Arkansas pastor leaves as ‘earthquake’ splits evangelicals

Community Bible Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where Kevin Thompson once pastored, on Dec. 27, 2021. (September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times)

FORT SMITH, Arkansas — In the fall of 2020, Pastor Kevin Thompson gave a sermon on the sweetness of God. At one point, he made a brief comparison between a loving and reachable God and distant and unreachable celebrities. Without resorting to notes and with the Bible in hand, he gave some simple examples: Oprah, Jay-Z, Tom Hanks.

Since the church was just reopening for its in-person worship services, the pastor did not know how his sermon was received. Attendance was minimal, and it was hard to tell if his jokes were having any effect, or if his congregation — of family groups three seats apart and others watching him online — was still listening.

So he was surprised when two church members raised concerns about the pastor’s brief reference to Hanks. A young woman sent him a very concerned text message; another person implied that the reference to Hanks was proof that Thompson did not care about the topic of sex trafficking. Thompson soon realized that those fears stemmed from the widespread QAnon conspiracy theory that the movie star is part of a Hollywood pedophile ring.

For decades, Thompson, 44, had been sure he knew the people of Fort Smith, a small town hidden under a bend in the Arkansas River along the Oklahoma border. Thompson was born in the city’s oldest hospital, attended local public schools and grew up in a Baptist church that encouraged him to start preaching as a teenager. Thompson assumed that he would live in Fort Smith for the rest of his life.

But now he wasn’t so sure. “Jesus talks about how he is the truth, how important he is to the truth,” Thompson said in an interview. “When the notion of truth is lost, everything is lost.”

Many churches are weak and their level of attendance is lower than before the pandemic; fewer and fewer denominations and the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian. According to a new poll by evangelical pollster Barna, 42 percent of Protestant ministers said they had seriously considered giving up full-time ministry in the past year, a figure that had risen 13 percentage points since the start of 2021. .

Michael Emerson, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke of an approaching “earthquake” in which white evangelical churches were splitting into two large groups: those who adopted their own policies and messages. of former President Donald Trump, including allusions to conspiracy theories, and those who wanted to go down a different path.

Kevin Thompson, the former pastor of Community Bible Church, in an old cemetery in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he livedó long before he left for California, on Dec. 27, 2021. (September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times)

Kevin Thompson, the former pastor of Community Bible Church, in an old cemetery in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he lived long before moving to California, on Dec. 27, 2021. (September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times)

In many churches, this means that there will be new clashes between established leaders and ordinary believers.

When Thompson left seminary and returned to Fort Smith in the early 2000s, Community Bible Church was an exciting place to work. Spurred on by growing suburban megachurches like Southern California’s Saddleback and Illinois’ Willow Creek, the Community Bible offered modern music, multi-media worship services and outreach aimed at “engaging” people who didn’t usually attend regularly. to church.

“I was interested in spiritual vitality,” said Ed Saucier, the founding pastor of Community Bible. “I wanted it to be fun, engaging and have a different purpose.”

Saucier rarely spoke directly from the pulpit about elections or public policy. It was easy not to. The church was attended primarily by white and mostly conservative people. They agreed on what they saw as the big issues, and there seemed to be little reason to tackle the small ones. “I used a little bit of common sense,” Saucier said. “If I can’t make something better, maybe I shouldn’t get into it.”

His philosophy was not exceptional. Despite their position as an influential electoral bloc, most white American evangelicals have never been in favor of mixing politics with religion. In many evangelical settings, “political” means biased or corrupt, which is the opposite of “biblical.”

Thompson still considers himself a conservative. In almost every major election he has voted for the Republican Party. He admires Mitt Romney and the Bush family and is conservative on issues of gender and sexual orientation, although he doesn’t stress that very often.

When Thompson took over as senior pastor after six years as associate pastor, he immediately gained popularity within the congregation. Jim Kolp, a founding member, recalled a sermon Thompson gave on “the fruit of the spirit,” based on a New Testament passage that mentions qualities, such as kindness and self-control, that show the Holy Spirit is at work in life. of a Christian. This sermon caused Kolp to rethink his habitual habit of listening to Rush Limbaugh. “I never really thought about whether this has to do with the fruit of the spirit,” Kolp said. “I stop listening to this angry man.” He didn’t tune in anymore.

But over the years, there have been some subtle rifts between Thompson and his congregation, like a seam being pulled on both sides.

In 2020, when Thompson blogged that “Black Lives Matter,” disagreements in his church suddenly seemed more like a crisis. For years, she had been speaking and writing with some frequency on racial issues. She had hired Jackie Flake, a black pastor, to lead a new church chapter in the racially diverse North Fort Smith area. In 2015, he participated in a successful initiative to change the symbol of “Johnny Reb” (the national personification of the southern states of the United States and also of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War) from his former high school mascot . But the phrase “Black Lives Matter” greatly annoyed some faithful.

Kolp mentioned that he found Thompson’s momentous conversations about racism too negative. America has a history of racism, he commented. But “if there had never been a slave trade, would they still be in Africa? Would they have important positions?”, he asked referring to black people. “And now our pastor talks about it and then we’re automatically racist just because we’re white?”

In fact, Thompson’s sermons were not incisive. At one point he stated, “If they were somehow brought up like me, there is a certain intolerance within them” and encouraged listeners to seek other points of view than their own.

Thompson was liked by almost everyone at Community Bible, but some people couldn’t understand why he chose the causes he chose.

“There are some issues that he should have stayed away from,” said Johnny Fisher, one of the church’s founding members. “Perhaps the best thing is to keep quiet and answer, based on the Bible, any question that is put to you.”

The church stopped growing. Entire families were leaving; Richy Fisher, a pastor and adviser who prepared a report for the church in 2019, noted that the membership was “in disarray.” (Richy and Johnny Fisher are brothers.)

Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said his city is like many other places in the country: Issues including masks and vaccination have fractured relationships, and people doubt the leaders they once trusted. McGill, the city’s first Black major, saw Thompson as someone who spoke the truth. But within his community of him, antagonists “rose up against the very people God had put in place.”

Thompson’s reputation did appear to be shifting. A local woman emailed her Bible study group in the summer of 2020, warning that he was promoting a “progressive Leftist agenda.” When Thompson invited her to meet with him, pointing out that he was a frequent guest of Focus on the Family Radio and hardly a leftist, she accused him of being beholden to “The Marxist Agenda” and “the BLM agenda.”

When a job offer came last summer to become an associate pastor at a larger church in the Sacramento, California, area, Thompson accepted.

Months after his departure, Community Bible Church was still deciding his future. “Some people are still leaving, but everything is under control,” Saucier, the founding pastor, said in December. The interim church leader is Richy Fisher; this spring, the church’s board of directors proposed that he take the position permanently and on May 22 there will be a vote in the congregation.

Meanwhile, the population of Fort Smith has more options than when Thompson arrived at Community Bible. Newer and more aesthetically striking churches have appeared in the city. A subsidiary of New Life, a church in many places with more than fifteen centers across the state, is almost in the lead.

On a recent Sunday, the New Life congregation heard a sermon based on the Book of Daniel.

“America is no longer a Christian country,” the pastor said, thereby conveying the message of combating the enormous pressure of the culture to change “what we say, how we raise our children, how and when we can pray and what marriage is”. The title of the sermon was “Stand Firm.”

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Arkansas pastor leaves as ‘earthquake’ splits evangelicals