As Christianity’s numbers continue to decline, Christians themselves work feverishly to drum up interest in their churches. Today, let me show you an example of a church with a very old and unwanted product that has rebranded itself in a way that’s very standard these days. Along the way, we’ll examine its numerous red flags and warning signs–and ask whether its product is actually new or different at all.
(Spoiler: It isn’t. Also, I don’t know this church’s leaders from Adam’s housecats and have never tangled with them or their members. I’m using this church only as an example of rebranding churches generally. They’re just part of a trend. As the bard says: hate the game, not its players.)
The Universe Hath Spoken.
Hip church names: I’ve seen one called “The Bridge” and one called “The Cool Church.”
I think if you are really one of the Cool Kids you don’t go around calling yourself a cool kid.
It’s not that I doubted Flexilis. It really wasn’t. It’s just that “The Cool Church” was just too cringe. I had to go look for it!
And yes, it exists. It absolutely does.
In fact, the people involved with it are very proud of calling it “The Cool Church.”
But it’s true: if someone has to tell you they’re cool, they absolutely aren’t.
A Quick Tour of COOL CHURCH.
Their intro consists of a blurry picture of a guy embracing a tree, then another guy hoisting aloft a giant flag printed with their logo, all followed by a picture of text.
I wonder if they expected that to go viral on social media.
The white text after “our” and “and” just relays the start times of their various Sunday morning church services and Sunday School, then promises that services last only “90 minutes from start to finish.” On the webpage, these missing words show up as pure white against a neon-green background. It’s painful, but I guess having to strain to read their church’s copy is all part of the COOL CHURCH EXPERIENCE these days. Maybe it’s Boomer Repellent.
The Cool Church Experience.
Further down, we find:
THE COOL CHURCH EXPERIENCE…
OLD SCHOOL SOUL. NEW SCHOOL SWAG.
On January 27th, 2019, South Florida welcomed the new church plant of Trinity Church, COOL Church.
Based in the heart of the City of Miramar, COOL Church, which stands for Create Out of Love; is a multicultural, cross-generational, creative ministry built on solid bible principles, love and family. COOL Church is co-pastored by the creative and spirit-filled duo Terrance and Johanne Wilson.
This church is just a year old. Its meetings originally took place at a middle school. Currently, they rent space at a cultural center. This arrangement is very common for church plants.
On their blog page, the church’s leaders write:
COOL Church has done the unthinkable and truly lives up to their signature hashtag #MiraclesinMiramar. When asked where this hashtag derived from and its significance, Pastor Terrance also known as Pastor T says “We are praying for miracles we can see and we believe that our presence alone will help people actually see God’s Power [in Miramar]”.
So far, I haven’t heard about any mass revivals in southern Florida. I’m guessing that last narcissistic statement isn’t quite reality. (…. YET. Can I hear an amen?)
Church Planting: A Quick Primer.
People who are not familiar with evangelical Christianity (especially people from a Roman Catholic background) are often surprised that someone can just hang out a shingle and start a new church. In the eyes of some people in the community, you will be a cult until you prove that you are not.
— 9Marks, “Pros and Cons of Planting and Revitalization”
The front page copy describes COOL Church as a “church plant.” That’s very specific fundagelical Christianese implying that it’s an offshoot of an established church or organization. These two words tell us a lot!
As Christianity’s membership numbers decline further and further, church planting has become one of the religion’s new cottage industries. In particular, fundagelicals try harder and harder to find the magic approach that’ll help a church survive. Church planting passes itself off as a science, one long-established as effective, but it’s about as authoritative a science as, say, soulwinning.
The important thing to know here is that church planting is a fundagelical catchphrase. Its presence in this copy tips us off to the church’s nature. Some other, larger church sent the pastor off to create this new church. They’re likely supporting this venture for at least a while. They hope that the new church will soon become self-supporting. If it doesn’t, they’ll probably be withdrawing support at some point, leaving the pastor to pay for it in its entirety, or they might even demand the new church close. Either way, they don’t shoulder that much risk themselves.
