“The government is not the solution for any problem at all,” Jonathan Stickland told the crowd at Gateway Church as Hurricane Harvey closed in on Houston. “The solution is for you, as individuals, to take responsibility for yourselves.”
After attending a “Your Vote under God” gathering featuring four of the most conservative politicians in Texas, I have been educating myself about Gateway Church and its pastor, Robert Morris. Founded in 2000, the church boasts a weekly attendance of 36,000 at six Dallas area campuses and an additional campus in Scottsdale, Ariz. The “mother ship” in the posh Dallas suburb of Southlake claims over 13,000 members.
Depending on who you listen to, Gateway is either the third or the fourth largest congregation in the United States.
Gateway Church has been accused of erasing the line between church and state, and there is merit to the charge. The ultra-conservative politicians who spoke at the “Your Vote under God” forum see white evangelical megachurches as a prime source of support.
Although Gateway Church is officially bi-partisan, every member is expected to vote for politicians who are pro-life and opposed to gay marriage. With 36,000 attendees spread over six Dallas-Fort Worth campuses, Gateway has the power to swing elections.
Not surprisingly, senior pastor Robert Morris and Apostolic Elder James Robison serve on Donald Trump’s Executive Council of Evangelical Leaders. James Robison says he gets at least two phone calls from Donald Trump every week. And when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wanted to swing the religious community behind his “bathroom bill,” he had Morris on speed dial.
With a staff of over 500 people, Gateway Church looks more like Disney World or a venue on the Vegas Strip than a traditional church. These people believe in operational excellence. Anyone with a love of music can join the choir at most churches; Gateway does auditions. And if you’re good-but-not-ready-for-prime-time, the church’s Worship Team Academy offers 12-week courses in “acoustic guitar, piano, drums, bass, electric guitar, percussion and vocals (pop-style technique).”
Worship leaders prowl the stage, thrusting their hands into the air, whirling in sudden ecstasy, and speaking in a breathy, awestruck manner that banishes all doubt about their love for the Lord. Because people get lost in a packed sanctuary of 4,000, small groups provide intimacy and a sense of community. There are groups for young singles, divorcees, young married couples, old married couples, empty nesters, bikers, gardeners and any other affinity classification you can name.
But Morris has always been clear about his target audience: businessmen and entrepreneurs. The church can place you in a small group with other men who are interested in starting a small business. They’ll help you shape a business plan and even provide an experienced mentor to help you along the way.
The only catch is that you have to tithe (a tenth of your pre-tax income goes to the church). And you can’t wait for the weekend. Pay day is giving day.
Like most “prosperity preachers” Morris churns out a steady stream of ghost-written books wrapped around the tithing motif. You probably don’t know this, Morris tells his flock, but God has cursed your family, your business and your professional future. Only the tithe can transform that curse into blessing. God really wants to bless you, but until you turn loose of that tithe it can’t happen.
And then there are the demons. They don’t reside in your mind, your heart or your soul — they take up residence in your body. Pastor Robert was riddled with demons for the first several years of his pastoral ministry and he isn’t ashamed to admit it. Fortunately, Morris was working as an understudy to evangelist Robison. Robison told Morris he was demon possessed, Morris prayed for deliverance and that very hour, the demons were driven back to the abyss from whence they came.
I heard Robison preach in chapel at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in the late 1970s. He was at Southern with W.A. Criswell, then pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Robison and Criswell, together with a posse of Texas preachers, were determined to drive the plague of liberalism from the Southern Baptist Convention the way St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.
As seminary professors looked on in disbelief, Robison concluded his bizarre sermon with a vision (ostensibly from God) of his family nailed to the feature wall of his Dallas home. The words, “Is that enough for you, James?” was scrawled on the wall in the blood of the victims.
A few years later, Robison received the baptism of the Holy Ghost and was freed from what he called “the claw in my brain.” He was so transformed by this experience that he made a pilgrimage to Waco, Texas, to apologize to the good liberals at Baylor University for being so mean to them back in the day.
The sermons of Morris are intensely practical. If you’re experiencing money problems, marital strife, difficulty disciplining your kids or trouble losing weight, “Pastor Robert” is your man.
Liberal churches may gush about “living the questions,” but Gateway prefers answers. There is no ambiguity here. No uncertainty. Not a single shade of grey.
The acids of secularity work like kryptonite on white conservative evangelism: direct exposure saps a congregation’s super powers. Gateway Church was created as a safe retreat from the chaos outside, a bubble world, a shelter in a time of storm.
