This post is unique.
I’ve been working on this blog for close to a year now. I’ve written near 100 posts, and the majority of them, hell maybe even all of them, have been somewhat universal, meaning that while I write about things in my own life plenty, much of it wraps back around toward something everyone can relate to: how being a puppy dad has affected my view of one day becoming an actual dad, how working in a coffee shop has bettered or worsened my view of the people I see come through it–those sorts of things. That’s why this post is unique, because this post will be, in large part, relatable exclusively to the people of my town as opposed to just anyone who reads it.
Where I live, there is a church called NewSpring. NewSpring began in 2000 at the college, and by college students of the university, I graduated from two short years ago. NewSpring was a strange entity right from the start because the college it began in is, the people that began it, and the something like 300 miles radiating around it are all Baptist affiliated. Southern Baptist affiliated, which means conservative, which means reserved, which means quiet and traditional and a lot of other things (if you prefer to adhere to the stereotype); NewSpring was none of those things. It was progressive, it was different, it was loud and informal and not afraid to break the mold, so long as it brought people to God–which was exciting to some and in a lot of ways groundbreaking, but was not met without criticism.
As the church grew, traditional church goers and non-church goers alike had things to say about what NewSpring was becoming. Much of it centered around the size, around the, as some perceived it, “cult-like” status of the church and some of its more diehard members, but while there have been criticisms since the very beginning, NewSpring has continued to grow.
Today, NewSpring has its own building. It has 16 other satellite campuses all across the state and on a weekly basis, 30,000-50,000 unique individuals attend one of their many campuses. Across the globe, NewSpring is merely a footnote, a name, if it is even known of at all, but in South Carolina? NewSpring is a stapled phenomena of the community and has been for a number of years.
There are downsides though to such success.
Most noticeably, the church is large, and to manage and keep up a church of that size, a large staff is required. Stepping further, there is a need for an even larger number of selfless volunteers dedicated to giving their time each Sunday. Because of that, there are a number of people given great responsibility, people caring for kids, people leading volunteers, people praying with individuals and so on and so forth–all of whom, at the end of the day, are just that: people. And that’s where a lot of the criticism comes from.
For all that NewSpring has done right, there is a lot that has been done wrong, and that isn’t due to ineffective senior leadership or to the hearts of the majority of the people that attend, but due to a smaller minority of individuals: ones who only attend, ones who volunteer, ones who are even on staff, who, at one time or another, handled a situation incorrectly, who approached things in a manner that is un-Christ-like, and as a result, cast an opinion on someone wrongly done of what NewSpring actually is. Such are the perils of something so big and something so delicate as the spiritual well-being of a given group of individuals.
Still though, they are people–not NewSpring, not God, but people.
I say all of this because on July 10, NewSpring announced the removal of senior Pastor Perry Noble, the man who 16 years ago had perhaps the largest hand in beginning the church and, who since, has been the face and leader of it all. The reasoning behind it was alcohol abuse on Pastor Perry’s fault and his failure over time to overcome it. Since then there has been a veritable tempest of opinions, many good, many bad, many in celebration of Perry’s departure, and many solemnly wishing him well with hope for what’s to come; there’s been a lot over the past couple of days. And as I sift through what’s been said, both the more immediate responses in the moments following the announcement and the more meditated responses as a day or two have passed, I’ve felt pressed to write something of my own as I didn’t really say much at the time.
Disclosure: I’ve attended NewSpring Church for almost 11 years. Some of that time I’ve been more involved than I have at other times and, at the moment of this writing, I am a little more distanced from NewSpring than I can remember ever being. For that reason I feel uniquely qualified to make the point I’m trying to make, that point being this: regardless of what NewSpring has done to you, regardless of what person you’ve run into, be they staff member or attendee, who decided it was their job, opportunity, or privilege to judge you, or me, or anyone, NewSpring is a truly great church with a truly great cause that has had its missteps along the way. It is a place full of people, full of fallible, flawed people with different views and interpretations of Christ, all of whom make mistakes and all of whom will continue to make mistakes.
Now, my saying that may not set well on someone who has been reproached by a member of NewSpring, or a member of the Christian faith altogether. Living in an area so rooted in Christianity, a person will run into all kinds: the understanding, the judgmental, the hateful and misinformed, the loving, the inviting, and so many more, so it is sometimes easy for someone who has been hurt by the church to distance themselves from it, to lump a faith and a group within it under the same banner for always, but I find that to be wrong–not because anyone’s hurt is unfounded or any stereotypes are untrue, but because no group is the entirety of its people and no person is defined by a trait. There will be members that embrace a stereotype and there will be those that fly in the face of it. There will be people in every group imaginable that give that group a bad name, and there will be those that exemplify the group or faith they are a part of and bring honor upon their family.
As a Christian, it’s hard for me to say those words sometimes because I am hurt by members of my own faith. I’m looked down upon by elitist individuals that believe my faith is lesser, I’m passed over for opportunities based on, many times, made-up criteria. I’ve been excluded and judged, I’ve been shunned and talked down to, and that’s all directed at me, who is Christian, from other fellow Christians. There are people of no faith, people who are not religious who have faced so much worse, either by individuals of NewSpring or by individuals of the church altogether and thus have so much more reason to be skeptical, to cheer when the embodiment of that institution trips, stumbles and falls–but let me say this:
I grieve for Perry. As much as I may have agreed and disagreed with him in the past, as much as his more recent sermons had cooled me on wanting to listen, he was a man with his own biases, his own struggles, his own baggage, his own pain. He could be loud and obnoxious and opinionated and flat out wrong, but he was, still, a man. I think the problem that a church of NewSpring’s size has, and will always continue to have, is ego. We can pretend everyday that we are better, that we’ve figured it out because we are a part of something that has brought so many people together, but we aren’t. We aren’t above struggling, we aren’t above hurt, we aren’t above confusion, and we aren’t above sin. We are people. And the pressure that we face as a human populace, be us Christian, Atheist, or a member of any other faith, is systemic of a larger problem. It isn’t “Christian” to judge people for something they do, it isn’t atheistic to cheer when someone of faith falls down. Those acts are not defined by faith. They are a part of our ego. They are us feeling proud when someone is wrong, they are us beating our chest when that makes us feel good, and ego, like a person, for all the good it can do, will fail us the moment it’s what we rely on.
I’m sorry if this has run on too long and I’m sorry if somewhere along the way I lost you. I think I just wish I could make people see it. I wish they could see the fact that a man has fallen, that a man with loud opinions and ideas has disappeared and is struggling with something now while we are out here fighting each other, finding someone to blame. We blame him for his stumblings, we blame NewSpring for just being horrible, we blame his leadership team for letting him down, and we blame the critics for giving him flak. Christians are arguing with Christians, some cheering for his failures, but we forget sometimes, with what he’s built up, that Perry is simply human. NewSpring is a church full of flawed, human people, and the people outside it, faith or no faith, are human people too. We’ve all messed up, we’ve done things wrong, we’ve been unfairly judged for a choice we’ve made, and been harmed for being different. In the wake of this, in the wake of worldly tragedy, I wish we could agree on something. I wish we could realize that at our core we are similar and not focus on where we are different.