A personal reflection on Fresno Evangelical Free Church, which is today known as The Bridge Fresno. This explores how I got involved and my experiences in this church. Also I explain why if I lived in Fresno today I would not get involved in this church. The EFCA denomination has this one systematic flaw that I believe will eventually lead to the destruction of the denomination. Its autonomous nature is being exploited by Neo-Calvinists.
“The perfect church service,would be one we were almost unaware of. Our attention would have been on God.”
“We exist to help people find Jesus Christ and follow him fully.”
The Mission of The Bridge Fresno
He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8 NKJV
***Note – Given my history with today’s church I want members of The Bridge Fresno to know, that this blog exists for you. If this church is theologically hijacked, cases of inappropriate church discipline occur, or things like 9 Marks start to enter into the picture all members of The Bridge Fresno are free to contact me and submit stories. I will go to bat for people to make sure no one is harmed in this church.***
***7/20/16 Edited due to an email from Josh Hawley. My appreciation for the correction and I hope the Well in Fig Garden realizes how fortunate they are to have Josh as their pastor.***
Worship CD for the Third Service at Fresno Evangelical Free Church, as you can see this has had much use over the years.
After my baptism at Fresno Evangelical Free on April 16, 2000. From left to right Shanda Crippen, myself, and Phil Smith
I’ve written quite a bit about the Evangelical Free Church of America, and its my goal to make this blog a resource for this denomination. Today however, I wanted to stop and reflect on my own experience and time in Fresno Evangelical Free. This became my first experience in the movement and its what I think about when I think of something that is pleasant, friendly, and conservative.
I started California State University Fresno in 1999 for grad school. Known as Fresno State I had been rejected by schools such as the University of Montana, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and the University of Nebraska. I still remember getting my final rejection letter from the University of Montana. I fell in love with Montana when I attended college there and I wanted to move back. I viewed Missoula as the ticket and means to get back. At the time I was Catholic and I got the letter. Nervous I drove to downtown Fresno and went to St. Johns Cathedral and sat in the church for a couple of hours. I prayed it would be an acceptance letter. After all I wanted to leave Fresno. After that intense time of praying I gathered the courage to open the letter from the University of Montana. I feared the worst because the envelop felt thin. I opened it and as I recall it said something to the effect of…”We appreciate your interest in the University of Montana and we have considered your application, but we regret to inform you…” With that I knew what happened. The only school I got into was Fresno State, all the other doors were closed. So in the fall of 1999 I started attending Fresno State. That fall at a student fair I saw a booth for Campus Crusade for Christ and I signed up. Crusade at the time was led by Eric Hiett and I thought he did a really good job in how he ran the organization. While I was involved in Crusade, another guy I was getting to know named Shon Nord invited me to Fresno Evangelical Free. I was honestly nervous about attending and I had no idea of what to expect. But I agreed to attend.
My first service at Fresno Evangelical Free was in the fall of 1999. I was nervous about the experience. I actually had given Shon the ride. As I walked in my heart was beating fast out of anxiety. I don’t remember much about that first service, but I do remember the impressions I had. I found the place to be warm. It was also pleasant, and kind. The music and worship was likeable. I found the preaching to be good and I was impressed by what I heard. I honestly think one of the best attributes of Protestantism is preaching. Even today I still love a good sermon, and its one of the reasons why I identify with this faith system. The service was not at all what I had expected. There was no Bible thumping, and no trace of fundamentalism. In the course of time I interacted with several people from Fresno Evangelical Free Church and I found them to be kind, loving, and gentle. The pastors there were not hung up on authority. Instead they responded with a lot of warmth and grace. They didn’t demand respect, but in how they lived and led they earned it. In that warmth and love they won my trust and I listened to what they often had to say. During this time the pastors were individuals such as Ed Noble, Josh Hawley and Bill Yaccino. The worship was led by Richie Shehadey and Micah Johnson. I also recall Amy Mark as well. The Senior Pastor at the time was Dr. Ronn Howe. I liked his teaching and I listened intently. I attended the third service at 11:00 and he taught occasionally. I recall his last sermon as he was retiring. I can still picture it in my mind. I remember him up front talking about how he knew his retirement affected the church. How people were going to miss him, and he stated as he pointed to the doors in the back that when he walked up that aisle the final time he wanted to remind people it was about following the Lord. It was a good way to end a career of pastoral leadership and in many ways he served the church and I respected him deeply. Compared with the emphasis some pastors have today with demanding authority it was a stark contrast to see authority created out of love. Sadly Dr. Howe passed away on July 12, 2012 and his service was held at The People’s Church. I am quite certain that he has already heard “well done my good and faithful servant.”
