An open letter to Jason Webb the former Senior Pastor of Elmbrook Church in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. In this open letter I recall a faith crisis I had and how I hit bottom in my life. I also explain how I approached 140 people for forgiveness. I hope this can give Jason a road map to move forward. If he seeks out forgiveness and works things out with many people then then I propose that Elmbrook Church can become the only church in the United States that models grace, forgiveness and repentance.
“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.“
“There is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love.”
Bryant H McGill
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
Matthew 5:23-24 NIV
I want to spend some time talking about what has happened and maybe give you some thoughts and help you find a way forward in this difficult time. The last couple of days behind the scenes this blog has almost been on fire. As news broke and as the media reported on what happened people from Elmbrook and SE Wisconsin Googled you and found me. I know your loved ones are going through something deeply difficult but I want to tell you about a painful situation in my life and share it with you. I want to tell you that there was a time in my life that I also repented in mass. It was for a mess that I created. So I can deeply empathize and I can also speak to the fact that I know what the process is like. I have been there and I have done it. I too have hit bottom in my own way. And actually part of my story was at one time incorporated into a sermon in Elmbrook Lake County. It was done by Greg Marshall and you can listen to it up above. Let me start by telling you about how I hit bottom in my life.
A Massive Faith Crisis
Before I continue let me tell you that if you want to know what a faith crisis feels like I wrote about it a while back. You can read more in, “Eagle Writes a Journal Entry Inspired from Neil Carter’s Godless in Dixie on Grieving the Loss of Your Faith” and “What Does a Faith Crisis Feel Like?” In 2009 I had a profound faith crisis. The issues driving it were church experiences, doubts (ie. problem of evil, Old Testament Genocide, etc…) and being fried after reading people like John Piper. I went ballistic. In the video above Greg says I went violent against the Christian faith and more. Well from my experience that is an understatement. When I say violent I don’t mean physical. But I could become the most emotional and combative person you probably met. Most of my contacts and friends came from the church at the time and I burned about 95% of the people I knew as I moved more into atheist circles and more. And I said and did things that were horrific. Let me illustrate with an example. Christopher Hitchens in his book “Letters to a Young Contrarian” wrote the following. “Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.” Pay close attention to the part I underlined. That was my mindset. I clashed because I felt I had to to. Hitchens philosophy had influenced me and that was how I responded. You sought out conflict because you had to do so for the other people’s benefit. So here is an example of one of the worst things I did as I was burning bridges left and right. I had a friend from a church in the Washington, D.C. area called McLean Bible. He moved on and got involved in the Acts 29 network. So having been burned by John Piper and Neo-Calvinist theology this is what I did. One night Archie (pseudo) and his wife just welcomed their child into the world. His wife had a C-section down in Georgia. Everyone was going onto Facebook and saying. “Congratulations!” etc… I did something that was unthinkable. Knowing the problem of evil well and being familiar with how John Piper’s sovereignty becomes determinism this is what I wrote on his Facebook wall as a militant skeptic. “Archie just remember as God’s ordains evil in the Neo-Calvinist world view, when your daughter is sexually abused/molested remember its God’s will. Remember the molester was worshiping God in following through with his act of sexual abuse. When that happens you need to get on your knees and praise God! Isn’t Christianity wonderful?” It was something to that effect. Well his wife was recovering in after the C-section. She saw my comment and screamed out loud in horror in a hospital recovery room. Archie was livid and the next morning I got the nastiest test messages in my life. Friendship done. Relationship over. I didn’t give a rat’s behind as I was pushing away from everything. In time I thought nothing of it. Some time after that as I dealt with my faith crisis I faced a serious false accusation from a military officer here in the Washington, D.C. area. I call him Andrew White (again pseudo) who tried to get me into a Sovereign Grace Ministries church breakaway. And with that I hit bottom. I developed some PTSD, and more.