Terrance and Johanne Wilson, a married couple, founded COOL Church. In 2018, Miami Times highlighted them in a story. There, we learn that Terrance Wilson used to be the Creative Arts and Young Adult Pastor at Trinity Church in Miami. He holds a BA in Illustration and a master’s degree in Digital Arts; at Trinity, he launched a fashion collection.
He began volunteering with kids at Trinity while teaching art at a school. After a while, he moved from that volunteer position into a youth pastor gig in 2007–and from there into a full pastor gig at COOL Church, whose real name is also Trinity Church (so it’s probably a church plant of that other, original Trinity Church).
In fact, COOL (Create Out Of Love) is Wilson’s “branding company.” He established it well before becoming the pastor at COOL Church.
The important thing to know about Terrance Wilson is that he possesses no formal training whatsoever in anything relating to theology or even pastoring.
He’s an engaging and skillful speaker, yes, very. I overall enjoyed listening to his sermon “No Longer Slaves.” That’s not a sentence beginning that I type, say, or think very often. He’s just not remotely qualified to run any businesses or volunteer organizations. He got his position in the time-honored fundagelical fashion of sliding into its DMs from lower-rung volunteer positions and working his way up the ladder.
Why Lack of Training Is A Red Flag.
A leader’s total lack of training and education can be a disastrous problem for churches.
Churches are not, generally speaking, communities full of loving, compassionate people eager to leap into volunteer positions, happily and harmoniously communing with their fellow Christians–all of whom are able to envision the big picture and work toward it together.
If Christians had ever been able to live up to that fine vision, they wouldn’t have needed legal powers of coercion to become a dominant world religion.
Way more often, churches are hotbeds of politicking, power-grabs, and drama. People who can’t find power in their everyday lives gravitate instead to churches. There, they revel in the ultimate permission slip to seize power: “Jesus said I could do this and y’all have to listen to me.” In churches, Christian power-grabbers brandish threats of a nature and intensity they can’t come close to accessing in secular life–not without getting arrested, anyway. Now imagine a church full of Christians all doing that.
Even if they’re not after that kind of power, members often pursue their own agendas. So churches need leaders who can wrangle their followers into some semblance of cohesion. Formal training in leadership doesn’t necessarily mean a leader will be good at it, of course. It just increases the chances. But Terrance Wilson has learned everything he knows about pastoring on the job, so to speak. That means he could easily have learned to do things very badly.
Practice doesn’t actually make perfect. Bad practice leads to bad skill development. Worse, it leads to the practicing person thinking their skill level is way higher than it really is.
In Christianity, those same people make bank.
Why Demands For Submission Are A Red Flag.
For all of that big talk on their website’s front page about how wunnerful their “family vibe” is, COOL Church tells the whole world with pride that they are absolute authoritarians. I don’t know how much more obvious someone can be about it than this:
We submit to leadership and are thankful for spiritual authority. We choose joyfully to submit to those God has placed over us.
Leaders that demand such things do so because they haven’t earned them and don’t deserve them. Followers should not need to feel compelled to follow their leaders or terrorized into obedience.
COOL Church’s leaders also put their insistence on tithing–meaning supporting them in the manner to which they’d dearly like to become accustomed–right in their statement of belief, along with their insistence that only one way of getting baptized counts. Oh, and they’re way into threatening people with Hell, too. In fact, they also lean heavily on what they call “God’s wrath and condemnation,” insisting as well that only their product can save someone from their “loving” god.
When a group claims that only their product can possibly save everyone from an intensely bad fate, that’s also a red flag. It means that the leaders and powerful members of this group can, do, and will utilize threats to get their way. Once an authoritarian perceives that threats work to gain compliance in one matter, the floodgates open. They’ll be reaching for many more threats after that one.
Combine threats with demands for “submission,” and you potentially have one very toxic group.
Why Literalism Is A Red Flag.
These guys are literalists too.
