Inside America's Most Powerful Megachurch
May 13, 2005
By Jeff Sharlet
The following is the first half of "Soldiers of Christ: Inside America's Most Powerful Megachurch," a feature by Revealer editor Jeff Sharlet in the May, 2005 issue of Harper's.
They are drawn as if by magnetic forces; they speak of Colorado Springs, home to the greatest concentration of fundamentalist Christian activist groups in American history, both as a last stand and as a kind of utopia in the making. They say it is new and unique and precious, embattled by enemies, and also that it is traditional, a blueprint for what everybody wants, and envied by enemies. The city itself is unspectacular, a grid of wide western avenues lined with squat, gray and beige box buildings, only a handful of them taller than a dozen stories. Local cynics point out that if you put Colorado Springs on a truck and carted it to Nebraska, it would make Omaha look lovely. But the architecture is not what draws Christians looking for clean living. The mountains help, but there are other mountain towns. What Colorado Springs offers, ultimately, is a story.
Lori Rose is from Minnesota and heard rumors about this holy city when she lived on an Air Force base near Washington, D.C. Her husband isnt a Christian, refuses Jesus, looks at things he shouldnt; but she has found a church to attend without him and joined a marriage study group there. Ron Poelstra came from Los Angeles. Now he volunteers at his church, selling his pastors books on free-market theology after services. His two teenage boys stand behind him, display models for the benefits of faith. L.A., Ron says, would have eaten them up: the gangs. Adam Taylor, now a pastor, grew up in Westchester County, an heir to the Bergdorf Goodman fortune, the son of artists and writers. In Colorado Springs he learned the Bible the hard way, each word a nail pounded into sin.
The story they found in Colorado is about newness: new houses, new roads, new stores. And about oldness, imagined: what is thought to be the traditional way of life, families as they were before the culture wars, after the World Wars, which is to say, during the brief, Cold War moment when America was a nation of single-breadwinner nuclear families.
Crime, of course, looms over this story. Not the actual facts of itthe burglary rate in and around Colorado Springs exceeds that in New York City and Los Angelesbut the idea of crime: a faith in the absence of it. And of politics, too: Colorado Springs evangelicals believe they live without it, in a carved-out space for civility and for like-minded dedication to common-sense principles. Even pollution plays a part: Christian conservatives there believe that they breathe cleaner air, live on ground untainted by the satanic fires of nineteenth-century industry despite the smog that collects against the foothills of the Rockies and the cyanide, from a century of mining, that is leaching into the aquifers and mountain streams.
But those are facts, and Colorado Springs is a city of faith. A shining city at the foot of a hill. No one there believes it is perfect. And no one is so self-centered as to claim the perfection of Colorado Springs as his or her ambition. The shared vision is more modest, and more grandiose. It is a city of people who have fled the cities, people who have fought a spiritual war for the ground they are on, for an interior frontier on which they have built new temples to the Lord. From these temples they will retake their forsaken promised lands, remake them in the likeness of a dream. They call the dream Christian, but in its particulars it is American. Not literally but as in a story, one populated by cowboys and Indians, monsters and prayer warriors to slay them, and ladies to reward the warriors with chaste kisses. Colorado Springs is a city of moral fabulousness. It is a city of fables.
The citys mightiest megachurch crests silver and blue atop a gentle slope of pale yellow prairie grass on the outskirts of town. Silver and blue, as it happens, are Air Force colors. New Life Church was built far north of town in part so it would be visible from the Air Force Academy. New Life wanted that kind of character in its congregation.
Church is insufficient to describe the complex. There is a permanent structure called the Tent, which regularly fills with hundreds or thousands of teens and twentysomethings for New Lifes various youth gatherings. Next to the Tent stands the old sanctuary, a gray box capable of seating 1,500; this juts out into the new sanctuary, capacity 7,500, already too small. At the complexs western edge is the World Prayer Center, which looks like a great iron wedge driven into the plains. The true architectural wonder of New Life, however, is the pyramid of authority into which it orders its 11,000 members. At the base are 1,300 cell groups, whose leaders answer to section leaders, who answer to zone, who answer to district, who answer to Pastor Ted Haggard, New Lifes founder.
