Andy Savage — co-founder of a Tennessee megachurch who resigned last year as teaching pastor after admitting to sexually abusing a 17-year-old girl two decades earlier — is starting a new church for others who, in his words, “got our hands on the wrong thing.”
Savage received a standing ovation at the Highpoint Church in Memphis in January 2018 after confessing to a “sexual incident” decades earlier while he was serving as youth minister at a Baptist church in Texas. Worshippers apparently viewed it as an illustration of redeeming grace.
Jules Woodson, the teen Savage drove without her consent to a back road for sex in 1998, told her side of the story during the height of the #MeToo movement in a New York Times opinion piece titled: “I was assaulted. He was applauded.”
“Devastating news today,” Woodson responded to the news of Savage’s return to ministry on Twitter. “My abuser is back in the pulpit.”
“He was my ordained youth minister,” Woodson said in a follow up tweet on Sunday. “He knew me and groomed me since I was 14.”
Savage described his vision for Grace Valley Church in a recording of an early meeting for prospective members obtained and posted online by Amy Smith, an advocate for abuse survivors who has been blogging about the issue since 2011.
Preaching from the story in Acts 17 about the Apostle Paul debating ancient Greek philosophers in Athens, Savage expounded on the futility of attempting by way of man-made idols — in language of the New Living Translation — to “feel your way toward God.”
Savage said like the pagans of old, today’s post-Christian culture has had its “hands on the wrong thing, because we were feeling, trying to find our way to God.”
“So Paul is helping them see ‘you’ve got your hands on the wrong thing,’” Savage said.
“This is why we don’t have to judge everybody around us,” he continued. “I hope you can see that. It’s why you will get no judgment from me.”
“It’s not hard to find out what I’ve done wrong,” Savage said. “Just Google my name. It’s out there. It’s not hard to figure it out.”
“Here’s the thing, we all have our story,” he said. “Mine just got national news coverage.”
“We all have our story. Mine just got national news coverage.”
“But here’s the reality, guys — and I’m not trying to make light of it — I got my hands on the wrong things in my life, for all the right reasons. Looking for hope, looking for fulfillment, looking for a way to make my life better, trying to stay out of the valley. That’s what we do. This is the human condition, which is why we don’t have to judge other people.”
Woodson was one of a number of abuse survivors who spoke at a rally held outside the Southern Baptist Convention meeting hall in June demanding reform in the ways the denomination handles abuse allegations.
She says one minister who helped conceal her abuse has left the ministry, but another, the lead pastor of what is today called Stonebridge Church, remains in good standing with the Southern Baptist Convention.
In the media spotlight for reports of widespread sexual abuse over the past two decades, SBC leaders have pledged to do more to remove sexual predators from the denominational body made up of more than 47,000 autonomous and self-governing churches.
A bylaw change adopted in June authorizes a standing credentials committee to make inquiries and recommendations for action regarding instances of sexual abuse, racism or other issues that raise questions about whether a congregation remains in friendly cooperation with the SBC.
Passage of a constitutional amendment stating unambiguously that sexual abuse is grounds for removing a church from membership will require a second two-thirds messenger vote at next year’s SBC annual meeting in Orlando, Florida.
The Southern Baptist Convention and/or affiliated bodies have booted churches in the past for calling a woman as pastor, affirming same-sex relationships and in 2018 kicked out a church for racism.
Woodson says what Savage did to her was not a mistake but a crime. “Fine, let him move on and sit in the pews,” she said of his new ministry plans. “But he has absolutely disqualified himself from the pulpit.”
Savage said he began thinking about returning to ministry several months ago after delivering the memorial service for a friend who died by suicide, his first time to speak to a crowd since his downfall at the Memphis megachurch.
“Regarding this new church, it is very important to me that you help me maintain that this is not about me,” Savage said in the audio of a meeting reportedly held to gauge interest in moving forward with the launch of Grace Valley Church.
“Churches very easily become about their pastor, and I’m not going to do that,” Savage said. “I’m refusing to do it. I will not walk down that road. This is not about me. This has to be about what God is going to do in the lives of people who recognize they are in a valley. That’s what this is about, and that can’t be done by me, not by myself. If that vision captures your heart at all, then I would love for you to go on this journey with us.”
The blog that broke the story, Watch Keep, started out in 2010 with postings on things like favorite recipes and travel photos. That changed on Oct. 13, 2011, when Amy Smith wrote about her efforts to speak up and warn about her former youth music minister, John Langworthy, at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas.
Smith said she was working as an intern at Prestonwood Baptist Church in 1989 when Langworthy left his job at the church led by Jack Graham — SBC president in 2003-2004 — over allegations of inappropriate behavior with a teenager. She said Prestonwood officials told Langworthy to leave town but did not call the police.
Smith located Langworthy through an Internet search working at a church and public high school in Clinton, Mississippi, and reached out to both.
Langworthy eventually resigned as youth minister at Morrison Heights Baptist Church and confessed to the congregation that prior to moving to Clinton 22 years earlier he had “sexual indiscretions with younger males” while serving at churches in Mississippi and Texas.
Police arrested Langworthy in September 2011 for allegedly sexually abusing five boys in the 1980s while he was a student at Baptist-affiliated Mississippi College. He was indicted on eight felony counts of gratification of lust, each punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Langworthy pleaded guilty in 2013 but received a suspended sentence, avoiding prison in a deal struck in part because prosecutors were unsure if their case would hope up in court due to ambiguous language in Mississippi’s statute of limitations for sex crimes.
Elders at Morrison Heights Baptist Church declined to discuss their own internal investigation of Langworthy with legal authorities, reportedly at the advice of elder Philip Gunn. Gunn, now Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and a former chairman of trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reportedly said church leaders are bound to secrecy by the legal doctrine of priest-penitent privilege.
When a member of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, demanded answers in 2013 about why Langworthy wasn’t reported to the police in 1989, church leaders filed a police report labeling him a “suspicious person.”
Smith now blogs exclusively about abuse revelations. She and her parents, who were very close to Langworthy, are estranged over what they view as a smear campaign against Prestonwood Baptist Church and Jack Graham. They don’t want anything to do with their daughter or her children, according to a a 2015 Dallas Observer story posted at the top of Smith’s Twitter feed.
Langworthy died Oct. 2 after a battle with cancer.