Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Current State of Armstrongism

A good friend of mine was asking about why the Armstrongist COGs splinter groups these days are stagnating and declining in attendance. I thought that was an excellent thing to ponder over.
General consensus among those in the discussion fairly well revolved around these major areas:

1) Availability of information on the Internet.
2) Lack of novelty.
3) Lack of charisma in leadership.
4) Sheer number of COG groups to choose from.

Some minor supporting points include:
- In-fighting between splinters.
- Aging membership.
- Failure to reach out in today's methods.

I want to expand briefly on the major points listed above.

Availability of information on the Internet

The fact of the matter is that the world has changed since 1843 when William Miller started the Adventist movement.
Back then, a KJV Bible and some spotty history was the recipe to a grand following. The United States was rife with optimism and naivete, and Protestant religious revival was in the wind. People were very low-information, yet zealous. It didn't take much to please them. Access to real information was a privilege of the elites in academia, and even then the information was inferior compared to today.
For some reason which I personally do not understand, the mid-1800's gave us some of the most regrettable events in religious history. From this time period came Alexander Hislop, the German History of Religions School, the Mormons, the Adventists (which in turn gave us the Jehovah's Witnesses, Sacred Names, the COG7, Armstrongism, the Branch Davidians, the popularizing of Sabbatarianism, and etc) - to name but a few.

When Herbert Armstrong began his research, he spent time in libraries reading books. He had this spare time because he was a failure at his career of advertising. His access to information wasn't even sufficient to bring up a cogent argument against Sabbatarianism, so he joined the COG7. Once inside the COG7, he came in contact with unorthodox ideas from the likes of Ellen G White, Charles T. Russell, G. G. Rupert, A. N. Dugger and C. O. Dodd, and of course J. H. Allen (not to mention various other sundry authors such as Adolf Hitler).
To his credit, Armstrong was an avid reader. That is good! Unfortunately, he did not seem to understand that one should always distinguish between good and poor souces of information. That is bad! He did not seem to make any distinction between the quality of one source or the other. He either was not able to get the information necessary to refute these poor sources, or he was unwilling to do so (or both).

The information problem compounded when he set out to start a college to train up a ministry. When Herbert Armstrong mixed with pseudo-intellectuals such as Herman Hoeh, the avalanche tore loose. Herman Hoeh would use his association with Ambassador College to gain access to books only available at Ivy League college libraries. With these rare works in hand, Hoeh invented and Armstrong approved a series of bogus historical narratives no average person could possibly look in to let alone cogently refute. The average Armstrongist simply had no hope of getting both sides of the story. They simply had no way of knowing that the histories they accepted as true were completely fabricated.

Not only that but when the lack of resources available to the laity meets up with the Worldwide Church of God's strict control over what information the laity was allowed to access the recipe was laity blissfully ignorant of what their leadership was up to. Not only did we have no access to necessary information, we were forbidden to access it even if we would have had it.
This isn't limited to academic material only. Church members had no idea how money was spent and wasted by the millions, how ministers were abusing their congregations, how Garner Ted Armstrong was womanizing at an astounding rate of speed, how Herbert Armstrong was eating pork with dignitaries the world over and barely even preaching to them, or anything about the true details regarding Herbert Armstrong's divorce or the receivership of the late 1970's. It's not as if these things weren't known. They were known! Just not by the rank and file membership. We had no access. One outlet, the Ambassador Reports, tried to shed a light on the truth but they were not taken seriously by most.
The situation regarding material generated by the church wasn't much better. Older church publications were destroyed and ordered to be destroyed, so few church members had access to past material that showed prophetic failures, doctrinal turnarounds, contradictions, plagiarisms, and a host of other foibles that might have saved them untold misery had they but known.

These days, that level of ignorance simply is no longer the case. At least it doesn't have to be. The Internet is a blessing and a curse, but thank God for it if you ask me! I'll take my chances. All of those things we couldn't get to before, they're all there now. The information is all there for anyone who is willing to look.

More and more people have come forward. Multiple blogs and websites exist to help Armstrongists and former Armstrongists. Doctrines are refuted. Plagiarism is exposed. Reader testimonials are shared. Contradictions and prophetic failures are pointed out. Abuses are brought into the open. Specific details of the court records are readily available. History can be set straight because books that were only available to the elite are (or were for a time) available to anyone on the Internet. Support groups are but a button-click away.

Today, there is little excuse for being unaware of these matters. Yes, there are websites dedicated to promoting and prolonging the errors of the system, and people have a natural tendency to believe whatever they read so long as it agrees with what they want to be true - it's not perfect - but at least we now have the tools to access the truth whether we accept it or not.

Armstrongist COGs these days are stagnating and declining in attendance because people are simply better informed.