We believe the BIBLE, as originally given, to be without error, the fully inspired and infallible WORD OF GOD and the supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
When Christians talk about the Bible being “without error,” “infallible,” and “the final authority in all matters,” they really mean that their interpretation of the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and authoritative.
They don’t actually know exactly what the Bible says.
What the Bible actually says and means are both impossibly difficult to nail down and understand completely. All Christians have is their own various and often-contradictory interpretations of what it says.
But fundagelicals’ narcissistic streak tells them that their quirky li’l interpretation is the only valid and correct one–and their authoritarian streak tells them that they must somehow compel every other Christian to agree with that interpretation.
This trait is also why Christians have never once agreed on anything whatsoever about their religion. Yes, that assessment includes those mythical Original Christians that so many Christians (mistakenly) believe existed and Jesus-ed the correct way.
Incidentally, I remember the first time I had a drive-by Christian leave a comment (some years ago) saying that the Bible was super-simple to understand and live by. At first, I seriously thought he was joking. It was just such a ludicrous thing to say. But in his eyes, that simplicity–which coincidentally sided with his own bigotry and willful ignorance–acted as his permission slip to abuse the various people he hated and considered subhuman. It meant he was right, everyone else was wrong, and his designated enemies would meet horrific ends if they didn’t comply with his demands.
Why Rapture Belief Is A Red Flag.
Hell-belief at all tends to follow along with authoritarianism generally, but when paired with Rapture-belief, that trait amps up to 11.
Christians who believe in the Rapture tend to be intensely authoritarian–after all, it’s only their devotion and obedience that gets them whisked away into the sky by Jesus at some point before, during, or after that period of persecution.
(Bee tee dubs: the Tribulation, in this doctrine, comes about when evil Satanic forces finally gain totalitarian power over the world–at which time they’ll totally force everyone to comply with the Antichrist’s demands. That power will allow them, as well, to viciously retaliate against TRUE CHRISTIANS™ for their refusal to comply. So yes, it’s definitely yet another example of fundagelical projection!)
Disobedience means missing the Rapture–being left behind. It’s no accident that one of fundagelicals’ favorite fiction franchises is named precisely that. Nor is it accidental that another famous franchise deals with what happens after the Rapture. Accidentally getting oneself left behind is a terror that haunts almost every Christian who buys into Rapture beliefs.
Authoritarian Christian leaders leverage their followers’ fear of missing the Rapture to increase their threats’ magnitude–and drive obedience higher.
Why Judgment Day Beliefs Are A Red Flag.
Incidentally, these folks at COOL Church add an interesting word in their standard-issue threats of Hell and eternal torture. Can y’all spot what it is?
We believe in the resurrection of the dead and in the final judgment of the world, the eternal conscious bliss of the righteous and the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked.
Yep! “Conscious.” It’s like that funny sign that you sometimes see hung on electric gizmos: “Touching this will not only kill you, but it will hurt the entire time you’re dying.”
In Christian authoritarians’ fever-dreams, Judgment Day itself represents the place where rubber meets the road. At the point of death, under this belief, everyone’s fate is fixed forever and ever. Our choices in this life cannot be undone at that point–ever–no matter how misinformed or uninformed we were when we made those choices. The Mad Blood God of the Desert is sorta-kinda merciful to a point, but after death his mercy ends. Forever.
Judgment Day, as a concept, terrifies authoritarian Christians. Even the Bible tells them that they should be terrified, because nobody can ever be certain of getting into Heaven.
So the Christians leading COOL Church want you to know: if you refuse to comply with their demands, you’ll land in a place of eternal pain and torture forever and ever and ever, and you will be awake for it all.
Uh oh! We’d all better convert to avoid that fate!
Nobody’s ever demonstrated that any of this stuff even exists.
All in all, “Cool Church” takes the same ol’ authoritarian fundagelicalism and packages it in hip branding, engaging preaching, and slogans–all in hopes of drawing in younger adults with families.
