Texas Megachurch Pastor Talks about Genocide

Texas Megachurch Pastor Talks about Genocide February 20, 2024

Hi! I am a cultural sociologist searching out Christian Nationalism in Texas Megachurches.

I’m looking for a. the degree of race and gender diversity in their pews and on their stages, b. for the salience of charismatic influence in their worship styles and rhetoric, and c. for the way leaders may be playing any role in stoking authoritarianism and white supremacy. (Check out my first post here.)

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Two minutes into overtime, five hands went up. There were a pair of clocks facing the pastor, counting down the time left in his 20 minute sermon. It was these clocks that showed minus two minutes, 53 seconds when John Van Pay, lead pastor at Gateway Fellowship, invited those who raised their hands to walk down an aisle to the altar. The audience erupted in applause as new converts made their way forward. There, they were met by a team of people, organized to pray with them–and then to interview them, right after their prayer, on camera.

While converts were escorted off to one side of the platform for these prayers and interviews, John Van Pay resumed the service from the mainstage, spotlights directed onto him. To my surprise, this afternoon, the altar call is not the climax of this service. No, Pastor John appears to be on a new ten minute clock. During this final section of the service, Van Pay will speak to his audience about genocide

But first, let’s go back to the beginning.

My daughters and I visited Gateway, touted to be the fastest growing church in America in 2016, at their 12:30 service yesterday. The moment we disembarked from our car, a man driving something like a golf cart stopped by to offer us a ride to the front doors. We were then welcomed at the doors by a man in his late 50s who greeted me, my 11 and 9 year old daughters by saying, “Ladies, you look beautiful this morning.” I asked myself whether it would work, at this church, for a woman to hold the door open for a man and his sons and to say to the group, how very handsome they all looked.  Hard to tell.

When we enter the auditorium, the lights are low and there are  blue-velvet liquid graphics oozing on large screens across the long platform. One hispanic man, standing center, is leading worship from guitar; he is flanked on each side by three singing women, for a grand total of six singing women. Behind this row of white and hispanic worshippers, there is another long row of musicians. The music is good and crisply performed; the audience is clearly engaged.  I could be at CBC, I think; the worship set is the kind of Hillsong or Bethel style service that one runs into in most megachurches. 

But song service is short. It is abruptly cut short, actually, because although congregants would like to sing longer– you can tell from the high energy, emotive way they are singing- time’s up. The worship team knows their time is up because a bald man with a formidable grey beard has planted himself center stage: this is John Van Pay. He is wearing khakis and a green button up shirt. The green shirt seems like it’s from REI or Columbia. There’s an outdoorsman feel to his outfit; he looks… sportsmanly? I wonder: does he run or fish?

Pastor John Van Pay

Reader, he mountain bikes, hikes, and fishes.

Next, the man who was leading worship–I think his name is JP–he and the pastor have a moment together on stage. John Van Pay tells the congregation that today is JP’s birthday and marvels what a blessing it is to worship the Lord, to be in the altar, and to do this with his son– who apparently was playing an instrument. They have a moment where, man to man, they are completely turned toward each other, locking eyes and talking about fatherhood in such a way, with such a tone, it reads as a dramatization of the spiritual virtue of patriarchy.

It’s an interesting moment, small really, but important. For Pastor Van Pay to highlight the incredible blessing of worshipping the Lord, at that altar, with one’s son…is a less popular picture of the evangelical altar. The altar in evangelical worship has been strongly defined by the altar call. The altar call is an invitation to individuals. Evangelicals’ focus on conversion renders the walk to an altar an all-important performance of sacred individualism; it doesn’t matter who one’s parents might be or what their faith might be, it is only on a person-by-person basis that evangelical salvation can be obtained. But right at this moment, at Gateway Fellowship, Pastor John Van Pay is rhapsodizing the altar as a space for paternalism. I’m not saying, of course, that families have never been invited to the altar together before. I am instead pointing up that on this Sunday Pastor John Van Pay invoked the spiritual power of the altar when occupied by a father and a son in particular. Has this pastor ever rhapsodized about the spiritual value of maternal blessings?

This moment, rather poignantly constructed, was hurriedly moved past and next a family was brought up to the stage– they seem to have 9 or more children. Some, we’re told, are being fostered. Pastor Van Pay first directs attention to the mother, let’s call her Angela. Angela is wearing a sweatshirt that says “Free Indeed.”

The stand for buying femme sweatshirts.

The sweatshirt is being sold to promote a women’s event called “Brave: A Night for Women.” I am told the sweatshirts are $25. (The vibe for the merchandise is Rifle Paper Co. adjacent.)

Angela’s hair is naturally greying; she is wearing little to no makeup. She’s vivacious and funny. She does a little dance on stage, and shares that she was dared to do this dance and has “just won six dollars.” The crowd loves this family– they seem constantly to cheer for them. The family is an interracial one, likely owed to some of the children being foster children. I think, in this moment, that it might say good things about this church that this woman, who apparently works part time for the church, would feel so comfortable and be so cheered in her role.

Next, her husband is announced to be joining the staff full time. He’s becoming the “Pastor of Operations” and is apparently the 1st graduate of Gateway School of Ministry (GSM). He’s being welcomed onto the main campus staff of Gateway Fellowship, but there are nine other Gateway initiatives where GSM graduates can work. Gateway School of Ministry is designed for the working adult who is ready to be equipped for their calling. The school works in partnership with Gateway Fellowship Church to train leaders who will plant churches ‘both here and there.’ Gateway School of Ministry is a 16-month experience that trains and equips students to be a part of a church planting team either locally or abroad.” There are testimonial videos that show both men and women are graduates of GSM. “GSM tuition is $3,875. This amount is spread over a 12-month period and is all-inclusive. Your tuition covers guest speakers, childcare if needed, Monday night dinners, books, curriculum, $500 toward your required mission trip, and retreats.” (One of the better kept secrets about the Assemblies of God, the only denomination still reporting growth, is that it has developed a diverse array of church-based streams of theological education. Gateway School of Ministry is just one.)  
If you watch “Rachel” and “Jonathan’s” videos, you’ll see that one outcome of their time in the program is that they got married.

