly, then a church pastored by Elbert Yeatts, who went to no college at all, then one pastored by a Tennessee Temple graduate, then one pastored by a Hyles-Anderson graduate. Along the way I ducked in and out of Bob Jones churches when visiting relatives. In our neck of the woods Bob Jones graduates more or less set the tone for fundamentalist Baptist churches, but graduates tended to preach sermons that varied only by flavor and not by kind.
The preachers we heard tended to preach mostly topical sermons, and the topics were chiefly the following:
- The literal truth (meaning historicity) of the Bible
- The importance of being born again
- Hierarchical social order; particularly, the obedience of the church to the pastor, the family to the father, and in some typically indirect sense, of everyone to God.
- Expectations of the Rapture, and to a lesser degree, interpretation of current events in a Hal Lindsey framework
- Adherence to a behavior and demeanor code, including short hair for men, longish skirts for women, and avoidance of anything worldly; this typically meant no drinking, but we sort of finessed questions surrounding smoking.
As a latter-day “mere Christian” I tend to react badly when I find myself in a church where the pastor camps out on a distinctive (autonomy of the local church, predestination and election, musical instruments, what-have-you), but that’s a story for a later post.
I have to admit that even in the early Seventies Jerry Falwell was already breaking ranks with the fundamentalists somewhat. Where the fundamentalists tended to rest their sermons on their interpretation of the Bible and their own authority, Jerry had already started adding figures from Gallup and George Barna into his sermons, thereby blurring the line between the things we believed because they were directly stated in Scripture or were part of our interpretation of Scripture (“special revelation”) and things we believed because they came from some other authority or could be observed directly (“general revelation“).
Also, Jerry deviated from our fundamentalist preachers in one other important way: where fundamentalist preachers read the small size of their churches as evidence they were preaching difficult truth, and therefore were doing God’s will, Jerry took the fact that his ministry was growing quickly as evidence that he was doing God’s will. Jerry, strictly speaking, was outside the main stream of the Church Growth Movement, because he had his own in-house church growth expert (Elmer Towns) and navigated some of the challenges of building a megachurch in an idiosyncratic way.