Today’s post deals with National Community Church (NCC) and the story, history and where it is today. I retell my experience with NCC and how I left it amidst a full blown faith crisis. I also draw attention to what NCC does exceedingly well and make suggestions to improve it. I also discuss how I approached Mark Batterson for forgiveness as I was trying to recover from a false accusation from a Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington.
“I’m a lifelong Vikings and Packers fan because I lived in both Minnesota and Wisconsin as a kid.”
“In my experience, take the Holy Spirit out of the equation of your life and it spells boring. Add it into the equation of your life and your never know where you are going to go, what you are going to do, or who you are going to meet.”
We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
Ebenezer’s Coffee House
National Community Church held its first Sunday service on January 7, 1996. It was the same weekend the infamous blizzard hit Washington, D.C. I recall how Mark said that the only people who showed up to church were his family that Sunday morning. Attendance was low and all meetings were at Geddings School, in S.E. Washington, D.C. Forced to look for new place to worship NCC had its first service on November 17, 1996 at the AMC Theaters in Union Station. Union Station is a key hub in the logistics network of Washington, D.C. On August 12, 2001 the Washington Post wrote about NCC and after that write up attendance more than doubled. NCC’s second church plant was in the Regal Theaters in Ballston Common Mall in Arlington on September 21, 2003. In February 2007 NCC at its Ballston location started Spanish worship services as well, with the sermon dubbed in Spanish. In November 2007 another church plant was done in the AMC Theaters in Georgetown. In the course of time NCC launched several other locations to include Gainesville, Kingstowne, and Potomac Yard all in Virginia. When the movie theater in Union Station closed NCC eventually acquired and moved into the location at Barracks Row near 8th and I. In 2002 NCC obtained a former crack house located one block away from Union Station. In March 2006 after a lot of renovation and work Ebenezer’s, a coffeehouse which also is the headquarters for NCC, opened. Ebenezer also holds worship services as well. You can read more about Ebenezer’s here. NCC has also been in the process of launching a coffee shop in Berlin. Also, NCC is affiliated with the Assembly of God denomination.
Mark Batterson hails from Naperville, Illinois which is west of Chicago. He played basketball in high school and eventually married his high school sweetheart. He accepted a full time scholarship to the University of Chicago but at the University of Chicago he had a change of heart and withdraw and enrolled in Central Bible College in Springfield, Illinois which is where he obtained his Bachelor’s degree. He took over a struggling church in Washington, D.C. when he was 24. He tried a church in Chicago that had failed and this was another opportunity for him. In the way Mark Batterson has done church he has been way ahead of the curve. Podcasting, technology, internet, he has been very innovative. There is a good article in the Washingtonian magazine you can read here to learn more of the story of NCC. The Washington Post has written about NCC a number of times but here are two articles that I found in researching this church. In the course of time Mark obtained two Master’s Degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago. Plus he also obtained a Doctor of Ministry from Regent University. He has written multiple books to include “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snow Day“,”Primal“, “The Circle Makers“, “If: Trading Your If only Regrets for God’s What if Possibilities“,”The Grave Robber“,”All In” ,”Wild Goose Chase” and “Soul Print.” Mark lives with his wife Lora on Capitol Hill and he has three children Parker, Summer and Josiah.
I was invited to National Community Church by James Crestwood in the November, December 2006 time frame. We had gotten to know each other and he extended an invitation. I got involved and did multiple Bible studies in DC and Arlington. I have many fond memories of NCC and even today I have many acquaintances that have called this church home when they lived in DC. I have also interacted with Mark Batterson a couple of times, I do recall one time outside Ebenezer he approached me when he saw my Marquette sweat shirt and asked me if I attended Marquette. We talked a little bit about Marquette’s basketball program and him growing up in the Milwaukee area briefly if I remember correctly. I found Mark to be very gentle and kind. I was involved in NCC when my faith crisis consumed me. Actually I was scheduled to go to Kenya on a mission trip in 2009 if I recall correctly and I dropped off because I was so overwhelmed with doubt and was being crushed by the problem of evil. I had raised all my money and refunded it back to people. But since I was in the process to being forced out of Christianity due to overwhelming doubt I didn’t have the courage to tell people why I dropped out. For those from NCC that want to read my story My East Coast Mom, Dee Parsons told it in detail on her blog the Wartburg Watch. You can read about my faith collapse and what happened here, here and here. Having explored the history of NCC I would like to reflect on its strengths and then I want to make recommendations to make it better.
What NCC Excels In
There are a number of things that National Community Church excels in and I want to use this post to highlight them and call attention to them.
