High Point, Andy Savage, The Southern Baptist Convention, and The Gospel Coalition

On January 5, the Deebs (TWW) and Amy Smith teamed up to blow High Point Community Church pastor Andy Savage out of the water, telling the story of Jules Woodson.

High Point is a Southern Baptist Convention affiliate with NeoCalvinist ties. Savage was rising star in the NeoCal circuit, with a book slated for release this Summer.

Since then,

(1) Savage has attempted to minimize what he did;

(2) Savage has attempted to deflect blame for what he did;

(3) Savage has gone of radio to make his case;

(4) High Point provided Savage a standing ovation in their ensuing worship service;

(5) Austin Stone Community Church–where Savage’s assault of Woodson took place–placed pastor Larry Cotton on leave while they investigate his role in the Jules Woodson case;

(6) Savage has seen the loss of his book deal, as Bethany House cancelled it;

(7) Larry Cotton has also seen a book deal go up in flames;

(8) Commentators from Boz Tchividjian to Ed Stetzer have weighed in, condemning the response of High Point.

But you know what? The Gospel Coalition and The Southern Baptist Convention have been quite mum on this.

The same SBC that rightly kicked out member churches for endorsing gay “marriage”, has been silent regarding a megachurch that coddled a pastor who crossed a severe ethical line, and has not so much as provided guidance for how churches ought to respond.

And The Gospel Coalition? Also nothing but crickets.

But I’ll bet you that if High Point called a woman to be pastor, they’d be all over that in milliseconds.

While I’m opposed to women pastors, and while I definitely oppose any Church tolerance of gay “marriage” within their ranks, I also would suggest that we must call evil for what it is, even when it involves people whose theology is more in line with mine.

If anything, I’m more angered when conservatives actively or passively green-light sexual immoralities or abuses of any type.

Orthodoxy is all well and good, but if your church doesn’t take the protection of children and teens seriously, then your Orthodoxy doesn’t rise to the level of the Scribes and Pharisees.

Dee, High Point, and 22-Year-old Youth Pastors

Most of the time, I tend to be on the same side as TWW when it comes to exposing abusers and calling out a system that coddles them. In the Andy Savage/Jules Woodson case, I have had their backs 99% of the time.

This is the 1%. And I’m not talking about their take on those who slut-shame Jules–I agree with the Deebs on that one.

I’m talking about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of putting 22-year-olds, who have little spiritual mileage as adults, in an office of pastoral authority over teens.

While Dee seems to make a good case when she discusses 22-year-old teachers, 22-year-old nurses, even 18-year-old firemen, I would contend that she is comparing apples to oranges.

Teaching English or science or mathematics is not on the same par as being a youth pastor.

If I’m a school teacher, the chances of me being alone with a student are going to be pretty remote. If I’m teaching, the classroom will be full. Even if students have questions after class, it’s a simple matter to keep the door open, or only entertain questions while there are others in the room. To be alone with a student–while possible–requires effort.

When you’re a youth pastor, it’s a different ballgame.

(1) While churches often have a “two-adult rule”, I can also tell you that, in smaller churches, that is not always feasible.

That means you’re going to need a youth pastor who has reined in his lusts sufficiently that he does not see the youth to whom he is ministering as potential girlfriends or conquests. Can a 22-year-old have that kind of maturity? It’s possible. But most of the men I’ve known in that bracket–and yes, we’re talking Christians–are either (a) looking to get married, or (b) still trying to learn self-regulation, or (c) both (a) and (b).

(2) Rightly dividing the word of truth–and teaching young people how to do it–requires more knowledge than you’re going to get in a 4-year-degree.

Coming out of college, I had an aeronautical engineering degree. I also had experience working in the math and science tutoring center, and had taught physics labs. I knew algebra and calculus and Newtonian mechanics like the back of my hand. I probably could have walked into any high school math or science class and started teaching.

When it comes to teaching Scripture, it’s a different ballgame. I was active in the Christian Fellowship Club at my alma mater. I also attended church regularly. I wasn’t a dummy when it came to Scripture–I won all those Bible Trivia games–but when it comes to teaching, it’s more complicated than, say, algebra.

In my 51 years of life, I have met only one 22-year-old whom I think would have been capable of being a good youth minister. And he was a lot like me: very un-polished, not a lot of charisma, but teaching was his gig. He also was serious about self-regulation.

