Attack of the vague real-estate zealots

TexasMapHere’s a rather obvious statement: There are a lot of churches in Texas.

Thus, I would think that the average newspaper editor in Texas would understand that there are a lot of different kinds of churches and that they are not all alike, when it comes to their beliefs and practices.

Sometimes, you can even learn a lot about a church just by knowing its name. You think? Please take my word on this, seeing as how I am a prodigal Texan and all of that.

This brings us to a bizarre little business story in The Daily News of Galveston, which came to my attention via journalist Mark Kellner, a friend of this blog. It seems that there is a controversial real-estate deal going down in Galveston, and one of the central players — his name is Darren Sloniger — is part of a Chicago-area church that is very strange, according to the newspaper.

That’s about all we know about it. This story is so vague, I am struggling to decide what category to file it in here at GetReligion. As Kellner noted, in his email to us:

There’s no mention of the name of the church in question, what it believes, or whether its theology is considered normal or aberrant. There’s a claim of “brainwashing” but only a mention of the church being “nondenominational” in the 20th paragraph.

No one from a nearby school — Baylor or Rice come to mind regionally — is quoted on this. No one from Wheaton, which is arguably much closer to Elgin, Ill., than Baylor. The “religious zealot” charge is allowed to hang in midair, and they call this a news story?

It seems that Sloniger believes that God has helped guide his work in real-estate and that this has been very good for his congregation, where he apparently is a volunteer in the pulpit from time to time. Here is the heart of the story:

Pirates’ Beach resident Nancy Higgs said she and a few friends spent a lot of time doing Internet research on Sloniger. When she found a link to an audio recording of the message the developer gave to his church last December, she was appalled.

“It’s very sensationalized,” she said. “His approach to church is brainwashing. This guy’s a crazed religious zealot.”

Sloniger’s message, delivered the first Sunday the congregation moved into its new building, outlines the details of how the church acquired the property and paid for the facility through several well-timed real-estate transactions. Throughout the message, Sloniger credited God with aligning circumstances in the church’s favor and working to bless the congregation’s ministry.

Higgs said she thought Galvestonians, whom she described as more conventionally religious, would be interested to know Sloniger actually believed the events in which he was involved were totally driven by God.

What in the world does “conventionally religious” mean?

With a few clicks of a mouse and help from Google, it’s pretty easy to find out that the congregation in question is West Ridge Community Church in Elgin, Ill. After a quick tour of the website, I would have to say that this is a pretty ordinary looking suburban megachurch that is still on the rise.

While the website is snazzy, yet vague on the details, I really don’t see anything there that sets off the zealot alarms for me. The co-pastors are both linked, at the educational level, to the completely mainstream Independent Christian Churches. In fact, I must confess that I used to teach at Milligan College, a liberal arts college linked to that nondenominational movement.

However, there is, in fact, a link to a Sloniger sermon titled “The Story of Our Building … How We Did It.” If the contents are that bizarre, it seems that it would have been rather easy for The Daily News to have featured a few zealous direct quotations to allow readers to make that decision for themselves.

Actually, it appears that the preacher/real-estate entrepreneur’s worst sin — at least as far as we know — is a willingness to deal with (wait for it) the demons at Wal-Mart. If he sold land to Wal-Mart in Illinois, then he might do it again in Galveston.

That may, in fact, be a sin in the eyes of the Galveston locals. However, The Daily News sure as heck-fire owed its readers more information about this church, if the editors there were going to let its critics throw around words like “zealot” and “brainwashing.” They could at least have provided the name of the church, so readers could have looked up information on their own — since it seems there was no time for a reporter to do that background work.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Eric G.

    Considering the fact that it takes one simple Google search to find out what church this guy was from, it seems downright strange that the writer didn’t provide that information in the story. And there’s nothing on the church’s web site to raise any red flags about this church being cultlike or anything of the sort.

  • Joel

    I’d be interested to know what real estate interests the owners or other principals at the Galveston Daily News have. The Spokane (Washington) Spokesman-Review has a history of using innuendo against public figures to enhance real estate opportunities for their parent company. There may be a similar dynamic at work here.

  • Chris

    This article boggles the mind – it should not be a story at all as it seems to me to just be a character attack. It certainly seems to present a very one sided story and the reporter really seems to have failed to present even a little balance. I did find a blog by the same reporter on the Galveston Daily News website that seemed to question whether it was fair to question someone’s religion – seems to me like the reporter is doing whatever possible to stir the pot because that sells more papers.

  • Joel

    Sure enough, a quickie web search on the paper’s publisher, Dolph Tillotson, shows him living (or at least maintaining an address) right next to the proposed development. The linked article doesn’t give the specific location, but an earlier article says that “[t]he development would stretch from beach to bay between 8 Mile and 11 Mile roads.” If you look at the map, that puts Dolph flush up against the disputed property. No wonder his reporters are making the developer sound like a religious loon.

  • Martha

    So, a cursory Googling yields the following information from a cached page dating back to 2003:

    “Growing up the son of a pastor and church planter in the south suburbs of Chicago, Darren…attended a Bible college, graduating from Lincoln Christian College & Seminary, Lincoln, IL, with a bachelor’s in Christian Theology in 1987.