- The Inservice Program is a gem. That hands down I believe to be one of the best features of NCC. NCC has really been one of the only churches I have been a part of that opens its doors to the homeless. I say that literally. You welcome them in, invite them in, and they respond. I remember when NCC met in Union Station and there was one time that one of the homeless came in intoxicated. He sat next to me and slept and snored. And you know what…it was beautiful! Why? In most of evangelical Christianity the mindset is the following…you need to get your life together before you can come to church. In situations like this the exact opposite is true in that a homeless person could come, just as they are and they are welcome. In all the churches I have been involved with no one makes the homeless a weekly part of the community like NCC does.
- I’ve had a long and storied history in my life. The guy who is writing this has been exposed or spent time in the following Christian traditions. I’ve been involved in the Assembly of God, Third Wave movement, Evangelical Free, Baptist, para church in the tradition of Campus Crusade, and non denominational movement. In addition I’ve also been exposed to agnostic/atheism as well as Mormonism in college. That said I have to say this….of all those Christian traditions mentioned above (minus the Mormonism part because that organization has deep theological issues, and I don’t think you can call that orthodox Christian) NCC had the best and thriving small group program I’ve ever encountered. The small groups were accessible, not controlling, and there were a few that had good material that was covered. It was at NCC through Matt that I fell in love with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
- National Community Church has been extremely innovative in its history. It has done things that are bold and different and I respect that and find it to be central to its core.
- The A1:8 Missions Program is also good. It had a thriving and active missions program when I was there. Some of the reports I heard were astounding. To this day I recall the one missionary report about the team that went to Thailand and worked with people caught up in the sex scene in Bangkok. I cried in listening to the stories, it touched me. As I write about it now I still find it tender.
All of what I wrote above is what I consider to be strong attributes of National Community Church. Many churches I believe could learn and discover new and innovative ways to engage people in those areas I have listed above.
Recommendations to Make NCC Stronger
There are a number of recommendations I would have to make to National Community Church to make it stronger. Please don’t construe this as criticism but these are a few things that I feel must be said.
- I express deep concern about National Community Church being affiliated with the Association of Related Churches (ARC), and here is why. The ARC as an organization is very authoritarian and it has deep issues. For example there was the affair that Dino Rizzo had with a church staffer and the ARC was not being as transparent or forthcoming about it and holding back information. This also was handled poorly by Chris Hodges at Church of the Highlands which is a prominent ARC church who refused to tell the congregation more of the story. A church needs to be transparent in all areas in order to build trust. Other issues with the ARC include exorbitant pastor salaries that are becoming issues in themselves. For example Dino Rizzo has sat on a board with other ARC pastors who have handled Steven Furtick’s salary at Elevation Church North Carolina. Steven Furtick has built the largest house in North Carolina and his finances are drawing attention by Charlotte media. The ARC is also struggling with Oneness Pentecostalism which rejects the trinity. Oneness Pentecostalism became so controversial that at the Fourth General Council of the Assemblies of God in October 1916 they firmly affirmed their belief in the trinity. The Assemblies of God Statement of Fundamental Truths is the result of that and is still key to the denomination today. In my research I have discovered that Greg Boyd has written some good material on the problems of Oneness Pentecostalism which you can read here. Then down in Texas there is Robert Morris in Gateway. Morris has been notorious for manipulating people into tithing. Plus he also gave refuge to Mark Driscoll after he fled Mars Hill Seattle. Dee Parsons and Warren Throckmorton have been doing an outstanding job covering the problems within the ARC. To learn more about ARC can I recommend these posts here, here, here, here, and here. All of these issues from the ARC taint churches and permeate the movement and they threaten National Community Church since NCC is affiliated with ARC. This is something I want to pursue in the future as organizations like ARC, or The Gospel Coalition’s scandals taint and drag in many into the picture. The denominational lines are being blurred and along with it the health of many churches.
- Heather Zempel has been recommending CJ Mahaney’s material for the last 8 years. I honestly wish that Heather Zempel would spend an afternoon at Sovereign Grace Survivors before she recommends another CJ Mahaney book. I wish she would spend time reading about the alleged child sex abuse cover up, the details of a prolonged lawsuit that is not finished allegedly, the spiritual abuse, and the stories of people in deep emotional pain from Sovereign Grace. If she did read SGM Survivors could she in good conscious recommend the material of the man behind such pain, who created the culture and defended it? SGM Survivors has bled stories of pain for years, stories like what I am about to relay next are discussed at Survivors. On September 20, 2015 at Survivors they discussed how a woman lost her membership at the flagship church of Sovereign Grace – Covenant Life Church (CLC) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. What did she do you ask? She wanted to take a sabbatical from CLC so she could take her terminally ill father to Catholic mass. He could no longer take himself and she wanted to honor her father before his death. For that act her membership was revoked and she was likely shunned. Shunning is common in Sovereign Grace and people in SGM were taught to treat those outside the church who left as dead, and to not associate with others outside SGM. CJ Mahaney governed Sovereign Grace in the same way that Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union…with an iron fist. The material Heather has recommend make even more sense if you understand the shepherding movement that was embraced by CJ Mahaney. For example…”Why Small Groups?” It’s simple…in SGM’s theological system small groups are a way to control people. They are a way to enforce your will. Also what Heather should understand is the man who wrote about humility, also allegedly blackmailed his ministry partner Larry Tomczak. You can read the transcript of that alleged blackmail in this post here. CJ Mahaney is a spiritual wolf and his material should not be recommended. Maybe Heather should sit down with some people who used to be involved in Sovereign Grace and listen to their stories.