Pastor Ted, who talks to President George W. Bush or his advisers every Monday, is a handsome forty-eight-year-old Indianan, most comfortable in denim. He likes to say that his only disagreement with the President is automotive; Bush drives a Ford pickup, whereas Pastor Ted loves his Chevy. In addition to New Life, Pastor Ted presides over the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), whose 45,000 churches and 30 million believers make up the nations most powerful religious lobbying group, and also over a smaller network of his own creation, the Association of Life-Giving Churches, 300 or so congregations modeled on New Lifes free market approach to the divine. Pastor Ted will serve as NAE president for as long as the movement is pleased with him, and as long as Pastor Ted is its president the NAE will make its headquarters in Colorado Springs.
Some believers call the city the Wheaton of the West, in honor of Wheaton, Illinois, once the headquarters of a more genteel Christian conservatism; others call Colorado Springs the evangelical Vatican, a phrase that says much both about the city and about the easeful orthodoxy with which the movement now views itself. Certainly the gathering there has no parallel in history, not in Lynchburg, Virginia, nor Tulsa, nor Pasadena, nor Orlando, nor any other city that has aspired to be the capital of evangelical America. Evangelical activist groups (parachurch ministries, in the parlance) in Colorado Springs number in the hundreds, though a precise count is hard to specify. Groups migrate there and multiply. They produce missionary guides, family resources, school curricula, financial advice, athletic training programs, Bibles for every occasion. The city is home to Young Life, to the Navigators, to Compassion International; to Every Home for Christ and Global Ethnic Missions (Youth Ablaze). Most prominent among the ministries is Dr. James Dobsons Focus on the Family, whose radio programs (the most extensive in the world, religious or secular), magazines, videos, and books reach more than 200 million people worldwide.
The press tends to regard Dobson as the most powerful evangelical Christian in America, but Pastor Ted is at least his equal. Whereas Dobson plays the part of national scold, promising to destroy politicians who defy the Bible, Pastor Ted quietly guides those politicians through the ritual of acquiescence required to save face. He doesnt strut, like Dobson; he gushes. When Bush invited him to the Oval Office to discuss policy with seven other chieftains of the Christian right in late 2003, Pastor Ted regaled his whole congregation with the story via email. Well, on Monday I was in the World Prayer Center New Lifes high-tech, twentyfour- hour-a-day prayer chapel and my cell phone rang. It was a presidential aide; the President, says Pastor Ted, wanted him on hand for the signing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Pastor Ted was on a plane the next morning and in the Presidents office the following afternoon. It was incredible, wrote Pastor Ted. He left it to the press to note that Dobson wasnt there.
No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted, and no church more than New Life. It is by no means the largest megachurch, nor is Ted the best-known man of God: Saddleback Church, in southern California, counts 80,000 on its rolls, and its pastor, Rick Warren, has sold 20 million copies of his book The Purpose-Driven Life. But Warrens success has come at the price of passion; his doctrine, though conservative, is bland and his politics too obscured by his self-help message to be potent. Although other churches boast more eminent memberships than Pastor Tedsnear D.C., for example, McLean Bible Church and The Falls Church (an Episcopal church that is, like many mainline churches today, now evangelical in all but name) minister to the powerful such churches are not, like New Life, crucibles for the ideas that inspire the movement, ideas that are forged in the middle of the country and make their way to Washington only over time. Evangelicalism is as much an intellectual as an emotional movement; and what Pastor Ted has built in Colorado Springs is not just a battalion of spiritual warriors but a factory for ideas to arm them.
New Life began with a prophecy. In November 1984 a missionary friend of Pastor Teds, respected for his gifts of discernment, made him pull over on a bend of Highway 83 as they were driving, somewhat aimlessly, in the open spaces north of the city. Pastor Tedthen twentyeight, given to fasting and oddly pragmatic visions (he believes he foresaw Internet prayer networks before the Internet existed)had been wondering why God had called him from near Baton Rouge, where he had been associate pastor of a megachurch, to this bleak city, then known as a pastors graveyard. The missionary got out of the car and squinted. He crouched down as if sniffing the ground. This, said the missionary, this will be your church. Build here.
