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.