- In most situations I am deeply concerned about evangelical church growth. The reason why is that many churches can’t minister to the people they have in their ranks now. How then will be they able to minister to people when they grow? The problem of people falling through the cracks only grows when the church grows. Many evangelical Christian churches have made growth an idol. It is for that reason that I am mostly opposed to church growth. Growth for the sake of growth is meaningless. However, in the case of NCC you don’t have this problem. You have a good small group program and people can get connected. When you have grown the campuses have been small so it still has a small feel to it. So I think NCC is one of the few evangelical churches that I think can grow smartly. That said, I ask the following….please don’t make growth an idol. Minister, nurture, love and help every sheep that comes to NCC. From the Georgetown student to the homeless alcoholic, take care of each precious soul. You can not measure spiritual growth by how many people are attending. People are different and grow in differing ways and methods. A one size fits all mentality can bring harm. Its a church…it shouldn’t function like IBM.
- In my research of NCC I stumbled across this dispute between NCC and neighborhood residents in Glen Echo, Maryland that was written up in the Washington Post. It involved the church acquiring property and planning to sell it to a developer who wanted to change the community against the wishes of the residents. I do not know how this was resolved, but I sincerely hope it was resolved.
- My faith crisis was very intellectual in a lot of ways. What drove me from Christianity for half my thirties was the problem of evil. When I tried to ask pastors and approach Christians for help there were few who could. The only two that were able to do so was an Elder in his church in the Kansas City area, and a former Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher that blogs about problems and issues in Christianity. In many ways she has become my East Coast Mom! But if you want to read about my search for answers and how the evangelical church couldn’t help an avowed agnostic/atheist you can read the details here. When I was reconciling with 140 people I met and I believe bought dinner for my former small group leader from NCC in Shirlington Village. Over dinner when talking about the problem of evil he explained to me that I would not hear a detailed, intellectual sermon about the problem of evil at NCC. Doubts and questions do not always fit the format in programs like Alpha. Evangelicals love formulas, but those formulas often backfire due to the sinful and very complex nature of people. I would recommend that NCC become more intellectual. Also if you want to know how I resolved the problem of evil, this post explains it.
- One final point I want to raise to NCC as a recommendation. I’ve lived in the DC area and I’ve heard this from time to time. I heard this again not long ago from an individual who used to be involved at NCC. NCC has a tendency to focus on people in their 20’s so much so that people in their mid 30’s leave the church. They don’t feel like they can belong there, and they leave. This is a tragedy as when people leave experience and wisdom also walks out the door with them. When I look at a congregation I look for one diverse in many areas but especially age. I bring this to NCC’s attention so that if they don’t know about it, well now you do.
I write this not because I am trying to be difficult but because I believe NCC has a lot to offer. I believe it has a lot now that should be examined and studied by other churches. However, one of the problems today is that many evangelical churches don’t listen to feedback from those who have left. I left NCC in the midst of a faith crisis in 2009 and I offer this feedback as a way to help NCC grow and become stronger.
A Wounded Soul on a Journey and a Personal Thank You to Mark Batterson
National Community Church has a good reputation in the DC area. I’ve lived in the DC area for 10 years and the only ones who have a severe problem with it are the Neo-Calvinists at places like Mark Dever’s Capital Hill Baptist Church (CHBC). In my interaction a few years ago with differing individuals who were involved at CHBC their belief is that Christianity or “The Gospel” as they define it is not being taught at National Community Church. This is reinforced by individuals like Tim Challies who come down hard on Mark Batterson in articles like this one and this one. Part of the reason why I write is to push back, and recently I wrote a hard hitting piece that pushed back on how Tim Challies defined Christian. You can read that here. But in regards to dealing with fundamentalism the author of this post is intimately well acquainted with the pain of fundamentalism. Actually my life can be a testimony to the scars and pain of fundamentalism and cults. This goes back to college and my involvement in Mormonism, and continues. For example you can read how fundamentalism crashed and affected the funeral of my grandmother in this post. Then you can read what I did to my mother when I was drunk on the John Piper Kool-Aid. My mother amazingly survived pancreatic cancer, and by all accounts my mother survived something that she should not. My family knows this and my Mom deals with survivor’s guilt today. Then there was the incident that led me to approach Mark Batterson and seek forgiveness. On May 8, 2013 an Air Force Captain, Andrew White, who gave birth to a false accusation that threatened my name, livelihood and life. This military officer was trying to get me involved in a Sovereign Grace church called Redeemer Arlington. We clashed, as I was horrified as to all the abuse and questionable material hemorrhaging from the Sovereign Grace denomination. I promised myself after Mormonism that I would stay away from cults and not get sucked into another one. I should write that it took me about 15 years to get Mormonism out of my system. The false accusation that a Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington gave birth to thrust me into the darkest season of my life. If you want to read about that false accusation from a Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington you can read the details of it here, and here. I honestly do not know why I am not a raging atheist today. In all honesty I don’t know how I got to this point either. Walking through the false accusation was painful. No words I write here can describe how traumatic it was. I don’t know why my life wasn’t destroyed. The false accusation was actually darker then the faith crisis. It also left me to pose the following question…why is Christianity in the United States so painful?
