I am a polemicist. This means that I study fraudulent, sub-Christian groups that disguise themselves as orthodox churches or Biblical movements. This also means that I go to places other people would ordinarily not go and sometimes do things that people in other fields of theological study don’t have to do. My library on the cults is ever-expanding, and ranges from recent best-selling heretics the likes of Rob Bell to the helpful works of Walter Martin and B.B. Warfield, to the polemical treatises of Irenaeus and Eusebius. However, Satan is an industrious demon, and the printing press of hell is constantly publishing work after work, and the factories of that eternal inferno are always producing an assembly line of new false teachers.
Polemics is done in real-time. And so, for many of today’s false teachers, there are no primary resources of research, except for us. We – that is, the polemicists – are the primary resources. A movement like the New Apostolic Reformation or the Emergent Church is ever-evolving, expanding, adapting and changing; so much so, in fact, that by the time a polemical book on their heresies is published, they have changed their positions, methodologies, and perversions a half-dozen time.
Polemics in the 21st Century has followed the course of journalism. Print publications have become nearly obsolete, as online news publications report news instantly, without waiting for the next day’s edition to go to the presses. No longer does one have to wait for the five o’clock news to find out what’s already old. Even online news publications are considered snail-pace slow compared to the “guerrilla journalism” of social media posts and blogging done on cellular phones and tablets or through live recording. In short, the brick-and-mortar seminaries cannot keep up with the greatest dangers to historic, Protestant Christianity. They are antiquated, and their method of information dissemination (or at least the kind of which that is meant to respond to false teaching) has become largely obsolete. Polemics has become the business not of the seminary, tied down to printed journals and peer reviews, but to pastors and lay-people who are not so encumbered by slow, bureaucratic wheels. And so, we go to the heretics and document their falsehoods for ourselves and our posterity.
This summer, I went to Jim Bakker’s studio near Branson, Missouri, and gathered intelligence regarding his profit-motivated operations. While Bakker isn’t considered serious enough a threat to many seminarians to spend their brain energy upon, the man has a huge multi-media platform that reaches hundreds of thousands of people, makes millions of dollars, and fleeces countless poor and ignorant people while guiding them to the darkest corners of charismania. You can see a video of my encounter with Bakker here. The episode of his program never aired, his day was ruined, his pocketbook was hurt, and thousands of people were made aware of his false prophecies. It’s just another day in the life of a polemicist.
So then, I couldn’t resist going just a few miles out of my way in Tempe, Arizona – while traveling to my debate on the Sabbath – to see the infamous Faithful Word Baptist Church. I wanted to see it for myself and surveil the congregation and working of the church. Thankfully, my traveling companion was happy to oblige me, and we made our way into what is among the most despised, buffoonish churches in America.
First, in case you were unaware, the Faithful Word Baptist Church is a phenomenon that could only have happened in the age of the Internet. Its pastor, Steven Anderson, became famous (or at least known) by posting his often-ridiculous preaching on YouTube. Several of these clips have been seen millions of times, and all originated in a rented strip mall storefront well off the main thoroughfare and down a side-street of obscurity.
First, there is the “Pisseth Against the Wall” sermon.
Then there was the time he prayed President Obama would die and go to hell.
Then there was the time he called for war against the gays.
Then there was a sermon about Jesus wearing “britches.” That was one of my personal favorites.
And, if you’re now stuck in the eternal black hole of YouTube, here’s a montage of some of his most epic rants.
Aaaand….just for kicks and grins, here’s Steven Anderson getting tased by the U.S. Border Patrol (p.s., he was right on that one).
Steven Anderson has yoked up with tinfoil hat-wearing Alex Jones, has been declared a hate-group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (but honestly, who hasn’t?) and been featured on Right Wing Watch (of course, so have I). But on top of being…zealous…Anderson is a Pelagian. And not only is Anderson a Pelagian, he’s also a really, really bad preacher. What I mean by that is that he doesn’t so much exposit Scripture as he just screams a lot. And frankly, a lot of what he’s screaming is nonsense.
Imagine if Jack Hyles and Jack Chick somehow singularly merged their eccentricities and had a three-way love child with the physical female embodiment of sheer ignorance, and this would essentially be Steven Anderson.
But…here’s what I saw at Faithful Word Baptist Church.
I approached the shopping center on Wednesday the 18th of October at approximately 8:45 PM (the church service began at 7 PM). My companion and I were greeted outside by a gentleman in a suit, who showed us the door. We were instantly taken aback at the size of the facility. From the YouTube videos, it appears that the congregation is small. In actuality, the renovated store-front could hold 350 or more people. The attendance board showed that they were running more than 325 on Sunday morning, with more than 200 on Sunday evening. The facility, although it had a low ceiling, was actually cavernous. And…it was full.
Oddly (although I have seen it before in smaller churches), there were recliners and rockers put at the end of the aisles (which consisted of folding chairs), ostensibly for senior citizens who desired to be more comfortable. The facility was not at all immaculate, but rather, appeared to be lived in. From my perspective, that’s a good thing. At the front of the church was the wooden pulpit upon which Anderson stands and screams at his congregation, and which he occasionally beats with his fists and kicks. I couldn’t resist taking a photo behind the pulpit to send to my friend and fellow polemicist, Chris Rosebrough, to see if he would know where I was (he did).