When I was at SBTS, I had classmates who served as youth ministers and pastors. The ones in their early 20s were very shallow and struggled in their classwork. I often ended up tutoring them. They were in no position to be teachers to teens.

The ones older than 25 tended to be better-grounded, not just in Scripture but in their ability to provide strong counsel from Scripture.

I guess my larger problem here is with what I call the Ministerial-Industrial Complex.

It is the standard model by which churches build up their ministers. It has become a game of (a) take a young adult in or just out of college and make them a children’s minister or a youth minister, (b) send them to seminary to get an MA or MDiv, (c) have them do some part-time pastoral gigs during that time, (d) get them into a small bivocational or full-time position once they are newly-minted MDiv grads, and (e) as they “grow”, move them into senior positions, larger churches, etc.

What’s wrong with that picture?

(1) It treats the ministry like a corporate ladder. Just like the world

(2) It puts inexperienced young adults in positions of teaching teens, at a time when teens need very knowledgeable teachers who will challenge them and push them hard in these formative years.

What happens when a 10th-grader starts asking you questions about evolution? Or abortion? Are you ready to answer those matters intelligently?

What happens if a teen in your youth group tells you of the atheist teacher who is always trying to sow the seeds of skepticism? Are you ready to provide a reasonable case for Christ?

What happens when a kid tells you that he (or even she) is struggling with same-sex attraction? Or is fixated on porn? Are you ready to counsel someone in that kind of cesspool, and help such a one navigate these very unpleasant topics?

What happens when you have a youth whose home life is hell, whose parents are addicts, who asks you what “honor your father and mother” looks like in a case like that?

What if a 16-year-old girl tells you that one of her relatives is having sex with her?

Do you know the wisdom literature well enough to convey Biblical truths in ways that are understandable to a teen?

What if you have a teen who tells you she is pregnant, and her parents are trying to force her to have an abortion?

What happens when you have a youth who is struggling with drug or alcohol issues?

At 27, I could handle those things reasonably well. At 22, I would have been in over my head. The hormones of early adulthood would not have made those other challenges any easier at 22, either.

Like I said, I have only known one person in my life who, at 22, would have been qualified to do that job. And it wasn’t me.

Yes, I was a counselor at a crisis pregnancy center at age 24. But I also had a lot of supervision, too, and wasn’t too proud to hand off tough cases to more experienced counselors. The director–who had a son my age–was like a second mom to me.

(I also kept the door open when I was the only counselor in the room.)

I didn’t start teaching in church until I was on the tail end of 25. And I didn’t take on any ministerial positions until 27.

By that time, I had seen a plethora of ministers go down in scandal. I got a front-row seat to what was possible if one did not learn to master their lusts.

And while I knew of big scandals during my college days, I can tell you this much: very little discussion in church circles ever involved the reality that such things begin with very simple lusts.

Andy Savage may have understood those truths on an academic level. But there is a world of difference between that and being able to flesh that out and teach others in the process.

Nothing says “you break it, you own it” like sex. And, sadly, with sexual sin, you can’t just take it back. As King David said, “my sin is ever before me.”

Unfortunately for Savage, he understood that a minute too late.

And while that is his baggage for which he is ultimately responsible, I also say that his church bears responsibility for conforming to a paradigm that is predisposed to putting unqualified people in very critical ministerial positions.

High Point, Church Sex Abuse, and Third Party Investigations

Ann Voskamp may be right in that the Andy Savage scandal at High Point Community Church of Memphis may be the Church’s Harvey Weinstein moment.

Personally, I tend to be a tad more cynical, but one thing is for sure: it was a shot across the bow. There are a mother lode of family jewels in churches across America, including (some might say especially) otherwise “conservative, evangelical, Reformed, and Fundamentalist” churches.

Unless the Church gets serious about addressing this, the reckoning is going to be orders of magnitude worse than they can ever imagine.

My take?

Deal with it now.

Bring all the scandals into the sunlight.

Expose the offending ministers.

Admit failures–from failure to exercise oversight, to failure to report when allegations surfaced, to unwittingly or even intentionally throwing victims under the bus, to protecting people who were clearly abusive and immoral.

To the extent that is possible, try to make amends with those who were wronged.

Where criminal acts may have been committed, churches need to report these to the authorities. Perhaps statutes of limitations may have run out, but this still could help nail them if there are more recent offenses elsewhere.

