megachurches

Matt Chandler's Southern Baptist Convention 'interview' shows how not to deal with bad press

Matt Chandler's Southern Baptist Convention 'interview' shows how not to deal with bad press

Earlier this week, tmatt wrote about and spotlighted a New York Times bombshell about what certainly appeared to be the cavalier approach a major Southern Baptist megachurch took to dealing with a sexual predator in its midst.

A summation of the Times piece is further down in my post, but the damage done by this article was so extensive that the Rev. Matt Chandler, the pastor, broke away from his sabbatical to fly to Birmingham in an attempt to salvage his reputation. He showed up at a lunch meeting of Baptist pastors to answer questions from an emcee but — here’s the key — not to take questions from the audience.

The video of that “interview” is atop this piece. It’s a headshaker and a perfect example of how way too many religious leaders think journalism is supposed to be public relations. The pastor’s first sentence out of the blocks is, “I’m here because I don’t want what we’re trying to do to lose momentum and steam.”

It’s not “I’m concerned for the victim and her family,” or “I feel we messed up and I want to apologize,” but no, he doesn’t want to derail his church’s expansion plans. (Additional note - it’s been pointed out to me that Chandler was referring to movement within the SBC for a meaningful resolution on the abuse issue, not about his church’s future, so I stand corrected there.)

The Times reporter who’d broken the story tweeted that she planned to attend the pastor’s appearance. I still haven’t found out whether she managed to nab him in the hallway beforehand or afterwards.

She did run this piece on his speech:

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That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

Throughout the 16-plus years that GetReligion has been around, I have received emails asking why the mainstream press has focused on clergy sexual abuse cases in the Church of Rome, but not abuse cases in liberal and conservative Protestant flocks.

That’s an important question and one that looms over the intense media coverage we are currently seeing — with good cause — at the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Birmingham (click here for Bobby Ross Jr. round-up on preliminary coverage).

That is also the subject at the heart of a gripping #ChurchToo feature at The New York Times — “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister” — linked to SBC debates about sexual abuse. It’s a solid, deep story about one controversy in a powerful congregation and it contains clues pointing toward larger issues that will, eventually, have to be covered in the national press.

You see, there are reasons that SBC leaders — the ones who truly want to act — have struggled to come up with a one-plan-fits-all proposal to crack down on the monsters in their midst. To understand why, I want to flash back to an important Joshua Pease essay that ran a year ago at The Washington Post. Here’s my commentary about that: “ 'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze.”

The following chunk of the Pease essay is long, but essential for those who want to understand the larger issues that lurk in the painful new piece at the Times.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

Journalists: Please read that passage two or three times. The Southern Baptists have a real problem, here, and it’s not going to go away. It’s a theological problem, as well as a legal one.

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Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Gothic first-person accounts of growing up in a Christian subculture have become modern Americans’ equivalent of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. They serve as a vast collection of subjective narratives, often focused on the horrors of authority figures who encourage virginity, offer awkward alternatives to pop music (or welcome it uncritically), favor novels about the Apocalypse and otherwise fill the cavernous spaces of megachurches with conformists.

It’s difficult to read such accounts without wishing for more details. In “Ecstasy,” which appears in the May 27 edition of The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes this about her life in a Houston megachurch she calls the Repentagon. Here’s a sample:

“Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.”

Sensible journalism questions should be obvious: Who deemed it the will of the Lord? Was this declaration from the pulpit? Did it come from one of those boorish pew-dwellers who think it’s comforting to say the Lord must have needed a few new angels in heaven? Was it someone who speaks only of God’s sovereignty but never of living in a fallen world where random deaths are happenstance? Did this assertion represent even a plurality among members of the Repentagon, which Tolentino, for reasons she does not specify, never identifies as Second Baptist Church, one of the Bible Belt’s best known megachurches?

Tolentino’s account stands out because it is not solely a story of deprivation and unresolved anger. This paragraph leaps off the page:

I have been walking away from institutional religion for half my life now, fifteen years dismantling what the first fifteen built. But I’ve always been glad that I grew up the way that I did. The Repentagon trained me to feel at ease in odd, insular, extreme environments, and Christianity formed my deepest instincts. It gave me a leftist world view — a desire to follow leaders who feel themselves inseparable from the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick. Years of auditing my own conduct in prayer gave me an obsession with everyday morality.

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Friday Five: California massacre, religious voters, Catholic bishops, tiny clay seals, blogger lawsuit

Friday Five: California massacre, religious voters, Catholic bishops, tiny clay seals, blogger lawsuit

Between the election and yet another mass shooting — this one hitting especially close to home for my family — I’m ready for this weekend.