The men and little boys wore suits and ties. The ladies, both old and young, wore dresses. The congregation was younger, and their median age (I’m guessing) was 30. There were only a few gray-haired denizens milling about, and they stood out among the youthful crowd. The congregation was also surprisingly diverse, with a significant percentage of people with a darker-than-Caucasian melanin count. I chuckled upon this realization, that few would seek out Steven Anderson to explain the keys to racial reconciliation in the church, but honestly, he seems to have what might be the best example of the ethnic diversity that I have personally ever seen.
I asked if they bused people in, as Independent Fundamental churches often do, and sometimes with some kind of trickery or bribery to bring in the crowds. They told me that they bused no one.
The congregation appeared to be middle class, in spite of what might otherwise appear a generally upper-class wardrobe. The people we spoke to were clear-eyed, intelligent, hospitable, and kind. We were greeted not by any elder or pastor or deacon, but by a friendly layman. We asked if Steven was there, but he assured us that “Pastor Anderson is a busy man” and left soon after the service while his congregation stayed around to fellowship together. I listened to a few of those conversations while trying to look inconspicuous. They were normal people.
Where were the brainless zombies I had expected? Where were all the Nazi skinheads? Where did the weirdo homeless people go and who replaced them with all these young families and children?
The people who ‘followed’ Anderson surely must be as crazy as he is. Surely, they are mouth-breathing, ignorant and impoverished, hateful and inhospitable, racist homophobes. But, other than a single man who stood with his back against the wall and an exposed firearm who was clearly standing point from the back of the crowd, everyone was warm and embracing of us. Granted, we didn’t speak to that many people, but there were lots of smiles and polite nods of acknowledgment.
It was normal. It was a little too normal. It was so normal it was off-putting. I came to Faithful Word Baptist Church expecting to see a freak show, and what I saw was basically the epitome of a loving, warm, and hospitable group of well-dressed people who seemingly loved Jesus and one another. I expected to find a dozen young white men who looked like they had just come from an Ultimate Fighting event. What I saw, quite frankly, was pretty much exactly what I see each week at my church with the exception that people don’t bring their own rocking chairs, the ceiling is higher, and we’re under-dressed. What I saw is what I think every church should be, minus the guy standing on the pulpit screaming obscenities, butchering Biblical texts and saying stupid things.
So, I thought about the surprise of Faithful Word Baptist Church and my preconceived biases about what I presumed the congregation would be like. And then, I tried to make sense of it. That church is larger (considerably) than Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church or Apologia Church, both of which are Calvinistic in their doctrine and have pseudo-celebrity (in a theology-nerd kind of way) pastors in the nearby area. Steven Anderson’s doctrine is awful. His theology is schizophrenic. He majors on the minors and minors on the majors. Steven Anderson is the metaphor of straining gnats and swallowing camels made incarnate. So, what’s with all these living, breathing, normal people crowding into the shopping center to hear him? Why does he preach to packed crowds during long layovers? Is there a meaningful reason?
There are basically two reasons for Anderson’s “success” in ministry, and given his abysmal doctrine, I’m ruling out the work of the Holy Spirit (although, perhaps I shouldn’t). The first reasonable possibility is that Steven Anderson is proof that social media can bring the crazy out of a city like water out of a sponge, large enough to draw a decent crowd. There are two problems with this assumption, however. The first is that equally famous pastors in the Phoenix area who also have sizable international social media followings do not have the “success” of Steven Anderson. This means, by deduction, Anderson’s “success” is not due merely to the phenomenon of social media influence.
There is another reason, however, and it is, to me, the most plausible. People – even seemingly normal, otherwise well-adjusted people – want someone to follow who isn’t a reed shaking in the wind. Is it possible that people follow Anderson not necessarily because they agree with what he believes, but because they know for sure that he believes it? Is it possible that people are actually hungering and starving for leaders who will say it like it is (in their subjective opinion) without apology or reservation? Are people getting fed up with the evanjellyfish, soft-bellied, weak-willed, namby-pamby and sissified debutantes of the preacher class?
I suspect strongly that if I took more time to speak to the membership of Faithful Word Baptist Church, they would tell me that they follow Anderson because he’s passionate, zealous, and “says it like it is.” I doubt, after having met them, that it’s because they’re passionate about peeing against walls or Jesus having worn britches. Rather, I suspect that they know that Steven Anderson is fearless (from everything I’ve seen, I agree). I suspect, they know that Steven Anderson would die for his faith, however misguided it may be (from everything I’ve seen, I agree). I suspect strongly that many in his congregation know Jesus, but have spent so much time in watered-down garbage pail churches in mega-sized life centers flying Six Flags over Jesus they actually find Anderson refreshing.
I don’t think Anderson “says it like it is.” If he said it like it really was he wouldn’t be a Pelagian, KJV-Onlyist with a penchant for bizarre IFB eccentricities. I do believe that Anderson says it like he thinks it is. Being sincerely wrong doesn’t make up for being wrong. But, Steven Anderson is sincerely wrong. In other words, he has zeal and – even though it doesn’t appear to be tempered by knowledge (Romans 10:2) – people are craving zeal and they want to be around zealous people.
What did I learn from my field trip to Faithful Word Baptist Church? I learned that YouTube videos from shoddy camera work don’t tell the entire story behind the scenes. I was also reminded that there are many sheep walking around just looking for a shepherd they know believes what he says and isn’t afraid to say it.
In the meantime, I pray that Steven Anderson stops saying so many stupid things.
[Editor’s Note: This was published first by JD Hall at Polemics Report]