Lack of novelty

One thing that Herbert Armstrong did not do during those early years when he was separating himself from the COG7 was that he did not just duplicate the COG7. He did not simply set out to gain followers by heaping titles and honors upon himself. Yes, he eventually did heap titles and honors upon himself, but that's not what made his following prosper.
What he did was he differentiated his product from his competitors. (And do not be fooled, people in those days knew full well what they had was a product.)

Armstrong was an advertising man. He knew the value of product differentiation. He knew what it meant to stand out in a crowd, and he knew what death awaited for any product that was just more of the same. He saw the appeal of British Israelism and the annual holy days. When he failed to really sell these and certain other notions to his branch of the COG7, he set out to sell them to the public. He had a niche and he had the know-how to capitalize on it.
Herbert Armstrong used his advertising experience to take his message to the radio waves. From the 1930's to the 1970's, most of the people who heard of the Radio Church of God, which eventually changed its name to the Worldwide Church of God, did so from radio programs.

What was that niche?
In short, J. H. Allen's British Israelism compounded with a few additional legal requirements created an attractive elitism. Toss on Alexander Hislop's concocted historical narratives to create a secretive conspiracy, and voila! It wasn't just about Protestant versus Catholic, nor was it just about the Sabbath versus Sunday. Now it was about being one of an elite group of people who were chosen by God to be given secret knowledge of a conspiracy stretching back 4,000 years, kept secret until this final hour before the return of Christ. Members of this elect group were called and chosen to fulfill prophecy by spreading the warning that doom and death awaited anyone not vetted into this "one true end-time church". This church superseded all previous churches; none of them would do. This was the final offer and it was only available while supplies last.

What a potent combination! Doomsday and Conspiracy. Fear and Pride.
Eat your heart out, Little Orphan Annie with your secret decoder ring. We have the keys to understand prophecy!

The problem with today's group of post-Armstrong leaders is that they have not learned the lesson of effective advertising.
They were told for so long that they had the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that now they are in a predicament. No one boards a plane intending to be locked into a holding-pattern. How do you differentiate your product when you are more or less forbidden to change it and make it distinctive, and there are nearly a thousand other people selling the same thing?

Some groups are fence-sitting with this novelty stuff and trying to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be a new church, but still the old church, at the same time.
Herbert Armstrong died over 30 years ago, and the Worldwide Church of God had gone mainstream as Grace Communion International. Some people in the current splinter groups look at that and conclude Herbert Armstrong isn't important to their faith. But I call B.S. on that!

The splinters get everything they have from that man. Their leadership, their anointing, their doctrine, their sacred history, their traditions, their music, the format of their church services, their views on history, their views on prophecy, their writing styles, even their name. It all comes from Herbert W Armstrong. He was their end-time Apostle! You tell Rod Merideth that he was baptized and anointed by an irrelevant and false prophet and you see how he responds to that. Look at Gerald Flurry's website and see how references to Herbert Armstrong by far and away outnumber references to Jesus. Every last modern splinter COG is a continuation of Armstrong and his WCG whether they want to admit it or not. This is a fact and wishful thinking won't make it otherwise.
Besides, consider the hypocrisy of this denial. These same ones who say that Herbert Armstrong is not important to their faith rush to rub everyone else's noses in things that happened hundreds of years ago. Mention "Catholic" to an Armstrongist and one of the first things they think of is "Inquisitions". Well, the Inquisitions ended centuries ago. How can anyone hold modern Catholics accountable for the Inquisitions that ended long ago while simultaneously giving themselves a pass on Armstrong's failures which are to this day being continued!? "Do as I say not as I do" is textbook hypocrisy.
You can't have your cake and eat it too. It's not enough for a splinter group to verbally proclaim itself a new thing under the sun when in fact they are really just a re-heated leftover of the original.

The ones who forego the taboo of changing the "truth once revealed" are the ones who prosper. They aren't afraid of product differentiation. They have embraced novelty!
Ron Weinland changed so many things that his group barely resembles the Armstrongism of the past. He's got a created Jesus, women Elders, 32 "new truths", a long prison sentence for tax evasion. (Oops! That wasn't supposed to be in there.)
Bob Thiel has started his own group and now is, in some desperately cerebral way, attempting to create a brand new sacred history that merges his group with certain tenets of Greek Orthodoxy. If the Roman Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon and the Protestant denominations are her harlot daughters, then away with them! We'll just rewrite history again. Jettison the roots of Adventism altogether and anachronistically claim descendency from the East! One simply requires a feat of historic ledgerdemain and a degree of intrepidity. Ignorance takes care of the rest. (Problem is, few people understand what the heck he's on about.)