How I Repented to 140 People
On May 8, 2013 I hit the bottom. It was the lowest point of my life. I was in the deepest pit. I faced a false accusation that I didn’t commit. A couple of days later I realized that my faith crisis had gone to far. Behind me were the wreckage of a large number of people from Washington, D.C., Wisconsin, Montana and California. So here is what I did. I sat down at a table and thought of all the people I knew in my life. I came up with a list of 140 people. It went from my youth to those I recently met. I sat down and composed a note to each and every person and reached out one by one. Many people were shocked. Many people I learned didn’t expect me to reach out to them. Some people broke down and wept. Cried and were stunned. Many of the people I approached never saw a person approach and ask for forgiveness and want to work things out with them. Several told me that they hoped that I would come to them one day and patch things up and admit my error. I worked through that list from May of 2013 until June of 2014. It was a list of about 140. There were some situations that were sketchy where I hurt the person so deeply. I held off on those and focused on all the others. I wanted to get to a point where people could not question my motivation or why I was doing this. I knew if I left someone off, then this was not going to work. It was an all of nothing situation. After all you can’t half forgive. In several situations I even offered to travel to other parts of the United States and met with people I hurt and seek their forgiveness. Here in the D.C. area I took out a lot of people to lunch or dinner. I listened to them say, “Dave when you said _____ that really wounded me.” I let them get it off their chest. I left on good terms and rebuilt a bridge one by one. The numbers went up from 15 to 30, to 55, to 60, to 78, to 95 to 120, etc… Some people heard about what I was doing from others. For example I had someone tell me that they heard me being discussed in a church in Wisconsin. In the end evangelical Christianity is not very big. Instead its very small. In some cases to be safe I approached some people who I did not know if I hurt them and asked them if I ever did offend or hurt them in my lifetime. A couple of people said yes and I listened and I talked it out.
And that left some of the most difficult situations like Archie up above. In that situation I had someone help me reach out to him. When Archie learned that I had approached nearly 100 people he knew I was being sincere, and he wanted to work things out. I had gone so far out on a limb that there was no doubt in his mind. In the end there were only a few people who I could not connect with. Some I did not have their contact information. Nor did others have that information. People wanted to help when they saw what I was doing. They wanted to see it succeed and for me to do this. The only people it didn’t work with is a guy who Greg and I both know from Campus Crusade who I believe is an atheist today in Chicago. He was burned and fried by evangelicalism and I don’t blame him for leaving. The other person was the guy who triggered a false accusation against me, He was an Air Force Captain who speaks for the Navigators who was into Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll and who thought Sovereign Grace was profoundly healthy. If you want to see what I did with one of the most difficult situation, that of Archie you can read that in detail and see the correspondence as I approached him. You can read that in, “An Open Letter to Archie Griffin.” In the end I think I was forgiven by 135 people or so. There were just a couple who didn’t respond.
Here is what I learned in approaching 140 people. Repentance is healthy and good. It helps you build bridges and re-connect with other people. Its also not like a drive by shooting in the inner city of Milwaukee. Each person is different and responds differently. Some people will be a casual talk, yet with others it takes perhaps a few talks. People will respond with warmth and shock when you do this. Why? Because Christians don’t practice it. Its also not sensational either as you do it. Many people have that notion that repentance is what Jimmy Swaggart did up above. That is BS in my humble opinion. Repentance is not just saying “I’m sorry” its having actions behind it to back it up. Some people are sorry they got caught. There are many different reasons why people are sorry, and not all of them are good. By seeking forgiveness from many people I helped pick myself up from one of the darkest places in my life.
What I Recommend You Do Jason
Here is what I recommend you do Jason. Sit down and put together a list of all the people you need to approach and ask forgiveness from. The people on your list should be friends, colleagues, acquaintances and people from your life experiences. It will include people from Elmbrook, Brooklife, New Thing Network, Nairobi Chapel, students you interacted with from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, people from Campus Crusade at Northwestern and friends from Northwestern. Compose a letter and send it to people one by one and follow up with them. Work things out person by person. Listen to what they have to say. Acknowledge it and and discuss it with them. Each person is different and what one person will talk about another person will respond differently. I also hope you can visit all the small groups from Elmbrook and listen to the people in the group. Let them share their thoughts and engage. Apologize in each one. You were their pastor so don’t miss a group. Make sure you engage, listen to the hurt, acknowledge it and discuss it. Don’t gloss it over and dismiss it. Admit your error and ask for forgiveness. This will also take time. It will not be something that you will do in a brief amount of time. It will take time to work with and talk with a large number of people. Below I will describe the benefits of doing this.