I wonder how many Christians get tricked by these sorts of bells and whistles into thinking that some church’s product is actually anything new? Because it never is. It’s always just the same ol’ fundagelical authoritarianism disguised as fun and games. The promise of a light yoke and easy burden always turns out to be a bait and switch.
If these groups flat-out told people what awaited them, nobody’d ever join. People have to be eased into the full meaning of membership in such groups.
Fear and Love Cannot Live Together.
Threats are a naked attempt to create terror in followers. Demands for obedience are a good indicator that these leaders don’t feel confident in their ability to extract voluntary loyalty through the use of love.
Ultimately, this church runs on fear, not love. And its leaders demand absolute obedience from their followers using that fear.
Maybe this church is run by genuinely compassionate and kindhearted people who are just untrained and uneducated in leadership, who don’t realize what an open door they’ve left for the potential abuse of those followers’ obedience. And maybe those leaders surround themselves with honest feedback. Maybe they’re even accountable to others wielding real power who are, themselves, all genuinely compassionate and kindhearted people–but people who actually do have an understanding of management principles.
If so, then COOL Church might still be a good group by fundagelical standards.
But the emphasis on submission and obedience, coupled with the literalism and other intensely authoritarian demands on followers, tells me too much. If I were Christian, I’d have some very serious doubts about this place. I’d want to research them a lot and proceed with caution.
A Cautionary Note.
Beyond that assessment, even, I fully expect some kind of scandal to erupt out of the place.
Oh, it might not involve the pastor himself. He seems like a good egg overall. But someone there will eventually take advantage of the very authoritarian environment he’s fostered there coupled with his own inexperience with management.
In fact, the person who’ll be at the center of that scandal might already be part of their leadership team or angling to join it. And “Jesus” will neither tell them who it is ahead of time nor help victims escape that person’s harm.
As “Pastor T” himself tells us at the end of “No Longer Slaves,” his god is “a gentleman.” So he never interferes with his human pets’ choices, you see. He could stop the victimization of his own little children. He just doesn’t.
What a wonderful god, hmm?
NEXT UP: Speaking of scandals, the leader of one of the biggest fundagelical umbrella groups out there, Acts 29, just lost his CEO position due to being an alleged mega-bully. We’ll explore Steve Timmis’ many buzzwords and chart his rise to success–and see what red flags might have predicted this outcome.
Pre-Tribbers Are Weenies: See, TRUE CHRISTIAN™ Rapture nuts are post-Tribbers, meaning they think the Rapture will come after the seven years of intense persecution called the Tribulation, not before it. Pre-Trib Rapture nuts think the Rapture will come before the Tribulation, thus saving those Raptured from pain and torture at evil atheists’ hands. Post-Tribbers fully embrace the idea of persecution and think pre-Tribbers are setting themselves up for dealbreaking doubts when the Tribulation comes along and they’re caught in it.
On that note, a friend of mine told me many years ago that he was a pan-Tribber. Whatever happened, he’d just keep on keepin’ on and trust that Jesus would make it all pan out. HAW HAW! But it blew my li’l Pentecostal mind to find someone who wasn’t panicking about the Rapture. What was this foul sorcery?!? For once, though, my then-husband Biff was speechless. He’d been trying to haul out his doctrinal yardstick, but Erik’s calmness and lack of terror stymied him completely!
Imagine my surprise when I found out many years later that “tribbing” is a euphemism for a lesbian sex activity. According to Urban Dictionary, it’s “a survival technique enabling two women to start a fire using nothing but their vaginas.” Now you know! I wonder if I’m the only Patheos writer who’s (accidentally) gotten away with including the name of a sex act in a post title? (Back to the post!)
Please Support What I Do!
Come join us on Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, and our forum at rolltodisbelieve.com! (Also Instagram, where I mostly just post cat pictures. About 99% of my insta consists of Bother being adorable.)
Also please check out our recent Graceful Atheist podcast interview! It was a blast.
If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips. You can also support this blog through my Amazon Affiliate link–and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media! Thank you for anything you wish to do.