Two horrific stories from differing parts of the United States illustrate why the media needs to learn how to research and write about religious topics. This post compares and contrasts the media in Pennsylvania ignoring the story of Community Evangelical Free Church, while the media covered the situation with Rick Trotter at Acts 29 Fellowship Memphis. The coverage has been good but areas have been missed. This post is meant to educate and teach the media on why religious issues should not be ignored.
“Its amazing the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”
“The window to the world can be covered by a newspaper.”
Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
Do not fret because of evildoers,
Nor be envious of the workers of iniquity.
2 For they shall soon be cut down like the grass,
And wither as the green herb.
Psalm 37:1-2 NKJV
In early March of 2016 the following post was published. “Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania: A Painful Story of Domestic Abuse, Inappropriate Church Discipline, and Failed EFCA Polity.” This blog then proceeded to write about a very disturbing church story in Elverson, Pennsylvania known as Community Evangelical Free Church. The story is still shocking and incredibly difficult to process. In this situation you had Brock Estes the son of the Senior Pastor Steve Estes and the deeply disturbing accusations against him. Brock while allegedly intoxicated sexually assaulted his wife in their bedroom. There is much more to include allegations of domestic abuse and the time Hurit woke up to watch her husband load a gun and allegedly point it at her. When Hurit filed for divorce Steve Estes coached and led the church in excommunicating his former daughter-in-law while downplaying the criminal allegations. In the process Community Evangelical Free held a 12 hour trial for Hurit with most of the witnesses being from the Estes and Stoltzfus families. In this distressing tale what also is shocking is how the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) reacted to the situation. Steve Musser who was the District Superintendent of the Eastern District at the time backed away from Steve Estes church and refused to get involved. Concerned current and former members appealed to Minneapolis, Minnesota where the EFCA is headquartered. The national EFCA refused to get involved and intervene. The denomination which had given a large loan to Steve Estes church had communicated to many people in the Elverson-Morgantown area that buildings mattered more than people. That a loan mattered more than an alleged rape and domestic abuse victim who knows she could be dead. The situation is still ongoing today but the players in the EFCA have changed. You have a new EFCA President Kevin Kompelien at the helm and the Eastern District is now led by Eddie Cole, the former Senior Pastor of Salem Evangelical Free Church in Statan Island, New York. Greg Strand and Eddie Cole have had meetings behind the scenes with Steve Estes in an effort to resolve the problem. While Elverson is an extremely small town I would suggest that this is one of the most pressing issues in the denomination. If the EFCA is going to be allow a church to practice church discipline on an alleged rape victim it raises many concerns about the EFCA and its ability to deal with issues related to sexual assault and domestic violence. If the EFCA can not deal with a rogue church then I would suggest the denomination is systemically flawed and to be avoided by Christians. For Eddie Cole I would suggest this issue is the most important matter in his district. If Eddie Cole can resolve this than it leaves a lot of hope for this evangelical network of churches. If Eddie Cole can not resolve this issue with Steve Estes than I would suggest it will be more far than a failure for him and the Eastern District but also for the denomination as its ripple effect will be felt in other parts of the organization from EFCA West led by Steve Highfill to EFCA Southeast which is led by Glen Schrieber. This blog is committed to writing about this issue in Elverson until it is resolved.
Today the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a very different environment than it was a few years prior. And that change occurred due to what Jerry Sandusky did at Penn State. When people learned what Jerry Sandusky and the deeply disturbing allegations of child sex abuse it was as if an earthquake hit Pennsylvania with State College being the epicenter. The alleged cover up and dismissal of Sandusky’s allegations over time were shocking. It forever changed commonwealth law and led to new laws dealing with mandatory reporting of child sex abuse. When I was approached about the situation at Steve Estes Community Evangelical Free Church I was stunned by what I heard. And I thought that the Pennsylvania media at some point will get involved in the situation. After all the situation showed a flaw in Pennsylvania law in this one way. When you have a government employee in a critical position facing legitimate allegations how does the system respond? Hurit was afraid of filing charges and her life was already at risk. The legal system is far from kind to alleged domestic abuse victims. So what does the system do in those situations? The reason why this is crucial is because it begs the following question…if Brock could allegedly point a gun at his wife then what could he do to a prisoner as a guard in the Berks County Jail? In the post Jerry Sandusky world I was certain the Pennsylvania media would want to cover this story and I emailed a few individuals. From the Daily Beast to the Philadelphia Inquirer no one was interested in this deeply disturbing story their back yard in Pennsylvania. To be honest with you if I am a resident of Pennsylvania I would have been angry that the local media didn’t run and carry this story. So instead it rests upon two blogs, this one and The Wartburg Watch to write and follow developments of Community Evangelical Free Church. In my opinion the story of Steve Estes practicing church discipline on an alleged rape victim who knows she could be dead is a major failure of the media and their responsibilities to inform the public. This was an incredible fumble.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal’s Coverage of Fellowship Memphis and Downtown Church
Whereas the media failed to report on what happened in Elverson, Pennsylvania the media in contrast deeply shined in Memphis. I would suggest that this is one of the best reported stories and yet it still has a lot of issues. I would suggest that the reason why Fellowship Memphis and Downtown Church were covered so well is because the alleged predator was an announcer for a major league basketball team in Memphis. Had it not been for the NBA angle would this have received the attention that it did? As good as the Commercial Appeal articles are there are a number of issues that exist with them. I will explore those issues in the next section. In saying that I think one of the reasons why some of these challenges exist is due to both cultural issues and a lack of understanding about many issues in evangelicalism. Yet it is encouraging because I saw more of an effort to write about issues related to Rick Trotter, Downtown Church and Fellowship Memphis in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. That type of overage is often lacking in other publications. When William Lobdell published “Losing My Religion” he wrote about his frustration that the Los Angeles Times didn’t cover religious issues well and he sought to do it. Having explained that let me explore the problems with the Memphis Commercial Appeal articles.
