ERIC: Shondra Rider has a story about joining a church plant.
You know why I'm calling you right?
SHONDRA: Yes I know why you're calling me. (laughs)
ERIC: She was 30 years old living in Seattle. And while she's always been a person of faith, she'd had some bad experiences in church one time as a teenager. She'd been feeling suicidal and went to a pastor for help but all she was offered were some bible verses. Then as an adult. Her sister told her to come try this brand new church a church plant called Rain City Church.
SHONDRA: My sister was like No it's really different come just give it one service. So I was like fine deal. The Promise of Rain City was that it was supposed to be a church for people who had been hurt by other churches. I went to that service and I was like oh. This actually is different.
ERIC: The church really was being good to people who had been hurt, Shondra says. And it became like a family to her.
SHONDRA: For the first time ever in my entire life. I felt like I was actually at a church where I can not only spiritually grow but the people around me were spiritually growing.
ERIC: Then two years after joining the church Shondra realized she was attracted to women and she was worried this might be a deal breaker she might get kicked out of the church. But when she told her pastor about it his response was really surprising.
SHONDRA: They started crying with me in his living room and he said I am so sorry that you even have to ask these questions. Here is like of course you always be well whomever ain't said Aye. No matter who you can marry.
ERIC: Was it relieving?
SHONDRA: It was very relieving. I went from serving a couple times a month to serving every single week. I went from tithing sporadically to tithing weekly tithing is another word for donating or giving financially. I felt like that was affirmation that reigns said he was the church that always claimed to be.
ERIC: In 2015 Shondra fell in love with and got engaged to a woman named Sarah. Remembering the conversation with her pastor she emailed him and asked if he'd officiate their wedding.
SHONDRA: And crickets...I didn't hear anything back and days turned into weeks and weeks turned into a couple of months before I heard back from him. I just got an e-mail saying hey can I meet with you and Sarah in person to discuss this. And as soon as I got that e-mail I knew what was going to happen at that meeting and what happened. He said I'm sorry I've been spending the past couple of months deep in prayer with this and discussing this with the board and I can't officiate your ceremony because to do so it would cause a split in our church. And we think that we would lose too many people.
ERIC: After months of trying to stick it out at the church hoping they'd make amends. Shondra gave up. She left the church he married Sarah.
Aare you going into church now?
SHONDRA: No, my wife and I we've been taking some time to properly grieve says and we haven't made it back to another church.
ERIC: Rain City confirmed most of this though. They say they weren't quite so worried about losing people.
They say they were unclear on their position on gay marriage and feel bad about how this all played out.
It's something they're still working through but the thing about Chandra's experience is that it happens more than you might think in church plans. Jonathan Merritt writes about religion for places like the Atlantic and The New York Times lot of LGBT people coming to churches and they they're told they're welcome.
JONATHAN: They attend regularly and then you know a year two years into it they try to step up into some other role and they're told sorry you're prohibited from doing this. They're saying why don't you just communicate this to me to begin with because now my life is enmeshed with your community. And I wish you would have just been forthcoming about what you believed about this to begin with.
ERIC: A common critique of new church plants is that they present as progressive but at their core may still hold very conservative beliefs. People can attend for months or even years without understanding where the church falls on big issues. Merritt says it's a problem baked into the model of church planting of needing to appeal to new people.
JONATHAN: Because they're so focused on attracting people they don't want to say anything that would place them in a box that would put them in a category that would repel people. And so churches will often resort to what you could call deception. Some people would use that term what other people would call you know selectively communicating elements of their identity in order to reach a lot of people.
ERIC: This is StartUp, the show about what it's really like to start something new. I'm Eric Mennel. And this is the episode I've been most excited for this entire series on church planting. It is also by a long shot the messiest. We're going to talk about theology and beliefs because where church stands on big issues has a massive effect on who does or does not attend and also who does or does not give money to help keep the church afloat A.J. Smith is the church planter we've been following for the last several weeks and up until now I haven't been entirely clear on his theology. It's not on the church's website. It's not on some pamphlet. When you walk in the door but it's vital for understanding what you're signing up for when you go to Restoration Church. And so today I'm going to sit down with A.J. and try to understand what he really believes on three key issues: hell homosexuality and the role of women in the church. Pour yourself some communion wine folks.
This one's going to get heavy.
Some of my questions are going to sound very stupid like I feel like even though I've grown up in the church and this is maybe true of a lot of Christians you can grow up in the church and spend a lot of time around the church reject without actually asking many of these questions in a critical way and not even really knowing how to ask these questions.