Armstrongist COGs these days are stagnating and declining in attendance because they lack novelty. Most will ride this same tired old message out until the last die-hard member simply passes away from old age and someone has to come along to turn off the lights.

Lack of charisma in leadership

Most of the current COG leadership try to solve the problem of brand differentiation by heaping upon themselves titles and honors. "I am this or that prophetic messenger!" "I am going to train this or that prophetic messenger!" "I have the most pure and unadulterated continuation of the original."
Unfortunately this approach is almost entirely dependent on the charisma of the glorious leader. If you don't have a glorious leader with charisma, as Garner Ted Armstrong had in abundance, then you simply cannot win with this approach.

Herbert Armstrong's personal charisma was high, far higher than any of his remaining followers, but Garner Ted's was higher. It was Garner Ted that was personally responsible for the greatest increases in membership from the 1950's through the 1970's. There was nothing in the entire organization or any of its competitors who could match him. He was handsome, intelligent, well spoken, had a baritone voice soft as butter, was educated in the areas that mattered, and you couldn't ask for better rhetoric. The women loved him. And through it all, he still seemed down-to-earth and approachable. He was a leader for the people. I tell you the truth if he hadn't been caught up in the church he would have been somebody.

Compare that to the current leader of the Intercontinental Church of God.
"Who?" you ask. Exactly!

Certain ones in the current crop of splinter group leaders have a portion of charisma, but they simply don't have enough. Their charisma is a flash in the pan. It may keep established believers, but gaining new believers is much more difficult. Cult of Personality can only take you so far. As with the Intercontinental Church of God, when the leader is struck, the sheep will scatter.
The universal method to overcome lack of charisma is to spend money. You have to have members to get money, then you have to spend money to get members. It's a catch-22. Not only that but you have to keep spending more and more money, which means you have to keep asking for more and more. There's only so long you can squeeze blood from that turnip. It never, ever lasts. It never truly can replace charisma.

Armstrongist COGs these days are stagnating and declining in attendance because their leadership lacks the charisma of old.

Sheer number of COGs to choose from

If you refuse to differentiate your product, and you lack charisma, how on earth do you expect to survive? Every "Tom, Dick, and Harry" ambitious leader believes they can split off of a larger group to start their own following. Then what? Who's going to pay for your little adventure? Who's going to buy you air time, or publish your "free booklet", or organize your Feast of Tabernacles site discounts and activities? You have all these "true" doctrines, but you have a living room with ten people in it ...half of whom are your relatives. Do you honestly think you're going to outlast the ages with ten people in a living room?? There are a thousand other groups out there who started just like you did and tomorrow there will be 1,001.

When the laws of supply and demand have their inescapable way on the sheer volume of COG splinters the result is the value of each is necessarily lessened.
For example, when the WCG was the world's only one true church, you bet your sweet bippie we marched in step. But now that there is a new splinter on every corner, why should I really bite my tongue with Minister A when Minister B is more than willing to take me in? Why should I worry if Minister A disfellowships me when Minister B is plenty happy to accept my tithe money? Why exactly should I not read all of the articles on As Bereans Did and tell my close friends what I've learned?

Oh, sure, we all dreamed of the day when the splits would be healed and the whole church would come together again like in the good old days. It would appear that was all just wishful thinking.

Groups that exist on charisma and split into ever smaller groups only exist by stealing away members from other groups. This is by definition. The very act of splitting means that the group only exists because it stole members away from another group. These members in turn eventually leave for other groups. This is just how it goes.
Global Church of God breaks off of Worldwide Church of God. Then Global breaks up and becomes Living Church of God and splinters such as Harold Smith's Church of God Fellowship and Al Buchanan's Belleville Church of God. Eventually, Al Buchanan retires and his church dissolves entirely while Elder Rick Railston splits off from Harold Smith's group to start Pacific Church of God. And on and on it goes.

Armstrongists tend to hop from group to group to group over the years. This looks great for the membership numbers of the group they are currently in, but overall the total number of Armstrongists as a whole diminishes. The trouble comes in trying to get an accurate head count. Artificially inflating numbers is a long-established practice that began in the Worldwide Church of God. If people think the product is more popular than it really is, then it sells more easily. This is beginner-level P. T. Barnum humbuggery, folks. Not only that but when someone enters a group they are counted, however when someone leaves a group they aren't necessarily marked off.

The end of cannibalism is you run out of other people to eat. They are defeating themselves and their dissenters don't even have to lift a finger.

Armstrongist COGs these days are stagnating and declining in attendance because of the sheer number of COGs to choose from.

Still, even with all of these challenges, some splinter groups continue to bring in new members. Good thing we have the Internet for just such an occasion!