One of the victims of the massacre at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., was Alaina Housley, a freshman at Pepperdine University in nearby Malibu. I can’t help but think of my own daughter, Kendall, a fellow Pepperdine student who went dancing at that same country music venue during her freshman year last year.

May God grant peace and comfort to Housley’s family and all those struggling with this latest senseless tragedy in America.

The Los Angeles Times reported on some of the prayer vigils for the victims.

Before we head into the weekend, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Tuesday was Election Day. You might have heard about it. It was a sort of big deal.

In case you missed it, I highlighted five post-election religion storylines to watch. Terry Mattingly delved into what the midterm outcomes means for the culture wars over the U.S. Supreme Court. And Richard Ostling explained why Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse stands out — politically and religiously — in the post-election GOP.

Curious about how religious voters leaned in Tuesday’s voting? The Pew Research Center has the must-read analysis.

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Oh, those worship wars! Will evangelicals and charismatics ever learn to get along?

Oh, those worship wars! Will evangelicals and charismatics ever learn to get along?

PAUL’S QUESTION:

Can “evangelicals” and “charismatics” worship together?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Ah, those “worship wars” that have so roiled and reshaped U.S. Protestant churches this past half-century. The questioner, a music teacher, has attended “evangelical” churches with relatively “traditional” worship compared with the “contemporary” style associated especially with “charismatic” churches.

“We’ve gone through a monumental shift of style in our lifetime, which has never happened before,” says Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College (Illinois). Music is only part of the ongoing, sweeping evolution toward popular, informal, and “seeker-friendly” worship but it’s right at the center.

Paul posted this some time ago. The Guy decided to address the topic when the New Yorker profiled the late singer-songwriter Larry Norman as the leading “Christian rock” pioneer in the late 1960s. (The writer, Kelefa Sanneh is the son of Lamin Sanneh, professor of world Christianity at Yale Divinity School.)

His article began with a clergyman’s 1958 column declaring traditional church music to be “totally incompatible” with rock. He insisted that “the profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with” rock, which “so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”

So believed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shortly after he led the epochal Montgomery bus boycott. Countless preachers agreed with him during that early phase of rock ‘n roll.

Years later, the onset of Norman and others in the “Christian rock” subculture coincided with the youthful “Jesus movement” and the rise of new “charismatic” congregations that emphasized youth appeal and informal worship. Two churches in southern California, Calvary Chapel and The Vineyard, fostered hundreds of daughter congregations and produced widely-used songs.

The hard rock scene was built around concerts and records as many churches upheld King-style traditionalism.

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Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

First, here is yet another tmatt confession: I am so old that I attended one of the original “Jesus music” rock festivals held in Texas in the early 1970s. Then I went to Baylor University during the era when various branches of Word Records in Waco were releasing early albums linked to what would become Contemporary Christian Music.

There’s more. Anyone digging into the roots of “folk” and later “rock” music inside church doors will eventually hit a 1967 landmark — the “Good News” folk musical by Bob Oldenburg. Who played the role of the “skeptic” the first performances? That would be my big brother, Don, who was playing a ukulele before it was cool.

As a journalist, I have been covering the “Christian music” wars since the late 1970s and, of course, that topic ended up in my book “Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture.” The key theme: CCM is music defined by unwritten rules about lyrics and the belief that all “Christian art” should, in reality, be evangelism in disguise.

Hold that thought. I wrote all of that to add punch to my praise for an almost unbelievably good New Yorker feature by Kelefa Sanneh that just ran with this epic headline:

The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock

The genre has been disdained by the church and mocked by secular culture. That just reassured practitioners that they were rebels on a righteous path.

It opens with a quotation that left me stunned. I have read shelves full of books about “Christian rock” and have never been clubbed over the head with these words.

Try to guess the minister who had this to say in 1957, addressing whether gospel music could be wedded to rock ‘n’ roll. This Baptist pastor from the South was blunt:

Rock and gospel were “totally incompatible,” he explained: “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music.” And he made it clear which he preferred. “The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God,” he wrote. “The latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”

Who said that? That would be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Take it away, Aretha Franklin.

It’s hard not to quote every other passage in this must-read piece, which punches all the right buttons — from the copycat “Jesus is my boyfriend” style of worship music to battles over loud drums and heavy-metal guitars. Yes, U2 is in here. Ditto for Bob Dylan.

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Bee advised: Amid religious and political tumult, readers may welcome a good chuckle

Bee advised: Amid religious and political tumult, readers may welcome a good chuckle

Behold this recent "news" item:

DALLAS, TX -- Pastor Robert Jeffress, longtime supporter of President Donald Trump, has publicly accused Jesus of Nazareth of having "Trump Derangement Syndrome" after reading that the Christ condemned adultery in the Sermon on the Mount.

A baffled Jeffress read Jesus's words condemning not only adultery but looking at a woman lustfully and immediately concluded the Rabbi was simply exhibiting symptoms of deranged, unfair hatred of Donald Trump. ...

Here's another one:

WASHINGTON -- In an alarming show of religious extremism and complete disregard for the separation of church and state, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was spotted by news reporters serving food to the homeless.

Kavanaugh performed the frightening display of religious devotion alongside an organized group of radicalized Catholics, whose extremist mission appears to be helping the needy. Local news crews leaped out of the bushes and caught him in the act, asking him, "What do you have to say for yourself, BIGOT?" 

As you surely perceived, this is not real fake news but fake real news, that is to say fictional satire, posted by The Babylon Bee

Hey, in times of political and religious tumult, everyone can use a good chuckle. 

The online Bee, which first hit an unready readership two years ago, is religion’s equivalent of the devoutly secular The Onion, whose recent gibes include an item headlined “Sessions Vows To Protect All Deeply Held Religious Bigotry.”

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Bill Hybels resigns at Willow Creek: Thank goodness, real pros got to cover this story

Bill Hybels resigns at Willow Creek: Thank goodness, real pros got to cover this story

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the most basic facts.

When I was teaching at Denver Seminary in the early 1990s, the Denver area was in the middle of a remarkable boom era for evangelical megachurches. There were congregations that -- in the space of 12 months or so -- attracted several thousand members.

During a classroom discussion one day. a student from overseas (I think it was Russia) asked an interesting question: Why are there no old, unattractive, balding superchurch pastors? Why are they all young, super attractive and really funny? And how can you be a pastor when you have 7,000 members or more? Were these men pastors or celebrities?

The Americans laughed, but the laughter was rather weak.

I thought about that exchange when I was reading some of the early coverage of the latest scene in the ongoing drama of the Rev. Bill Hybels and the massive Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago.

Obviously, Hybels is more than a pastor who founded a giant evangelical megachurch 42 years ago. He is the creator of what amounts to a new Protestant mini-denomination -- more than a mere parachurch network. He has been a hero -- a celebrity -- among moderate evangelicals who want to make sure that the world understands that they aren't like all of those other tacky evangelicals.

There's a reason that GetReligionista Julia Duin's original #ChurchToo post about the accusations against Hybels has attracted nearly 18,000 readers.

With all that in mind, let me say something very obvious about the main news reports about the Hybels resignation.

These stories are, as a rule, long, detailed and full of nuance. In other words, look at the bylines on the following stories in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and the hard-news website at Christianity Today.

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Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

As a former religion-beat guy in Charlotte, and a veteran of the Jim Bakker and PTL wars of the 1980s (click here for my flashback), I was -- of course -- very interested in The Charlotte Observer's lengthy update on the status of the old Heritage USA.

Here's the totally logical headline on this solid -- but narrow -- feature: "Jim Bakker’s theme park was like a Christian Disneyland. Here’s what happened to it." What's missing? Hold that thought.

As the story notes, Heritage USA was supposed to grow into a kind of Disneyland for charismatic Christians, but things fell apart before the 2,300-acre complex reached the roller coaster ride through heaven and hell stage of development. For those in need of a refresher on why there is this:

Construction had already begun by then on two other mega-projects: A sand castle with a 10-story turret that would house the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, and a high-rise hotel to be called Heritage Grand Towers. When finished, reported the Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper for tourists and those living on the PTL property, the tower’s “elegantly furnished” 500 rooms would include 100 honeymoon suites “for couples who come to Heritage USA to renew their marriages.”
Two months later, Bakker suddenly resigned amid financial and sexual scandal. His plans were scrapped, the ongoing construction halted. Today, three decades after Bakker’s dreams gave way to a nightmarish spell of bankruptcy, lawsuits and prison, many of the magnets that once drew people to Heritage USA are long gone.

The architectural corpse that gets the most attention in this piece -- fittingly enough -- is Bakker's never-finished, never-occupied 21-story tower. It continues its slow decay, while the current owners dream of expanded ministries that sound eerily familiar.

This is the crucial part of the story that I hope Observer editors return to, in depth, in the future. Why? Well, I am biased because this is the part of the story that I kept writing newsroom memos about in the early 1980s, trying to convince editors that there was a national-level story at the foundation of the Bakker scandals.

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