The mix of biblical literalism, charismatic and prosperity theology, conservative politics, libertarian economics, young earth creationism, American exceptionalism, and a distinctly patriarchal take on family, church and society is marketed as a package deal, a kind of prophylactic protection from a social disease called secularism.
If the public schools are beginning to acknowledge the shaping role of organized money, racism and patriarchy in American history, Gateway brings in David Barton and his Wallbuilders ministry. Barton has no formal training as a historian (his only academic degree is in Christian education from Oral Roberts University), but he can produce thousands of documents proving that America has always been a Christian nation.
If your children are learning about biological evolution in public school and hearing that the universe is 13.82 billion years old, Gateway brings in the Institute for Creation Research to set the record straight. The ICR scans scientific literature for “evidence” favorable to creation science, just as Barton cherry picks the historical record. (Believing that the universe is less than 10,000 years old is rapidly becoming mandatory in the world of conservative evangelicalism.)
Gateway Church believes the relationship between husband and wife mirrors the spiritual relationship between Christ and his Church. Male headship sets the pattern for married life, government, church life and the business community (which is why Morris focuses primarily on male businessmen). Although the senior leadership of the church is almost exclusively comprised of white males, a handful of women and ethnic minorities appear in support and middle management positions and the congregation is considerably more diverse than its leadership.
Even in the DFW Metroplex, the evangelical bubble may be reaching the limits of expansion. Morris recently announced that Gateway would be cutting its staff by 15 percent to 20 percent, which could eliminate as many as 100 positions. Morris assured the congregation that church growth is as dynamic as ever, but an efficiency evaluation suggested the congregation was over-staffed. Perhaps, but churches experiencing dynamic growth normally add staff.
Gateway Church has close ties to the world of conservative politics and has been accused of being a Dominionist church, part of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Dominionists aren’t looking to escape the world via rapture; they want to transform the world in all its aspects: religion, family, education, government, media, arts and entertainment and business. Dominionists are postmillennial, believing that Christ won’t return on the clouds of glory until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Dominionism is evangelical triumphalism run wild. It blossomed in the days of white evangelical expansion and will die the moment the evangelical tide begins to turn.
While Pastor Robert was in Washington for the inaugural gala which Gateway was co-sponsoring, his son, Joshua Morris, was preaching in Southlake. His theme: Building God’s Kingdom.
Like his father and the majority of men who speak at Gateway, Josh has no formal theological training. But in the course of his sermon he revealed that N.T. Wright is one of his favorite Bible scholars. And the influence shows. Morris the younger denounced escapist theologies that wish to flee the world and emphasized the Christian’s responsibility to care for God’s world here and now. Then, to my amazement, he closed his sermon with a Franciscan prayer:
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.
In a Palm Sunday sermon, Morris the Younger takes on the prosperity gospel on which Morris the Elder cut his teeth. Regardless of your circumstances, Josh told his audience, “You are blessed by God. And the problem comes when we start to define blessing as health, wealth and prosperity.”
Thoughtful evangelicals like N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Peter Enns and Scot McKnight (to name just a few) have exercised a leavening influence among millennial pastors who grew up in the conservative evangelical bubble and are eager for a way out. Andy Stanley, the disgruntled son of megachurch pastor Charles Stanley, has clearly been influenced by scholars who, though conservative, enjoy the give and take of scholarly debate. If his sermons are any indication, Josh Morris has also been reading these guys as well.
Ultimately, megachurches like Gateway will adapt or die. Fully 26 percent of Americans over 65 identify as evangelicals; with Millennials, it’s 8 percent. Over the last decade, the evangelical percentage of the population has been dropping like a rock, from 23 percent to 17 percent, while the proportion of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated has grown from 16 percent to 24 percent.
More importantly, the white evangelical brand has become toxic to American Millennials. Even in the DFW Metroplex, the Texas-sized buckle of the Bible belt, the demographic chickens are coming home to roost.
As affluent white evangelicals relinquish control of Texas politics in the course of the next decade, could churches like Gateway alter their message? And if the message changes, will the constituency stay loyal?
What would happen, for instance, if Gateway Church used its clout to reform the Texas foster care program, or to work for compassionate immigration reform, or to properly fund our public schools? They could keep all the good stuff they are already doing (the small groups, the practical preaching, the amazing musicianship, the ministries to children, youth, singles, couples, the recently divorced, the grieving and the business community). They could even keep their focus on the demonic. Just mix in some good news for the poor, a little “the least of these,” a little “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
Gateway Church has a heart for youth culture. No one wears suits there and the music is intentionally geared to the Millennials. Push the people outside the bubble with some Jesus-centered teaching and anything is possible.