So Pastor Ted did. First, he started a church in his basement. The pulpit was three five-gallon buckets stacked one atop the other, and the pews were lawn chairs. A man who lived in a trailer came round if he remembered it was Sunday and played guitar. Another man got the Spirit and filled a fivegallon garden sprayer with cooking oil and began anointing nearby intersections, then streets and buildings all over town. Pastor Ted told his flock to focus their prayers on houses with FOR SALE signs so that more Christians would come and join him. Once Pastor Ted and another missionary accidentally set off an alarm and hid together in a field while the police investigated. It was for a good cause, Pastor Ted would say; they were praying for the building to be taken off the market so it could someday be purchased for a future ministry. (It was.)
He was always on the lookout for spies. At the time, Colorado Springs was a small city split between the Air Force and the New Age, and the latter, Pastor Ted believed, worked for the devil. Pastor Ted soon began upsetting the devils plans. He staked out gay bars, inviting men to come to his church; his whole congregation pitched itself into invisible battles with demonic forces, sometimes in front of public buildings.
One day, while he was working in his garage, a woman who said shed been sent by a witches coven tried to stab Pastor Ted with a five-inch knife she pulled from a leg sheath; Pastor Ted wrestled the blade out of her hand. He let that story get around. He called the evil forces that dominated Colorado Springsand every other metropolitan area in the countryControl.
Sometimes, he says, Control would call him late on Saturday night, threatening to kill him. Any more impertinence out of you, Ted Haggard, he claims Control once told him, and there will be unrelenting pandemonium in this city. No kidding! Pastor Ted hadnt come to Colorado Springs for his health; he had come to wage spiritual war.
He moved the church to a strip mall. There was a bar, a liquor store, New Life Church, a massage parlor. His congregation spilled out and blocked the other businesses. He set up chairs in the alley. He strung up a banner: SIEGE THIS CITY FOR ME, signed JESUS. He assigned everyone in the church names from the phone book they were to pray for. He sent teams to pray in front of the homes of supposed witchesin one month, ten out of fifteen of his targets put their houses on the market. His congregation prayer-walked nearly every street of the city.
Population boomed, crime dipped; Pastor Ted believes to this day that New Life helped chase the bad out of town. He thinks like that, a piston: less bad means more good. Church is good, and his church grew, so fast there were times when no one knew how many members to claim. So they stopped talking about members. There was just New Life. Are you New Life? a person might ask. New Life moved into some corporate office space. Soon they bought the land that had been prophesied, thirty-five acres, and began to build what Pastor Ted promised would be a new Jerusalem.
JERUSALEM, 2005To the east is sky, empty land, Kansas. To the west, Pikes Peak, 14,110 feet above sea level. The old city core of Colorado Springs withers into irrelevance thirteen miles south; New Life leads the charge north, toward fusion with Denver and Boulder and a future of one giant front-range suburb, a muddy wave of big-box stores and beige tract houses eddying along roads so new they had yet to be added to the gas-station map I bought. Some Sundays traf- fic backs up from the church half a mile in all four directions. The congregation creeps up the highways. When parents finally pull into a space amidst the thousands of cars packed into a gray ocean of lot, their kids tumble out and dash toward the five silver pillars of the entrance to New Life, eager to slide across the expanse of tiled floor, to run circles around The Defender, a massive bronze of a glowering angel, its muscular wings in full flex, arms at the zenith of what will undoubtedly be a smiting blow of his broad sword; to run laps around the new sanctuary, built in the round; and to bound up the stairs to Fort Victory, whose rooms are designed to look like an Old West cavalry outpost, the kind they used to fight real live Indians, back when Colorado still had Indians to conquer and convert.
There were no kids in Fort Victory on my first Sunday at New Life, the first Sunday in 2005, it being a special day: Dedication, the spiritual anointing of the churchs new sanctuary. Metallic and modern, laced with steel girders and catwalks, the sanctuary is built like two great satellite dishes clapped belly to belly. It was designed, I was told, to beam prayer across the land. (New Lifers always turn to metaphors to describe their church and their city, between which they make little distinction. It is like a training camp in that its young men and women go forth on missions. It is like a bomb in that it explodes, gifting the rest of us with its fallout: revival, which is to say, values, which is to say, the Word, which is to say, as so many there do, a better way of life.)