As I walked that dark valley I tried to recalibrate myself. What I realized is that forgiveness was the answer. Christians don’t apologize today, they don’t own their mistakes or say, “I’m sorry…” I wonder if one of the reasons why Christians are known for being so arrogant is because they don’t say “I’m sorry..” and show deep remorse for how they hurt others. I approached a number of people from NCC and sought forgiveness from them individually. Each one encouraged me and gave me strength as I was trying to find a way forward in life. I approached each person in the darkest season of my life. Each person from NCC who forgave and released me gave me hope, it was hope I so desperately needed. There was even a homeless person who saw, came up and hugged me. I didn’t know who he was at the time, when I discovered they were from the Inservice program years prior it touched me deeply. But each person who forgave me for what I did as a militant agnostic/atheist touched me. But what touched me the most was a brief letter I got from Mark Batterson. He was one of 140 people in California, Wisconsin, Montana and the Washington, D.C. area who I approached. I remembered a very abrasive email I sent him years ago and I felt like that needed to be cleaned up. On September 13, 2013 I wrote the following letter to Mark Batterson.
I hope you are okay with this message. Over the last 5 years I went through a faith meltdown and probably reached the lowest point of my life. It came about through doubts, past church experiences, and resulted in an incredible amount of anger and rage. I have treated many people in ways that they should not have been treated. In short I denied them the respect, dignity, and love they deserve.
I’ve tried to do this in my past but stopped out of pride. Plus I also realized that one cannot selectively forgive, one has to go all the way. So with that I made a determination to contact a number of people that I once interacted with from California, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. I need to learn how to love and forgive, and I need to learn to let go of anger and hate.
Through this experience I learned an ugly side to me that I never knew existed. And I’ve learned how painful anger and hate can be; not just to myself but toward others as well. I guess you can say that I’ve started the process of figuring out my way back into Christianity again after walking away years ago. It hasn’t been perfect and as I re-engage at Fairfax Community Church I see a lot of what drove me away. I am working hard to wrestle through these feelings and my doubts. My doubts which also gave birth to rage were something that I could not shake. But after exploring secular humanism I feel like I have come full circle. Christianity does make sense when you consider the big picture. Trying to separate the Lord from humanity, and human action is incredibly difficult. But it’ something that I need to do. How to get there is another story.
I’m trying to write this in a way as to do what is right. My soul needs peace, hope, and a new morning. It’s with that Pastor Mark that I ask for your forgiveness for hateful and difficult things I emailed you several years back. If I have angered, or offended you with my anger, or other behavior I ask for your forgiveness. I so desperately want do what is right, and I realized I can’t move forward with faith again unless I let go of my past. That is why I am taking this action. I was wrong in how I acted and I am hoping you can forgive me.
Three days later on September 16, 2013 I got the following message from Mark Batterson.
That note was like a soothing balm on a wounded soul. That letter from Mark Batterson gave me some hope. Each of the 140 people who did write me back and who I met with one on one, it gave me hope. What I appreciated the most is that I got the vibe that Mark Batterson, as a pastor sensed the healing that I needed and that is why he engaged. In regards to issues related to NCC his action helped me with obtaining closure and in taking another step forward during a dark valley I was thrust into by a Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington.
Pastor Mark…thank you for your response.
Its with that in mind that I wish National Community Church well. My hope is that the recommendations given above will be considered and taken to heart. Each sheep that walks through the doors or NCC is precious, to be guarded, and watched. The wolves are out there and the wolves are plentiful. Like I said, I don’t know if NCC realizes how much fundamentalism exists in the Washington, D.C. area. Its plentiful and its a cancer on Christianity here. Its with that in mind that I sincerely hope that the wolves are kept away from NCC, and that Heather Zempel will cease promoting CJ Mahaney’s material. If my writing prevents one soul from being singed, burned and fried than this late night writing is well worth it.