When I sat down to talk withA.J. I knew these questions could have real consequences for him. On the one hand are the people he's trying to attract mostly new believers. People who thought the church wasn't for themA.J. may want to break free from some of the dogma of traditional denominations and show these people he is building a different kind of church. But there are other parties who want a pastor to have certainty when it comes to belief consistency for example restoration church is part of a church planting network called Ax 29 29 is one of the biggest names in church planting. There are more than 700 churches in the network. They provide coaching and marketing advice but also they provide access to financial support. Restoration church has gotten donations as large as 20000 dollars and continues to get about eight hundred dollars a month from other Acts 29 churches for AJ to keep his spot as a member of this network. He's expected to be in line with their beliefs on key theological points. So let's look at those beliefs starting with hell and the afterlife.
ACT 29 expects its pastors to follow what is called a reformed theology a part of which is predestination. And this gets messy but basically the Bible says God has a predetermined plan for where we each go when we die which might suggest it doesn't matter what you do in this life. But according to reformed theology whether or not you are among the chosen you still have a responsibility to behave morally.
Do you believe in hell?
ERIC: Who goes there.
I want to say this about health first because you say help people have these medieval pictures of the little red guys with pitchforks over these carved into the. Right. Is that why you think you think of hell?
ERIC: Have Dante's Inferno. Well that's not how the Bible paints a picture of hell.
AJ: So that's our first problem with hell. The word how in the Gospels when Jesus uses it comes from the word Gehenna and Gehenna was a word for the garbage dump outside the city walls he was not talking about another dimension with little devils poking at you. He was talking about an actual place.
It would be like me saying the city dump the significance of who was not to say that when people you know certain people die they go to the city dump.
it was correlated being on the outside being out there being away from God. So that those people who reject God those people who push got away those people who run from God those people who resist God are the people that God is separated from.
ERIC: I'm not a theologian but I think the best way to sum up ages belief is: Oh baby do you know what that's worth. Who hell is a place on earth. In all seriousness this is not predestination. AJ believes hell is a choice like humans have some agency over whether or not they wind up there. And that is not quite in line with what Axt 29 believes it could become a problem.
But it's a little obscure and I don't know that it's the kind of thing most people think about when they're picking a church to go to. So we're gonna move on. Can we talk about the hard ones now still it and come here to sip tea though I'm sipping tea homosexuality. Yeah let's do it.
Perhaps it goes without saying but the issue of LGBTQ inclusion in the evangelical church is hugely contentious and even broaching the subject can put a church plan in peril. Take for example Eastlake Church in Seattle for several years. It was a standard evangelical church people identifying as LGBTQ were not allowed to become members. George Mekhail was a pastor at Eastlake at the time.
GEORGE: Throughout the years of working there we started to go down this journey of really re-examining everything that we believed about faith and that led eventually to an expansion of our worldview and how we read the Bible and how we understood our relation to the rest of the world.
ERIC: And in 2015 the church decided they wanted to welcome the LGBTQ community so they put out a statement saying LGBTQ people could be members they could be on staff.
GEORGE: And that decision turned out megachurch from about 5000 people to about half of that overnight.
We went from about 8 million dollars a year annual budget to about half of that overnight.
So that was kind of a wakeup call.
ERIC: So with that in mind, back to A.J.
Can someone who is openly gay be a member at restoration church?
AJ: Define openly gay.
ERIC: in an active homosexual relationship.
AJ: You went right for it. No, no they couldn't be.
I'll start by saying this Jesus was attractive to the people who are marginalized on the outside of his society. And they came to him because he was a place of love and mercy and justice.
We desire to be that restoration church and I absolutely recognize that the LGBT population has been horribly treated by the church.
So my desire for them is to experience nothing but unconditional love from me and the people of restoration church.
So with all of that for a few different reasons but also because it explodes he commands a new testament that I can't get around we cannot endorse homosexual unions as God's ideal within our church. So what does that mean.
It means people an active homosexual lifestyle would not be able to be members and I could not marry two gay people in church. So as hard as that is to say in our culture and as hard as it is for me to say personally to people it's there's certain things we just don't endorse. We don't agree on.
ERIC: Yeah I think it's a if my understanding of the argument is correct. It's less about like disagreeing so much as a denying of like full access to. The benefits of being part of the church community or the benefits of the church you know. Because of the way someone is.
AJ: I hate for it to be thought of that way though.
Because you know I would want gay people to have full access to our church and the church community. But of course someone can't be a member can't be married they can't get full access.