At the heart of the sanctuary rises a foursided stage, and above the stage a great assemblage of machinery hovers, wrapped in six massive video screens. A woman near me compared it to Ezekiels vision of a metallic angel, circular and full of eyes all around. When the lights went down and the screens buzzed to life, the sanctuary turned a soft, silvery blue.
Then the six screens filled with faces of tribute, paying homage to New Life and Pastor Ted: a senator, a congressman, Colorados lieutenant governor, the citys mayor, and Tony Perkins, Dobsons enforcer on Capitol Hill; denominational chieftains, such as Thomas E. Trask, general superintendent of the 51 million worldwide members of the Assemblies of God; and a succession of minor nobles from the nations megachurches. These I know now by numbers: Church of the Highlands, in Alabama, pastored by a New Life alumnus from 34 to 2,500 souls in the last four years; a New Life look-alike in Biddeford, Maine, that has multiplied to 5,000; Rocky Mountain Calvary, the New Life neighbor that has swelled in a decade from a handful to 6,000.
Kyle Fisk, executive administrator of the National Association of Evangelicals, had guided me to a seat in the front row, which meant I had to crane my neck back ninety degrees to follow the video screen above me. The worship band, dressed in black, goateed or soul-patched or shagheaded, lay flat on their backs, staring straight up. To my right sat a middle-aged woman in a floorlength flower-print dress with shades of orange and brown. Her hair was thick, chestnut, wavy, her face big-boned in a raw, middle-aged party-girl way. She tilted her head back to watch the tributes roll past. Her mouth hung open.
The band stood. A skinny, chinless man with a big, tenor voice, Ross Parsley, directed the musicians and the crowd, leading us and them and the choir as the guitarists kicked on the fuzz and the drummer pounded the music toward arena-rock frenzy. Two fog machines on each side of the stage filled the sanctuary with white clouds. Pod-shaped projectors cast a light show across the ceiling, giant spinning white snowflakes and cartwheeling yellow flowers and a shimmering blue water-effect. Prepare the way! shouted Worship Pastor Ross. Prepare the way! The King is coming! Across the stage teens began leaping straight up, a dance that swept across the arena: kids hopped, old men hopped, middle-aged women hopped. Spinners wheeled out from the ranks and danced like dervishes around the stage. The light pods dilated and blasted the sanctuary with red. Worship Pastor Ross roared: Let the King of Glory enter in! Ushers rushed through the crowds throwing out rainbow glow strings.
Watching the screens, we moved in slow motion through prairie grass. A voiceover announced, The heart of God, beating in our hearts. Then the music and video quickened as the camera rose to meet the new sanctuary. Images spliced and jumped over one another: thousands of New Lifers holding candles, and dozens skydiving, and Pastor Ted, Bible in hand, blond head thrust forward above the Good Book, smiling, fingershaking, singing, more smiling. (His nose is snubby and his brow overhung, lending him an impishness crucial to the smiles success; without that edge he would look not happy but stoned.) Now Pastor Ted, wearing a puffy ski jacket in red, white, and blue, took us to the suburban ranch house where he stayed on his fateful visit to Colorado Springs; then on to another suburban ranch house, nearly indistinguishable, where Pastor Ted made plans for the church. Then to a long succession of one-story corporate office spaces and strip-mall storefronts, the sanctuaries Pastor Ted rented as his congregation grew, each identical to the last but for the greater floor space.
The lights came up. Pastor Ted, now before us in the flesh, introduced a guest speaker, one of his mentors, Jack Hayford, founding pastor of the 10,000-strong Church On The Way, in Van Nuys, California. Hayford is a legend among evangelicals, one of the men responsible for the revival that made Bible-believing churcheswhat the rest of the world refers to as fundamentalistsafe for suburbia. He is a white-haired, balding, eaglebeaked man, a preacher of the old school, which is to say that he delivers his sermons with an actual Bible in hand (Pastor Ted uses a PalmPilot). Pastor Hayford wants to wedge an idea in our minds. The idea is Order. The illustration is the Book of Revelations description of four creatures surrounding Christs throne. The first . . . was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying angel. Look! said Pastor Hayford, his voice sonorous and dignified. All wonderful, all angels. The angels were merely different from one another. Just, he said, as we have different ethnicities. And just as we have, in politics, a hierarchy. And just as we have, in business, different responsibilities, employer and employees. Angels, ethnicities, hierarchy, employers and employees each category must follow a natural order.