    Darren has helped to start two churches, one in the Naperville area and another in Bloomington, IL, before leaving the ministry in 1989. Disillusioned by the church and professional ministry, Darren walked away from his relationship with God for about six years.

    After much personal struggle and frustration, Darren came back into his relationship with God. …led Darren, his wife Kristina, and sons Jason and Jake, to start West Ridge, a church that would be Never Church as Usual.

    Scott Alexander is Co-Pastor of West Ridge Community Church…Scott has a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies from Central Christian College in Moberly, Missouri, and a Master of Arts in Practical Ministries from Cincinnati Christian Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio.

    Kristina Sloniger…was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church and while she appreciated the rituals, traditions and mystical experience it offered, she finds something in the music at West Ridge that touches a part of her heart she never knew was there.”

    So it sounds like he started off in ministry, left for real estate, and came back to ministry, unlike the story which makes him out to be a developer who runs a cult on the side. I have no idea about the bona fides of the Bible Colleges and Seminaries which granted them their qualifications, so I rely on others to tell me – are they brainwashing institutes churning out crazed religious zealots?

  • tmatt


    No. Totally mainstream Protestant, in some cases just a tiny notch to the left of the Baptist world.

  • Boca Raton agent

    Interesting article. Can’t say I believe any of it though

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    As a member of an independent Christian church, I can tell you from personal experience that the language we use to describe our lives often shocks non-believers and even believers of more “mainstream” churches.

    People in our church would not find it weird to hear someone say that God put incidents in motion to cause a certain outcome. Recently, a child in our church became severely ill from flu, and doctors told his family that he would die or need a liver transplant. After a prayer vigil and two weeks, he was fully recovered with no liver damage. Doctors said they don’t know why his liver started working again. Misdiagnosis? Great medical care? Luck? Miracle? We would just say: “Praise God. He did it.”

    Other phrases I’ve learned to translate for those not in our church:

    “God told me” — (translation) After much prayer, study of the Scripture, meditation, and talking to other believers, I believe God has called me to (fill in the blank)

    “Man is fallen” — (translation) Sometimes bad things happen that we just can’t explain other than the fact that people will often make poor choices (sometimes obviously poor) that hurt themselves and hurt others.

    “God blessed me” or “God comforted me” — (translation) in all things, God is to be glorified. All things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose.

    I guess to us — and many other believers in other Christian denominations — being a Christian is not about being “conventional” anyway.

  • Joel

    I doubt very much that anybody at the Daily News really thinks there’s anything unusual about Sloniger’s church. The intent here appears to be to raise enough doubts in the readers’ minds about the guy that they’ll look disfavorably on the development. Using vague terminology about his religion is a good way to make him look like a loon without actually saying anything actionable.

    The conflict of interest, as I noted above, is pretty blatant.

  • Mike

    To Joel and TMatt,

    Wow are you guys and others reading the Galveston News article? This article is about a person and a group of people namely Nancy Higgs and to some extent Elizabeth Beeton taking this fight to the gutter. This is a story about Nancy Higgs attacking Sloniger’s beliefs. This story was not about his church at all. In fact this article presents Higgs attacks and then presents that Sloniger’s saying that he was SHOCKED that his religious belief’s where attacked. As for the Galveston Daily news they have already written an editorial in SUPPORT of the development.

  • Joel

    I’m not surprised about the editorial – those are much more visible and much less effective than a subtle suggestion that the developer may be an unsavory person. Nobody pays too much attention to the editorial; those are commonplace.

    Terry wasn’t questioning the publisher’s motives, though; I was. Terry’s point was about the very shallow treatment in the story of Higgs’ innuendos about Sloniger’s religion, which is a valid one. There are two possibilities here: either the reporter really was so sloppy (or on such a tight deadline) that she didn’t do more than cursory background work, or someone wanted her to leave the vagueness in. If it’s the latter, the publisher is a good bet, given his interest in the mattter. And he wouldn’t be the first I’ve seen do that.

  • Mike


    I usually do not get into interacting with blogs. However, I totally disagree with you on your opinions. Again, this story was about Nancy Higgs and
    her group of people running to the gutter to attack Sloniger’s religion. There was no point to name Sloniger’s church or go into any detail about his church. It was
    wrong of Nancy Higgs to attack his religion. It is wrong to attack his religion even if his religion was Private Pillow Worshiping Church or Chicago Cubs Religious Cult, or Muslim of America, or Best Budist Temple. To attack someone’s religion is wrong. It is possible, that by leaving out Sloniger’s church name in this article, Sloniger or the writer or the editor was protecting Sloniger’s church from possible further unfair religous persecution. Now finally, I would like to ask what have your comments on the blog said about you? You have attack Dolft Tillotson, and the reporter of this article and the Galveston Paper and have NO IDEA who they are and what they believe. If anyone of these people where to darken the door of a church you where participating in or attending what would there immediate reation to you be? They sure would not feel welcome because of your rash opinions. Jesus died for all our sins, he interacted with tax collectors, prostitues and newspaper writers from the right,left and middle.