ERIC: AJ says he does support same sex marriage in society outside the church. He thinks the legal benefits of marriage should not be withheld from same sex couples. Insurance that benefits all that stuff. It's a confusing position. And he knows that it's the kind of position that some pastors in the ACT 29 network might not love to hear. It's also the kind of position that would cause people like Shondra a writer from the beginning of the episode to feel misled. Hearing one belief but seeing the other in practice I don't know if this is actively costing AJ new members but I can't imagine it's helping. After the break the issue driving the biggest wedge in the evangelical church right now. I know it's not the gay thing are you kidding me. It might even call his network affiliation into question.
As I mentioned before ages Church part of the Acts 29 network and to join this network a pastor needs to agree to five core beliefs at least on the network's Web site. Have them pulled up right now. Four of them sound pretty churchy like gospel centrally in all of life and the sovereignty of God in saving centers.
But then there's this fifth belief the equality of male and female and the principle of male servant leadership male servant leadership. Practically what this means is that men are meant to lead and women are meant to support or in some cases submit to that leadership.
AJ: From the beginning that's been a very central tenant act 29 is what sets them apart from a lot of other networks.
ERIC: And as you can imagine it is a complicated subject to talk about. The first time I went to visitA.J. and his wife Leah I asked her about this.
ERIC: I don't want to get too caught up in this. We could talk about this. I mean I'm curious what do you think women should be allowed to lead. Churches.
LEAH: Umm, should they be allowed to? That's interesting.
ERIC: We can talk about this some other time. it's touchy.
LEAH: It's something that I'm still working through.
Given my past and growing up in what I was taught about women in their roles in church.
There's a lot that women can do but all your intended need to be there to a woman pastor preaching a woman and using air quotes exercising authority over a man unquote. So you need to be very wary of that.
ERIC: Leah grew up in traditional Baptist circles a DNA of church. She phrases it the kind of churches where you would absolutely not see a woman in the pulpit which is why she was shocked when as a teenager she heard about this church a friend was going to.
LEAH: They would let her preach on Sunday. It was not only a woman but like a 14 or 15 and I think her church is so, a mess.
ERIC: And then one week this friend invited Leah to come to the church to watch her preach.
LEAH: And she had a gift and we just talked. All right. Like something clicked in me a little bit like, hmmm, ha.
ERIC: That Sunday morning was the first tiny chip in a belief system. Leah had always been very certain of is actually a single word for it complimentary and Asom complimentary and Asom is the belief that men and women are created equally in the image of God. But at church and at home they are meant to do different things to compliment each other. like a lot of things complimentarianism exists on a spectrum and the less conservative version women can do basically everything in a church except be a pastor in the more conservative version it extends beyond the church and beyond the home to the belief that women shouldn't be allowed to be things like police officers imprisonment.
This belief does not come out of thin air. It's based on an earnest reading of the Bible and a few key passages where Jesus's disciples say women should not hold authority over men.
KATHY: This text is pretty doggone clear. I mean it's not one of those things that you can say Well that was then this is now. It comes without an expiration date.
ERIC: This is Kathy Keller. She's a prominent Christian writer in New York City. She's also a complementary man who along with her husband Tim Keller founded an incredibly successful church plant in New York City called Redeemer Presbyterian.
KATHY: Make the point because as in all the congregation of the Saints women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak but must be made in submission as the law says.
ERIC: Keller falls on the less conservative side of the Complementary spectrum. And she didn't come to this position easily. She was actually in seminary training to become a pastor and she kept coming across these passages like the one she just read and what she took away was that God did not intend for women to lead not like this and she didn't see that as a way of holding women back. She saw it as a way of freeing women up to flourish in other ways. And so one night she went before this big committee of pastors at the seminary and told them she changed her mind. She was what is now called the compliment tarian and to no longer be training to become a pastor.
And that is to set up a firestorm for the rest half of the room. These are ordained pastors and elders started booing and hissing at me literal boos literal hisses and I didn't realize that I had stepped on a beehive. I mean I knew that there were different points of view but I did not know how fiercely fought it was the moment.
ERIC: It seems worth noting that complementarianism is not some fringe idea is pretty core to what a lot of conservative churches believe. According to research done by the Barna Group their religious research outfit 61 percent of evangelicals are not comfortable with a female pastor much higher than any other Christian group.
LEAH: That was what was believed to be biblical.
ERIC: That was like the Explanation.
LEAH: Yes. That's what's in the Bible.
ERIC: This is what Leah and AJ who was raised in a complementary church have believed men and women are different and there are different non leading roles women can flourish on. But over the years some of that certainty has been called into question for Leo first there was seeing her friend preach so well.
