Here's a rather obvious statement: There are a lot of churches in Texas. Thus, I would think that the average newspaper editor in Texas would understand that there are a lot of different kinds of churches and that they are not all alike, when it comes to their beliefs and practices.
Sometimes, you can even learn a lot about a church just by knowing its name. You think? Please take my word on this, seeing as how I am a prodigal Texan and all of that.
This brings us to a bizarre little business story in The Daily News of Galveston, which came to my attention via journalist Mark Kellner, a friend of this blog. It seems that there is a controversial real-estate deal going down in Galveston, and one of the central players -- his name is Darren Sloniger -- is part of a Chicago-area church that is very strange, according to the newspaper.
That's about all we know about it. This story is so vague, I am struggling to decide what category to file it in here at GetReligion. As Kellner noted, in his email to us:
There's no mention of the name of the church in question, what it believes, or whether its theology is considered normal or aberrant. There's a claim of "brainwashing" but only a mention of the church being "nondenominational" in the 20th paragraph.
No one from a nearby school -- Baylor or Rice come to mind regionally -- is quoted on this. No one from Wheaton, which is arguably much closer to Elgin, Ill., than Baylor. The "religious zealot" charge is allowed to hang in midair, and they call this a news story?
It seems that Sloniger believes that God has helped guide his work in real-estate and that this has been very good for his congregation, where he apparently is a volunteer in the pulpit from time to time. Here is the heart of the story:
Pirates' Beach resident Nancy Higgs said she and a few friends spent a lot of time doing Internet research on Sloniger. When she found a link to an audio recording of the message the developer gave to his church last December, she was appalled.
"It's very sensationalized," she said. "His approach to church is brainwashing. This guy's a crazed religious zealot."
Sloniger's message, delivered the first Sunday the congregation moved into its new building, outlines the details of how the church acquired the property and paid for the facility through several well-timed real-estate transactions. Throughout the message, Sloniger credited God with aligning circumstances in the church's favor and working to bless the congregation's ministry.
Higgs said she thought Galvestonians, whom she described as more conventionally religious, would be interested to know Sloniger actually believed the events in which he was involved were totally driven by God.
What in the world does "conventionally religious" mean?
With a few clicks of a mouse and help from Google, it's pretty easy to find out that the congregation in question is West Ridge Community Church in Elgin, Ill. After a quick tour of the website, I would have to say that this is a pretty ordinary looking suburban megachurch that is still on the rise.
While the website is snazzy, yet vague on the details, I really don't see anything there that sets off the zealot alarms for me. The co-pastors are both linked, at the educational level, to the completely mainstream Independent Christian Churches. In fact, I must confess that I used to teach at Milligan College, a liberal arts college linked to that nondenominational movement.
However, there is, in fact, a link to a Sloniger sermon titled "The Story of Our Building ... How We Did It." If the contents are that bizarre, it seems that it would have been rather easy for The Daily News to have featured a few zealous direct quotations to allow readers to make that decision for themselves.
Actually, it appears that the preacher/real-estate entrepreneur's worst sin -- at least as far as we know -- is a willingness to deal with (wait for it) the demons at Wal-Mart. If he sold land to Wal-Mart in Illinois, then he might do it again in Galveston.
That may, in fact, be a sin in the eyes of the Galveston locals. However, The Daily News sure as heck-fire owed its readers more information about this church, if the editors there were going to let its critics throw around words like "zealot" and "brainwashing." They could at least have provided the name of the church, so readers could have looked up information on their own -- since it seems there was no time for a reporter to do that background work.