But make no mistake: transparency is paramount. On this front, more is better.

To Hell (literally) with corporate damage control tactics; that is how the WORLD operates. The Church is not “of the world”.

Why am I adamant about this?

1. If there is any place where children ought to be safe, it ought to be the Church. One observer noted that, in the first century, the Church was a refuge from the world: a contrast to the brutality and immorality and corruption that so defined so much of Graco-Roman society.

Jesus had very stern warnings about those who would cause children to stumble. And while I believe that child molesters can be saved, I would also point out that there is a guaranteed reckoning for those who commit such acts against children.

And if you’re a theological conservative–as I am–those warnings from Jesus should kick you in the jewels, as He is not simply talking about kiddie-diddlers.

That means parents need to take their responsibilities very seriously; that means everyone who interacts with children–especially teachers, camp counselors, chaperones, etc.–needs to have a (spiritual) “war face”.

This is not a game.

That includes teaching the Scriptures properly; that includes modeling the love of God in a way that includes appropriate discipline while not exasperating them: children should be able to taste and see that the Lord is good.

As for predators, you can bank on the fact that they are going to target churches. If you have a substantial number of children, you can almost guarantee that one or more predators are going to be lurking in your midst if they aren’t already there.

THAT’s not your fault. As I’ve said before, predators will target churches (that’s where the kids are) for the same reason the armed robber targets the bank (that’s where the money is).

What you do about that, however, is going to make or break you.

I’ve said it many times: they will have charisma; they will often be professionals; they will be very talented; they will appear trustworthy; they will be very affable.

Some offenders may not be predators, but are still sexually deviant: they have not reined in their lusts and therefore are not qualified for their positions. This is one more reason why you need to be leery of bringing on young adults into ministerial positions.

(My take: many of these youth pastors, like Andy Savage, are in this category. They don’t necessarily qualify as predators, but neither do they have the Christian maturity befitting a teacher or minister either. They have charisma, but–as I’ve said many times here–charisma is not character! Ergo, putting them in that position is a prescription for disaster. Just ask Jules Woodson.)

I’ll say it again: What you do about that is going to make or break you.

In the wake of the Andy Savage case, High Point failed about as badly as a church can fail. They not only did not do the right thing, they proceeded to do the worst possible thing.

They stood by as Savage provided self-serving spin, deflection, and even blame-shifting. They turned the worship of God into a glorification of someone who, faced with his past, could not even properly state the severity of what he did.

That Savage is on leave of absence now is all well and good; they should have done that immediately, and then fired him as soon as he started playing spin games, and–as the details of the allegations surfaced–reported the allegations to the relevant authorities.

(For the record: Savage will not face criminal charges in the Jules Woodson case, as the statute of limitations has run out on any possible offenses on his end.)

High Point has since decided to enlist a third party to investigate the Andy Savage matter.

While the Deebs and Amy Smith are (rightly) skeptical of churches hiring third parties to investigate, I’ll take a contrarian view in this case: given that criminal offenses aren’t on the table now, I think that is probably a good idea.

But I say that with the following caveats:

(1) What does High Point really want investigated?

At this point, it ought not just be about Andy Savage: his offenses–besides his spin and blame-shifting–occurred long before he came to High Point. If they just investigate what Andy Savage did, then it’s just going to be a waste of money.

(2) What does High Point hope to accomplish?

Are they just trying to cover their nether regions in the event of a lawsuit? Are they just seeking to do damage control? Or are they really serious about the type of change–seeking to get things right–that comes from repentance?

Color me skeptical, but if they were repentant, their entire ministerial staff would have been in sackloth by now. They would have apologized to Jules for engaging in blame-shifting. They would have FIRED Andy Savage. They would have censured–if not suspended–their entire worship team.

All I’m seeing from them is more akin to damage control.

Ultimately, such an investigation can only be helpful if High Point is serious about fundamentally changing their culture.

If they ARE serious, then a good investigation can show deficiencies in their leadership: what kinds of culture they need to foster going forward; how they should screen would-be ministers, teachers, and other workers; how they ought to respond to allegations; how to cultivate an environment that reflects the love of God while providing appropriate protections for those in positions of vulnerability.

But such change requires more than an investigation and white paper; it requires true contrition.

Does High Point have that?

At this time, I remain skeptical.