April 16, 2000 – My Baptism and Aftermath
Baptismal gift from Tina Menard
In the course of time I decided to get baptized at Fresno Evangelical Free. I made the decision because I felt it was time and I wanted to do something that should demonstrate my faith and the direction it was going. I actually told people at Campus Crusade at Fresno State and fellow co-workers at the time. Sadly, my Catholic family had a difficult time with my baptism. It led to some conflict which I honestly didn’t know how to process at the time. On April 16, 1999 I had a number of people who showed up for my baptism. When the time came I got in the water and my testimony was read. I spoke about my past which included Mormonism and Catholicism. I’m a big guy, after all I was a lineman when I played football at San Joaquin Memorial. I stand 6′ 3″. I recall the pastor joking how this may be a problem due to my size. Me and the congregation laughed. I recall going under the water and coming up and hearing the place screaming. When I was baptized I did so in my Fresno State t-shirt, which by the way I still have with me in Washington, D.C. (I have a couple of baptism photos from that event but for the life me I cannot find them.) After my baptism I changed and went back to the service I was overwhelmed by how many people had shown up to support me. Included were many members of Campus Crusade for Christ. They came from their own respective services, for example Phil Smith if I recall correctly came Sanger Evangelical Free. That morning I had a couple of co-workers who showed up to support me. My branch manager from Washington Mutual in Clovis, Tina Menard and another co-worker Beth came to watch. Tina hugged me and gave me a card and a memento which is the picture right above. After the service there was a picture taken which I have up top. It had Shawnda Crippin, myself and Phil Smith right outside the church. I still keep in touch with Phil who today is living in Maine.
I attended the 11:00 service at Fresno Evangelical Free for the rest of the spring and summer. That summer they had a Bible study in someone’s backyard in Fresno. It was large and maybe had 40 to 50 people who attended. I recall sitting around a pool in someone’s back yard and eagerly listening. Amy Mark helped teach it, and she did a good job. Leaving Fresno Evangelical Free was hard but I got into Marquette University in Milwaukee and I was about to move from Fresno to the upper Midwest. I lost most of my contacts at Fresno Evangelical Free as time moved on. I had heard when I was living in Wisconsin that they made a worship CD. I reached out to Amy Mark whom I sent a check to, and she sent to me the CD. I still recall loading it into my 1996 Honda Accord CD player in Milwaukee excited. Not only was I thrilled to hear the music I became acquainted with, but to hear Josh Hawley’s sermon in the CD was nice. I listened to that CD frequently in Wisconsin. When I had my faith crisis in my thirties I went on a rampage and trashed a good chunk of my Christian material. I can’t tell you how many sermon tapes, books, etc.. ended up in a dumpster near where I live today. But for some strange reason I kept that CD and today I am glad I did. For Christmas services from 2001 until about 2007 when I was in Fresno I always attended Fresno Evangelical Free. However, today when I go back I pop at the Butler Church and chill with Eric Pauls. From 2003 until 2004 the Senior Pastor was Brian Boone who left Fresno Evangelical Free, and je was followed by Dr. Scott Hansen who served the church from 2005 until 2014. I do know that the next Senior Pastor to come to The Bridge Fresno is Andrew Smith who leads The Gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has attended Reformed Theological Seminary. In looking at Andrew Smith’s Twitter feed I notice he follows Mark Driscoll. That causes me deep concern as Mark Driscoll became known for how he treated Paul Petry and Bent Meyer. Then there was all the plagiarism that he engaged in as well. Last let’s not forget that Mark Driscoll taught that a repentant women gets down on her knees and performs oral sex on a man. Plus he also claimed that women are penis homes, meaning that women exist to give a man’s penis a home. You can read about it in this Time magazine article here.
I write all this about Fresno Evangelical Free in this post to emphasize the following. This church was a very conservative church. It took strong stands on a number of issues and they preached in a very convicting way. Bible studies and scripture devotion were emphasized. They did a good job in how they did it. It wasn’t liberal at all, nor was it caught up in the complementarianism gender wars I see emerging in other parts of Christianity today. This was a church that actually stayed in its current location of Ashlan Avenue in Fresno even when the neighborhood was struggling and didn’t move to the north side of Fresno like other organizations did. The inner city and southern part of Fresno are very much dying as the city keeps moving north. But having said all that let me explain why I would not get involved in the Bridge Fresno today if I lived in the area.