What the Commercial Appeal Neglected or Missed
There are a number of issues in the Commercial Appeal articles that stood out for me. The biggest one is that they did not list many names. While John Bryson was mentioned a couple of time I was struck by how Bryan Loritts was not mentioned at all. Who was the Senior Pastor during this time at Fellowship Memphis? What role did he play in the cover up? Why did the newspaper not list more names? As I was told when I wrote, “The Sordid Tale of Rick Trotter, Bryan Loritts, John Bryson and Acts 29 Fellowship Memphis and Downtown Presbyterian Church” that was the first article that connected the dots and named key players. That is why Bryan Loritts moved swiftly in trying to get this article taken down. Plus its why the victims encouraged me to keep it up and say that it was a truthful retelling of what happened.
Despite all the reporting that the Memphis Commercial Appeal did there are many areas I believe the newspaper missed. I understand that this may be too in the weeds, and that many people may not have been interested. But these are the other issues that I believe The Commercial Appeal missed in the story of Fellowship Memphis. If they pursued these stories it would have helped them understand why the alleged cover up at Fellowship Memphis took place.
- Missed is placing Fellowship Memphis in the Neo-Calvinist resurgence that has been going on for the past 15 to 20 years. What was missed is the role that this church played in the Acts 29 network and John Bryson’s role in the Acts 29 movement. The Neo-Calvinist resurgence which I like to call “Fundamentalism 2.0” is intrinsically and systematically flawed because of its abuse of authority. Neo-Calvinists are drunk on authority.
- In order to understand the alleged cover up you need to be knowledgeable of how Neo-Calvinists use membership covenants and church discipline. Membership covenants have been on the emergence again and church discipline is strong, and often misused. There has been story after story of horrific church discipline. Bryan Loritts allegedly using the threat of church discipline to keep people quiet is the modus operandi of organizations like Fellowship Memphis.
- If I were an investigative reporter for the Commercial Appeal I would be all over this next point. Fellowship Memphis is a part of Fellowship Associates. It is in the same network that has Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, Tennessee which is being sued for $37.5 million for allegedly covering up the rape of a child. Fellowship Associates appears to have deep problems and wouldn’t it be great if the Memphis Commercial Appeal or the Nashville Tennessean can do their own “Spotlight” investigation of this church network.
- The Commercial Appeal failed to realize what role Bryan Loritts plays in evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christianity has struggled with racism in its past and along comes a powerful and strong black personality who can full a niche. He goes around and speaks at events around the country and is well established and known. He fills that niche and is a popular speaker for dealing with racism issues. Just look at this article in Christianity Today in which he is doing exactly that point. As such many people would have had a hard time standing up to Bryan and those who tried in the past have allegedly been bullied.
Again I understand that this may be too in-depth for a newspaper to write about but if the Memphis Commercial Appeal had written about those issues it would have done a profound service to the city of Memphis, Tennessee.
Other Examples of Journalistic Coverage of Religion
The media has failed in a few other areas to cover religious areas well. For example I think one of the most horrific let downs is how the media did not cover the child sexual abuse situation and domestic abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries. You had blogs screaming about the problem and while Michelle Boorstein did a good job in this article “Sovereign Grace Ministries, riven by conflict, seeks to change” there was so much more to write about. In the shadow of the nation’s capitol in some of the wealthiest counties in the United States one of the most well known church planting organizations had deep problems with allegations of child sex abuse. Many families who were involved in SGM prayed and hoped for more to be done and that was handled by Tiffany Stanley in this Washingtonian article called, “The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch.” Meanwhile the media in Seattle I would suggest were slow to catch onto the Mars Hill story and problems with Mark Driscoll. I personally thought one of the best stories written was “The rise and fall of Mars Hill Church.” Then there was the story of Matt Chandler’s The Village Church which attempted to place a women who annulled her marriage to a child pornography addict under church discipline. Originally the Dallas Morning News was scheduled to break it and they got cold feet in the end. The Dallas Morning News missed an incredible story right in their own backyard that was handled and seized originally by The Wartburg Watch and Amy Smith. But after all these examples this is the main reason why I believe the media has failed to report on religious issues. Are there many journalists who are evangelical Christians or people who come from those backgrounds who can speak to those topics? Does the media have those key individuals who understand the culture? The theology? And is that why this is all being missed?
One of the most sensational stories that was broken about religion was the child sex abuse cover up in the Roman Catholic diocese in Boston. It was the Boston Globe who broke that story and one of the reasons why I believe they did so well is because a couple of the reporters were Roman Catholic. They grew up in the church, attended mass with family, and knew the role the parish priest plays and how the diocese pulsed and breathed. Could this story had been broken so successfully had it not been for that knowledge and understanding of Catholic culture? That is what I propose will help coverage of religious issues. If more evangelicals went the investigative journalist route that could help the faith in profound ways. You would have someone writing and reporting on a story who knew the culture and could identify with people. I think that is part of the reason why Dee Parsons and Deb Martin’s The Wartburg Watch has done so well. They have both the knowledge and experience to cover these issues and they are doing something that most of the mainstream media is not doing. Its the media’s loss that this is happening but its my hope that articles like this can draw attention to that issue and hopefully bring correction to it. Again guys that is it for the day, know that I love you!