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John Pavlovitz, digital pastor of the resistance, pitches a bigger Christian tent

John Pavolitz speaks during “A Bigger Table” tour event in Philadelphia in February. Photo by Dana Stinson

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.

John Pavlovitz gives a sermon at Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship in Raleigh, N.C., on March 4, 2018. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

“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.”)

John Pavolitz speaks during “A Bigger Table” tour event in Philadelphia in February. Photo by Dana Stinson

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.

John Pavlovitz gives a sermon at Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship in Raleigh. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

“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.’”

 

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

16 Comments

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  • Seems that the man has never learned the reason for the church:

    Matthew 28 The Great Commission
    16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
    Christ did not die so that people could be fed. He did not die so that jerks like him could try to make homosexuals could feel happy in their sin. Christ died so that we don’t have to, should we turn to Him and accept His blessing of a relationship with God.

  • The most important thing that Jesus could teach the hate-filled, self-righteous, one-dimensional church that you seem to sadly be a part of, was not spoken admonitions, but a life lived in service, being attacked by the smug practitioners of religiosity of his day for dining with sinners, and having the audacity to reach out to those deemed “unclean.” John Pavlovitz is my kind of jerk!

  • White Evangelicals, This is Why People Are Through With You”
    Did Pavlovits not get the memo??? Race is just a Social Construct.

  • John 12:47If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. 50And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”

  • Never heard of this Pavolits dude.
    But I have one question for him. Simply put, does he believe in the exclusivity of Jesus?
    John 14:6.
    Jesus *said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me”

    Through personal experience, I have found that many of these so called ‘liberal Christians” do not.

    But then, I also believe that the terms ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘fundamental’ and probably a host of others I have not mentioned are generally terms assigned by others to those who may not have the same belief.

  • Pavlovitz does not believe that accepting Jesus is the only way to the Father in Heaven. Pavlovitz negates Heaven & Hell. He thinks Man is ‘good’ and does not need a Savior. He thinks that its our job (if we try really really hard) to make the World ‘good’ again. (like it was before the Fall). He thinks that he has the answers as to how to make Heaven on earth. Oddly, it’s his rhetorical & profane writings that attract his followers.

  • Pavlovit’z ‘Table’ is not expansive at all. He has a ‘bouncer’ that removes anyone with orthodox bible beliefs. And they get ‘booed’ & ‘spat on’ on the way out the door.

  • John makes some excellent points about resistance and I wish that my fellow religious conservatives would pay attention to those points.

    But those points are concerned with how the Church interacts with society. Pitching a bigger tent has nothing to do with the relationship between the Church and society. Instead,the size of the tent deals with the definition of the Church. And my concern about John’s tent for the Church is whether he is pitching the same tent for the Church which the Apostles did.

  • I’ve been following his blog over the years mostly for entertainment value. His blog post are some of the most hate-filled, vitriolic, racist, bigoted writings that I’ve ever read from any anti-Christian leftist. He basically regurgitates a mixture of left-wing media narratives and old 19th century theological liberalism. He’s a more off-putting and hateful version of Rob Bell. If he didn’t still cling to his hollow claim of idenifying with Christ, he would be just another irrelevant radical leftist blogger. Rather than be honest and position himself as an agnostic/atheist, he’d rather seduce undiscerning Christians away from their faith. This is the height of dishonesty, and it’s why I believe it’s necessary to use such harsh language in repudiating John Pavlovitz’s deceptive writings.

  • “The most important thing that Jesus could teach the hate-filled, self-righteous, one-dimensional church that you seem to sadly be a part of…”

    Just out of curiosity, what do you call THAT “filling?”

  • Who’s to say his version of belief in the invisible sky God isn’t the right one? I mean, since God never shows himself or appears to any of us- his view is just as valid or invalid as any. As for me- THOR is my rock.

  • Through personal experience, I have found that many of these so called ‘liberal Christians” do not. ??????? That is the most insane statement I’ve heard all year.

  • John Pavlovitz is the right prophet for the right time. He stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The American church is good at being pastoral, but has largely lost the prophetic dimension of the Christian faith. Both pastoral and prophetic roles are essential in Christianity. Needless to say, Pavlovitz is unpopular with the current religious leadership, and their followers, who support those in power. This was also true of the Old Testament prophets in their time. But he resonates with millions of people all over the world. He says what so many of us are thinking. He also has the extraordinary gift of reaching atheists, agnostics, and those of other faiths who often say, “If your church were in my area I would go there.” I rejoice in the magnitude of his success and I hope he goes from strength to strength.

  • Pavlovitz obviously frightens you. Of course, you’d never admit it to yourself. “Discerning Christians” are the least self-aware people on the planet.

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