Sunday Down South: First Baptist Alpharetta, Football, and Fox News

Bowden’s bio mentions that he is the son of his more famous dad. Clemson University is only 112 miles from Alpharetta.

College football season is nearly here and excitement is in the air.  Soon Saturdays down south will be filled with cries of joy and adulation that rival those of the next day’s church worship services.  For the next four months, Southerners will be watching and talking about all things college football.  This fact surely isn’t lost on Thomas Hammond, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Alpharetta, Georgia.  This Sunday, August 20th, Hammond is filling his pulpit with former Clemson University Football Coach Tommy Bowden.  Given the popularity (which borders on religious fervor) that college football garners in the southern United States, there should be no shortage of people willing fill the pews to hear Mr. Bowden speak.  Printed “invite” tickets have been distributed to church members.  According to a church promotional video, Bowden is planning to speak on how he used Christian principals to manage the football program Clemson University during his ten-year stint as head football coach at that school.   This certainly sounds like an interesting topic.  However, one is left wondering if a church pulpit on a Sunday morning is the proper time and place for a football coach to deliver a speech about his life and career.  Shouldn’t the Bible be proclaimed in an expository fashion?  Shouldn’t the pastor be preaching the word?

Celebrity guest preachers are certainly not new to Hammond’s pulpit.  Last August, Todd Starnes preached at FBC Alpharetta.  He is a long time Fox News contributor and conservative pundit.  Fox News rivals the popularity of college football among conservative southerners.  Todd Starnes is himself perhaps the most famous Baptist in America.  He headlined the “The Todd Starnes All-American Christmas” show at Bellevue Baptist Church (home to current Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gains) in 2016.  FBC Alpharetta made no secret of advertising Starnes’ Fox News connection when he came to preach there last fall.  The Fox News logo was even actually used to advertise Starnes’ arrival.

This church promotional image features an American flag and the Fox News logo.

Starnes’ message, which is very loosely based on Daniel 3, blurred the lines between biblical proclamation, journalism, and partisan political commentary.  Starnes did not pretend that he was in the pulpit as a theologian but claimed that he was providing a “view from the pew.”  Rather than explain the meaning of Daniel 3, Todd Starnes gave various examples of hostility to religious conviction in modern America.  His speech was filled with personal anecdotes about living in New York City as a Southern conservative (for example wearing an NRA hat to the grocery store and putting off a PETA solicitor) and ethnocentric quips about Waffle House, Cracker Barrel, and Chick-fil-a (which Starnes labeled “the official chicken of Jesus).  Starnes presented no biblical exposition of how Christians should expect persecution from the world but rather communicated to the congregation that Christians need to get out and vote in order to have more influence in society.  That journalism was presented from the pulpit is bad enough, however, Starnes has a poor professional reputation as a journalist, having (among other things) been fired from Baptist Press in 2003 after an alleged breach of journalistic standards.  According to The Atlantic, “Fox News has a Todd Starnes problem” and Starnes is one of the greatest threats to the network’s credibility.  The credibility of the pulpit in the church of Jesus Christ is much more important than that of a cable news network.  One is left wondering why Starnes, and not a preacher of the gospel, was allowed to fill the pulpit of FBC Alpharetta to give his politically partisan “view from the pew”.  Tommy Bowden comes from a family of well-known believers and has a generally good reputation as a football coach.  However, Tommy Bowden seems to have been given the opportunity to fill the pulpit of FBC Alpharetta simply because he comes from a family of well-known believers and has a generally good reputation as a football coach.

FBC Alpharetta, which has six pastors on staff, consistently calls in guest preachers to tickle the ears of its congregation.  Unfortunately, this is not atypical of some larger churches, especially those who have well-connected pastors.  Thomas Hammond is a former employee of the North American Mission Board (NAMB), which is headquartered in Alpharetta.  Kevin Ezell, the President of NAMB, is a member of FBC Alpharetta.  Alpharetta, Georgia is the home base of the very agency Southern Baptists have tasked with evangelizing the North American continent.  Local churches look to NAMB for assistance in planting biblical churches and give it millions of dollars each year.  If FBC Alpharetta’s method of church operation, hiring celebrity speakers to do something other than exposit the Bible, is typical of NAMB strategy, then Southern Baptists should be very concerned.  That Hammond was dismissed[1] from his position as NAMB’s Vice President for Convention Advancement in 2013 should give some comfort to concerned Baptists.  Still, there is a certain segment of the Baptist population that is happy to host religiopolitical pundits such as Todd Starnes.  This is a dangerous mixing of religion and politics.

FBC Alpharetta is located in an affluent Atlanta suburb.  It should be a well-funded machine for evangelism and discipleship in the area where the most popular “church” is Andy Stanley’s seek-sensitive goat show, North Point Church.  Yet FBC Alpharetta continues to churn members in and out.  Could it be that it does so because God’s people are Scripture starved?  One FBC Alpharetta insider lamented to Pulpit & Pen and that Thomas and the church leadership spend much of their time “vision-casting” but exhibit “no common sense” and an inability to put their ideas into practice.  The source went on to say:

“Why do we need gimmicks and minor celebrities speaking on Sunday morning? Thomas Hammond is one of the best if not the best preacher I’ve ever heard. Our executive pastor David Smith is great too. I don’t want to miss one of their sermons for rah-rah Christian principles will make you a winner speeches…or God and Country speeches. What are we feeding our flock?”

One of the reasons that a preacher as fine as Hammond gives up his pulpit so much may be a limited sermon repertoire.  Hammond served as an interim pastor thirteen times in the fourteen year period between 1998 and 2012.  He has had ample opportunity to preach the same sermon to different congregations.  According to another source, a former FBC Alpharetta church member and program volunteer left after hearing the same sermon from Hammond three times in between stints of volunteering in other parts of the church during Sunday service time.  Unfortunately, FBC Alpharetta appears to be just one more sad example of a church whose leadership so focused on vision-casting and self-promotion, that they have lost sight of simple scripture proclamation on Sunday morning.  Church members should demand better – of FBC Alpharetta, those employed by denominational organizations such as NAMB, and of Thomas Hammond, who happens to be the 2016 Georgia Baptist Convention President.

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church of which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under Fair Use.

**I reached out to Thomas Hammond for comment but my phone call not yet been returned as of the time of publishing.

[1] According to the Baptist Press Hammond resigned from NAMB after 13 years of service to take on the pastorate of the 1,600-member FBC Alpharetta.  However, a source indicated to Pulpit & Pen than Hammond was involuntarily terminated along with many others in his department.

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Seth Dunn

Masters of Divinity in Christian Apologetics, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Member of the Evangelical Theological Society Certified Public Accountant