Why I Would Not Get Involved in The Bridge Fresno Today and Spiritual Refugees
The Evangelical Free denomination has one critical flaw that is systematic that I believe is going to lead to its destruction in the course of time. The denomination was made autonomous to emphasize the local church and it was made autonomous for freedom to allow the local church to move and grow without being hindered by bureaucracy. That is how it was established, yet today that is backfiring especially as many Neo-Calvinists are exploiting that autonomy to hijack a church and ultimately a denomination. This blog is calculating the rates of Neo-Calvinist/Reformed theology in the denomination. Recently I wrote about the hijacking of an Evangelical Free Church in Conejo Valley outside Los Angeles. You can read about it in this post titled, “Did Tim Sherreitt Theologically Hijack The Bridge of Newbury Park (Formerly Evangelical Free of Conejo Valley) When Steve Larson Left?“ Cornerstone Community Church in Atascadero, California was also theologically hijacked in its history. And the other day I learned of a horrific theological church hijacking in the Midwest. I am hoping to be able to tell a few of these stories as I get them. Community Evangelical Free Church which I have been aggressively writing about, which is outside Philadelphia was theologically hijacked in the 2001-2002 time frame.
That inability to deal with this problem poses a risk to many members of Evangelical Free churches. For example what would happen if I became a member of The Bridge today and it 2023 they get a new senior pastor who slips in under the radar and people don’t know that he is a Neo-Calvinist. Then he starts replacing people with other Neo-Calvinists and tips the church. The problem is that you may be stuck in a membership situation where it is hard to resign or leave. What happens if an organization like 9 Marks enters the picture and they pull the Hebrews 13:17 garbage and you disagree with TULIP? Are you going to face church discipline? There is a huge difference between Elder led and Elder rule. 9 Marks is about Elder rule and is more of a form of spiritual tyranny than anything else. Plus when you consider the EFCA Lutheran’s roots, organizations like 9 Marks are entirely inappropriate. That is the reason why I would not get involved in a place like The Bridge Fresno today. I am thinking down the road and after the hell I have gone through because of religion and faith I am looking out for myself.
But here is the other problem that needs to be addressed that is going to get worse. There are many spiritual refugees today who are homeless. Their church has been hijacked and they found themselves forced out and away. As people age and the dones grow what is going to happen? When people age and they deal with things like sickness, disease and problems where will they turn? Another way to ask this is the following. When people who are spiritual refugees die who will conduct their funeral? Michelle Van Loon wrote a great article about that topic the other day that needs to be honestly addressed.
Today the Evangelical Free Church is a mess. It breaks my heart to see the condition of it as it would be my first choice given my roots. However after looking at the EFCA in the Washington, D.C. area and I decided to not get involved. Cornerstone headed up by Bill Kynes is 9 Marks which I disagree with. Ambassador is authoritarian and its membership covenant stands as an omen to stay away. Crossway in nearby Manassas, Virginia helped plant at Acts 29 church called Redemption Hill led by Bill Reidel. This church is also affiliated with the EFCA. Back in 2012 when I heard that the EFCA was helping to plant this church with all the problems hemorrhaging out of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Seattle I was disgusted. Can the Evangelical Free denomination practice discernment? I recall asking this question, “Why is Crossway helping to plant an Acts 29 church linked to Mark Driscoll’s network?” in the lobby of Crossway Manassas. In return the greeter asked me who is Mark Driscoll? My response back in 2012 or so was, “He’s that pastor in Seattle that talks about the Biblical basis for blow jobs!” No…the EFCA is a very diseased denomination that needs help. That is why this blog exists to flush out these problems and address them. The Evangelical Free I remember compared with what I am seeing today is two different entities. Fundamentalism destroys and causes profound harm in its wake. As a heads up like other posts this is being emailed to the leadership of The Bridge Fresno as well as Andrew Smith. I already write about one Andrew, I hope I don’t have to write about a second one.
In closing Amy Mark sang a song on the worship CD called “Take Me In.” I scoured the internet to see if I can find another version of that CD and decided to settle for Kutless singing that song instead. As always know that I love you and I will have another post done in a couple of days time.