CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (ABP) — A Florida Baptist church known for its sometimes-provocative efforts to entice first-time visitors is receiving unwanted attention after the arrest of a staff member on molestation charges.
The Coral Springs Police Department arrested Russell Dion Lewis, 28, Nov. 21, on one count of custodial sexual battery and 10 counts of lewd and lascivious molestation. If convicted he could receive up to 15 years of prison.
Police believe Lewis, a worship leader and assistant youth minister at Church by the Glades in Coral Springs, Fla., was involved in a five-month relationship with a 14-year-old female. While authorities say the acts were consensual, in Florida a 14-year-old cannot legally consent to sex.
Tom Albright, executive pastor of the prominent Fort Lauderdale-area Southern Baptist church, said upon learning of the allegations church leaders immediately dismissed Lewis for "gross misconduct." He said the church offered counseling to anyone on the staff or in the congregation needing it and is cooperating with authorities in ongoing investigations.
"Recognizing it is ultimately a spiritual battle in which the church is engaged, we remain steadfast in our calling and commitment to continue to proclaim the Word of God and provide hope, healing and restoration to anyone seeking God's Grace and peace in these tough times," he said.
"There is brokenness, anger and a lot of hurt," Hughes told worshippers at the 11:15 a.m. service. "This is an ugly story." The pastor was quoted by the Palm Beach Post. A page on the church website offering sermon podcasts had not been updated since the Nov. 15 service at the time this story was written.
Church known for unconventional outreach
Hughes, pastor of the church for 10 years, is well-known in Florida Baptist life for his unconventional outreach methods. He preached the annual sermon at the recent Florida Baptist Convention meeting, describing his church as one willing to do "anything short of sin" in order to win people to Christ.
In the past the church has gotten publicity by giveaways including Hannah Montana concert tickets and a free iPhone and $15 iTunes gift cards to first-time guests promoting a particular series of teachings.
Some of the promotions have been controversial. A 2007 sermon series titled "The Bare Naked Truth on Sex" was promoted with a billboard on Interstate 595 showing two pairs of feet hanging off the end of a bed.
Another sermon series on stripping away false values described Church by the Glades as the "World's Largest Strip Club." A promotional message invited visitors to "get naked with 5,000 of your closest friends without ever taking off your clothes."
According to the Florida Baptist Witness, Hughes told convention messengers Nov. 10 that his church is provocative "because I believe heaven is real and hell is real." He described the congregation as "10 toes over the edge and the ledge" in its commitment to reach the lost.
In his Nov. 22 message to the church, however, Hughes said his policy toward child abuse is zero tolerance. "We are all about forgiving," he said, "but when it comes to our children, we're pretty hard-nosed around here."
Trend in prominent churches
Church by the Glades joins a number of high-profile Southern Baptist churches to be marred by sex scandals in recent years. In 2008-2009 the SBC Executive Committee studied the feasibility of establishing an independent review board to receive and review complaints of clergy sexual abuse.
In the end convention leaders recommended against such a body, saying that Baptist church governance does not allow the denomination to intervene in affairs of a local congregation.
Christa Brown, Baptist outreach director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), called it a "do-nothing" approach that leaves Southern Baptist churches vulnerable to sexual predators.
In addition to preaching the annual sermon at this year's Florida Baptist Convention, Hughes was elected president-elect of the state convention's annual pastors' conference, and will lead in planning the conference's program in 2011.
Lewis, the accused molester, is a native of New Mexico. He was reportedly hired by Church of the Glades about two years ago. In a staff profile since removed from the church website, he described his greatest passions as "leading God's worship and helping others."
Albright said the congregation and its leaders were "shocked and saddened" by news about alleged "impropriety and criminal action" by a member of the staff. "We are deeply sorry for the hurt and harm this has caused to the victim and families involved, as well as to others in our church family and nearby communtiy," he said.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.