RALEIGH, N.C. (RNS) — John Pavlovitz is feeling spiritually nauseated these days.
It’s a feeling many of his readers and followers — liberal Christians, disaffected Christians and ex-Christians — share. Since the election of Donald Trump, he has given many of them a voice on his Stuff That Needs To Be Said blog, netting some 23 million clicks in 2017.
To many, Pavlovitz has emerged as the digital pastor of the resistance, railing against Trump, white evangelicals and Christian nationalism.
He is sought after across the country, spending each weekend on the road — last week in Huntsville, Ala., this coming weekend in Jefferson City, Mo., later this month in north Georgia. Fans come to hear straight talk from a man who professes faith in Jesus but is eager to criticize the church and its leaders for their hypocrisy or silence in the face of today’s injustices.
Among his more popular posts there’s the one on “The Heresy of Christian Nationalism" that begins, “God doesn’t bless America. That’s not how this works.”
Or one titled “White Evangelicals, This is Why People Are Through With You,” in which he writes: “You’ve lost any semblance of Christlikeness. You’ve lost the plot. And most of all you’ve lost your soul.”
For a former youth pastor who spent nearly a decade at a large United Methodist church, it’s been midcareer wild ride — one he never expected.
Though he had been blogging for several years, a tweet from pop singer Katy Perry about his Nov. 9, 2016, column, “Here’s Why We Grieve Today," catapulted him overnight into one of the internet’s most passionate voices for disaffected Christians.
“It’s not that people are saying, ‘I’m a John Pavlovitz fan and therefore I’m sharing his blog regularly,’” said his friend Mike Morrell, a fellow Christian writer who lives in Asheville, N.C. “It’s people who might not even remember they shared a blog post by him last month who are struck afresh by the emotional resonance of his posts so they share.”
Not bad for a pastor who was fired from his church job four years ago.
'I was never fully authentic'
Pavlovitz, 48, came to faith later in life.
Born into an Catholic family in Syracuse, N.Y., he attended church but like many others drifted away, especially after he left home to study illustration and graphic design.
He stepped back into the church fold for the most prosaic of reasons. He and fiancée, Jennifer — now his wife — wanted a church wedding. Living in Philadelphia, they found a small Methodist church in the suburbs where the pastor, a woman, was willing to marry two ex-Catholics.
Within weeks of getting involved in the church, Pavlovitz was asked if he’d be willing to volunteer as the youth leader. His life was instantly transformed. He quit his job, started taking seminary classes and found his true calling.
From that small suburban church, he landed a full-time job at Charlotte’s Good Shepherd, a United Methodist church in Charlotte, N.C., with an evangelical bent. He served there as youth pastor for eight years and though he was beloved by the community, he also began to experience some spiritual dissonance with the church’s theological convictions, especially as it related to issues of gender and sexuality. Pavlovitz’s brother is gay and Pavlovitz always felt women should have greater leadership roles in the church.
“I was never fully authentic,” he said in an interview at his favorite writing spot, Wake Forest Coffee. “At a certain point, I started to censor and edit myself.”
Thinking a change of pace might relieve his mounting theological unease, in 2015 he accepted a position as youth pastor at a Southern Baptist start-up church in Raleigh. It didn’t go well.
Five months later, he was fired.
Pavlovitz said there was no particular incident that led his firing, except a growing theological disconnect between him and the lead pastor. (In the lead pastor’s words, “You don’t fit here.”)
One month later, Pavlovitz penned a column, “If I Have LGBTQ Children (Four Promises From a Christian Pastor and Parent),” that went viral, landing him an interview on CNN. Written in 2015, it seems tame and polite in comparison with the indignant language of his more recent posts.
“That (post) was very endearing to us as a community because it treated it as a human issue, as opposed to a religious issue,” said Doug Hammack, pastor of North Raleigh Community Church Downtown, where Pavlovitz worked for a while after getting fired, and where he still attends alongside his wife, son and daughter.
Pavlovitz followed that up with another viral post — this one a poignant open letter of admonishment to Dan Turner, the father of a sex offender who pleaded with his son’s judge for a lighter punishment. Brock Turner was found guilty of assaulting an intoxicated and unconscious woman at Stanford University in 2015 and sentenced to six months in prison and three years' probation. His father wrote: “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life."
The posts felt liberating, Pavlovitz said, like he had been set free from bondage.
“I began to realize, I have this global congregation,” he said. “I’m getting hundreds of emails from people. I started setting up pastoral care visits via Skype.”
Then along came Trump.
Leaning into the unrest
The dawning of a new political era has Pavlovitz walking a tightrope.
On the one hand, he loudly denounces the nation’s political tilt — its crackdown on immigrants, its inability to pass gun control measures, its retreat from climate change commitments, its anti-Muslim rhetoric.
On the other, he tries to offer hope and a way forward, without alienating his base.
His 2017 book, “A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic and Hopeful Spiritual Community” forcefully argues that Jesus sets the example for creating a more inclusive, open and just society and that Christians must expand the table and make room for a others.
At a Unitarian Universalist church in Raleigh’s northern suburbs earlier this month, Pavlovitz’s sermon, “When the World is Upside Down,” offered about 100 people assembled the reassurance they are not alone.
“I hear that nagging question you hear: Am I losing my mind? I’m here to tell you: You’re not,” he preached.
“The despair you feel, the urgency, the frustration means that your heart is doing what a heart is supposed to do. You are the kind of people the world needs right now. Yes, it’s disheartening, but there is reason for hope. It’s why you hold tightly to that unrest in times when the world seems upside down. It’s time you need to lean into that internal disturbance. It’s why you can’t make peace with the madness that you see.”
It was a candid talk.
During a discussion after the sermon, one woman asked for prayers after she reluctantly accepted a friend’s invitation to visit a gun range. “I want them to see there’s somebody on the other side who will listen,” she said.
Another spoke of her frustration with a Facebook page she created called “Calm Political Debate.” Guffaws erupted.
“Boy, are you hopeful!” shot one person.
“That’s an oxymoron!” shouted another.
Pavlovitz listened and urged members to “lean into that unrest.”
As someone who acknowledges he is prone to depression, Pavlovitz has set himself a high bar: “As a person who claims Christianity, I want to be an expectation-defying Christian. I want people to be surprised by the level of compassion or decency that they may not be used to.”
Not everyone thinks he’s always successful.
“I like him as a human being and I believe in his intent and motivation to do what is good and right,” said Hammack, his pastor. But, he added, “In approach we would come at it differently.”
But Pavlovitz takes his cue from another leader — Jesus, who he said could be quite harsh in admonishing the religious leaders of the day.
“There are still ways in which people are oppressing other people,” Pavlovitz said. “As long as that happens, we still have to name that. Jesus does that throughout the gospels. It’s a redemptive act. It’s not done with malice. It’s done to say, ‘This is not right.’”