If you are a new member in a Church of God, or if you are thinking of joining a Church of God, or if you know someone like this, or even if you are a long-time member in a Church of God, won't you please take a moment to check out our FAQ and Categories pages and hear us out? We believe we have something to say that you might just want to hear. We believe that we have a good case to make. And we would be honored if you take what you read here and challenge your close friends or even your minister with it; see what he has to say.

Dear reader, I do not intend to be insulting in any of this - not to you nor to anyone else. I speak about these things because they are relevant, not because I can't wait to poke someone in the eye or kick them when they're down. Maybe you have never thought about these things. Maybe you have thought about these things a lot and you have something to add to this list (comments are open).
Regardless, I hope and pray that our Lord grants you courage to face these problems head on, and that you do not fear. Do not fear to take a close look at how Armstrongism came to be, and what the state of it is today.
These systems feed on fear and uncertainty. Don't give it to them! Trust wholly in Christ whose ability to save far outweighs your ability to sin. Yes, dear reader, His grace is sufficient ...even for you.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11


Anonymous said...

I agree. I think the biggest reason people don't search out the truth, and they stay in the Cogs, is that feeling of being the elite few who are willing to obey God out of the entire world. They are "special" and will eventually rule over all with Christ.

Anonymous said...

So many words, so few facts. What is the actual, factually based statistic on the growth or decline in members of the Living Church of God. Please ask them.

xHWA said...

What good would that do anyone? Not only do I have no reason to believe their numbers are accurate, but Living does not provide details on how many of their members are new converts versus how many are simply there from some other splinter. The "factually based statistic" you mention is therefore useless for the purposes of this article.

Bill said...

Somewhere I came across an article by someone close to HWA that claimed the study at the library claim was a farce. He went to do some job for a SDA pastor, and saw he was rolling in dough at the time of the depression, and put two and two together; sabbatarian religion, with tithing, meant $$$

Anonymous said...

Yes that story is true Bill. One source of the story is Dankenbring's excellent article, "Was Herbert Armstrong really the Elijah to come as some claim?" at www.triumphpro.com/elijah-and-hwa.pdf
Loma once admitted to Gene Scarbrough's daughter, Peggy, that her husband and son, Richard, "got into it for the money!" (p. 32) while another source recounted a story of GTA who had revealed that HWA was working in the aluminum siding business at one stage and got a call for a job, but it was so far away that HWA jacked up the price as he didn't really want to travel all that way. He was surprised to find the guy didn't object to the price, but exclaimed, "When can you get started?" HWA learned this guy was an SDA minister who was wealthy from the tithes and offerings he received. HWA returned home that night telling his wife, "Honey, I now know how we're going to get rich!" (ibid).
HWA certainly was a "lover of money" (1Tim 6:10) and a "peddlar of God's Word" (2 Cor 2:17) who thought "gain is godliness" (1 Tim 6:5)! Sometimes it makes me wonder if when he breathed his last breath whether he knew the plain truth that he was a false prophet and fraudster that it scared him so that it resonated in the spirit world and really did manifest in that mental patient who allegedly cried out "I'm Herbert W. Armstrong and I'm going to hell!" A very frightening thought...

Child Survivor said...

I have come to the conclusion that Herbert was the ultimate evil genius. Think about it, He founded his own cult with a very devout following, yet kept this cult pretty much as an underground movement. They did not seek to be recognized in the public eye. Most Christians I have met over the last 3 decades have heard of him, but never really knew what he stood for. He never sought to build his empire as too large, he just wanted it big enough to live in luxury from conning innocent people from over 30 % of their hard earned income, yet kept it small enough to let him rule the entire "church" with an iron fist. Everything in the individual and congregational life, funneled from the very top, the false apostle himself. Congregations had little or no say in how their congregations were run, to the point that members were even forbidden from winning converts. Even that had to be done through headquarters. And the congregations were invisible to the public eye. Meetings, theaters, high schools where they met had no signs in front during services. No meeting times were ever advertised. And one more thing, congregations were kept on a regional level. It was never Herbert's desire to put a "church" in ever town, new congregations were started only when they outgrew their facility. The fact that members had to travel as much as 2 hours meant little to the hierarchy.

Herbert was a very calculating, yet evil genius. Even though Garner Ted was monumental in building up the "work" from the 50's to the 70's, without his dad's sense of business, craftiness, and control over his followers, Even the charming and extremely charismatic Garner Ted could not reproduce his father's success. However, even Herbert wound down after a certain stage. Giving his son the boot and consolidating church assest had consequences in the late 1970's that contributed to a gradual decline that began in the late 70's and continued into the 1980's up to the old buzzard's death.

Will Cog members of today ever see what evil their belief system originated from? Only God can change a heart. It is our job to pray for them.