Elmbrook Can Be the Only Church in the United States that Models Forgiveness, Grace and Repentance
Jason, you and Elmbrook Church are in the unique situation of doing something that is not practiced nor believed by much of evangelical Christianity. As such you could stand out and do something that could be exceptional. Evangelical Christians don’t believe in repentance or owning their mistakes. I write often and frequently about church scandals and problems. From stories in the Evangelical Free Church of America in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, California and beyond. In Acts 29 I have looked at situations here in Virginia, Washington, D.C., South Carolina, and Tennessee. In all of those situations one thing that links them together is that in each and every situation there is no act of of repentance or remorse over what had happened. When I write these stories there is one thing that also stands out. In each situation the wronged or hurt person often says the following to me at some point. “All I want is for _____________ to admit his error and resolve the mess that he created.” There are other requests to especially if there are serious allegations of criminality or illegality involved as has been the case in a few situations. But many evangelicals have bought and purchased books by people who claim they even had sound doctrine and were “Gospel Centered” who still can’t practice repentance and admit their error. Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Seattle preached regularly about what it meant to be a man. And what did he do in the course of time when he was caught? He fled to Arizona. Then you have C.J. Mahaney from Sovereign Grace Ministries. He supposedly modeled humility and even published a book about it. His book on humility was pushed by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and also Westminster Theological Seminary outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. What did Mahaney do when his blackmail of his ministry partner came to the surface as well as the alleged child sex abuse that occurred under his watch? He fled and eventually ended up in Louisville, Kentucky. This blog itself was born out of a psychological incident of pain and emotional trauma. In my mess I learned several years ago why rape and sexual assault is a problem in the military. It occurred through a serious false accusation from a military officer who boasted of how healthy his doctrine and church was. I wanted the individual in question to approach me and say, “Dave I was wrong I am sorry for the pain I caused you.” I wanted him to comprehend what he did to me. To mourn his sin and false accusation. I also wanted him to do the right thing because if he did, then for the first time in his life he could understand grace especially as I forgave him. Forgiving someone who is spiritually abusive who does not see their wrong also helps to enable to abuse, but that is another topic for a different day. But in my case if Andrew wanted to work things out and we did and he asked me to stop writing I would do so. Why continue to write about something that has been addressed and worked through? But before you Jason is a choice. And you could do something that stands separate from 99.9% of American evangelical Christianity. In the process you could put Elmbrook on the map for doing something that Christians don’t practice of believe. For once in my life I would like to see something that shows the fruits of Christianity. Not a scandal that tears it down. This is what is before you Jason should you choose to do this.
You Too Can Rise from the Ashes
In closing out this letter I hope I gave you a road map to consider some options. If you need help or someone to talk to feel free to engage, If you need assistance in doing what I did up above then I am willing to talk. I want to let you know that you can have a new morning. A new chapter in life that can be beautiful and so much redeemed. You can heal yourself and heal others if you do the right thing. In the process you can draw closer to your wife, and to your children. You can salvage and save friendships that now you fear are lost. You can show humility in a beautiful way and be encouraged by many who can walk besides you. Right now it feels like midnight for you but that can change. If you start the process of seeking forgiveness from so many other people that sun can rise on your life in a way that few have seen. You can find freedom, closure, healing, and redemption not just for yourself but for many other people that you know. There are many people who do care and love you. And this can help them immensely. In this situation this blog is rooting for you and wants to see you go far. The right course of action is to own what happened and seek forgiveness from so many people. That is it for tonight Jason. Please know that you are loved.