Next came Pastor Larry Stockstill, presenting yet another variation of preacher. He took the stage with his wife, Melanie, who wore a pink pantsuit. Pastor Larry wore a brown pinstripe suit over a striped brown shirt and a golden tie. His voice was Louisiana, with pulpit pronounced pull-peet.
Theres a world, he preached, pacing across the stage. I call it the Underworld. The Underworld, he explained, is similar to what he sees when he goes skin diving; only instead of strange fishes, theres strange people. Too many churches, he said, focus on the Overworld. Thats where the nice people are. The successful people. But the Lord said, Im not sending you to the Overworld, Im sending you to the Underworld. Where the creatures are. The critters! The people who are out of it. People you see in Colorado Springs, even. You got an underworld of people. The tattoo crowd, the people into drugs, the people into sex. You find em . . . in the Underworld.
One last item on the agenda: Pastor Ted got a new Bible. A very big Bible: it took two sturdy men to lift it onto the stage. The members of New Lifeas well as evangelical celebrities, such as Dr. Dobson and Oral Robertshad secretly handwritten the entire Good Book. Later, Pastor Ted will show me this marvel in his office. Neat, huh? hell say.
After church, I walked across the parking lot to the World Prayer Center, where I watched prayers scroll over two giant flat-screen televisions while a young man played piano. The Prayer Centera joint effort of several fundamentalist organizations but located at and presided over by New Lifehouses a bookstore that when I visited was called the Arsenal (its name has since been changed to Solomons Porch), as well as corporate prayer rooms, personal prayer closets, hotel rooms, and the headquarters of Global Harvest, a ministry dedicated to spiritual warfare. (The Prayer Centers nickname in the fundamentalist world is spiritual NORAD.)
The atrium is a soaring foyer adorned with the flags of the nations and guarded by another bronze warrior angel, a scowling, bearded type with massive biceps and, again, a sword. The angels pedestal stands at the center of a great, eightpointed compass laid out in muted red, white, and blue-black stone. Each point directs the eye to a contemporary painting, most depicting gorgeous, muscular menone is a blacksmith, another is bound, fetish-style, in chainsin various states of undress. My favorite is The Vessel, by Thomas Blackshear, a major figure in the evangelical-art world. Here in the World Prayer Center is a print of The Vessel, a tall, vertical panel of two nude, ample-breasted, white female angels team-pouring an urn of honey onto the shaved head of a naked, olive-skinned man below. The honey drips down over his slab-like pecs and his six-pack abs into the eponymous vessel, which he holds in front of his crotch. But the vessel cant handle that much honey, so the sweetness oozes over the edges and spills down yet another level, presumably onto our heads, drenching us in golden, godly love. Part of what makes Blackshears work so compelling is precisely its unabashed eroticism; it aims to turn you on, and then to turn that passion toward Jesus.
In the chapel are several computer terminals, where one can sign on to the World Prayer Team and enter a prayer. Eventually ones words will scroll across the large flat screens, as well as across the screens around the world, which as many as 70,000 other Prayer Team members are watching at any point in time. Prayers range from the mundane (realestate deals and job situations demand frequent attention) to the urgent, such as this prayer request from Rachel of Colorado: Danielle. 15 months old. Temperature just shy of 105 degrees. Lethargic. Wont eat.
Or this one from Lauralee of Vermont: If you never pray for anyone else, please choose this one! Im in such pain I think Im going to die; pray a healing MIRACLE for me for kidney problems (disease? failure?); Im so alone; no insurance!