The new Pastor of Operations (his graduation pic from GSM flashes across the screen) is cheekily noted to have previously been a corporate executive for a popular burger chain in Texas, called Whataburger. The crowd murmurs in approval as if to concede that having been high in the Whataburger hierarchy is credentialing indeed. He’s a husband, he’s a father, he’s a foster parent; he’s a graduate of GSM; has been at Gateway for a decade; was a successful corporate exec. The crowd welcomes their new Pastor to the pastorate. While both wife and husband have been celebrated for their service to church this morning, there is no question that the Pastor of Operations has just been described in more hallowed intonations.

Everyone is escorted off the stage and the aforementioned 20 minutes of preaching time is started. This past Sunday, John Van Pay preached a novel sermon about Jacob, Esau, and being trustworthy. What seems novel, to me, about this sermon is the degree to which Van Pay suggests, to his audience, that it may be they who are not people to be trusted. Maybe they, he suggests, have been like Jacob– deceiving, usurping, and manipulative. Maybe, like Jacob, his listeners “have broken people’s trust.” People who are victims– those who have been deceived or betrayed– they fall off the rhetorical frame here. They are the category to whom Van Pay directs himself the least, though he does, at one point, reflect that “forgiveness does not mean reconciliation.”  Then John Van Pay asks for those who are ready to confess their sins to raise their hands. Five hands shoot up.

At no point in the sermon, at no point in the commissioning of the new Pastor of Operations, did John Van Pay mention that the new pastor was replacing one just let go because he could not be trusted. Per a source I can’t name, this excised pastor was long treated like a small deity at Gateway, like “the holiest man alive.” But in a book this minister authored called These Things: A Reference Manual for Discipleship,  this former pastor positively quotes Daniel Savala, the Chi Alpha leader who was recently “arrested and charged with continuous sexual abuse of a young child. [Savala’s] arrest [came] two weeks after a former chapter leader at Baylor University—Chris Hundl—was charged for bringing two boys to Savala’s sauna to masturbate in 2021 and 2022.” My source says that John Van Pay now believes/fears that the former staff member (who was active in Chi Alpha ministies) knew about Savala’s abuse of college students and that he, like many others, continued to partner with him in campus ministries anyway. The current series Van Pay is preaching is titled, “Trust Issues,” but I doubt that Van Pay plans to be forthcoming about these breaches of trust at Gateway. (Troublingly, there are reports that Gateway makes employees sign nondisclosure agreements when hired.)

Instead, conversion prayers said, new converts converted and celebrated, John Van Pay has one more conversation to unpack in ten minutes’ time. This church, he says, has an opportunity to partner with Assemblies of God church leaders in Rwanda. It’s the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that we’re discussing. Per a 2022 US News & World Report article: “The 100-day Rwandan genocide claimed an estimated 800,000 lives. An estimated 100,00 to 250,000 women were raped during the genocide.” John Van Pay explains that for about $50k a piece, this church can open churches in Rwanda, where Christ is working to build his church. A video shows the Rev. Emmanuel Ngabonziza, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Rwanda, speaking about the genocide in purely spiritualized terms. Rev. Ngabonziza describes that the Rwandan genocide was “the work of devils”(quoting Time Magazine in 1994). Then Pastor Van Pay responds to the video with classic evangelical themes: winning the lost, overseas missions, church building, preaching the gospel. God has a mission in Rwanda. This church has an opportunity.

 Rev. Ngabonziza specifies that in AG churches in Rwanda now, Hutus and Tutsis worship together: “We are the same, we worship together.” It’s a powerful idea, but it reminds me that Pentecostalism is considered problematically destructive of ethnic and racial identity in adherents. Are these two groups, only twenty some years past a horrific genocide, really “the same?” Is not such an expectation– of peaceable “sameness”– a projection of a missiological desire, which would see friendships between one person, whose family was butchered and another, the very person who butchered his family with a machete? João Chaves’ The Global Mission of the Jim Crow South(2022) (for just one example) points up a different reality, demonstrating that missions endeavors by US churches have often imposed colonial domination and the racial hierarchies of the US (sometimes violently, too) onto targeted countries. Is it the special situation of US evangelicals that they can be invited to save the world from violence, shown images to this very effect, while, ultimately, they help to spread US economic, cultural, and military domination instead?

This historical reality escapes Gateway congregants, who are encouraged to use a barcode to donate to spreading the gospel in Rwanda, having been shown an array of images that portrays violent genocide as *something that happens in Africa by Africans.* Framed as a spiritual problem (devils) with spiritual answers (the gospel) in Africa, with no mention of the US government, Israel, or Gaza, or any international political contexts whatsoever, “missions” obtains a white colonial gaze. US evangelical churches are missiological protagonists in this context– sharing the gospel and building infrastructure. It’s a simple plot: Africa needs saving. The question of US economic relations with the global south and domination in international politics literally never enters the picture. Instead, John Van Pay announces that, next year, he will go to build churches in (what has been depicted as) a former hellscape. Having constructed a ruggedly macho identity–centered and affirmed men, maleness, and fatherhood– John Van Pay will venture into Rwanda and build churches. 

In ten minutes’ time, congregants have bought into a narrative: White Christian Paternalism on an international expedition, bringing the gospel and civilization. 

Thank you so much for making it through this visit with me. Have questions or comments? Please leave below!

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