Then she'd see male pastors preach not so well. And then there were things happening in the evangelical world. Abuse scandals corruption scandals that she felt could have been prevented if more women had a seat at the table.
LEAH: Only men making decisions. You're missing a huge perspective there.
As much as you may pray and discern. We've seen a lot of leaders have quote falls from grace or make horrible decisions. I feel like if women work anywhere within earshot that bore when the going down that way. Right.
ERIC: A few months after our first conversation I went back to talk with Leah about the gender issue. And at the time there was a pretty big scandal making waves in the evangelical world. A hugely influential pastor named Paige Patterson had been fired from his role as president of a big Seminary in Texas. He had allegedly mishandled a series of abuse allegations in one case a woman said she told Patterson she was being abused by her husband. And she says Patterson told her not to go to the police but instead pray that her husband would change.
Patterson denies these allegations but cases like these have caused some in the evangelical world to reexamine their views on gender roles and lives among them. She's thinking about the ways complimentary and Asom may be harming the church.
LEAH: This isn't just to say oh we have equal rights and we can do anything a man to do. That's not what it's about. It's about the whole body benefiting from the whole body. So I'm changing and shifting where I am now, I totally believe in women pastors and I think the church and even church circles we've been in have done a huge disservice to women by not allowing that.
ERIC: This goes without saying but the idea of someone actually changing their mind about something so consequential in 2018 feels almost surreal. And I couldn't help but wonder if any of this was rubbing off onA.J. an evangelical pastor who had grown up with a complementary worldview. Have you talked with Lee about the women in leadership constantly. AJ Smith again how has that affected your thinking about it.
AJ: A lot. Because she's someone who kind of keeps me accountable on that where she's like hey you guys have had quite a few meetings in a row without a woman being present for. We planned something wrong. She said this is the reason you guys don't have any women in there you need to have more women in leadership. This problem wouldn't have happened if a woman had been in there.
ERIC: And so I had to ask him my final question on theology.
The one that might be the riskiest for him to differ from his network on the one that could cause them to lose funding. Could a woman be a pastor or a restoration church.
AJ: Not right now she can we. It's interesting. And this is one of those that we're kind of working through because you know with 29 women elders I should say elders in this kind of church are basically the same as pastors but there's kind of this weird gray area where it's like doesn't mean women can't preach.
Which is kind of strange. Like there's kind of this weird. So right now I'm starting a preaching cohort at the church that will include women and we're going to have women preachers restoration church. Would you like women to be elders. Well this is one of those questions where I I may disagree with my network on this and I've come around to Yeah I'm I'm pretty ok with women Elfers.
ERIC: You at all worried that someone Acts 29 will hear the way you're describing the roles you would like women to play in your church. Yes. And they'll be like you shouldn't be part of this network.
STEVE: My name is Steve Thomas. I'm the CEO of ACT 29.
ERIC: Steve Timmis runs the business side of ACT 29 and he says it's important that a pastor subscribed to the five core beliefs to remain part of the network including complimentary Asom.
STEVE: We're saying okay at twenty nine if you want to be part of it. This is what we believe people want to go to church and they know what kind of church it is that they going to take.
ERIC: Yeah it's sort of like a brand quality assurance thing.
STEVE: Yeah yeah but if you don't if you don't believe these things we're not defrocking. We're not disciplining you we're just saying that this isn't a place for you.
ERIC: I mean this is maybe a crass of putting it, but do people get kicked out of the network?
STEVE: I mean let's say. I mean that's a bit of a colloquial term that could be quite pejorative...
ERIC: Removed From the network?
STEVE: Yes. Yes. We would do that if it became clear that they were not in line with where we are.
ERIC: I told him as whatA.J. said to me about Helen about compa materialism. They asked if you were the kind of thing someone could be removed from the network for a little bit like asking a doctor to diagnose someone that's not standing in front of them. There's no obvious yes or no. But he did say if someone landed whereA.J. seems to be landing he would suggest they start a conversation about whether or not this network has a good fit.
It's hard to imagine anybody listening to the story and not being mad about somethingA.J. said some people will likely be upset about his stance on LGBTQ issues. Other people will probably not like his stance on women and maybe hell at one point he mentioned being worried other evangelicals would call him a heretic or perhaps worse a liberal he says with all the stuff he's still working through it. Still thinking about it all the time.
For her part Leah does hope the evangelical church starts coming around addressing and dealing with gender issues.
LEAH: The church is trying to be calm and muted out if it does it loses its relevance if we dont.
ERIC: This is one of the reasons I was most interested in this story to begin with. When we first started the series I mentioned that I had attended church plants and then I'd stopped attending church plants. I was living in the south and in one situation a pastor gave a sermon that made it clear the church was actively opposed to same sex marriage. That wasn't something I'd known when I started attending the church. It wasn't something I agreed with. So I left at another church. I learned it was complimentary and after reading a newspaper article about it I didn't even know a complimentary Asom was at the time. It was a real surprise to me and also not something I believed. I don't bring this up to pass judgment on those churches or the people who attend them. People are going to land in different places. I think a lot of Christians are actually in a pretty similar spot to AJ and Leia talking about this stuff figuring out how they feel but as the world around the church changes. I think I just assumed that there would be more of me out there. People who want to go to church but who have a hard time with the more conservative social positions.
I thought that was the problem. The biggest obstacle to growing a new church in America today. But then I came across this study. It was a Canadian study that looked at how various church denominations were faring over the last several years and the author found something he wasn't expecting. It turns out almost every kind of church is doing worse losing members except for one the one kind of church that has been holding strong that's been able to retain members the ultra conservative evangelical churches the ones with the most strict theology on gender and sexuality. Those are the churches. People are still flocking to growth really is linked. It is predicted by theological conservatism. David Haskell teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University and he's the lead author on this study. And he says that conservative churches with staunch beliefs are more successful at least in part because they provide people with answers direct assured answers.
Groups that are able to say here's what we stand for. Really so much better than groups that say they're not really sure. Think of it like a map if you have a map that shows you clearly how to get to someplace you're going to get a lot of people who follow along the people without the map without clinging to the map or advocating for the map they are going to go off in divergent directions and you're going to have a group that is not solid.
These less conservative churches, according to Pew data are losing about a million members annually. So what's happening is that while Christianity in the US is shrinking overall the successful churches that are left are becoming more intense -- more hardline. I told Leah about this research.
LEAH: Oy vey.
ERIC: She was surprised dismayed even.
LEAH: When people think they figure it out, and they know exactly what God likes and doesn't like. And This is how this is exactly what we need to do. That makes me very wary. And so it frustrates me that those are the churches that are thriving. I get it though, I just don't like it.
ERIC: For AJ though, the path ahead isn't clear. He knows his positions are confusing and maddening even to lots of people around him. Gays can marry but I can't marry them. Women can't be pastors yet but I am training them to preach.
Not only does this ambiguity pose an immediate financial risk to the church. It could also be impeding its growth. But the one thing he is certain of is that this fuzziness this constant assessment of his own beliefs. That's who he is.
It's part of his own spiritual journey.
AJ: Man I've changed changed a ton in my beliefs so much since I was 18 and I was 25. So I expect to continue to change.
ERIC: What's the biggest thing?
AJ: Oh you know probably the way I understand the Bible, read the Bible.
ERIC: What's different about it?
AJ: I think I see the bible for what it really is more now and not is this answer book that fell from heaven and it's kind of a complex, God-inspired no doubt, human product. Also just seeing the world for how big it is and how many people are out there it's just a complicated things and just kind of be able to rest in more mystery than needing as much certainty as I used to.
ERIC: It's a nice idea being more comfortable resting and mystery but it's a tough sell of all the things that could be keeping restoration church from growing. Be it location marketing. The guy in charge. This one feels like it's the biggest challenge.
The oldest and most impossible to disrupt that we are all wandering around on this massive rock a little aimless pretty confused. Most of us try to do right by each other. Most of us unsure of the best way how hoping someone can give us even one or two of the answers. But if you don't have a map to offer there's probably someone up the street who does.
AJ: Did you tell people this is where you're going today?
ERIC: A couple of people...
I think they were like, that's going to be a terrible audio!
This episode was produced by Simone Polanen, Angelina Mosher, Luke Malone, Bruce Wallace, Kimmie Regler and Sindhu Gnanasambandan. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman editing by Lulu Miller and Sara Sarasohn. Peter Leonard mixed the episode. Music by Haley Shaw and Peoter Leonard.
Special thanks to Tim Cox Sarah Ngu, Kate Wallace and Darrell Bock with the Dallas Theological Seminary. George Mekhail who you heard talking about is like church is now head of an organization called Church clarity. They advocate for churches being more transparent about their stances on gender and LGBTQ issues. I'm Eric Mantell. If you are already subscribed to up go to avid podcast or whichever app you use and hit subscribed to my you're there review. You can follow us on Twitter at podcast startup.
Thanks for listening. See you next week.