One might be tempted to see an implicit class politics in that last point, but to join the Prayer Team one must promise to refrain from explicitly political prayer. That is reserved for the professionals. The Prayer Team screen, whether viewed at the center or on a monitor at home, is split between Individual Focus Requests, such as the above, and Worldwide Focus requests, which are composed by the staff of the World Prayer Center. Sometimes these are domesticUSA: Pray for the Arlington Group, pastors working with Whitehouse to renew Marriage Amendm. Pray for appts. of new justices. Pray for Pastor meetings with Amb. of Israel, and President Bush. Lord, let them speak only your words, represent YOU! Bless! But more often they are international N. KOREA: Pray God will crush demonic stronghold and communist regime of Kim Jung Il.
The Iraqis come up often, particularly with regard to their conversion: Despite the efforts of the news media, believing soldiers and others testify to the effective preaching of the Gospel, and the openness of so many to hear of Jesus. Pray for continued success!
Another prayer request puts numbers to that news900,000 Bibles in the Arabic language distributed by Christians in Iraq . . . And one explicitly aligns the quest for democracy in Iraq with the quest for more Christians in Iraq: May the people stand for their rights, and open to the idea of making choices, such as studying the Bible . . .
The most common Iraq-related prayer requests, however, are strategic in the most worldly sense, such as this one: BaghdadGod, press back the enemy . . .
Behind the piano player, the front range of the Rocky Mountains stretched across a floorto- ceiling, semicircular window with a 270-degree view. Above him, a globe fifteen feet in diameter rotated on a metal spindle. When he took a break, I sat with him in the front row. His name was Jayson Tice, he was twenty-five, and he worked at Red Lobster. Hed grown up in San Diego and once, he said, hed been good enough to play Division I college basketball. But he broke his ankle, and because the Marines promised him court time, he joined. There didnt turn out to be much basketball for him in the Marines, just what he described as making bombs and missiles, so he didnt recommit, and decided to start over in a new city. His mother had moved to Colorado Springs, so Jayson and his girlfriend did, too; his mother left after three months, but Jayson had already decided that God, not his mother, had called him to the mountains. He discovered that a lot of the people he knew, working as waiters or store clerks or at one of the Air Force bases, felt the same way.
Colorado Springs, Jayson told me, this particular city, this one city, is a battlegroundhe pausedbetween good and evil. This is spiritual Gettysburg. Why here? I asked. He thought about it and rephrased his answer. This place is just a watering hole for Christians. For Gods people. Something extra powerfuls about to pour out of this city. I hope not to stay in Colorado Springs, because I want to spread whats going on here. Im a warrior, dude. Im a warrior for God. Colorado Springs is my training ground.
Free-market economics is a truth Ted says he learned in his first job in professional Christendom, as a Bible smuggler in Eastern Europe. Globalization, he believes, is merely a vehicle for the spread of Christianity. He means Protestantism in particular; Catholics, he said, constantly look back. He went on: And the nations dominated by Catholicism look back. They dont tend to create our greatest entrepreneurs, inventors, research and development. Typically, Catholic nations arent shooting people into space. Protestantism, though, always looks to the future. A typical kid raised in Protestantism dreams about the future. A typical kid raised in Catholicism values and relishes the past, the saints, the history. That is one of the changes that is happening in America. In America the descendants of the Protestants, the Puritan descendants, we want to create a better future, and our speakers say that sort of thing. But with the influx of people from Mexico, they dont tend to be the ones that go to universities and become our research-and-development people. And so in that way I see a little clash of civilizations.
So the Catholics are out, and the battle boils down to evangelicals versus Islam. My fear, he says, is that my children will grow up in an Islamic state.
And that is why he believes spiritual war requires a virile, worldly counterpart. I teach a strong ideology of the use of power, he says, of military might, as a public service. He is for preemptive war, because he believes the Bibles exhortations against sin set for us a preemptive paradigm, and he is for ferocious war, because the Bibles bloody. Theres a lot about blood.
The second half of this article can be found in the May, 2005 Harper's, a special issue that also features a report from a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters, by Chris Hedges; an essay on the evangelical roots of free market economics by Gordon Bigelow; and an essay on the Christian right by Lewis Lapham.
THIS STORY CONTINUES IN THE MAY, 2005 ISSUE OF HARPERS. Ill
publish the rest -- much of it devoted to Pastor Teds ideas about free
market theology -- here when Harpers gives me permission. Of special
relevance, though, are these thoughts from Pastor Ted on Catholicism, Islam, and holy war: